On 10 September, Sherry Tilbaroo-Fisher was found dead in a cell in the Brisbane watch house. Aunty Sherry was the fifth Indigenous person to die in custody since June, following a spate of recent deaths in prisons in Western Australia, a situation the national Aboriginal Legal Services’ peak body has branded a “national emergency”.
Nephew and family spokesperson Troy Brady described Aunty Sherry as “a proud Birri-Gubba woman with strong community ties”. Many of her family members had been involved in recent Black Lives Matter protests, which in June mobilised unprecedented numbers on the streets of Brisbane, and across Australia, to protest Aboriginal deaths in custody.
As soon as the news broke of the death, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the police station in Brisbane and 18 were arrested.
Organised by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), protesters returned both that evening, and then with up to 1000 people on Friday 18 September, for a powerful march led by the family. These actions took place in defiance of continuing attempts by the Queensland police to ban protests using COVID-19 regulations.
Early reports say Aunty Sherry died of a brain aneurysm. But the family’s lawyer Debbie Kilroy said the underlying issue driving deaths in custody is the, “criminalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
Speaking with the ABC, Kilroy argued police cells were no place for people facing challenges like Aunty Sherry: “when we know someone is very unwell, that they’re homeless and they have underlying medical issues, they must be taken to hospital… not a police cell”.
This pressure from protests, along with the strong advocacy of Aunty Sherry’s family and Kilroy, has already forced a measure of transparency from Queensland police rarely seen in deaths in custody cases.
Police have conceded that there was a six-hour period on the night Sherry died when her cell was not checked and proper records were not kept, in clear breach of policy that cells be checked every hour.
An assistant watch house officer has already been stood down pending an internal investigation. Family have also recently been allowed to view CCTV of the final moments of Aunty Sherry’s life, footage usually withheld for months or even years.
Troy Brady told Solidarity he was “sickened” viewing the footage and seeing the total disregard for Aunty Sherry’s wellbeing on the night she died, despite police knowing she had underlying health conditions. Brady believes the assistant officer stood down is being used as a “scapegoat” by police for deeper failings and systemic racism and is demanding an investigation completely independent of police.
Justice for Walker
Meanwhile, in Alice Springs in the first week of September, a committal hearing was held for NT police officer Zachary Rolfe, who was charged with murder last year. Rolfe shot dead 19-year-old Warlpiri man Mr Walker at his grandmother’s house in the NT Aboriginal community of Yuendumu in November 2019.
Shocking police bodycam footage of the shooting was played in the courtroom, the first time Walker’s family had seen this footage. It shows Walker being pinned to the ground face down by Constable Adam Eberl, and then shot three times by Rolfe at point blank range.
Even after he had been shot, officers continued to abuse Walker, with Eberl saying, “don’t fuck around, I’ll fucking smash you, mate”.
One issue highlighted in the hearing was the military nature of the operation that killed Walker. Rolfe had served as a soldier in Afghanistan before entering the NT police force, as had another officer on this raid. Both were part of the “Immediate Response Team”, a paramilitary force brought to Yuendumu to apprehend Walker, and used military terminology when speaking to each other. Another officer guarding the back door during the operation brandished an AR-15 assault rifle.
Police argued Walker was holding scissors and had stabbed Rolfe before he was killed. Warlpiri witnesses denied there were any scissors in early media statements. No Warlpiri witnesses were called during the committal hearing.
Ned Hargraves, the chair of Purumpurra, a committee elected by Warlpiri to speak for the community through the trial, told Solidarity that Walker’s murder is the most shocking example of police brutality against Aboriginal people that has intensified since the NT Intervention in 2007:
“It feels like the Intervention opened the door for anyone to come in and wipe us out. They have built a big police station to terrorise and control us.
“So many of our people, including our children, are taken away to prison. Get rid of the racist laws we live under and tell the police to put down their weapons. We need justice for Walker and power to control our own community on our own land”.
By Paddy Gibson