Morrison had been pinned down in a hallway by correctional officers. (He had become violent toward jail staff, according to a coroner’s summary of the case.) He was then taken to a prison van where he was placed facedown, his hands and feet bound with restraints and a spit hood pulled over his head. When he was removed from the van minutes later, he was blue and unresponsive. He was taken to the hospital, but never regained consciousness.
Nearly five years after Morrison’s death, his family is searching for justice. His sister, Latoya Aroha Rule, a 28-year-old PhD candidate and Indigenous activist, helped organize Black Lives Matter rallies in cities across Australia last year.
George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 proved to be a moment of reckoning not only in the United States but across the world, as protesters took to the streets calling for justice in his case and pointing to what they saw as parallels in their communities.
The conviction in April of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin led to fresh calls for Australian authorities to scrutinize more than 400 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991. No Australian police or prison officer has been convicted, according to legal experts.
“What happened to Wayne is blatantly obvious. There’s been neglect, there’s been brutal force, there’s been use of archaic restraints,” Rule said in an interview. “You would think the officers would be compelled to say something, even if they said: ‘We’ve done nothing.’ Silence creates suspicion and they’re not even really trying to contest that suspicion.”
At an inquest in the Supreme Court in Adelaide this month, the seven prison guards who traveled with Morrison in the van refused to give evidence that could incriminate them in potential criminal or civil court proceedings.
One by one, the officers made fuzzy statements, the transcript shows: “I can’t recall.” “I don’t remember off the top of my head.” “I claim privilege.”
Security footage from the van was obscured by an officer’s head, according to media reports.
A top lawyer acting for the officers, Michael Abbott, declined to discuss the inquest with The Washington Post without seeing a draft of this article. (It is The Post’s policy not to share drafts of stories with outside sources before publication.)
“My brother is dead, officers are staying silent on what happened in the van leading to his death, and they’re still at work,” Rule wrote on Twitter this week.
A top-level inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991 recommended some 339 changes to reduce the rate at which Indigenous people are jailed, including decriminalizing drunkenness and using prison as a last resort. A 2018 government study found only two-thirds had been implemented and the rate of Indigenous incarceration had doubled.
The effort to connect Indigenous issues to the Black Lives Matter movement has faced resistance from some Australian politicians, including the prime minister, who have suggested activists were using the United States protests to stoke divisions.
Rule traveled to the United States in 2019 to meet with Patrisse Cullors, one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, visiting the Los Angeles chapter and seeing the way they organized their work.
In 2020, Rule was named alongside Porche Bennett-Bey, an Army veteran and mother of three from Kenosha, Wis., who delivered her frank report on racial justice to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, and Assa Traoré, an activist in Paris whose brother died in police custody in 2016, as Time magazine’s Guardians of the year.
“The state renders us and our lives and our voices invisible. Our deaths in custody are normalized now,” Rule said in an April radio interview in which they read a poem, “Freedom Walk,” inspired by a vision they had the night Morrison’s life support was turned off.
The global movement triggered by Floyd’s murder met some success and many disappointments.
In South Australia, an ombudsman last year said body-worn video cameras should be mandatory for prison officers and found the corrections department acted unreasonably in transporting Morrison in a van soon after subduing him. At the time of the incident, the department’s head declined to comment on the cause of the medical emergency — asphyxiation and cardiac arrest — that led to Morrison’s death.
In June, the state parliament in New South Wales agreed to hold an inquiry into how deaths in custody are investigated. The probe called for changes to the justice system, including an end to the practice of “police investigating police.”
In August, authorities in Victoria state opted against prosecuting police officers over the death of Tanya Day — who hit her head on the concrete wall of a jail cell — despite a coroner finding that her death was preventable. Police called an ambulance after noticing a bruise on her head about three hours later, but it was too late, an inquest found. She died 17 days later of bleeding in her brain.
A campaign started by Rule calling for a ban on the use of spit hoods in Australia has garnered nearly 20,000 signatures.
On May 25, the anniversary of Floyd’s death, Rule organized a vigil outside the Adelaide court. Supporters dressed as prison officers donned spit hoods and stood behind police tape with the number “479” written in black marker — the estimated number of Aboriginal deaths in custody since the early 1990s. Precise data are difficult to establish because government figures lag years behind deaths.
A photograph of Floyd was placed beside one of Morrison, atop wreaths of native flowers.
“There is a war going on in courtrooms just like the one we stand in front of today, First Nations people are pleading to breathe,” Rule told the gathering. “Our family stands in solidarity with Indigenous and Black communities globally.”
Since last year’s protests, a police officer was committed to face a murder trial in the Northern Territory over the shooting death of an Aboriginal teenager. Another policeman was charged with murder in the shooting death of an Indigenous woman in Western Australia. Both trials are scheduled for this year.
The officer is due to appear in court in June.