The mother of a South Sudanese teenager bashed to death eleven years ago has called for politicians to change their language around African youth crime, during a public memorial for her son on the steps of Victoria’s parliament.
“I hope that what happened to Liep never happens again. But I fear for even that to happen, even members of parliament will need to change the way they talk,” Martha Ojulo said.
“I am not saying that some of the things kids have done are not horrible. I know they have broken into homes, I know they have hurt people, I also know that is more complicated.”
Nearly 300 people gathered outside state parliament this afternoon to hear Ms Ojulo speak publicly for the first time about the death of her 19-year-old son Liep Gony, who was bashed with a metal bar near Noble Park Station in Melbourne’s southeast.
The attack had strong racial overtones, with one of the two caucasian men convicted over the killing making racially charged comment before and after the attack.
However the sentencing judge found there was not enough evidence to say the killing was motivated by racial hatred.
Ms Ojulo walked with a painted portrait of her son while the group of nearly 300 sang a hymn in Nuer, one of the native languages of South Sudan.
Several cousins of Gony spoke about growing up with the young man, who had a love of music and was starting to be interested in politics before his death.
One cousin, 22-year-old Nyawech Fouche, broke down in tears halfway through her speech. She screamed and was comforted by supporters before returning to the steps to speak.
“I’m not a gang, I’m not a criminal. Liep was not a gang, he was not a criminal,” she said when she returned to the stage.
The Gony family’s pastor, Gatkuoth Chol, opened the proceedings and asked politicians to protect South Sudanese Australians from racism.
“We in the South Sudanese community are so lucky to be her in this beautiful country but we are not to be killed, we are not here to be treated differently,” he said.
“We are here to be supported, we are here to work together to make this a great nation.”
Ms Ojulo was translated by Nyadol Nyuon, a lawyer and regular commentator on the ABC who has led previous protests against media coverage to issues of youth crime in Victoria.
Gony was found on the side of a Noble Park in December 2007. The metal poles used in the fatal beating were bent from the force of the assault.
One of his killers, Clinton Rintoull, then 21, tried to escape to South Australia but was caught by police. He pleaded guilty to murder and in 2009 was sentenced to 20 years’ jail.
At Rintoull’s sentencing, the Supreme Court heard he had spent days complaining about Sudanese migrants.
“These blacks are turning the town into the Bronx. I am going to take my town back, I’m looking to kill the blacks,” Rintoull was heard saying by a witness. He painted racist graffiti on the wall of his home and made racist comments after the attack.
But presiding Supreme Court judge Elizabeth Curtain said she did not believe the attack was racially motivated beyond reasonable doubt, because Rintoull had made some sandwiches for a homeless African man a few days before.
Today’s event was supported, and partly organised, by the Federation of Community Legal Centres — Victoria’s peak body for a series of taxpayer-funded legal services which has been outspoken against media and political responses to the state’s youth crime crisis.
FCLC director of strategy Melanie Poole told The Australian they did not approach the Gony family about instigating the event.
“The family approached us … I think it is paternalistic to say the family has no agency or they were manipulated.” she said, “And I think it’s unfair to say they might have a political agenda.”
“If anything, this surge in media coverage … and comments by the likes of Scott Morrison, Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton, Matthew … have re-traumatised them.”