The Guardian: ‘Enough is enough’: video of police slamming Indigenous boy face-first to ground rekindles father’s rage


Thirra was six when he was taken from his family and 18 when a police van knocked him off his feet after a beating. Now, footage of his son’s treatment at the hands of a NSW officer has brought up ‘a lot of anger’

Thirra sits on a bench, on a windy afternoon in a small park in the middle of Sydney’s inner city, below the brown brick public housing tower where his family lives.

“If you’ve seen the video, this is where it all happened,” he says.

The video he’s speaking about shocked Australia, got a New South Wales police officer suspended and is at the centre of a police internal investigation. The grainy phone footage begins midway through an argument between police and a group of teenagers, including Thirra’s 16-year-old son, Kuta.

The camera swings around to show an officer pulling Kuta’s hands behind his back. Then he kicks Kuta’s feet out from under him. Kuta hits the ground face-first. Bystanders shout in horror.

For Thirra, the background to that encounter stretches back generations.

Amid scrutiny of Australia’s record on race and police brutality, Kuta’s treatment attracted attention. The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said it showed “we still have a long way to go in our country” but the police commissioner, Mick Fuller defended the officer involved. He had a “clean history”, he said. He was having “a bad day”.

“Every day is a bad day for Aboriginal people,” Thirra said at the time. “Every day, every year, from year to year. We’re struggling with mental health, we’re struggling with unemployment … We’re targeted for just being who we are.”

Four months later, sitting in the park where it happened, Thirra wants people to know this was not an isolated episode. This has happened to so many Aboriginal people. This has happened to him.

Thirra and Kuta’s names have been changed to protect their privacy. Thirra means “many hills” in his Wangkangurru language from the Simpson Desert in South Australia. Kuta means “brother” in Pitjantjatjara.

The first time Thirra met a police officer, he was six years old and was being removed from his traditional lands.

He was loaded into the back of a cattle truck. Five families were crammed together in the heat, clinging to sugar bags filled with damper, jam and kangaroo, plus what little belongings they had. They were taken to a reserve near the small town of Marree, 650km north of Adelaide.

A welfare officer and a police officer examined Thirra’s teeth and body. The families were divided into houses. Thirra’s new home was a tin shed with a concrete floor. His grandmother and the other elders were sent to live in single quarters.

“My grandmother and her mother, they all cried that first night … they were crying for home, I think. They were in a strange place.”

A few months later, a police officer came back. Thirra and his four cousins were taken to the train station. He stood on the platform bewildered, holding a bag of food. Then he was put on the train. The police made sure the doors and windows were locked. His nan watched on in distress.

“[She was] standing on the platform crying and wondering what was happening,” Thirra said.

His cousin started hitting the window. She was crying as well.Advertisement

“What the welfare was saying to us was, ‘You are going to go away for a holiday,’ and that was it,” Thirra says. “That holiday turned out to be two years in a home.”

He was sent to Colebrook children’s home in the Adelaide hills. Every night for the first six months he cried himself to sleep.

When he was eight he was sent home for a holiday, to where his family was working on a pastoral property at Anna Creek, three hours north-west of Marree. It was a bittersweet reunion. Thirra could no longer speak his language. Conversation with his grandmother was limited.

“She would talk to me but I just couldn’t understand, and every time I talk to her it would be English and so there was this huge gap.”

He also felt distant from his mother. “I wanted to call her Mum but I couldn’t. And it was hard to say ‘Mum, I love you’ and all that.”

One day a police officer and a welfare officer came looking for Thirra, to take him back to Adelaide. Thirra hid.Eventually they left. He stayed.

The first time Thirra thought he might die at the hands of the police was in 1978.

He was 18 and living on the Devonport reserve, outside Port Augusta. He was walking home after a night at the pub when a police van pulled up. Two officers grabbed him and threw him in the back. Thirra saw they were crossing the bridge away from town. The doors flew open and he was dragged by his legs on to the dirt of a dark vacant block. A flurry of kicks and whacks of the baton rained down. He curled into a foetal position.

“I thought they were gonna kill me right then,” Thirra says.

As they drove off he yelled: “Fuck you, pigs!” The car turned around. Thirra got up and ran, but not fast enough.

“They were going real fast and flat out and I thought they were gonna run me over, but they bumped me in the back of the leg and I fell into the bushes,” he says.

Thirra reached the road and saw the van driving back to town. He had blood all over him. His ribs were broken.

With the help of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, Thirra made an official complaint against the officers involved. The matter ended up in court but, as more than 40 years have passed, Thirra is unclear on what they were charged with. He says they were convicted. A lawyer working for the ALRM at the time told Guardian Australia they remember this case going to court but not the outcome.

Just a few months later, Thirra says, he saw one of the officers, in uniform, working in a remote community north of Port Augusta.

“Once I seen him, all that anger rose up within me,” he says. “Thinking to myself, well, that was just a waste of time.”

In the late 90s Thirra was drawn to Redfern in inner Sydney, where he met his wife, a Yuin woman, and started a family. They have two girls and two boys. Kuta is his oldest son.

The first time Kuta was stopped by police was in 2017. He was 13 and came home upset.

“I told him if you’re confronting the police or they are harassing you, just give your name and address and don’t say nothing,” Thirra says.

These interactions became common. Kuta’s 15-year-old sister was also stopped and searched in a nearby park. Kuta heeded his father’s advice and “kept quiet” – until that day in June.

Thirra arrived home to the news that Kuta had been “picked up” by police. Then he learned his son was being taken away in an ambulance.

He was at the hospital when he first saw the footage.

“He could have broken his neck and he could have died there,” Thirra says.

“It brought a lot of anger for me to see him hit the ground like that,” he says. “And this anger – it’s powerful stuff to deal with.”

Thirra believes he knows why Kuta swore at a police officer that day.

“What can you say? What else can you say to them? … You get to a point where enough’s enough.”

Kuta is one of many Aboriginal children whose interactions with police are frequent and overwhelmingly negative. Last year it was revealed that NSW police disproportionately target Indigenous kids, some as young as nine. The state’s police watchdog described such policing as “intrusive”, involving “unreasonable surveillance” and harassment that could increase their risk of entering the justice system.

Nationally, Indigenous kids make up 53% of the youth detention population and 65% of all 10- to 13-year-olds in detention.

“You’re looking at 10-year-old kids,” Thirra says. “I was forcibly removed when I was six years old. It’s the same thing with a different name. The underlying values of locking up people, taking kids away – it’s the same system, it has never changed.”

NSW police say they are continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding Kuta’s arrest, and the constable involved remains on restricted duties. They did not answer specific questions about the progress of the investigation or whether there have been efforts made to improve relations with Sydney’s Indigenous community or to improve police training.

Thirra says decades of consultation, community outreach and cultural awareness training have failed. If criminal charges are not laid against the constable, the family is considering civil action.

“People will always say … let it subside and get on with life. But for us as Aboriginal people here in this country, it’s not enough for us.

“We say enough is enough.”

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