For his family, Daniel Yock’s death in custody remains unfinished business

The 1993 death of Daniel Yock sparked a wildfire of anger, stoked by decades of bad blood between Queensland Police and the Aboriginal community.

Nov 09, 2020, updated Nov 09, 2020
A Black Lives Matter protest in Brisbane in June.  (Photo: ABC)

A Black Lives Matter protest in Brisbane in June. (Photo: ABC)

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Yock was arrested, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police van after a brief confrontation in the inner Brisbane suburb of West End.

Lying face down on the floor of the van, the apparently fit traditional dancer and amateur boxer lost consciousness.

Boonie, as he was known, wasn’t on his own. One of his best mates, Joseph Blair, was also in custody in the back of the van.

And what Joseph witnessed there would haunt him for the next 27 years.

“He was looking at me with one eye open,” Joseph told investigative journalist Allan Clarke.

“That’s when I started panicking.”

Daniel, Joseph and a few of their mates had been drinking in the open, highly visible space of Musgrave Park, a traditional meeting place and hub for the local Aboriginal community in South Brisbane.

It was here that the boys came under surveillance from a police van from nearby West End station.

After a call for back-up, two more vehicles arrived. The boys in the park that day recall a feeling that they were being “circled”.

According to the log of CB communications, the boys were “FOP” — informal police slang for “full of piss”.

Calling for back-up, one officer said the boys were calling them names, and that another car should come “because you like that sort of stuff … you would have loved it”.

A dramatic chain of events was set in motion, leading to a frantic chase through West End as the boys tried to outrun the police.

At Brereton Street, a short distance from Musgrave Park, Daniel collided with a burly sergeant and fell hard.

One of the police officers who saw it said it was like “two trains colliding at an intersection”.

There were differing views on Daniel’s condition.

Two eyewitnesses living nearby said that Daniel was lying motionless on the ground, as if he had been “winded”.

Police said he was conscious and once up on his feet, was able to walk.

When the police van arrived at the watch-house on Roma Street, Daniel was not breathing and had no pulse.

A police officer described his condition as “limp, like a rag doll”.

Joseph Blair maintained that he tried to raise the alarm from the wagon on the short trip between West End and the watch-house.

But there was no dedicated line of communication between the cab and the wagon, much less a camera.

The officers in the cab later told a judicial inquiry they didn’t hear Joseph’s calls for help.

In the watch-house yard, police scrambled to find keys to remove the handcuffs. They tried — without success — to resuscitate the young dancer.

An ambulance arrived and rushed him to the Royal Brisbane Hospital. There, he was treated with a defibrillator.

An ambulance officer later testified that she saw Daniel’s chest rise and fall spontaneously.

But Daniel was pronounced dead at 7:13pm.

It was exactly 30 minutes after the ambulance had arrived at the hospital, and about 75 minutes after he was arrested.

The circumstances of Daniel’s arrest and death at first provoked shocked disbelief in the Brisbane Murri community.

Outrage exploded the day after Daniel’s death, spilling out in a violent brawl between protesters and police in the Roma Street Transit Centre.

In the aftermath of the violence, elders appealed for calm. Even then-Queensland premier Wayne Goss agreed the optics were bad.

“The circumstances of him being arrested at West End, put in the car and shortly later being dead would raise serious questions in the mind of any reasonable person,” he said.

A week or so later, a silent protest wound its way from Musgrave Park, across Victoria Bridge and through the streets of downtown Brisbane to the police watch-house — retracing the fateful journey that Daniel took that day in the back of the van.

An inquiry by the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) would find Daniel’s arrest was lawful and that the police response was appropriate — and that there was no wrongdoing on the part of police.

It also found that Daniel’s Aboriginality was not an issue in his arrest.

It found he had died of natural causes: he had suffered a sudden loss of consciousness, known as a Stokes Adams attack, complicated by a pre-existing heart condition.

Daniel had come to Brisbane from Cherbourg, a former mission three hours northwest, to try his luck in the bid smoke.

Although Daniel had family and friends in Brisbane, it was a precarious existence.

He performed here and there with the Wakka Wakka Dance Troupe, made up of dancers from Cherbourg, which sits on Wakka Wakka country.

Another member of the troupe, Damien Bond, joined Daniel after also making the move down from Cherbourg.

He will never forget Daniel’s emphatic, warrior-like performances.

“Best memory — he made someone jump out of his chair,” Damien recalls.

“He was dancing toward him with his spear and then that bloke jumped out of his seat … his spirit was real strong.

“He had that spirit, old blackfella way.”

In 1993, Shane Duffy was a manager at an Aboriginal hostel in West End known as Dundalli House, named after the Aboriginal resistance fighter.

Shane, who now heads the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, still remembers Daniel clearly.

“Boonie always had his chest out. You know, real proud, proud black man,” he says.

Activist and Murri community leader Sam Watson, who spoke to us before his death last year, remembers him as a “popular young kid who everybody loved”.

“Daniel always had a gentle way about him,” he said.

“[He was] a lovely young Murri kid who loved his culture, loved his dancing, and was very close to family and community.”

The poet Lionel Fogarty is Daniel’s older brother and the keeper of his memory.

For Lionel and many others who knew and loved the spirited dancer, his death is an open wound.

At first, the reclusive poet was reluctant to speak.

“Every time I have to talk about my brother, it affects me,” says Lionel.

In his poems, Lionel has given voice to the family’s grief — and their abiding sense of injustice — over Daniel’s death.

Yes I too bleed the Murra Murra Gulandanili heart,
We blessed his body touched.
We slipped to the earth feel with Daniel.
I step proud, yield, dance that was denial…

Tony McAvoy was a solicitor with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service in 1993.

He says the relationship between the Queensland Police Service and the Aboriginal community was fraught and adversarial.

“It’s never been anything other than very fractious and conflict-oriented,” he says.

“The treatment of young Aboriginal kids seemed to me to be one which could be described as over-policing.”

Over-policing can take many forms, including unwarranted surveillance and stop-searches, which can follow racial profiling.

At the time, a barrister who acted on behalf of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, Ron Finney, described the “trifecta” of public order offences issued by Queensland police against young blackfellas.

“The first is usually obscene or insulting language, followed by resisting or obstructing police, followed by assaulting police,” he told Four Corners in 1996.

“The regularity with which those three together come up suggests that perhaps Aboriginal kids are picked on, react and then are arrested.”

Chris Cunneen, a professor of criminology at Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney, says that kind of escalation persists.

A criminal record brings an offender to the notice of the police, and can draw young people into a vicious cycle of minor offences and court appearances, which can lead to other sanctions such as fines and imprisonment.

The statistics prove that once set in motion, it is hard to break the cycle.

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According to the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, young Indigenous people were 21 times as likely to be in detention than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

On an average night in 2019, 53 per cent of those in juvenile detention were Indigenous.

“What Daniel Yock’s death shows is what occurs at an individual level, at a local level, at a personal level, is repeated endlessly … and ends up in those completely outrageous statistics,” Professor Cunneen says.

Galvanised by the global Black Lives Matter movement, an estimated 15,000 protesters returned to the streets of Brisbane in June.

The chants “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice No Peace” resonate deeply here.

Some protesters held placards bearing Daniel’s name and image.

More than 440 Indigenous people have died in the care of the state since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reported its findings in 1991.

The most glaring and obvious finding was that Aboriginal people died in such large numbers in custody, relatively speaking, precisely because they were grossly overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

No Australian jurisdiction has comprehensively implemented all 339 recommendations set out in the final report, which investigated 99 deaths between 1980 and 1989.

Some of the key recommendations were those which attempted to curb disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates.

The report strongly urged that both arrest and imprisonment be applied by police and the courts as the “sanction of last resort”.

In practice, the principle of last resort would appear to have been applied sparingly.

Statistically, you are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned if you are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander — lending weight to the claim that Australia’s Indigenous people are the most incarcerated people on Earth.

In 2016, the former Attorney-General George Brandis described Indigenous incarceration rates as a “national tragedy” and referred the matter to the Australian Law Reform Commission.

However, the commission’s Pathways to Justice report — a blueprint for reversing the trend — gathers dust, despite being tabled in Federal Parliament in 2018.

Softly spoken and reclusive, Joseph Blair was profoundly affected by Daniel’s death.

His trauma manifested itself in nightmares, panic attacks and a paralysing fear of police.

As an eyewitness to Daniel’s dying moments in the back of the van, Joseph nursed inconsolable grief.

That grief persisted even after he moved north to Woorabinda to escape the memory of what happened that day in Brisbane in 1993.

During our interview, Joseph wept openly. It was the first time he had spoken publicly about what happened in almost three decades.

“It’s like it just happened yesterday, you know? Unforgettable. Stuck in my heart forever, bro.”

When a death in custody happens, a coroner might investigate.

Typically, this can take months or even years, delaying any sense of justice for the grieving families.

In Daniel Yock’s case, the legal process ran its course over the next six months, ending when the CJC handed down its report in April 1994.

But, says the lawyer Tony McAvoy, “justice and law are two different things”.

“Law is about the rules and applying the rules, whereas justice is about seeking to achieve some balance that is equitable,” he says.

“Often the application of the law doesn’t result in justice.”

Although he is a high-ranking officer of the court and the country’s most senior Aboriginal barrister, Mr McAvoy is under no illusion about the shortcomings of the legal system.

“The Western legal system wasn’t designed for justice for Aboriginal people,” he says.

“The history of interaction between First Nations and the Western legal system is littered with occasions of injustice and will continue to be so for a while.”

Daniel’s sister, Irene Landers, echoes this sentiment as she speaks to us from her kitchen table in Cherbourg.

“I think a lot of people might think that we, as his family, when we talk, that we’re putting Boonie up on this little pedestal … but it’s not a matter of that, you know?

“You know what the main theme over in America is? ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Why shouldn’t it matter here too?”

Thin Black Line is a six-part podcast from ABC Indigenous that investigates the arrest and death of Daniel Yock. Listen for free wherever you get your podcasts.

– ABC / Daniel Browning, Allan Clarke and Rudi Bremer

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