The sister of an Indigenous man who died in jail while repeating the words “I can’t breathe” has revealed why they will push ahead with the Black Lives Matter protest despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Christine Dungay is the older sister of David Dungay Junior, a 26-year-old man who died in Long Bay jail in Sydney in 2015 not long before he was due to be released.
He had been in jail since he was 18 and had become a pastor and planned to start a youth group to steer young Indigenous people away from prison when he was released.
Mr Dungay, a diabetic, died after prison officers stormed his Sydney jail cell to stop him eating biscuits.
In a GoFundMe page established after his death, his mother Leetona Dungay says parts of the ordeal were caught on video as he screamed “I can’t breathe” as guards pushed on his neck.
In 2019, a coronial inquest into David’s death found Corrective Services officers were not responsible for his death, and now his family have been on the streets for five years protesting and fighting for justice.
The Black Lives Matter protests have gained rapid momentum in recent months following the death of African-American man George Floyd, who was filmed gasping for air and saying “I can’t breathe” as a police officer knelt on his neck while others watched on.
Ms Dungay said it had now prompted Australians to look at what was happening in their own country, where around 430 Indigenous Australians have died in police custody since 1991.
Black Lives Matter protest controversy
However this year the Black Lives Matter protests have caused controversy, with some suggesting it should not go ahead amid the coronavirus pandemic as social distancing can’t properly be policed, heightening the risk of spreading the virus.
While a protest earlier this year was allowed to go ahead, the NSW Supreme Court has deemed one planned for Sydney on Tuesday illegal.
Organisers appealed the decision but lost it late Monday afternoon with the court deeming it too risky.
The organisers previously said that whatever the court outcome they plan to risk arrest and go ahead with the rally before delivering a petition signed by 90,000 people, calling for justice for David to state parliament.
His sister told Yahoo News Australia she was upset by the decision to block the protest.
“I understand with COVID and what’s going on with the pandemic, but do they realise racism is a pandemic and has been for hundreds of years – and there’s a cure and they refuse to use it,” she said.
“That’s what really upsets me. All our relatives are always COVID-safe and take precautions – we have children too and we’re not out there to get sick.”
Ms Dungay added with people packing into shopping centres, pubs and footy stadiums now lockdown had been lifted, she did not understand why the protests could not go ahead if proper coronavirus precautions were taken.
There are also no known coronavirus cases that were transmitted or acquired at Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year.
“We just want justice for our brother and equality. If there was no racism, my brother would still be here today,” she said.
Protests are ‘appalling’: PM
As the plans for the protest on Tuesday emerged, Prime Minister Scott Morrison slammed it as “appalling” as it was against public health advice.
"That's appalling," Mr Morrison told 2GB radio last Wednesday.
"There's no special rule for people to not obey the law. What gives people a ticket to not obey the law?”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also implored people not take part in the Black Lives Matter protest planned for Tuesday.
"Conducting a protest at this time is highly irresponsible, we're in a pandemic, this is not usual circumstances."
Ms Dungay said they had been “screaming their lungs out” for justice for five years and only since George Floyd’s death had people “opened their eyes”.
“When I saw the video of [George Floyd], I didn’t actually watch it. I started screaming and crying. That was like seeing my brother laying there and it was heartbreaking for our family,” she said.
She added racism had been an issue ingrained in Australia for hundreds of years and the Prime Minister “had to realise”.
“We’ve been fighting ever since it happened and it’s been an ongoing fight. When you lose someone in horrible circumstances the grief is a lot different. It never goes away,” Ms Dungay said.
“All I want is for my brother to rest in peace and he won’t until justice is served.”
‘Enough is enough’
Ms Dungay and her family are calling for the investigation into her brother’s death to be reopened, and said they would fight until it happened.
She added if Mr Morrison would not listen, he should stand down as the leader of Australia.
“We’re just screaming on deaf ears. If Scott doesn’t want to listen then stand down and put someone there who will not treat us like second class citizens,” she said.
“Enough is enough. It took a man over the other side of the world [to die] and it’s just triggered something in every black person to think about how they’ve been treated for so many years. It’s triggered something in us – leave us alone, stop killing us, treat us the same.”
Ms Dungay said it was important for the protest to go ahead while the movement had momentum.
“With COVID you take a risk as soon as you walk out your front door,” she said.
“[The government] is using COVID-19 to silence us to tell you the truth. I think [Scott Morrison] thinks it’s only a fad and going out of fashion.”
Despite the protest being blocked by the court, Ms Dungay said it would go ahead unless a compromise could be made and the investigation into her brother’s death is reopened.
“It’s that simple,” she said.
The family of Mr Dungay have asked that people attending the rally abide by COVID-19 safety protocols.
“It’s well organised, we’re getting names and numbers of every person who attends, we’ll be handing out masks and sanitiser and we’ll have our own organisers to ensure social distancing. We don’t want police doing that so it doesn’t turn into anything else – we don’t condone violence, we’re just there to ask for justice for my brother and equality,” Ms Dungay said.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.