At dawn on 10 May, special operations police shouldering firearms moved in on a group of 14 youth detainees maintaining a protest on the roof of Banksia Hill youth detention centre south of Perth.
They were the last to surrender of up to 50 young people, almost all Indigenous, who rioted, lit fires and held authorities at bay for more than 12 hours.
Aboriginal rights protestors led a solidarity demonstration near the prison on Mothers’ Day that weekend, calling for an end to the brutal jailing of Black youth.
Protest organiser Megan Krakouer, a Menang Nyoongar woman, told the crowd that the riot was one of four similar incidents that have occurred in Banksia Hill this year alone:
“Things are getting worse. The amount of torture that is being inflicted on our kids, the constant lockdowns, 22, 23, 24 hours [per day] in a cell and they expect our children to survive in that?”
In August last year, the Supreme Court of WA ruled the use of lockdowns in Banksia Hill was unlawful, yet the practice has continued.
In the week following the riot, Greens MP Brad Pettitt tabled 58 complaint letters in the WA Parliament, written on behalf of child prisoners. The letters contain shocking accounts of assault by guards, including sexual abuse of young girls.
Disgracefully, WA Labor Premier Mark McGowen’s responded to the riots by further demonising Black children, describing the inmates as “terrorists” and fully backing the militarised police response.
This follows a pattern across the country, with Labor premiers intensifying racist rhetoric against “youth criminals”, bolstering police powers and prison budgets and fanning the flames of racism.
Youth prisons and racist vigilantes
The abuse, and the detainee resistance in Banksia Hill mirrors the racist horror of Don Dale youth detention centre in Darwin, exposed by Four Corners and then a Royal Commission in 2017 that recommended the facility be shut down.
The NT Labor government promised to implement the Royal Commission recommendations. But Don Dale remains open, and in 2021 Labor introduced “tougher than ever” youth bail laws, which have doubled the number of kids locked up, almost all Indigenous, with rates of inmate self-harm also skyrocketing. The Close Don Dale group has held weekly protests at the prison for more than 12 months.
In Queensland, the Palaszczuk government passed similar laws in March this year, suspending the state’s Human Rights Act.
Then disgracefully, on 10 May, Palaszczuk confirmed that her government would build two new youth prisons. Queensland already has the highest rate of youth detention in Australia, 62 per cent of these children are Indigenous and 84 per cent of those placed in solidarity confinement are Indigenous.
The cost of this cruelty is more than $1800 per child detainee per day. But this is a small price to pay for governments determined to blame Aboriginal kids for the poverty, oppression and social marginalisation that drives contact with police.
Palaszczuk’s constant demonisation of Black youth has opened the door for the far-right to get active. Since February, there have been incidents across Queensland of racists organising on social media to identify residential care homes housing Indigenous youth. In Rockhampton in May this escalated to a series of racist vigilante actions.
Former One Nation candidate and member of the fascist Patriots Defence League Torin O’Brien used a Facebook page to share images accusing two young people of a series of crimes in the area. He then led about 60 people to stand in a front yard identified as their home, with the crowd surrounding the house and chasing one resident who escaped about the back door.
This was followed up by convoys cruising so-called “hot spots”. One convoy was confronted by Indigenous residents demanding they leave the area.
This comes in the wake of the racist murder of 15-year-old Cassius Turvey in a vigilante attack in Perth last year.
Yet local Detective Acting Inspector Luke Peachey, who met O’Brien and asked him to call off further actions, told the media “People are angry and frustrated … It disgusts me, some of the recent property theft.
“I get [O’Brien’s] point of view one hundred per cent.”
Palaszczuk also refused to condemn the vigilante actions, simply saying she was “very concerned” and understood “that people have very strong feelings about this in their local community”, essentially siding with the vigilantes while urging them to “allow the police to do their job”.
Queensland Labor is trumpeting a bill to advance Treaty negotiations with Indigenous communities passed on May 11 and the government is prominently supporting the Voice to Parliament referendum. But the intensifying war on Black youth betrays a continuing agenda of punishment and racism.
By Paddy Gibson