After Yorta Yorta woman Aunty Tanya Day died in December 2017, her children began looking for traces of her memory in her bedroom. They already had much of it close to their hearts.
Their mother, 55, was a proud community woman. She had helped run the co-op in her home town of Echuca and had assisted at the childcare centre. She was an excellent cook and used her skills to make big batches of food for elders and the community, as well as bake cupcakes with her grandchildren.
She was also political and had travelled interstate to attend rallies against black deaths in custody, standing in solidarity with families of victims. Her advocacy had taken shape early in her life, after her uncle Harrison Day died in custody when she was a teenager. His death was one of 99 investigated by the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC, 1987–1991).
But along with the memories of their mother, in that bedroom they found her hopes for the future. On a piece of paper, Aunty Day had written down her goals and dreams.
“Some of her goals were to get her [driver’s] licence and to get her own place,” her daughter Apryl, 28, tells marie claire. Aunty Day had been planning a move to Melbourne to get her qualifications in cooking, hoped to work at social enterprise restaurant Charcoal Lane, and to be closer to her daughter Kimberly, 23, who was pregnant.
“She was very much looking forward to her future,” her third daughter, Belinda, 39, says.
It’s a picture far removed from typical media portrayals of women such as Aunty Day.
On December 5, 2017, she had arrived at Echuca railway station in northern Victoria and bought a ticket to Melbourne – the site of her future dreams. But she would never reach her destination. Aunty Day, who had been drinking, fell asleep and just near Bendigo, she came to the attention of a V/Line train conductor. He claimed she was “unruly” and that her feet were blocking the aisles, and he called the police, who subsequently arrested her for public intoxication – an outdated law that the RCIADIC had recommended be abolished across the country nearly 30 years prior.
In the cell in Castlemaine police station, she suffered a fall, captured on CCTV footage. The police had failed to conduct regular checks. By the time she reached hospital, it was too late. Aunty Day died of brain injuries at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne 17 days later.
The heartbreaking reality is that this woman should have never been in custody in the first place. Cross-examination by the coroner revealed she was not aggressive or disruptive, and the conductor admitted that he saw sleeping passengers on the train about three times a week, but this was the first time he’d ever called the police.
“She should have been left alone,” Belinda says. “She wasn’t unruly. She wasn’t disturbing anybody.”
“She was asleep,” Apryl adds. “There was systemic racism that played a part in decision-making [that day] and in the way the police are programmed and deal with Aboriginal people. Because at the time, Aboriginal women were 10 times more likely to be arrested under [public drunkenness] laws than non-Aboriginal women.”
In May this year the world erupted in fury after African-American man George Floyd was killed by a police officer. His death, and his last words, “I can’t breathe,” were captured on mobile phone footage by bystanders, and streamed around the world.
In Australia, Aboriginal people were quick to point out that the deaths of black people in police watch houses and prison cells was not just an American phenomenon.
It was happening and had happened in our country too. In the 30 years since the RCIADIC, there have been 437 Aboriginal deaths behind bars. Shockingly, there’s been no convictions and very few charges laid.
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