Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples

Standing in the middle

Aboriginal Peacemakers hold the key to reducing police interventions in Australia’s Northern Territory

Illustration by Bellina Ilustra. M Belén Agostini via femiñetas
Contributors
Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program, Hugh Bland of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, Matt Derrig of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and Nick Espie and Monique Hurley of the Human Rights Law Centre.

Summary

Across Australia, Aboriginal people continue to be overrepresented in the criminal legal system, to be over-incarcerated and to die in custody at alarming rates. The police shooting of Warlpiri and Luritja teenager Kumanjayi Walker in the Northern Territory has again highlighted the urgent need for governments to divest from traditional policing, support community-led alternatives and address the structural causes of criminalization. This article highlights one example of community-led, culturally responsive alternatives to policing in Australia, with a focus on the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program on Groote Eylandt. The key principle for Peacemakers is “staying in the middle” – they seek to intervene in community disputes before they escalate, and to apply mediation practices to provide a safe, calm environment for the parties to come together to discuss the issues at the heart of the problem and allow the parties to decide how to move forward. In their words: “We try and solve problems between different people and groups within the communities before they become big problems.”17Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker. The Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program can help reimagine the role of policing in Aboriginal communities. For too long, the focus of police reform has been on trying to reduce the harms of policing rather than rethinking the role of police. This article makes the case for resources to be diverted from traditional policing into community-led alternatives, like the Peacemaker Program, and for governments across Australia to be brave in reimagining the role of policing.

Justice for Kumanjayi Walker: time for change

Over 500 Aboriginal people have died in police and prison custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its final report in 1991. The Royal Commission examined the cases of 88 men and 11 women who died in custody between January 1980 and May 1989, and found that “their Aboriginality played a significant and in most cases dominant role in their being in custody and dying in custody.”1Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (Final report, 1991).

One of the over 500 Aboriginal people to die in custody since the Royal Commission is Warlpiri and Luritja teenager Kumanjayi Walker. Kumanjayi Walker was shot by a police officer – Constable Zachary Rolfe – on 9 November 2019 following Kumanjayi Walker absconding from a court-ordered rehabilitation programme in order to attend a funeral in his home community of Yuendumu in remote central Australia.

Constable Rolfe was part of an Immediate Response Team deployed to Yuendumu to arrest Kumanjayi Walker, and fired a total of three shots, killing Kumanjayi Walker. In a rare move, Constable Rolfe was charged in relation to the second and third shots fired. He pleaded not guilty and was acquitted on all charges by a jury in March 2022.

Kumanjayi Walker’s family and the Yuendumu community are now engaging with the coronial inquest process and have their own legal representation. The Human Rights Law Centre is supporting the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), the local Aboriginal Legal Service in the Northern Territory, in its intervention in that process.

The NAAJA is intervening on the basis of its unique role as the provider of culturally competent legal services, therapeutic case work, community legal education, and restorative law and justice groups for Aboriginal people throughout the Northern Territory. It has a special interest in the examination of racism and systemic biases that exist within policing interactions with Aboriginal people.

The inquest commenced in Alice Springs Local Court on 5 September 2022 and has considered several issues, including whether there is evidence of systemic racism or cultural bias in the Northern Territory Police Force. It has been an opportunity to platform less harmful and more effective, community-based alternatives to policing. The coronial inquest process is ongoing.2Updates on the coronial inquest process are available at: <https://justice.nt.gov.au/attorney-general-and-justice/courts/inquests-findings/kumanjayi-walker>.

Following the death of Kumanjayi Walker, the Anindilyakwa Peacemakers, from their coastal communities on Groote Eylandt in the northern region of the Northern Territory, have connected with community elders and leaders in the desert community of Yuendumu to share their knowledge and experiences of peacemaking as one solution to reduce community conflict and interaction with police. Further to this, members of the Groote Eylandt Peacemakers have also shared their knowledge and their expertise with the Coroners Court that is presiding over the inquest in the hope that the court will make recommendations in support of culturally responsive solutions and strategies like theirs.

Outside the inquest, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency recently brought together over 50 peacemakers from remote communities across the Northern Territory to discuss ways to resolve disputes without using violence. Representatives from five remote communities, including Yuendumu and the Anindilyakwa Peacemakers, attended the programme and shared thousands and thousands of years of peacemaking history.3Samantha Dick, Aboriginal peacemakers meet to discuss conflict resolution in remote NT communities (ABC News, 28 May 2023) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-05-28/indigenous-peacemakers-share-conflict-mediation-methods-nt/102396684>. There was consensus among the participants at the gathering to continue networking, sharing knowledge and assisting each other. There was also a desire to continue seeking more funding and resourcing. The participants recognised that the work they do in their communities – standing in the middle – is an essential part of community safety.

Illustration by Bellina Ilustra. M Belén Agostini via femiñetas
Illustration by Bellina Ilustra. M Belén Agostini via femiñetas

A community-led alternative to traditional policing

Across Australia, Aboriginal people continue to be overrepresented in the criminal legal system, to be over-incarcerated, and to die in police and prison custody at alarming rates.

Many factors contribute to this, including discriminatory policing. In the Northern Territory, causes also include broader factors like poor and insufficient housing in remote communities, lack of education and employment opportunities, and the historical and ongoing impacts of colonization. The dispossession of land and the establishment of missions as places where multiple dispossessed clans and tribes have been forced to live together in recent generations has caused conflict between families and clan groups that often have complex dynamics. In recent years, conflict in some communities has resulted in death. This has sadly been the case on Groote Eylandt, an island situated in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory.

Aboriginal people have always had solutions to issues that impact them, but there has been a failure of various governments to listen to calls from communities for change and proper investment in community-led solutions.

The Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program is an example of a community-led, culturally responsive programme built on nationally recognised training frameworks and accreditation. In the Peacemakers’ words: “We try and solve problems between different people and groups within the communities before they become big problems.”4Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

Aboriginal people have always had solutions to issues that impact them, but there has been a failure of various governments to listen to calls from communities for change and proper investment in community-led solutions.

As for the origins of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program, the Peacemakers explain:

There was a big fight in the community a couple of years ago, before the Peacemakers Program, where two young men were killed. The Police stayed back, filmed it, took some people to the clinic and arrested some people but they did not try and stop the fight. After this happened, the whole community (meaning people from Angurugu, Umbakumba and Milyakburra) wanted to make sure something like this wouldn’t happen again.5Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

The programme grew out of a series of conversations between Roderick Mamarika and Anindilyakwa Land Council anthropologist Hugh Bland, who together with Elaine Mamarika identified a lack of formal community involvement in dispute resolution and a lack of support for those community members who informally sought to resolve community disputes.6 Information Notes dated 8 September 2021 supplied by Anindilyakwa Land Council Anthropologist and Facilitator of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program Hugh Bland (annexed to the affidavit).

The key principle for the Peacemakers is always “staying in the middle”.7Information Notes dated 8 September 2021 supplied by Anindilyakwa Land Council Anthropologist and Facilitator of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program Hugh Bland (annexed to the affidavit). Their approach to mediating disputes combines the empowerment of counselling with the traditional role that many community members have always played in seeking to defuse tensions rather than exacerbate them.

Their approach to mediating disputes combines the empowerment of counselling with the traditional role that many community members have always played in seeking to defuse tensions rather than exacerbate them.

Mediation may initially take place with the parties separately, but to finally resolve the dispute an agreement should be reached face-to-face to ensure it does not erupt again later. As they explain:

We will start to try and help the situation by talking to people in language. We use our cultural knowledge about speaking to the people about where they fit in the family tree (some people don’t know this). We will show them where the other people fit in their tree and show them how they are connected and why this might be a reason why they should try and resolve their problem.

If the problem is getting worse, we might take them to the Police Station and sit them down at a table and talk through the problem. We will try and let the two sides talk it out. We don’t get in the way; we just try and encourage them to end their problems.8Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

The Peacemakers do not impose solutions upon the disputing parties but instead apply conventional mediation practices to provide a safe, calm environment for the parties to come together to discuss the issues at the heart of the problem and to then allow the parties to decide how to move forward. Once every six months they receive mediation training through an adapted training module developed by Conflict Resolution Australia. Senior Peacemakers also provide training and mentoring on an as-needed basis to other Peacemakers.9Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

The Peacemakers seek to intervene in community disputes before they escalate to physical violence. Peacemakers may become aware of growing tensions through family connections and community residence, but community members will also contact the Peacemakers (as a group or individually) directly to seek their intervention. They currently get called out about once a week.10Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

Peacemakers ideally work in teams of two or more, with men and women working together to resolve disputes. Critically, their work means that police do not need to get involved in low-level disputes:

When there is a problem between people in the community, sometimes the Police will come too. We will usually tell them to wait back, sit and watch and let us try and work it out. Usually, the Police are only needed if someone gets seriously hurt. The community is happy that the Police don’t have to get involved. The community wants to sort out the problem first before there is violence and before someone commits a crime, so that people are safe and less people go to [prison] and can stay at home with their families.11Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

This is important because, as the Peacemakers explain:

Police can do things that make things worse in the community. One of those things is going into someone’s house. Police won’t know if there are men’s or women[’s] business going on at the house. There might be ceremonial items that are in the house that they shouldn’t see because they are not initiated. If they do any damage to those items, the person who is looking after that can get into a lot of trouble. There is also a lot of danger inside the house. People can’t see what [is] going on in the house, people might hurt each other or get into a fight. Police should not be going into people’s homes. If Police think someone is in a house, they should ask family members who that person listens to, to go in and ask that person to come out.12Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

The value of the Peacemaker Program cannot be understated; it forms part of a suite of programmes on Groote Eylandt that have been supporting the community while rates of offending have dropped. The Peacemakers informally estimate a significant decline in rates of arrest due to fighting from 80% to 90% down to 30% to 40%.13Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

Importantly, “it is good for the community that the community is the one solving the problems, and we don’t have […] other people or the Police doing this for us.”14Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

The Peacemakers informally estimate a significant decline in rates of arrest due to fighting from 80% to 90% down to 30% to 40%.

More broadly, the Peacemaker Program seeks to change the attitude of men and women toward violence by encouraging dialogue in disputes between parties rather than the public recruitment of supporters and the resort to conflict. Peacemakers seek to act as role models for other men and women to encourage them to address rather than inflame disputes.

They also seek to become involved in prison-visit programmes to prepare those soon to be released for their reincorporation into community life, and are seeking to establish a youth intervention group to specifically work with younger community members.

The Young Peacemakers Group will seek to build upon a suite of programmes conducted on Groote Eylandt which aim to break the cycle of youth offending by presenting a culturally sanctioned alternative to dispute resolution through violence. The incorporation of younger Peacemakers strengthens the reach of the existing Peacemaker Program and offers a path away from the legal system for the young people on Groote Eylandt who may find themselves in conflict.

Illustration by Bellina Ilustra. M Belén Agostini via femiñetas
Illustration by Bellina Ilustra. M Belén Agostini via femiñetas

Reimagining policing

The Anindilyakwa Land Council is seeking to ultimately establish peacemaking groups on each of the three largest communities in the Groote Archipelago: Angurugu, Umbakumba and Milyakburra.15Information Notes dated 8 September 2021 supplied by Anindilyakwa Land Council Anthropologist and Facilitator of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program Hugh Bland (annexed to the affidavit). The aim is to establish Community Peacemaker Groups consisting of at least five men and five women so that the group can work across all community disputes.

Instead of traditional police increasingly being deployed to manage issues that an unequal system has produced, the Peacemaker Program aims for the communities of the Groote Archipelago to become accustomed to resolving their differences through negotiation and not through violence.

The Anindilyakwa Land Council is seeking to ultimately establish peacemaking groups on each of the three largest communities in the Groote Archipelago: Angurugu, Umbakumba and Milyakburra

In the short term, this approach helps equip communities with the skills they need to resolve conflict and reduce the need for contact with the police. This immediately helps remove the well-documented risks associated with police contact, including discrimination, escalation and interactions leading to even higher sentences or “up-charging”. In the long term, it is hoped that there will be less need for Peacemakers as the practice of dispute resolution through dialogue is more widely adopted.

To realise this vision, community responses need support and funding. While millions of dollars continue to be funnelled into policing,16See, for example, the AU$510 million budget allocation for total police expenses in the Northern Territory Government Budget 2022–23 (Budget Paper No. 3) programmes like the Peacemakers often operate without funding, and without Peacemakers being paid.

Creating safer communities starts with significantly more resources being dedicated to supporting the ongoing rollout of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program and programmes like it (for example, the proposed establishment of the Young Peacemakers Group).

For too long, the focus of police reform has been on trying to reduce the harms of policing rather than rethinking the role of police.

Alongside this, greater investment is needed to address the systemic inequality experienced by Aboriginal people so that contact with police can be avoided altogether. This includes increased access to secure housing, culturally safe healthcare, and education and employment opportunities.

For too long, the focus of police reform has been on trying to reduce the harms of policing rather than rethinking the role of police. Community-led alternatives – like the Peacemaker Program – can help pave the way to reimagine the role that policing plays, and for a potential future for safer communities without police.

Note

This article has been informed by discussions with members of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program and Anindilyakwa Land Council Anthropologist and Facilitator of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program, Hugh Bland. The article includes excerpts from the Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) filed in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker, and Hugh Bland’s Information Notes dated 8 September 2021 (annexed to that affidavit).

Endnotes

  • 1
    Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (Final report, 1991).
  • 2
    Updates on the coronial inquest process are available at: <https://justice.nt.gov.au/attorney-general-and-justice/courts/inquests-findings/kumanjayi-walker>.
  • 3
    Samantha Dick, Aboriginal peacemakers meet to discuss conflict resolution in remote NT communities (ABC News, 28 May 2023) <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-05-28/indigenous-peacemakers-share-conflict-mediation-methods-nt/102396684>.
  • 4
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 5
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 6
     Information Notes dated 8 September 2021 supplied by Anindilyakwa Land Council Anthropologist and Facilitator of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program Hugh Bland (annexed to the affidavit).
  • 7
    Information Notes dated 8 September 2021 supplied by Anindilyakwa Land Council Anthropologist and Facilitator of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program Hugh Bland (annexed to the affidavit).
  • 8
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 9
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 10
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 11
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 12
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 13
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 14
    Affidavit of Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika (dated 2 September 2022) in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.
  • 15
    Information Notes dated 8 September 2021 supplied by Anindilyakwa Land Council Anthropologist and Facilitator of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program Hugh Bland (annexed to the affidavit).
  • 16
    See, for example, the AU$510 million budget allocation for total police expenses in the Northern Territory Government Budget 2022–23 (Budget Paper No. 3)

Contributors

Naomi Wurramarra, Roderick Mamarika, Linda Mamarika and Elaine Mamarika are Anindilyakwa people from Groote Eylandt and members of the Anindilyakwa Peacemaker Program. (The Peacemakers can be contacted via Hugh Bland – contact details below.)

Hugh Bland is an anthropologist with the Anindilyakwa Land Council. Since 1986, he has worked and/or lived in remote areas of the Northern Territory supporting communities to develop sustainable, community-led projects. Email: HBland@alcnt.com.au

Matt Derrig is a civil lawyer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, where he has worked for the past 10 years. His work includes running legal clinics on Groote Eylandt and coordinating the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency’s intervention into the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker. Email: Matthew.Derrig@naaja.org.au

Nick Espie is an Arrernte man and Special Counsel at the Human Rights Law Centre. He has two decades of legal practice and policy experience and was previously a Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre and the Director of Community Engagement for the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. Email: Nick.Espie@hrlc.org.au

Monique Hurley is a managing lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, where she works in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organizations to call out racial injustice. Monique previously worked as a civil lawyer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and supported its intervention in the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker. Email: Monique.Hurley@hrlc.org.au

Illustrations by Bellina Ilustra. M Belén Agostini via Femiñetas

Melina Belén Agostini is an editor (Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina 2016) and a graduate of the Digital Edition postgraduate course (BAU, University Design Centre – University of Vic, Spain, 2019).

Since 2014, she has been a partner of the editorial cooperative Muchas Nueces, dedicated to the publishing of children’s and young adult books and LGBTQI+ themes, where she works as a designer and illustrator. Since 2020, she has taught workshops on alternative publishing formats such as fanzines and digital editions.

She is a teacher on the extracurricular course in publishing children’s and young adult books at the University of Buenos Aires, where she contributes from her point of view as an editor and as an illustrator.


femiñetas: feminism in vignettes. Femiñetas is an illustrated and transoceanic collective and media. It comprises some 300 illustrators and writers from different parts of the world who form a story-telling community in the language of comics.

Flor Coll is the coordinator and founder of @feminetas. She is a journalist and Social Communication graduate from Universidad Nacional de Rosario (Argentina) and holds a Master’s in Gender and Communication from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain). After working for more than 15 years as a journalist in Argentinian radio, TV and print media, she currently carries out gender and sexuality campaigns for the NGO Sexus and teaches at the Master’s in Communication and Gender at the Barcelona Open University in Spain (UAB). She co-created Chamana Comunicación, a consultancy firm based in Barcelona where she is the director of communication and capacity building.

 

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