The camera phone is already capturing footage as the car containing the witnesses filming the 29 December incident pulls up at the corner of a small back street in the southwestern Sydney suburb of Airds, where police officers are wrestling with a man in a quiet laneway.
One of the officers is seen laying in two punches towards the man’s lower torso.
As the vehicle drives up closer to the scene, it’s clear that three NSW police officers each have a hold of a First Nations man: one on each arm and another on his back. The 47-year-old man pulls his right arm free for a moment, lashing out at an officer, who in turn, punches back.
One officer turns towards the vehicle and calls, “Stay back”, as the other two push David Ridgeway – also known as Uncle Bud – to the ground. The officer who gave the direction proceeds to stomp on the man’s upper thigh, and then presses his knee into it, before joining his colleagues on top of him.
As the three officers in blue are upon Uncle Bud, one appears to have him in a headlock, while he repeatedly calls out, “I can’t breathe.”
An officer demands several times, “Get your arms back now.” This police request looks somewhat difficult to comply with as the weight of three men is on top of him.
Ridgeway asks a number of times, why he’s been pulled over on the Tuesday afternoon at around 2.40 pm. “What are you charging me for? What have I done?” the Birpai man can be heard questioning from the bitumen footpath he’s pressed down upon.
“Assaulting police now,” is the response one of the aggressors gives.
“It’s absolutely disgusting,” said Justice Aunties founding director Tracey Hanshaw. “The man said, at least three – if not four – times, ‘I can’t breathe’. He certainly did not assault police before they were belting into him.”
Hanshaw explained that according to witnesses, they’d seen a white ute containing the three officers approach Ridgeway on his pushbike on the other side of the laneway. And on seeing them follow Uncle Bud down the path, they drove around for a better view.
NSW police told Daily Mail that the officers had done nothing wrong. A spokesperson said that they’d seen Ridgeway riding his bike, and when they attempted to stop the man – who has a mental health condition – over breach of bail, he tried to get away, lost control and crashed his bike.
Today, Uncle Bud is being remanded in Parklea Prison on three counts of assaulting police, as well as resisting arrest, breach of bail and possession of a prohibited drug.
After being refused bail at Parramatta Court on 30 December, he’s now being detained without conviction until at least May.
“Three of them?” Hanshaw remarked to Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “I don’t have a mental health issue, but if three people were attacking me for no good reason and didn’t identify why, I’d fight for my life.”
Black Lives Matter
Justice Aunties is a Newcastle-based initiative that, as Hanshaw tells it, has a focus on “intervening between Indigenous people and the justice system from first contact”. The service provides those in need with support through all stages of the system.
Currently, Hanshaw’s doing her best to assist Uncle Bud. On the evening after the incident, she was on the phone to Campbelltown police station, and was initially told that Ridgeway was at a hospital to receive treatment for the injuries he’d sustained during a “motorcycle accident”.
Hanshaw went on to ring the hospital to make sure that Ridgeway was okay, while, last week, she secured a lawyer for him.
“It’s another day in the colony,” Hanshaw said and attributed the line to academic Dr Chelsea Bond. “It’s a daily occurrence. It has been for 250 years, but it’s getting captured on film nowadays. And thank you to social media for allowing us to upload it, because now it’s being seen.”
Another piece of camera phone footage capturing a man accosted by police sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the globe in mid-2020. That incident saw Minneapolis police kneel down upon African American man George Floyd’s neck until he died.
In NSW, and across Australia, tens of thousands took to the streets to show solidarity with those in the US and to protest police brutality towards First Nations people over here, along with continuing Aboriginal deaths in custody and the overincarceration of the Indigenous people of this continent.
These demonstrations shifted marginal ideas like defunding the police and prison abolition into mainstream discourse, as people began questioning the racist foundations of NSW police and all Australian police forces, as well as how this prejudice continues to inform policing to this day.
First Nations justice
“Jesus this is horrific,” remarked NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge in relation to the Ridgeway police incident. He further stated in a social media post on Monday that “while he was pinned down the man repeatedly shouts, ‘I can’t breathe’, after being kicked by one of the officers”.
Since the incident, the #SaveDavidRidgeway hashtag has been trending on Facebook. And Hanshaw advises that there are a number of groups, like her own, campaigning to have Uncle Bud released from Parklea Prison prior to his next appearance in court.
The First Nations justice advocate further claims that when she first contacted Campbelltown police station, the officers on duty hadn’t contacted the Custody Notification Service (CNS), which is a requirement following the taking of a First Nations person into custody.
The CNS then puts that individual in touch with an Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) lawyer.
“Uncle Bud is not well. He doesn’t understand why he’s in gaol when they assaulted him,” Hanshaw concluded. “I’ve asked ALS if they can try to get him an emergency bail hearing, because his next appearance in court is May.”
“Why should he be locked up for five months for self-defence?”
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.