By KIERAN FINNANE
Black Lives Matter rallies held around the world protesting the death of George Floyd – the black American who died in Minneapolis with the knee of a police officer on his neck, crying out “I can’t breathe” – have been notable for the dominant presence of young people.
It was no different in Alice Springs, where three to four hundred people turned up at the Courthouse Lawns on Saturday in solidarity with protesters in America but also to protest black deaths in custody in our own country.
Young voices were the strongest, young supporters the most numerous. It seemed we were witnessing a changing of the guard.
After the welcomes and smoking, veteran activist Vincent Forrester was one of the first to the microphone. He called on young First Nations people to stand up: “You got a little bit of rights, a little bit of education nowadays from our hard work, things that we’ve done, you’ve got things like Land Rights – we done that.”
There was prolonged clapping in acknowledgement.
“I’m one of the last men standing now, most of my old colleagues are now dead, where are you young people coming on? You’ve got to have some fire in your belly!”
From the Strong Grandmothers Group, Pat Ansell Dodds presided over the smoking ceremony.
He didn’t have long to wait.
Jody Kopp heard the call: “My fire is starting too.”
Not so young, but young people were weighing heavily on the mind of this mother, grandmother, sister, aunty.
Vince had thanked “from the bottom of my heart” all the young white people who had shown up. Jody Kopp acknowledged them too.
“But you know, the difference between me and my white brothers and sisters, every time that phone rings at three, four o’clock in the morning, I’m in a terror, I’m scared thinking what’s on the other end of that line for me.
“Are they ringing to tell me something is going on with one of my kids, particularly my black son who’s actually white as snow?”
She evoked the hurt and grief of “our deaths in custody” and what has been a lack of solidarity, particularly in the matter of getting justice for those deaths.
She had a message for “all my sons and daughters in this audience today … all my rainbow kids”: “This is about education. It’s about educating yourselves so that you can stand up with your white brothers and sisters and have a strong voice and know you know what the hell you are talking about.”
Whistles, cheers, clapping.
“Education is the key to power, okay? And power is the strength to be able to say and do whatever you want to do because you know what you are talking about.”
Jody Kopp on the microphone, a protester from South Sudan by her side.
And in perfect illustration of her point came Kira Voller, who seems to have honed in herself the strength to be able to say what she needs to – and to know what the hell she is talking about.
Early in her speech she addressed the matter of her light skin, as if to get that out of the way: “As a First Nations woman in this country I consider myself black because my ancestors are black, my Dad’s black, my Mum’s black and I often find myself looking for my secret white family because society has made me feel that if my skin is so light I must have a white parent somewhere.
“But this is a result of the attempted genocide of my people, they tried to breed the colour out of us. Now that we are using it in a way that serves ourselves and advocates for our blackness people don’t want us to identify with it.”
She also spoke of society’s picking and choosing about when black lives matter: “You know there’s these organisations and festivals that employ us First Nations people , they want us to work for them, they want all of our Aboriginality and culture, but when police killings or systemic injustice happens, they don’t support our struggle, turn a blind eye and act as if they play no part in the systemic racism that occurs.”
She was always going to be speaking at this rally, being one of the key organisers along with the Strong Grandmothers Group and their supporters. But getting to the point of finding her voice in public had been a long time coming, out of nerves in part and “out of fear of being judged, or me and my family or my kids being targeted”.
The Voller name is known to households around the nation now, after the treatment of her brother Dylan in detention and later in adult prison – exposed by the ABC’s Four Corners – helped precipitate the Royal Commission into Juvenile Detention and Child Protection in the Northern Territory.
This Royal Commission changed the course of Kira’s young life – she was 22 at the time – just as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been a major milestone in Vince Forrester’s long history of activism. In 1993, he told the crowd, he had presented the Royal Commission findings on black deaths in custody to the United Nations, yet they are still happening.
434 of them since 1991, revised up from 432 just this week by the Guardian’s Deaths Inside database.
Kira Voller calmed her nerves by first reading a poem, which began: When you see me out here with my signs / blocking your streets, taking up your time / know this: this isn’t fun for me / to see the pain and hear the grief / of a mother who’s lost her son / or a daughter who’s lost her mum.
For Kira since the 2016 Royal Commission, advocacy for families “all over the country who have lost loved ones at the hands of police” has taken over her life just as it has for “so many other young people around the country and the world”: “They are putting their lives on hold because of this huge injustice towards our people.”
It weighs heavily on her. At twenty-six years old, she spoke of being tired and heavy-hearted, of feeling numb.
“I grew up as a First Nations child in this country and I grew up dealing with racism and I guess I understood it was a part of my life and it was going to be, but after seeing the Royal Commission and seeing how much pain and trauma they [Corrections officers] were willing to inflict on my brother and those other boys in Don Dale, that’s something that I can’t unsee. And I’ve been pretty numb since then and haven’t really expressed my feelings.”
She was expressing them now, her voice strong and clear, but at times choking back sobs, wiping tears from her face.
“I feel like the two years after Four Corners aired was just a blur. My son was just born and to remember those first two years of his life I have to look back at photos on my phone, which is really sad for me but that’s how it is.
“Everything was just so full of emotions and rage because I was afraid my brother would die.”
During this time she became friends with Latoya Rule, who was advocating for Dylan Voller in Adelaide before her own brother Wayne Fella Morrison died on 26 September 2016, allegedly restrained and held down by prison officers, while on remand in Yatala Prison in South Australia. (The coronial enquiry into his death is ongoing).
Kira has connected with family members of other deaths in custody victims in this time. She listed their names, Tanya Day, Tane Chatfield, Miss Dhu, Wayne Fella Morrison.
Kira reading her speech, Savannah Tomlins standing alongside.
She spoke of the 2007 Intervention and the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act as setting the tone for for treating First Nations people as “second class citizens” and worse, for setting the tone for what happened to Kumunjayi Walker (allegedly shot in Yuendumu by a police officer who has been charged with his murder) and for the detention of all the First Nations children “sitting in Don Dale right now” – an “asbestos-ridden prison that they deemed unsafe for adult inmates”.
“Ten years old is the legal age that they can lock up babies. My daughter is ten years old (her voice breaks) … Tomorrow George Floyd could be a 10 year old Aboriginal kid in the NT. A kid can have a bad day because they’re a kid. It’s the police’s job to get them the help they need, not take their life.”
Here she is referring to the excuse offered by NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller for the violent arrest of a First Nations 16-year-old last week.
“That’s why I’m so scared,” said Kira. “RJ, my son, is only four years old (she fights tears) and I am trying so hard to teach him to hold his anger in and control his emotions. I’m scared that he’s going to get angry one day and be labelled the angry violent black boy …”
There was cheering and clapping as she spoke about the importance of children being able to express their emotions.
“I have to hold back my own emotions in front of them to keep them safe and I feel that I am so sick of holding my emotions in because I am angry. But people make me feel like I have a choice to feel the way that I do, when I don’t.
“I fear for my children’s lives as many First Nations mothers here would be feeling for their children’s lives every day … A ten year old white child could have a bad day, lose their cool, break something in the school and the consequence wouldn’t be a property damage charge, the consequence wouldn’t be a court date …
“I feel like I’ve got six years to teach RJ to control his anger so that he doesn’t come on the end of a police officer’s bad day.”
A woman who introduced herself only as Mary had come from South Sudan as a refugee and was grateful to Australia for that, but “we would want to see you to pull up your socks, because we rely on you, we want you to be the advocates for those countries that are doing injustices”.
Kira spoke of the way First Nations children in this town “are looked at as criminals” and “targets” (presumably for reprisals): “And all the business owners and the people that own houses that post on the Open Forum [Facebook page] , they incite this violence, they set that standard for other people to be able to look at a black child and look at them as a criminal.”
She was crying, the crowd was clapping in solidarity.
“That stuff impacts us psychologically, it makes people not want to own their blackness, it makes us not want to stand strong because that hurts.”
As young as she is herself, she urged all the young people there to listen to their Elders, their stories, their heartbreaks, which they won’t find in the history books.
“White kids can feel empowered” by stories of “their grandparents going off to war”: “We all have these grandparents that have fought these wars for generations – the Frontier Wars and these battles [like the one we were witnessing] every day. So it’s up to us to take their stories and turn them into history and to carry that.”
More clapping as she kept going: “It’s so nice for white people because they get to sit down with their grandparents and listen to all these beautiful stories of ‘back in my day’ and for us it’s not like that, it hurts.”
She had some ideas for change, in addition to justice for those who have died in custody and the clear demand, expressed by others too, to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves from Yuendumu, where Kumunjayi Walker was killed. “We are standing here with Floyd … for our black lives … we are losing them [our beloved young people] … kartiya [non-Indigenous people] are destroying us slowly … Enough is enough!”
Her angriest words had been reserved for police – “fuck the police” – but it was “not aimed at the person in the uniform [but] at the system that it upholds which is a racist system in every aspect whether it’s schooling, gaol, heath care”.
Now she called on police officers – “if you consider yourself a good police officer” – to call out their co-workers on racist behaviour, as some police have done in Western Australia and South Australia: “That’s where it needs to start.”
And she urged everyone present to start having the difficult conversations in their household about “what racism is and what it means”.
She stood by a trembling young Arrernte Warlpiri woman, Savannah Tomlins, as she read a statement on behalf of the family of David Dungay who died in Long Bay held down by prison guards, crying “I can’t breathe” – they say 20 times in the last nine minutes of his life.
And she herself read a statement by her friend Latoya Rule, sister of Wayne Fella Morrison. This wasn’t the end of the rally, but these words seem to sum up its demands:
“Justice is not individual convictions, justice is the dismantling of state-sanctioned violence and brutality by corrections and police towards Indigenous, black and peoples of colour communities.
“Black lives only seem to matter when they are loud, thought-provoking, resisting, strong, revolutionary. So let’s keep it that way.
“Do not be silent, do not waste the gift that is the breath in your lungs when our siblings have had their breath taken away.”