By SJA Jafri + Bureau Report
MELBOURNE: Australia was again forced to confront what experts say is “deeply entrenched” racism this year after the alleged murder of a 15 year old Indigenous boy, Cassius Turvey, shocked the nation.
Cassius of the Noongar Nation people of Western Australia was walking home from school with friends in October when he was assaulted with a metal pole in an unprovoked and vicious attack.
After being placed in an induced coma, he died of injuries 10 days later. His death sparked shock and outpourings of grief and led to nationwide vigils and fundraising for the family.
Named after world champion boxer Muhammed Ali’s former moniker, Cassius Clay, the 15 year old from the city of Perth had enjoyed school and basketball and ran a small community business, the “Lawnmower Boys”, who would cut people’s lawns for no set price.
At a vigil in his hometown, Cassius’s mother Mechelle said: “We knew from the early days Cassius would be a shining star. This was easily seen by his family by the way he smiled, he laughed. He was jovial, kind and his heart larger than life.”
Yet Cassius’s mother was also critical of the police response for having only taken a brief statement from Cassius the night he was admitted to hospital, with no further statement taken before Cassius died.
“We did not hear from any detectives, no police. Nothing. For five full days. That was their opportunity,” she said.
Western Australia’s Police Commissioner Col Blanch also attracted criticism by appearing to downplay the racial nature of the attack, stating “it may be the case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time”, according to a report by the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.
A 21-year-old man, Stephen Brearley, was charged with the teenager’s murder, which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described as “clearly racially motivated” in a comment to reporters.
Australian Indigenous rapper and youth worker Joshua Eggington known as Flewnt by fans contributed to a tribute song to Cassius, titled “Forever 15”.
Also from the Noongar community, Flewnt told media that “the biggest shock was that it wasn’t being addressed as a murder and people weren’t willing to call it out for what it was”.
“That really deeply hurt me because I felt that that was a way to allow white Australia to almost not have to address it as what it was and just sit in a place of comfortability,” the 27-year-old musician said.
“That really sickened me, really hurt me.”
While public support for Cassius’s family and community was encouraging, it did not mean Indigenous young people could feel safe, he added.
“It can be quite deceiving sometimes as well because you might feel that our mob are in a safer place because of all the support that you might see online,” he said “but when it comes down to the real action that needs to be taken and real change that needs to happen, our people still suffer constantly.”
The alleged murder of Cassius is the most recent in a number of attacks on Indigenous children and young people that have shocked Australia.
In 2004, 17-year-old TJ Hickey was killed after being thrown from his bicycle and impaled on a fence following a police chase. In 2016, 14-year-old Elijah Doughty died after being run over by a man who was pursuing him to recover what he believed to be a stolen motorcycle. Also in 2016, shocking images were released of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre being tear-gassed, stripped naked and strapped to chairs while wearing spit hoods.
Megan Krakouer, a Noongar woman who works for the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, told media that “racism and discrimination is entrenched” in the laws and policies of the Australian government.
She said this was one of the key drivers of what she described as the “poverty narrative” experienced by Indigenous people.
“While there was an outpouring of grief, solidarity and sadness (for Cassius), which touched the lives of many people, we still hold the Australian government to account for the dispossession, the marginalization and the inequalities that currently exist,” she said.
“(The vigils) showed solidarity,” she said “but the bottom line is (Cassius) is no longer here. Systemic challenges still exist in our communities. There has not been any legislative change.”
Despite only making up less than five percent of Australia’s population, Indigenous children and young people make up nearly 50 percent of those in youth detention. One-quarter of the roughly 46,000 children in out-of-home state care are Indigenous.
These statistics feed into Australia’s adult incarceration system, in which about 30 percent of all prisoners are Indigenous.
That a young Indigenous man is more likely to go to prison than university means Cassius who was reportedly a success at school was already overcoming severe systemic challenges when his life was cut short.
A report released this year by the national organization Reconciliation Australia showed that 60 percent of Indigenous people surveyed experienced at least one form of racial prejudice in the past six months. This indicated a nearly 20 percent increase in such experiences since 2018.
Reconciliation CEO Karen Mundine, of the Bundjalung people, said in a media statement: “57% of First Nations people believe that Australia remains a racist country, a view shared by 42% of non-Indigenous respondents.”
“As stories of racism in sport and workplaces and the death of a young Noongar man hit our front pages, and amid media reports on the appalling treatment of our children in detention centres, it is clear that as a nation, Australia can do better,” Mundine said.
Australia has not only grappled with racism in the form of attacks on Indigenous people and within the criminal justice system, but on the sports field as well.
In 2015, star Indigenous footballer Adam Goodes was subject to repeated racist taunts from fans while recent allegations of racism have emanated from within clubs themselves.
Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner June Oscar, of the Bunuba people, told media the public support shown for Cassius demonstrated that “collectively, the people of Australia are standing up to the violence experienced by First Nations peoples”.
However, she also said that “we want an end to violence of all kinds including the violence perpetrated by society, structures and systems”.
“We must address this history before we expect to see progress in reforming systems and structures that continue to inflict violence on First Nations peoples.”
Many advocates are calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised as a way to change how Indigenous children are treated and to stem the flow into adult incarceration.
Children as young as 10 can be handcuffed and incarcerated due to current legislation, which predominantly affects Indigenous young people.
Western Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Jacqueline McGowan-Jones, told media that a change in legislation was necessary.
“Incarcerating these children [who are] as young as Year 5 in primary school (about 10-11 years old) does not make the community safer,” she told media.
Joshua Eggington, the rapper, is adamant Indigenous people’s voices must be heard if systemic change is to occur.
“(Indigenous) people need to be heard and listened to,” he told media.
“You’ve got young people who, in their DNA, have some of the strongest cultural connections to their country and land while having to navigate a contemporary white world (they do not) fit into.”
His vision is to build a strong identity and cultural connection in the Indigenous children and young people he works with.
“That’s what creates the greatest resilience in young people,” he said.
“They can be the future leaders that I believe all our young people have inside of them.”