On October 5 2015, a 17 year-old Sydney student was arrested by police after posting a threat on Facebook to burn down Merrylands police station.
He was from the same school as 15 year-old Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, who had earlier shot and killed NSW Police accountant Curtis Cheng in a terrorism inspired attack. It was evidence that Australian police take terrorist threats on Facebook seriously, in line with counter terrorism laws that state:
“A ‘terrorist’ act is an act, or a threat to commit an act, that is done with the intention to coerce or influence the public … to advance a political, religious or ideological cause, and the act causes; death, serious harm or endangers a person.”
Yet in the twin towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the goldfields of Western Australia, a slew of racist threats and provocations on Facebook preceded the killing of 14 year-old Elijah Doughty by a middle aged white man. The teenager had allegedly stolen a motorbike.
His death ignited deadly tension in this baking hot desert town, the seemingly premature charge of manslaughter mirrored by the incipient racism on social media.
On April 28, 2017 the accused is seeking to have his trial held in Kalgoorlie, presumably in the hope that a jury of his peers would be well disposed towards his plight.
The charge of manslaughter indicates police were satisfied that his crime was conducted without malice aforethought – a judgement disputed by Aboriginal inhabitants of Kalgoorlie. They say that the perfunctory police investigation of the crime scene was of a piece with the racist attitudes that are an everyday fact of their lives in these West Australian towns.
It underscored the implicit understanding among indigenous people that there is one rule for white people and another for them.
For months before the killing, individuals and groups from the Kalgoorlie-Boulder area had been regularly posting inflammatory material on Facebook in the form of racist memes, jokes and commentary. These were mostly centred around discussions on the high crime rates in the twin towns, where hard drug use is endemic and transient and town-based Indigenous people drink on the streets. Fights and petty crime are common.
“I’ll run them over for ya buddy if I see them”, had said one Facebook post, in a racist thread, on May 24.
“Need to shoot them, sniper style”, said another on July 31.
A comment on August 27 boasted “There is going to be revenge of some sort very soon.” It had 13 ‘likes’.
On Monday August 29, the day of the killing, a Kalgoorlie resident, in response to a provocative thread asked another individual: “Are you planning a murder?”
The response: “Hardly. But you can bet your bottom dollar somebody is. … My money is on it happening Real Soon Now.” (sic).
After Elijah’s death the racial taunts and vilification continued, with posts that same day reading;
“Good hope the kunt (sic) died” and;
“About time someone took it into their own hands hope it happens again.”
WA Police posted a warning against provocative remarks on their Facebook Page. “We remind everyone that comments made on social media that are considered racially motivated or that incite violence are being monitored by police and will be investigated.”
Two sites were closed down but to date no people responsible for these posts have been arrested or cautioned.
The following day, police announced that the accused in the death of Elijah Doughty had been charged with manslaughter, indicating that the death was to be treated as an accident. A cursory inspection of the crime scene, 120 metres away from a main road, indicates that such a charge deserved at least closer investigation. Aboriginal locals say they have photographs of tyre marks that clearly show where the accused’s speeding vehicle struck the motorbike from behind then ran over it and Elijah, its momentum carrying it another twenty metres further. This on a crime scene that police had not bothered to tape off or guard till late on the afternoon of the killing. (See breakout)
It sparked a spontaneous street march by angry Indigenous people that erupted into violence when riot police armed with shields, batons and dogs began arresting teenagers. The courthouse and police cars were then attacked and mainstream media labeled the incident a ‘riot’.
“It wasn’t a riot,” said Deborah Carmody, manager of the local Tjuma Pulka radio station. “If it was a riot they would have smashed the whole street. It was an expression of grief. An uprising fuelled by frustration and anger. There was a very somber, heavy mood. One of our beautiful young boys had been killed.”
Kalgoorlie-Boulder has a history of simmering racial tension, erupting into full-blown ‘anti-European’ race riots in 1916, 1919 and 1934. People died violently in these events.
May 2017 will be the 50th anniversary of the 1967 national referendum, in which white Australia voted overwhelmingly to include Aboriginals in the census and create laws specifically concerning them. Kalgoorlie was a notable exception, with 28% voting no.
Acting for the family of Elijah Doughty, lawyer Stewart Levitt cited the ‘incendiary atmosphere generated by social media’ as well as a racist undertow that has prevailed in the town since colonial times. Levitt successfully defended the Indigenous community of Palm Island in Queensland in relation to events surrounding the 2004 death of Palm Island’s Mulrinji (aka Cameron Doomadgee) in police custody.
At an earlier hearing in the Doughty matter on April 15, Mr Levitt observed that the Crown’s position was largely based on security issues and appeared to have the view that the indigenous population had a ‘propensity to riot’. He said that the Crown had not taken the social climate prevalent in the white community into account.
“The social media aspect was covered extensively in our affidavits but was not addressed at all by the Crown.
One would argue that the Crown should have put this evidence before the court, but there is not much precedence for this sort of matter and we need the judge to allow us discretion for us to be heard and put these matter before the court,” he said.
Kalgoorlie-Boulder Mayor John Bowler says the history of racial problems is irrelevant to Elijah Doughty’s death.
“Those people (in the race riots) were dead two generations ago, so to link it is stupid. It’s a bit like saying in Sydney they used to hang people. The world’s moved on.”
But these problems aren’t historic. In terms of race relations, not a whole lot has changed.
It’s a hardboiled mining town in an arid, waterless region whose white population are conspicuously affluent. Aboriginal populations are divided into ‘townies’ who are usually locally born and transient populations from desert tribes. Though these groups largely keep to themselves a common factor is relative poverty. Few Indigenous people work in the mines. Some transient families live in squalid ‘camps’ in marginalised land under the shadow of the 3.5 km long gold mining ‘superpit’ that’s estimated to be worth up to $US1.4 billion.
Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines claims to donate $46 million to the local community each year, but, like most ‘’trickledown’ economics, this doesn’t seem to make it to the original owners. For many Aboriginal residents, poverty and disadvantage is intergenerational, young children being raised in squalid conditions with poor diets and education.
For others in suburban Kalgoorlie or Boulder, low self-esteem and shame at their family’s low economic status breeds a culture of depression and suicide rates are abnormally high. Nationwide, for Aboriginal people aged between 15-35, suicide is the leading cause of death.
A 1981 report by the WA Commissioner for Community Relations found that racial discrimination was widespread throughout Western Australia and ‘the rights of Aboriginal people are infringed in practically all aspects of their daily lives”.
In February 2008, a Coronial inquest described the living conditions for Aboriginal people in the Fitzroy Crossing area of WA as “a national disaster with no disaster response”.
Amongst a litany of recent deaths in custody, three examples demonstrate the human rights accorded Aboriginal people in WA.
In 2007 a Mr Ward was found dead in a non air-conditioned prison van in Kalgoorlie after having been transported 400km by police through brutal summer temperatures. He was to face a drink driving charge.
In January 2011 a Mr Phillips was found dead in a Kalgoorlie jail cell. He had been picked up on a drunk and disorderly charge but was in good health before the incident.
And in 2014 a 22 year-old Aboriginal woman, Ms Dhu, had died while in police custody in Port Hedland, north of Kalgoorlie. Imprisoned for failing to pay fines, she was filmed being manhandled extremely roughly by police officers, who refused to respond to repeated calls for help even after she had remained immobile for hours.
Any one of these would have engendered national headlines and investigations were their victims to have been white.
Nobody would deny that the Aboriginal community in Kalgoorlie-Boulder has its problems. The streets of Boulder in particular are dangerous at night. Gregarious Aboriginal drinkers congregate in parks and at street corners. Their noisy disputes often end in violence. Whites also drink heavily, but tend to do so in pubs or at home.
There has been a spate of motorcycle thefts in the area over recent years. Young Aboriginal men have been conspicuous in police investigations that engendered much racially charged commentary on Facebook groups.
The methamphetamine epidemic that has engulfed so many rural Australian towns has had an impact here too, with many teenagers said to be taking the drug, despite its expense. Crime statistics are in lockstep with the ravages of drugs and alcohol.
The Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper for March 1, 2017 showed that in the Goldfields crime was up 17% from March last year. A three-month police operation on drugs drew a direct line between rises in burglary and theft and the purchase of drugs. Chief of these were methamphetamines, with over $1million worth seized and 20 people charged over 47 drug-related offences.
Kalgoorlie Police declined to answer any inquiries into operational matters in the district so we are left to speculate on the distribution of crimes amongst the white and black population.
What’s certain is there is a culture of imprisonment for Aboriginals in Western Australia, with incarceration rates at nine times the rate of Apartheid South Africa and five times those of the US – widely regarded as the top dog in jailing its citizens. Aboriginal people are 15 times more likely to be charged for swearing or offensive behaviour than the rest of the community. With victims of the Stolen Generation being twice as likely to be arrested as their peers and formidable cultural barriers to negotiating complex legal processes, it’s little wonder that this heinous legacy is directly impacting Aboriginal kids.
Amnesty International cites figures showing that Indigenous children in Western Australia are 53 times more likely to be jailed than non-indigenous kids. This stacks up when you consider that WA is the only state in Australia where mandatory minimum sentences of detention apply to young people.
Mayor John Bowler estimated that there are over 150 government, non government and community organisations charged with administering Indigenous funding and yet there is little community infrastructure or proper facilities for youth recreation. There is nowhere for these kids to go, nothing for them to do.
A summit called by WA Pemier Colin Barnett in Kalgoorlie in November 2016 has, according to Mayor Bowler, determined to build a Youth Centre at some indeterminate date. The Mayor, while claiming to be an avid proponent of the Centre had prior to the Summit seemed to be more concerned with gaining government funding for the city’s exclusive golf club.
He had earlier been quoted as saying that each generation of Aboriginal children was worse than the last.
Mr Bowler insists Kalgoorlie is no more racist than any other town in Australia. He attributes the Facebook dialogues to harmless gossip.
“The squeaky wheels get on there, there might be a dozen out of 33,000. They like the sound of their own voice a lot, get the feedback, pat each other on the back. I don’t think the events there paint a true picture of what our community’s like.”
But at a white barbeque in Boulder I heard Aboriginals described in virulent racist language. According to some of the people present, Aboriginals were without exception thieves and degenerates. The best place for them, we were told, was buried deep down the many mine shafts surrounding Kalgoorlie.
These were not people we had encountered on Facebook. They were unconnected individuals who were pleasant and helpful to white journalists. The hateful racism these and other white people expressed to me in Kalgoorlie indicated that Facebook commentators there are not merely a frosting on top, but the very tip of the racist iceberg.
Jacqueline Spurling is an Aboriginal language high school teacher and local candidate for the Greens in the WA elections of March 2017. She believes that the police investigation into Elijah Doughty’s death was poorly executed and inadequate.
After hearing news of Elijah’s death Spurling had been distraught and left work. She decided to go down to Gribble Creek, where Elijah had been killed that morning. The site is some 120 metres from a tar road in suburban Boulder.
“We … pulled in close to 12pm. No police were there, it was completely open. The police had been down there in the morning and had not cordoned the place off. People had put flowers there and we could clearly see where (Elijah) was hit and about ten metres away (where) the body would have landed. You could see skid marks in the ground where the car had gone over the body and wound up over by a tree.
“There were women driving 4WDs over the crime scene. We had parked our car on the road and walked into the site but they were driving right over it.
“Then it became like a touristy thing, other people in a 4WD drove over the whole area where the car skidded. This is before forensics had been there.
“We went back down to place some flowers about 330-4pm. I was with about twenty kids, all good mates of his. The police were there and said ‘you can’t go across there’. There was still no police tape up.
“And then a bloke comes from the other side of the street, walking his dog straight over the crime scene while we’re held back. The police made no move to stop him. We’d just seen all these death threats to Aboriginal kids on Facebook and I was overwrought. I said ‘I couldn’t care less any more, arrest me’, and I walked across.
“The young fellas were saying ‘put some police tape up. We watch CSI, you blokes can’t do your job’.
“So finally they put some tape up at 5.09pm, going from photos on my phone. By this stage it’s raining. The forensic van pulls up, the guy gets out, he’s there five minutes. He walks over the scene, takes no photographs, gets back into the car, says ‘yep, you’re right to go’.”
Spurling says the murder and subsequent racial attacks on Facebook have left the Aboriginal community in fear. Many parents will not let their kids out to play on the streets.
“I feared for my life and my children’s life. I thought, ‘how am I going to protect my children?’”