No justice without accountability: Apryl Watson and the fight to end Black deaths in custody
Establishing a foundation to support positive change is generally a cause for celebration, but Apryl Watson wishes she’d never had to establish the Dhadjowa Foundation.
“To be honest, I wish there was no need for a charity like the Dhadjowa Foundation because it was born out of heartache, grief and ongoing struggle,” she says with an audible sigh.
“If our people weren’t dying in police custody, there’d be no need for it.”
Apryl’s mother, the late Aunty Tanya Day, was a grandmother of eight who loved to cook for her community and her family. Her favourite colour was pink.
In December 2017, Aunty Tanya Day was arrested for public drunkenness after falling asleep on a train in Victoria. While in police custody, she fell and hit her head and was left fatally injured on the cell floor for three hours. She died of brain injuries 17 days later.
Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, 441 Indigenous men and women have died in custody. No one has ever been held criminally responsible.
“There can be no justice without accountability,” Apryl says simply, her voice steady and calm but powered by conviction.
“If our government and the justice system continue to ignore our loved ones and what’s happened to them, that goes to show how much our lives are valued in this country.
“It also shows the people in power who are responsible for our deaths that they won’t be held responsible, because it’s never happened before.”
The twin goals of the Dhadjowa Foundation are to provide a safe space for families who’ve lost loved ones in custody and to support their fight for justice.
“This is about supporting our mob to continue to fight and strengthen the calls for justice in what is the hardest time of their life,” Apryl explains.
“That might be supporting them financially so that they can attend every day of the coronial inquiry without having to be away at work, or it could be paying their rent for them so that they don’t have to worry about that.
In December 2020, the Victorian Government finally introduced reforms to decriminalise public drunkenness, more than 30 years after the recommendation was made by the Royal Commission. While it’s a step in the right direction, it does not resolve the issue of discriminatory policing or remedy the flawed foundations of Australia’s criminal justice system.
“The justice system is rooted in systemic racism,” Apryl says.
“This country was founded on racism, genocide and murder and there is still no truth telling. There were 339 recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that addressed these systemic issues and only a small number of them have been implemented – that’s a real problem.
“We have to look at the fundamental way these systems are operating and what they’re doing to our people,” Apryl continues. “We need to centre Aboriginal voices in a way that’s not tokenistic.”
Shining a light
Dhadjowa means sunshine in Yorta Yorta and the Day family chose the name for the Foundation as “a representation of Mum’s spirit and how she would light up a room.” Apryl says. “It’s also about shining a light on the injustices Aboriginal people are facing.”
In November 2020, Marie Claire Australia named Apryl among their Women of the Year. The recognition was unexpected but valuable in helping to raise awareness of the issue, she says, noting that the lack of mainstream media coverage of Aboriginal deaths in custody is another fundamental barrier to be overcome.
“The reality is that every couple of months there’s another death in custody, but the mainstream media isn’t telling that story, so people aren’t finding out. The only way the families of these loved ones are able to tell the world is through their personal social media accounts.”
“What’s happened to them is wrong. We need to address it and put it out there.”
With the support of philanthropy and public donations, the Dhadjowa Foundation is, and always will be, fiercely independent and proudly grassroots.
“We are living this struggle every single day,” Apryl says.
“Every day our people wake up fearing one of our loved ones will die in custody and that there will never be accountability or justice. We can’t keep up this fight without support and we cannot accept government funding when government is part of the problem.”
Throughout the emotional intensity of the last three years, Apryl credits her family and community as the key supports that have helped her through the toughest times.
“Advocacy is both personal and heartbreaking if you have that lived experience,” she says. “You need to allow yourself to be supported by those who are offering it.
“For me, if I hear of yet another death in custody, it’s extremely difficult. I’ve learned to pick my battles and I’ve slowly learned to set boundaries but it hasn’t been easy. If we don’t show ourselves kindness and self-care in these times we’ll have nothing left to give.
“Even with the people who’ve taught me a lot about campaigning and organising, they made it clear that supporting one another is what gets us through.
“That’s the thing about us Aboriginal people, every day we’re having to fight for something but at the same time, everything we embody has been passed down to us from our proud leaders and Elders whose footsteps we follow in.
“I know I got my strength and resilience from my mother and my Elders and even though I may not have necessarily wanted to be speaking at rallies and to media, something horrific happened and I had no choice but to call on that strength to fight for justice for Mum. It’s our now responsibility to carry on that fight, like our Elders did before us.”