A sombre group gathered outside the police station Saturday night in the Northern Territory community of Yuendumu, where, on elders’ orders to stay calm, locals awaited news about a 19-year-old Warlpiri man, Kumanjayi Walker, who had been shot by police.
Two officers had entered a home in the community, 266 kilometers northwest of Alice Springs, early Saturday evening to arrest Walker for alleged property-related offences, police said. After an altercation, Walker was shot and then taken to the police station instead of a medical facility. Family were told Sunday that he was dead.
Indigenous groups, including NAAJA, the Aboriginal legal service of the NT, are calling for an immediate independent investigation on why the town’s medical centre was closed Saturday night, why police didn’t use non-lethal Tasers and why family weren’t allowed into the police station.
“Words cannot describe the emotional resilience, strength and wisdom of Warlpiri people at a time that showcased, more than ever, the brutal inequalities that Warlpiri people live in,” Yuendumu youth worker Jackson Fitzpatrick said Monday.
“There was no riot, but incredibly strong people putting their generations of trauma and mistreatment to the side and simply seeking information on the welfare of a young man.”
The young man reportedly died while waiting for medical assistance. Police confirmed to HuffPost Australia that officers “provided first aid at the Police station.”
Warlpiri elder Eddie Robertson told the ABC that the whole community is shocked.
“Even the kardiya [white] staff are in mourning, and we are standing together strongly,” Robertson said.
“When we heard what happened, the police were already on their way to the police station and they locked themselves in there.
“They wouldn’t come out. They just looked at us from the window.
“Many of the elders were standing in the doorway trying to ask how he was … but they wouldn’t let us in.”
Northern Territory Police confirmed to HuffPost Australia that three shots were fired in the house before Walker was taken to the station. It was unclear how many times Walker was struck. At the station, police locked the family outside.
“At one stage on Saturday night, there were up to 200 people outside the police station,” Media and Public Affairs Director Rob Cross said. “There was concern from the people inside about their safety.”
Marlee Silva, a Kamilaroi woman who co-founded the female Indigenous excellence initiative Tiddas 4 Tiddas, said the incident exposes how “the power dynamic is always in the hands of non-Indigenous people”.
Silva, whose father is a policeman, has been in contact with people in Yuendumu. She has been told small children in the community are scared because of the increased police presence at a time of mourning that should be sacred.
“What cops don’t realise is that when Sorry Business happens, they can’t even be in that community, they need to let those people privately mourn. Having more foreign people in this community is going to cause a lot more trauma.
“They [the police] need to take the leadership of the elders who understand and have the biggest respect in these communities. Those are the ones who’ll be able to guide and make sure it’s diffused and make sure that the hurt doesn’t turn into more tragedy,” Silva told HuffPost Australia.
Sorry Business is a time of mourning after the death of an Indigenous person. It is a period of cultural practices, protocols and delegating obligations and responsibilities for family and community. Sorry Business can also be for serious illness, incarceration or loss of connection to land (loss of native title).
On Monday Assistant Commissioner Travis Wurst told members of the community gathered at the Yuendumu basketball court that Walker had “stabbed” a policeman. Acting Deputy Commissioner Michael White had initially said on Sunday that Walker had “lunged” at police.
Community members were shocked to hear a different version of the altercation, the ABC reported.
Silva stressed that these incidents are not coincidences but are patterned behaviours.
“Please let this story be the one you raise in the lunchroom at work this Monday,” she wrote on Instagram. “Ignite disgust and distress in every person who will listen ― public pressure and understanding around the unsafety that comes with police in our communities, might help save someone.”
Community members will gather at Sydney’s Town Hall on Wednesday to show solidarity for the grieving Yuendumu community.