Emotions ran high as about 100 activists marched on the Queensland Police Service headquarters in Brisbane on Saturday in a display of solidarity for the families of two Indigenous teenagers who died in Western Australia last week.
The two boys, who the families have requested not be named for cultural reasons, were part of a group of five teenage boys who ran from police near the river in the suburb of Maylands and entered the Swan River on Monday September 10.
According to police, officers responded to a call from residents in the area that the teenagers were jumping fences and pursued the group on foot.
The teenagers reportedly ran into the Swan River in an attempt to cross it but ran into difficulty part way across.
Police pulled two of the boys to safety and initially held fears for the fifth boy, but later confirmed he was safe with family members.
Speaking to the media last week, WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said the incident was “nothing short of a tragedy”.
“Two boys are believed to have got into difficulties in the middle of the river and succumbed to the conditions and were not seen to resurface,” he told the media.
“Police did not physically come into contact with the two boys who disappeared under water in the middle of the river.”
The Commissioner told the media that police were conducting “proactive patrols” when they were flagged down by a member of the community who alerted officers about the boys’ activities.
Police have said the deaths will be treated as deaths in police presence and the state’s coroner will prepare a report on the incident.
The Brisbane protest march, which was themed around the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody, started in front of Brisbane’s City Hall and then continued to the steps of the Queensland Police Service building on Roma Street, where activists lit kindling in a bucket and demanded a statement from the police commissioner.
When the kindling started to smoke, activist Gwenda Stanley yelled “smoke ’em out”.
A police representative approached the group and said a high-ranking officer was not available.
A small police presence blocked access to Roma Street for about an hour and local firefighters were on standby.
One of the protest’s organisers, Aboriginal activist Sam Watson, who was involved in implementing the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, said the march was in solidarity for the families of the two boys.
“This rally was organised so that our local family could stand here and send a message across to our mob in Perth because there are large Aboriginal families in Perth who are going through this deep sorry business because of police action that was taken on Monday,” Mr Watson said.
“[We want to] let them know that they’re not alone at this time as they prepare themselves according to our customs to farewell their deeply loved young boys,” he said.
“We can’t bring those children back to life, but we can… hold criminally accountable the people who drove those kids into the river.”
Student Ruby Wharton, who is aligned with the activist group the Warriors for Aboriginal Resistance and took part in the ‘Stolenwealth’ protests at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, also spoke at the protest.
She told the crowd the news of the deaths was heartbreaking.
“I woke up… to the worst news that a mother or a sister or any black fella could possibly imagine,” Ms Wharton said.
“When I look at these young lads, I see my nephew, I see my little brother… not once have I ever seen a life as disposable as a black boy’s.
Christopher Drage, the father of one of the boys who drowned in the river, told the ABC last week the teens would have been scared and made a fatal error of judgment.
“He was a good boy, I guess he just made a fatal decision to jump in the river to get away from police,” Mr Drage said.
“Obviously they were scared, they were only young boys.
“I ask people not to be judgmental, and I think we [have] all made silly mistakes as kids, it’s just tragic that they lost their lives.”