The Young Dancer is Dead

In the early evening of November 7th, 1993 (25 years ago last Wednesday); a group of aboriginal teenagers were hanging out in Musgrave Park. One of them was Daniel “Boonie” Yock, an 18 year old who performed around Brisbane with the Wakka Wakka dance troupe.

The boys in the park did something to attract the attention of a police car – according to the police “behaving in a disorderly manner”. The car approached them and the boys ran.

Why did they run? We don’t know. Maybe they were carrying yarndi or alcohol. A later report indicated Daniel had both in his system. Maybe it was just adrenaline. Maybe it was because of a long-standing and well-documented history of police violence against aboriginal people in Queensland.

Whatever reason it was, they took off in the direction of Boundary Street. Even for fit young dancers though it’s hard to outrun a police car; and on the corner of Brereton and Boundary Streets (near where the Coles supermarket is now), the cops caught up with the boys. Two were arrested, but Daniel Yock in particular came in for rough treatment.

Exactly what happened is disputed by different sources. Police claimed Daniel picked a stake out of the ground and threatened them, though the Criminal Justice Commission later concluded “it is more probable than not that Yock did not have a free stake in his hand”. He was definitely tackled to the ground and handcuffed by a police officer. One of the boys present told the Commission his face hit a rock as he went down. Two said they saw a female police officer kick Daniel in the head while he was held down.

Most of the boys kept running, but Daniel and 15 year old Joseph Blair were arrested. Joseph said Daniel was placed face down in the back of the paddy wagon. He said he tried to rouse Daniel unsuccessfully. “I saw spew on the side of his mouth. He was staring at me with eyes wide open”. He called out to the police, but “the policewoman just grinned and lit a cigarette.”

It took police over half an hour to drive the two and a half kilometres to the Roma St watch house. When they arrived, Daniel was found to be not breathing and have no pulse. An ambulance was called, but resuscitation was unsuccessful and on arrival at the hospital he was pronounced dead.

The next day, 250 people gathered to protest Daniel’s death outside the Roma St police headquarters. I imagine it was a hot Brisbane summer’s day. Tempers were running high. One report said police racially abused the protesters. They cordoned off the police station and eventually sent officers with dogs in to disperse the crowd.

The scene turned into a pitched battle, with protesters fighting police. News reports the next day said six police were injured, though a few days later the number being reported was 24. No record was kept of injuries on the other side. Police commissioner Jim O’Sullivan said never again would police “be used as punching bags”. Many years later, I heard local aboriginal leader Sam Watson say “I’m not a fan of violence, but that day we stood up for ourselves.”

The next few days, life went on as normal for many Brisbanites, but tensions ran high between aboriginals and police. There were reports of cops antagonising Murris on the street in Fortitude Valley. Aboriginal policewoman Trish Keddie resigned from the force, saying she had been racially abused by co-workers and that “Aborigines were asked to join (the police) as tokens, to be used as political tools”.

A week and a half after Daniel’s death, 4000 people marched from Musgrave Park to Roma St in silence protesting Daniel’s death. You can watch footage from the march on youtube – it looks like an ocean flooding down the road from Musgrave Park.

A Criminal Justice Commission hearing occurred, but when the results came out in April it concludedthe cause of death was ischemic heart disease, which implied impaired blood supply to the heart; There was no evidence of physical trauma that could have been due to police brutality… The Commission found that the police arrest of Yock for disorderly conduct was appropriate and procedurally correct.

An alternative “workers’ inquiry” came to a different conclusion – that Daniel had died from a lack of oxygen after being left face down, unconscious, and unable to breath. No official response was ever granted to this report. Daniel’s death was the 52nd in police custody in the four and a half years since the federal royal commission into aboriginal deaths in custody.

On the 21st anniversary of Daniel’s death (and less than two weeks before the 10th of the very similar case of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island), a rally was held at Emma Miller Place in Roma St against deaths in custody and police violence. It just so happened that this date fell during the Brisbane G20 – a time when normal civil liberties were suspended to enforce the G20 Safety and Security Act and thousands of police were shipped in from around the country (and New Zealand!) to enforce the act.

It was astonishingly hot, with the thermometer hitting 40 degrees and heat radiating from the ground beneath our feet. Our group of a few hundred protesters were surrounded by as many police. As Daniel’s brother, the poet Lionel Fogarty, spoke to the crowd over the PA; he could hardly be heard over the sound of police helicopters overhead. I had heard about the incidents of two decades earlier, but it never seemed as easy to imagine as it did right then.

Another thing that makes me feel able to imagine it is a song. I don’t know if Brisbane aboriginal songwriter Kev Carmody was there on Roma St that day, but I do know that a year and a half later he released his fourth album Images and Illusions and it contained the song The Young Dancer Is Dead. It’s not one of Kev’s best known tracks; but it is an extraordinary, visceral song that does an amazing job of conjuring the atmosphere of that November day.

When you think of angry music, mostly your mind would go to hardcore punk, maybe metal or hard-edged hip hop. The Young Dancer Is Dead is none of these styles; but it is maybe the angriest song I have ever heard. It is angry like a mob burning with the fuel of years of injustice, gathered on a humid summer’s day.

The bassline pulses unnervingly, the drums like marching feet. The tension builds and builds. Kev’s lyrics don’t really mention anger or violence. They are more whispered than shouted. “His memory and beauty, we carry beyond/How long, how long will these killings go on?” Over the top of it all, a violin buzzes like a mosquito around your face, darting in and out of the song.

The flower of youth, cut down in the night/Dead in the police van and driven from the site/Another young warrior has been sacrificed./His spirit endures, our grieving hearts bled/We still long for the song of the young dancer who’s dead

Sometimes you sit long and hard constructing a song. Sometimes a song seemingly appears from the ether, with your mouth and guitar working merely as an antenna capturing what is in the atmosphere.

To me, The Young Dancer Is Dead seems to be the latter. Kev is a great lyricist. Steve Kilbey (best known as lead singer of The Church) is undoubtedly a great producer. Linda Neil, who plays the violin, obviously a talented musician. But when I listen to it, I can’t help but feel that the crowd outside the Roma St police station wrote that song. That the stares exchanged between them and the police wrote those twitchy violin parts. That the ghost of Daniel Yock was captured in the recording studio that day; and every time the song is played, he makes an appearance.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Young Dancer is Dead

  1. The same threat to lives of young aboriginal people persists to this day …

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