Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains the names and images of persons who have now passed.
This week, the grief and pain on show across Australia has been visceral and vivid. On Wednesday, nearly 40 rallies and vigils were held across the country from Perth to Sydney to honour the memory of 15-year-old Noongar-Yamatji schoolboy Cassius Turvey.
Thousands of people have marched, gathered, and chanted, calling for justice and an end to the racism that clearly still plagues this nation.
Turvey was beaten by a 21-year-old white man while he walked home from school in what has been described by the Prime Minister as a “clearly racially motivated” attack. The boy later died of his injuries in hospital.
“We shouldn’t have to be here though, you know, I really wish I wasn’t,” said Turvey’s cousin, Sam May, at a rally in Melbourne.
Cassius’ mother, Mechelle Turvey, who attended a Perth rally, said that no one would now forget her son. “He said ‘I want people to know my name’. It’s happened in the most tragic circumstances,” she said.
The most tragic aspect of Turvey’s death is that it’s not unique. Stuff like this happens, all the time, to Indigenous people right across the country. It’s almost routine. We go through these horrible cycles of death, pain, anger, and demands for justice but very little seems to change.
That’s not to diminish the excellent work being done by numerous organisations around the country to combat stigma and lift Indigenous people out of systemic cycles of poverty, nor the strength and defiance within these communities.
But when Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates have doubled since 1985, when the murder rate for Indigenous women is eight times higher than non-Indigenous, and when Indigenous children are 10 times more likely to be taken into state care, it’s clear we need to be doing a lot better.
While the cries for justice are still strong, here are just some of the other families and communities who are still waiting for its delivery.
What Happened to Cassius Turvey?
On the afternoon of Thursday, October 13, Cassius Turvey was walking home from school with four of his friends. It was a warm Spring afternoon, about 4:30pm, and the kids were going to the shops. One of them was 13 and using crutches at the time. They had just stepped off a bus in the Midland suburb of north-eastern Perth when they were approached by a black Ford Ranger, according to reports.
Turvey was a year-nine student who ran a ‘pay what you want’ lawn moving service with his friends called the Lawn Mower Boys.
“We just wanna show you that we are not bad, we just wanna help out,” his mother has said the group would tell people when asked why they would do it.
The Ranger was driven by an as-of-yet anonymous 21-year-old. Jack Brearley was in the passenger seat and jumped out to confront the boys. It’s alleged that racial slurs were used and that Brearley was on the hunt for someone to bash in response to his own car having its windscreen smashed. Turvey has not been accused of this vandalism and there is no evidence the pair knew each other.
Turvey was set upon by Brearley with a metal pole, thought to be the handle of a shopping trolley. His friends ran for safety into the nearby TAFE, only stopping once there to realise that Turvey was no longer with them.
Turvey was rushed to the hospital where he received treatment and was discharged. Eight hours later, his condition worsened and he was brought back. Multiple surgeries were performed and he was placed in an induced coma after suffering strokes and a brain bleed. His family made the heartbreaking decision to switch off his life support 10-days after the attack on October 23.
Brearley has been charged with murder, aggravated assault, and theft as he is reported to have also stolen the crutches of Turvey’s friend who was also assaulted.
WA Police Commissioner, Col Blanch, has urged people to “refrain from unfounded speculation” about the attack and its motivations.
“We’re not operating on any principles of racism or motivation at this point,” Blanch told Perth radio station 6PR.
“It may be a case of mistaken identity, it may be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, I wouldn’t want anyone in the community to jump to any conclusions at this time, we’re still very early in the investigation.”
Blanch said detectives were investigating whether the tragedy was a vigilante attack gone horribly wrong.
“At this stage, it appears Cassius was an innocent victim of a violent attack. He was simply spending time with his friends when he was assaulted.”
WA Premier, Mark McGowan, has also added that the “courts will decide these things” and that speculation over the motivation of the attack isn’t helpful.
The statements have been condemned by Indigenous groups and leaders who believe they are being silenced in the aftermath of the attack. Noongar Elders issued a statement in which they accused the WA police of downplaying the possibility of a racial motivation for the attack.
“The premier and police commissioner are telling us to be quiet,” it reads. “Our kids aren’t bad, but they are portrayed as bad. None of the kids are bad, they have a right to walk the streets.”
Human rights lawyer and member of the UN permanent forum on Indigenous issues, Dr Hannah McGlade, has said that racism is too often swept under the rug by Australians.
“Racism kills. It’s not about just words and sticks and stones – there are people dying from racism,” she said. “Aboriginal people are told to be quiet, to take it.”
Gamilaroi journalist, Brooke Boney, has said that continuing to beg other Australians to recognise the humanity and suffering of Indigenous people in the aftermath of these attacks is “undignified.”
“If a black child can’t walk home from school without fear then this isn’t a civil society. This is lawlessness. This is barbaric. This is shameful,” she has written.
Brearly is due to appear at Stirling Gardens Magistrates Court on November 9.
Blanch has said that he regrets the impact of his earlier statement but that his investigation is still ongoing and that ” justice for Cassius is my first priority.”
It is driving me crazy: There is nothing”alleged” about the sickening, lethal attack on Cassius Turvey. It happened with fatal effect. What is alleged is the attacker’s motive and guilt.
— Paul Bongiorno (@PaulBongiorno) November 2, 2022
A Long History of Indigenous Deaths
The culture of what is now known as Australia has had a problematic relationship, to put it incredibly mildly, with its Indigenous inhabitants since its inception. It is a society founded on genocide and exploitation and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
Since the arrival of European settlers, there have been tens of thousands of Indigenous deaths that have passed without justice. As Nyoongar and Bunjima journalist Craig Quartermaine has written:
“I’ve heard the phrase “sense of justice” for such a long time I honestly don’t know if I have one, and if it exists then we as First Nations Australians are experiencing sensory deprivation”.
In just the past decade alone, there have been at least 146 Indigenous deaths in custody, according to The Guardian’s Deaths Inside database.
These include the death of 22-year-old Yamatji woman known as Ms Dhu who was jailed for unpaid fines and died of a heart attack two days later in 2014. The family received an apology and a payment of $1.1 million in 2017, although they said that would rather have seen the people responsible for her death be held accountable.
In 2015, two Indigenous men died in police custody in the Northern Territory just one month apart. One of the men, Kwementyaye Langdon, was arrested for drinking in public and was taken to a police station where he was found dead a few hours later.
At the end of that same year, Dunghutti man David Dungay Jr died in a Sydney jail after officers held him down and injected him with a sedative. His last words were “I can’t breathe.”
There are also the high-profile deaths of Wayne Fella Morrison, Tane Chatfield, Tanya Day, Nathan Reynolds and many, many more. A common theme amongst these cases is the lack of medical attention given to those in custody, often because police officers did not believe that the incarcerated person was genuinely suffering.
All of the above are deaths in custody, whereas the deaths of Indigenous people who died in racially motivated attacks are a whole separate category of pain, as are the many missing and deceased Indigenous women who vanish at a far greater rate than non-Indigenous. Many of these cases are not invested with the same degree of care seen in other cases, as the ABC’s recent Four Corners documentary investigated.
Frequently, when an Indigenous person goes missing or is killed, the media is slow to pick the story up. Compare Turvey’s case with the abduction of Cleo Smith, whose identity and story were across the country within hours of her disappearance. Indigenous people, instead, are often left to speak for themselves in drumming up calls for justice and attention.
The government has described the statistics around Indigenous deaths as a “national shame” and committed to a number of significant changes in Commonwealth spending and investment in order to attempt to close the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
These include the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, investing millions in Indigenous health and education, remote housing, and judicial reform.
Currently, there is an ongoing Senate Commission Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and children in order to identify the systematic problems fuelling this issue.
The continual cycles of death, shock, pain, and outrage are only likely to spiral on and on until Australia makes whole-hearted commitment to change at almost every level of society. It’s an ongoing project, and we’re getting better, but we’re still far from good enough.
Related: How to Be An Indigenous Ally