Readers are advised that the following article contains the names and images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons. This article also contains mention of past deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There is also mention of sexual assault.
In November 2019, Police Constable Zachary Rolfe was charged with murder after fatally shooting Warlpiri teenager Kumanjayi Walker in the Northern Territory. It was described as the first time a police officer has faced a murder trial in a death in custody case since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991.
But Rolfe, whose trial ended with his acquittal this month, is not the first policeman to be charged with murder but not be convicted. In fact, to many people, the case carries echoes of previous instances in which a very similar cycle has played out.
The cycle of police violence, murder charge and acquittal reminds us of the last time in Australian history when seven men were executed for the massacre of Aboriginal people in northwestern New South Wales in 1838. They were white settlers, not police, but their execution was described as an act of “judicial murder”. After this, settlers maintained that no white man should in the future be prosecuted for the killing of a black person.
Read more: Elder, lawman, survivor: stamp research is the latest chapter in Gwoja Tjungurrayi's remarkable life in pictures
Members of Walker’s Warlpiri community in Yuendumu, 300km north of Alice Springs, saw historic links between his death and the Coniston massacre in 1928 on a cattle station not far from Yuendumu.
The Warlpiri were among a large group of Indigenous peoples killed by a party of mounted troopers on a punitive expedition led by army veteran Constable George Murray.
The massacre was in retaliation for the murder of a white dingo shooter, Frederick Brookes. An internal police inquiry into the mass shootings of Warlpiri people denied legal aid to the Indigenous communities involved. No inquests were held to ascertain numbers killed and Murray intimated that the killing of Warlpiri was an act of self-defence.
The inquiry concluded there was no provocation for the local Aboriginal people’s hostility to white men, despite it being widely understood that Brookes’ murder was possibly retaliation for the alleged abuse of an Indigenous woman in the community.
Two Warlpiri men, Arkikra and Padygar were charged with Brookes’ murder and were eventually found to be not guilty. The police involved in the massacre were exonerated and reinstated.
A long history of police violence
In a similar episode in the Kimberley two years earlier, a white pastoralist, Frederick Hay, was murdered by Lumbia, an Oombulgarri man, in retaliation for Hay raping Anguloo, Lumbia’s wife.
In response to Hay’s death, two police officers led an expedition that resulted in the deaths of 15 Aboriginal men, women and children. Their bodies were incinerated.
The police officers involved in this attack were charged with murder, but a trial never went ahead. They were instead reinstated. Lumbia, however, was convicted of murder and imprisoned for life.
And in 1934, a white police constable fatally shot Pitjantjatjara man Yokununna at Uluru following his escape from police custody. An inquiry found that, although unwarranted, the shooting was legally justified as an act of self-defence.
Police Constable Bill McKinnon continued with his duties and was eventually promoted to senior inspector.
Read more: Racism is a public health crisis – but Black death tolls aren't the answer
Demands for police reform 80 years ago
These cases of police violence in the interwar years led to widespread discontent with policing and the justice system. Reforms were demanded, including the abolition of all-white juries, implementing native courts and the separation of the powers of police and protector, as most protectors of Aboriginal people were police officers.
In 1934, such protests resulted in the aborting of yet another police-led punitive expedition into east Arnhem Land and the High Court overturning a murder conviction for Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda following the death of a white police officer. He later disappeared.
In the midst of these protests, however, A.P. Elkin, the chair of anthropology at Sydney University, described police as “agents armed with the power of life and death”. As recorded on pages 3 -4 of an historical policy document authored by Elkin he noted that those who knew the history of relations between black and white understood that “teaching the natives (sic) a lesson” meant the use of guns and the death of many.
He went on to say,
“If giving the natives (sic) a lesson by sheer force of arms is the only way in which we can establish harmonious relations …, it is time that we realised our own incompetence, let alone our lack of imagination and of a sense of justice.
These words resonate in the Rolfe case, where Walpiri are demanding that guns be removed from police in their dealings with them and in their communities.
No more guns in the NT
The fatal shooting of Walker was justified by Rolfe as an act of self-defence against a violent man allegedly threatening the lives of him and his partner.
For the Warlpiri, it was a continuation of police violence against their communities and the memory of police retribution and its cost. With this context in mind, it might be possible to consider that Walker’s violent response was an act of self-defence, too.
For Walker’s community, the most important lesson was something that their historical experience made all too clear. In the words of elder Ned Jampinjimpa Hargraves:
We don’t want no guns. Enough is enough.