Blak Brow: ‘Sovereign Debt’ by Latoya Rule

To celebrate the release of Issue 40: Blak Brow, we are sharing some of our favourite pieces from the issue. Today: Latoya Rule on deaths in custody and sovereign debt.

Mum received an invoice for $1000 the other day, seemingly a fee expected to be paid by the next of kin of someone who has died in custody. My brother Wayne spent six days on remand at Yatala prison prior to the three days he endured on life support in the Intensive Care Unit of the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Ceasing to regain consciousness following the events of spit hood and positional asphyxia, he died. Two years on and the coronial inquest into his death has commenced. As I sit in the coroner’s court each day I grow more uncertain about the likelihood of charges being laid upon the state, who were responsible for Wayne’s care in his final days. My uncertainty arrives not in the absence of evidence of corruption in my brother’s case, but on the contrary, due to Aboriginal peoples continually being blamed for our own deaths and systemically being charged by the state for embodying sovereignty — an integral threat to the progression of the colonial project (Watson, 2016). Our existence is our resistance and, as is evident, the forceful call of the state for us to stop resisting carries tangible and even deathly outcomes. Maybe not every family has had to foot the financial cost of the death of their loved one like mine has been expected to, but the charge against the lives of those who have passed in custody and us who are subsequently surviving the grief, loss and trauma of such events continues to manifest itself in a multitude of systemic ways.

In an interview I gave post-Invasion Day 2017 with a local far-right-leaning Adelaide radio station I was asked, in response to deaths in custody and particularly in the context of my own brother’s death, “…but don’t you think that sometimes they bring it upon themselves?” One of the white men from the interview later proceeded to publish an article in a national newspaper comparing the character of Wayne to an old, famous and dead white person — one can imagine the types of comparisons employed in what became an overall exaltation of white supremacy. The day following the article I was walking through a popular city market in Adelaide on my way to my social work placement at a homeless day centre when a white man put his hand to my chest to physically halt me. He voiced his deep anger about my advocacy for my brother’s case and spat on me.

Instead of attending placement as was expected of me that day, I hid away in my room for the next two days to self-preserve. When the white supremacist state murders an Aboriginal person, Aboriginal people are burdened with the debt of this violence both socially and financially. At that time, to that white man, I embodied the same responsibility held against my brother for his own death in custody.

The example of the further criminalisation of an Aboriginal person at the time of their death does not rest with Wayne alone. Ms Dhu, a Yamatji Woman from Western Australia, has largely been held responsible for her own death in custody in 2014 due to the way her life has been constructed by the state. Alcohol, drugs, poverty, deviance, violence and homelessness plagued media reportings and expert witnesses in the coronial inquest into Ms Dhu’s case, explored the ways that socio-cultural, economic and environmental factors, more so than negligence and inhumane treatment by police and medical staff, contributed to Ms Dhu’s painful death.

Ultimately, it is deemed that by the time Ms Dhu was locked-up she was already on her way to dying and thus she becomes perceived as un-saveable. Current blaming discourse aligns itself with depictions of Aboriginal peoples, particularly in portrayals of Aboriginal Women, in early settler-societies — for example, this is evident in the works of Liz Conor in her book, Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women. Hearing the stories of Aboriginal Women and utilising discourse analysis to focus on Aboriginal Women’s maternity, Conor (2016, p. 237) explains how the coloniser perceived, “…Aboriginal maternity as inherently unproductive and Aboriginal mothers as surrogates of race suicide.” Aboriginal mothers were blamed for the deaths of their children and their communities throughout early colonisation just as my mother, Ms Dhu’s mother, and the many other parental figures and wider communities are continually blamed for the deaths of our loved ones.

The remnants of a race science theory that expected us to ‘die-out’ as a result of ‘natural selection’ and deems the misfortune of Aboriginal peoples as a consequence of our Blackness inevitably finds itself within current conceptualisations of the causes of Black deaths, particularly at the hands of state institutions like prisons. The collective debt we carry as sovereign peoples can never be paid as we continue to stand in the face of patriarchal white sovereignty and resist extermination.

For me personally, to expect the state to charge itself for the deaths that are required for the state to progress its genocidal project is senseless. To expect the state to dismantle itself is unwise. It is the question of how we, as sovereign peoples across the world, engage in dismantling the institutions that support Aboriginal deaths in custody and beyond, that I am more so interested in addressing. We don’t deserve to front the cost of the murders of our loved ones. And just for the record, my Mum said she might deduct the $1000 bill she received from the rent that’s 200+ years overdue…

This piece originally appeared in Blak Brow, Issue 40 of The Lifted Brow. Get your copy here.

Latoya Rule is a Wiradjuri and Māori Woman residing on Kaurna country. She works to dismantle the mechanism of state-sanctioned brutality against Black bodies in Australia.