real life

'As a 28-year-old Aboriginal woman, I am anxious every time I see a police officer.'

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names and descriptions of people who have died.

It was a Wednesday morning. I was 17 and getting ready for school. My mother ducked out to drive up to the shops to take out money for recess and lunch for both my sister and I.

I vividly remember brushing my hair when the house phone rang. I stopped what I was doing and went to answer it. I heard my mother crying on the other end, asking me to come to get to her. She’d been pulled over by about nine or 10 police officers for driving on a just expired registration. I hung up, locked the house and raced over to my elderly neighbour’s house asking her to please drive me to where my mother had been pulled over.

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We arrived five minutes later to find three cop cars and three cops surrounding my mother… one was screaming at her. My mother was crying… unable to comprehend the intimidation tactics of the police that pulled her over. 

I ran over to her and immediately calmed her down before turning around and yelling back at the cop to stop yelling… that his yelling was unnecessary.

His response?

“She can’t drive with an expired registration!” he yelled.

"I know but yelling at her isn’t going to change the fact that she did. You can’t yell at her. There is no need to."

My response was calm but stern. 

I was a 17-year-old, terrified and intimidated Aboriginal girl standing up to the police for their treatment towards my mother.

This was my first and last experience with the police.

Today as a 28-year-old woman, I am anxious every time I see a police officer or police car. My chest tightens, I feel a lump in my throat and I instinctually assess my demeanour, actions and behaviour. 

“Will the police take an issue with anything I am doing at this moment?” is the thought that runs through my mind. 

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As an Aboriginal woman, I have been conditioned to fear the police… not to feel as though they are the people who are supposed to protect me should I need it.

Why is that, you ask?

Think about it… have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ever been given reason to trust the police?

I know in my family that the police played a role stealing my mother and her siblings as part of the Stolen Generations.

There have also been 437 Aboriginal deaths in custody. That number builds no confidence in Aboriginal people feeling safe should they end up being arrested… more often than not for petty crimes (or things that aren't crimes at all.)

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Ms Dhu, a Yamatji woman from Western Australia, was arrested after calling the police after her then partner broke the Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) against him. When police arrived, they found she had unpaid fines and arrested her. During her three days in police custody, she was treated inhumanely and dismissed as having “behavioural issues” as opposed to serious medical issues. Every police officer involved in her case failed her. No one advocated for her.

Aunty Tanya Day, a Yorta Yorta woman from Victoria, was arrested for falling asleep on a train. Apparently being drunk in a public place is an offence for an Aboriginal woman but not for non-First Nations teenagers and young adults who ride trains and buses with open bottles and cans of alcohol.

Both these women lost their lives in police custody. 

The targeted racism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is unsettling.

Again and again, Aboriginal people are given no reason to trust that police have their best intentions for us. 

Rather than immediately stereotyping us, treating us as criminals… stop. Talk to us. We’re already scared. We know the power you have and it is intimidating.

My mother was stereotyped. Treated like dirt because of an expired registration. Belittled and humiliated. Today, I live in fear because of that experience. By continuously treating First Nations people like criminals without listening, you won’t gain our respect or trust. 

Become a police officer who values and treats every Australian as an equal. Don’t talk to us about reconciliation without assessing your own actions and expecting us to do the hard work. Respect and trust is earned when you’ve continuously broken it in the past.

Feature image: Supplied.

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