A fieldnote from home



Charles Blackman


This evening I nearly saw a man drown. I run the same route most afternoons, over the bridge and along the foreshore. This evening I was about to cross over the bridge when I saw something or someone splashing in the water. I stopped. It was a man, only a few metres from the banks of the river, and he was drowning. He kept trying to stand up before falling over, his head going under the water for a longer period of time each time he fell.

As soon as I realised what was going on I ran to the shore. I called out to him but didn’t get any response. His head went under again. I waded in and instinctively grabbed his chin to hold his head above the water. I told him it was going to be okay. I asked him to sit down. The water was shallow enough that I could hold his head above the water while he was sitting. He coughed and spluttered and struggled to reclaim and regulate his breathing. I asked him if he could stand up. He shook his head. Ma (ok, I understand). I told him that I was going to try and help him, to drag him out of the water. Yo (ok, yes, agreed). Standing behind him I hooked my arms under both of his armpits and in quick lift-and-drag motions we slowly edged our way to shore.

We were very nearly out of the water when a woman came to our aid. She asked if she could help but thankfully didn’t wait for the answer. She grabbed him under one arm, I had him by the other, and together we dragged him out and well clear of the water. I rolled him onto his side. He was absolutely and utterly exhausted, gumurr djarrark. His breathing was irregular, he was coughing up water, and there was mucus streaming from his nose. I watched him for a bit. He was okay. His body was limp and heavy from exhaustion and he was still trying to catch his breath but he was okay. He was shaking a little. I asked if he was okay. Yo.

I drew a big breath and leaned my hands on my knees. The woman who had come to our aid introduced herself. She had been watching him for nearly two minutes, she said, from the bike path. She was really concerned and worried that he might drown but she didn’t want to put herself in danger. Fair enough. She said she was about to call an ambulance when she saw me running towards him, which is when she then came to our aid. This was the moment that I took pause and looked around, and it was as if in slow motion that I realised . . . there were seven or so people fishing off the bridge looking over the very spot where we were now standing, where this man just very nearly drowned. They were no more than ten metres away looking down on him, on us, from the bridge. They were facing in the direction of where this man very nearly drowned. They were standing there, fishing. Watching a man drown. To my right, along the bicycle path, there was a steady stream of people walking, jogging and riding. Across the river along the beach-front there was any number of people walking their dogs. If I had noticed this man splashing and struggling with my poor eyesight while running past then everyone, all of them, would have noticed. The people standing there fishing, watching him drown, I honestly cannot comprehend.

I cannot remember what I said to the woman who had come to our aid at this point. I think I may have said something along the lines of ‘What the actual fuck! These people were just standing there watching him drown!?’ I remember her reply was something to do with not wanting to put themselves in danger. They were fucking FISHING. WATCHING this man drown.

Now propped up on his elbow, still laying on his side, I asked him what his name was (in Yolŋu-matha, having assumed from his ‘yo’ that he spoke Yolŋu-matha). Don. I told him my name, my Balanda name, and my Yolŋu name. He kind of looked up at this point. I told him that he had just very nearly drowned, that he was okay now, but that he had just very nearly drowned. I asked where his family mob were and, as if on cue, I saw a group of Yolŋu’yulŋu walked into sight along the bike path on the far side of the bridge. I yelled out, kind of rudely (obviously still a little bit shaken):

Waaaaaay! Dhuwala ŋayi Yolŋu yukurra rakunythirri-ndja! Guŋgayurra, räli marrtjina buku djulŋi, guŋgayurra please.’ (Hey! This person [just very nearly died] is dying! Come and help! Please come over here and help/assist!)

Two men ran over the bridge towards us. We all introduced ourselves to each other. I explained what had happened. One of the men, Don’s brother, crossed himself. They thanked us – myself and the woman who had come to our aid – and we all helped lift Don to his feet. Don was with-it enough to ask our names again before his family mob helped away.

Marrkapmirri, thank you’ (Beloved [people], thank you).

Since moving to Darwin I have collected a number of case studies – so many stories of everyday jarring, explicit, yet so dangerously normalised, racism. My notebook is filled of them. Indeed, I’ve written a number of blog posts drawing on said case studies, which I’ve left in draft because I wasn’t sure whether to focus on the policing and racial profiling element, the attitude and behaviour of the general public, or the political and legislative context that not only accommodates or enables such racism, but that seems to actively foster it (with the help of mainstream media).

But this evening was something else. It subsumed and enveloped and amplified all of the case studies, observations and concerns that I have ever noted, seen, read, or written about racism in contemporary Australia.

I saw a man nearly drown tonight. There was a man drowning in the river. He had been struggling in the water for at least two minutes before I got there. He couldn’t keep his head above water. He was flailing and splashing. He was struggling to breathe, to stay alive. Another minute and he would have been unconscious. I have no doubt. And there were people who not only fleetingly saw this and chose to keep walking, jogging or running but there were people standing right there. Fishing on the bridge. Within metres. Overlooking this very scene. Watching this man drown. And they chose to do nothing.

This is what it has come to. This is the level to which Aboriginal people have been dehumanised in the eyes and minds of the general public of white Australia. If it had been a white man drowning, of course – it’s a silly question – everyone would have rushed to his aid.

I know there is racism in Australia. I understand it’s pervasive. But these people were watching a man drown. This is something else. Another minute and he would have been unconscious. Floating. Would they have been moved to act [only] then? Who knows.

How has it come to this? How is it that Aboriginal people have become so dehumanised in the eyes and minds of white Australia?

Sometimes racism seems like some kind of intractable historical force. There is certainly an historical depth that I cannot address here, but we – speaking (and collectivising) here as a white, non-Indigenous person – cannot deny our role and responsibility in this. Yes it is government policies that, for example, claim that all Aboriginal men are child abusers. It is government policies that insinuate that Aboriginal people are so lacking in any sense of adult responsibility that they cannot be trusted with their own finances – or to bring their own children up. It is the mainstream media who repeat, reproduce, and amplify these stereotypes. It is everyone who unthinkingly accepts or believes these stereotypes, justifications and measures. But just as, if not more importantly, it is the people who walk or jog or ride past. Not just in this instance but in every instance, all and every time.

With every racially motivated, discriminatory government policy, media campaign, policing practice, popular prejudice, stereotype, rumour, or joke that we fail to publicly challenge, speak out against, object to, refuse or interrupt – we do this. We are part of this. ‘It is them, not us’. So we remain silent and do nothing. We walk or jog or ride past. It is everyone who has ever seen a group of Aboriginal people bundled into the back of a police wagon for ‘public nuisance’ or ‘public drunkenness’ next to a group of whitefellas doing just the same – enjoying a wine or beer in company – who didn’t think to publicly question or challenge these dynamics or police behaviour. It is everyone who has ever seen ‘public transport officers’ systematically target and harass Aboriginal people at bus depots and on public transport who make a choice to sit quietly rather than ask why they are being targeted, on what basis, on what grounds. It is everyone who has ever laughed along to a racist joke about Aboriginal people because it’s awkward to break the atmosphere and point out how and why that is actually completely inappropriate and wrong.

Shit is fucked up and shit, as they say, but we are a part of this. And we have a profound responsibility to one another, never mind any government body, policy, or institution in between.

To be a socialised moral person, as Yolŋu say, is to be gurrutu-mirri (to have or possess kin/kinship), and to be gurrutu-mirri is to be dharaŋan-mirri (to recognise/understand one another [as kin]), to be djäka-mirri (to care for/look after one another), and to be guŋgayun-mirri (to help or assist on another).










Filed under Current social issues, Indigenous Australia

18 responses to “A fieldnote from home

  1. Pingback: Your heart will hurt but you should read this | blue milk

  2. Kim

    This story (and the actions, or inactions, of the people you speak of) is terrible, but without trying to detract from the message of your story (racism is of course real in Australia and beyond disgusting) I disagree that people would have helped a white man. (Most) People don’t help anyone. A white man recently drowned near where I live and dozens of witnesses sat back and did nothing because the waters were dangerous and a drowning man is often dangerous in that he will likely pull you under in his panic. Additionally, around two years ago a large number of people did nothing when they witnessed me, a young, (I think) reasonably attractive white woman being assaulted and mugged in broad daylight in a busy city park… I can only assume they were scared as there can be no other excuse for their lack of action. But don’t be so sure that those fishermen didn’t help because of the colour of the drowning man’s skin.

  3. Marlyn

    It’s just like our so-called border authorities sit and watch refugees drown.

  4. David Martin

    Thanks for this. It would be good to get a version of this in The Conversation, the Guardian, Crikey or similar. It deserves a wider public.
    And I profoundly disagree with Kim’s earlier comments. Yes, callousness is not limited to racialised contexts – but this scene is so Darwin, where racialisation is the stuff of everyday life.

  5. Sally

    Thanks for writing this and telling us what happened. I have posted it on on Facebook, adding some of the information from Kim’s comments as well.

  6. Anthea Nicholls

    Thank you for writing this. And thank you for what you did .. that there was at the very least one person in that drama who did care, who did forget her own ‘safety’ and just ran to help a fellow human being. I’m glad at least one other person came to help you. Maybe next time she will be the first person to act, not the second. As for those people on the bridge my heart fails me too, trying to imagine their lives. Amazing too that this is such an age old human problem that the same story got recorded in first century Christian literature (remember the good samaritan and the religious people who watched?) I’m reading/writing this from a remote Arnhemland community where the play of the light on all of the issues you raise here is so different in many respects and yet so profoundly the same. Thanks for reminding me that at the very bottom of everything is our humanity and if we can’t be djäka-mirri for each other then we are nothing.

  7. Marita

    Hi Bree,
    Thanks for writing about this. I’ve been having a similar conversation about this incident on my facebook page – I’m the woman who came and helped you get Don out of the water. I thought I’d say a little more about the context and the cumulative impact of inaction and apathy.

    First, though: kudos to you. I have gone over the events of Saturday again and again. If you hadn’t come along when you did, there’s a very good chance yet another young Aboriginal person would be gone way too soon. We need more people like you in the world.

    Second: a small clarification – it sounds like I was defending the people watching from the bridge. I wasn’t – I actually said something about understanding that they might feel there is danger in trying to do something directly (for similar reasons to Kim’s comment above and as I’ll describe further), but also said I couldn’t believe they would do nothing and just watch.

    This is the full story as it unfolded from my view:
    I first saw Don in the water from the beach on the other side. From that distance, it was hard for me to judge exactly what was happening and the seriousness of the situation. I saw him go under once, but then he sat up, threw a couple of rocks into the water, splashed a bit, appeared to lie down, nearly stood up, stumbled, slipped and rolled under again. Then he came up and appeared to gain control. I didn’t know whether what I was witnessing was despair and intent to self-harm, exhaustion, some type of illness affecting coordination, inebriated poor judgement – or possibly a combination. Either way, I knew if he didn’t get away from the water he could end up in trouble.

    I kept watch as I headed towards the bridge, seeing that he was staying in the shallow, hoping he would get himself out, but thinking through what I could do to help. I didn’t have my phone with me – if I had, I would have been calling 000 at this point. Not necessarily because I thought he was drowning, but that he was putting himself in danger. In the back of my mind, I was aware of how many people were around on the bridge and the path on the other side, and I think had an expectation that somebody was already probably getting help or was prepared to step in if things deteriorated.

    As I neared the bridge, there was a group of people (his family mob) sitting under it ahead of me. They were arguing loudly, and I could see they were also drinking. One (the man who later came to help Don out), was also in the water shouting, stumbling and nearly falling. He was calling out to Don something I couldn’t understand. So now I was aware of two people in danger, one on each side of the bank. I wanted to call out to the man closest to me “come out of the water, stay safe” – but I hesitated because the situation seemed heated, and it sounded like there was a fair bit of anger in the shouting going back and forth. I thought he might have been about to try and swim across, but then came out of the water and went further back up the bank. I was relieved, but concerned that he might try to go back in. At this point, my emergency call would have been for the people on both sides of the river.

    It all happened in slow motion, but everything I’ve described so far probably took about a minute. By this stage, I was just at the bottom of the bridge. I looked back across at Don and saw him go under for a few seconds. Fuck, I thought, he’s actually drowning this time. I scrambled up the ramp at the side of the bridge. As I looked over again, Don suddenly sat back up. There was a woman in front of me, watching what was happening with a huge grin. She looked at me, as if she had the expectation we were sharing a joke and shrugged. She was fucking grinning and laughing at this man nearly drowning. In my mind, I was shouting “don’t stand there laughing, this looks serious, do you have a phone? Call, do something, help”, but I didn’t want to lose time shaking the idiotic complacency out of her.

    As I moved across the bridge, I saw other passers-by look over at what was happening and just keep on moving. I saw the people fishing, going on with what they were doing while this man in front of them needed help. Again, I wanted to say “this looks like an emergency, I can’t help him on my own, let’s do it together…or do you have a phone, can you make a call?” I didn’t, and I’ve thought long and hard since, why? The only answer I can come up with is, they were watching him and they were already doing nothing. They’d already decided not to help. Do I lose time trying to convince them, or do I keep going? I made a split second decision to keep going. It felt like I was in some kind of movie where what was happening was invisible to everyone but me.

    I was keenly aware that my ability to help on my own was limited. He was much bigger than me. A drowning man can easily drag a potential rescuer into danger, even more so if intoxication is a factor. I also couldn’t be sure that there was no self-harm or suicidal intent involved, that he wasn’t deliberately putting himself in this situation. I had now seen him go under and then come up and apparently gain control a couple of times. If I got in his way, what would be his reaction? The lesson from various first aid courses was front of mind: one rescuer and one victim can easily become two victims – arrange help before putting yourself in danger. As I came down the other side of the bridge, I saw a couple of other people who I thought may have been his mob coming up to the bike path from a bit further along the bank. He was in their direct line of sight – they had to have seen him, and they didn’t seem concerned. I was going to approach them, but they went in the other direction. Now there was a growing doubt in my mind. Was I judging the situation wrongly? How could all these other people be seeing the same thing, and not appear even slightly concerned?

    At this point, I was still on the path, not far away from him. He was out of the water – just. For the moment, he seemed to be OK , but given the way I had seen him come out of the water a couple of times only to fall or roll back in and struggle, I knew he needed to be moved. I looked around at the people jogging and cycling past. I started to ask a couple of them to help, but they went by too quickly. The people on the bridge were continuing on with their fishing. What to do? Across the road, the pub was full of people out enjoying their Saturday afternoon, with numerous groups enjoying the foreshore between where I was standing and the pub. Do I stay and watch over this person, and find I can’t save him if he goes in again, or do I go for help? Reluctantly, I started to head in the direction of more people, hoping that he wouldn’t go back in the water while I had my back turned.

    I only got a few steps before I decided that it was better for me to stay close and just shout for help from the bank, cause a scene if necessary. It was at that point that I turned around and saw you heading down towards him and came to help, and the rest is as you told it so well.

    A postscript: given the aggro that I had witnessed on the other side of the river with his family mob, I was a little nervous what was going to happen when you called them across to help. I’m not sure if you heard at the time (I think you were talking to his brother), but after we had helped him to his feet, when his father and I were talking, his father held my hand tightly and explained that his daughter had passed away two days ago. Unimaginable grief, yet all too common for our Aboriginal kin.

  8. Thanks Marita. It all just seemed to happen in a flash. I appreciate the clarification, and thank you for providing more context. That is just tragic about his daughter.

    It wasn’t until I got home after jogging that I realised just how shaken up I was by the whole episode. Hope you had someone to debrief with/talk to about it when you got home too.


  9. A number of people have pointed out that there was surely some kind of by-stander effect at play in this scenario. I hadn’t heard of the by-stander effect before, but after reading a bit out it, I think they are probably correct.

  10. Marita

    I don’t know what it was. As you say, it all happened in a flash. From my own point of view, my initial uncertainty about the situation affected my reaction more than how others were responding. I would have been more ready to shout up a scene if I hadn’t seen him come out of the water a couple of times.
    In any case, I’m incredibly glad you were there. It has haunted me that my indecision could have meant the difference between life and death.
    Like you, I was pretty shaken up. Take care 🙂

  11. Lauren

    Thanks for posting Bree. While a much more coordinated challenge to the casual racism of the NT is desperately needed I reckon one small way of waking people up and forcing them to think about the situation might be to put short versions of this story up on poles and trees around the spot where it happened so people who frequent the area are confronted with their own actions/lack of action on the day or prompt them to discuss it at least, do something differently in future.. I’d be willing to help if you thought it was useful.

  12. Baudelair

    Your story is not that unusual, at least in Alice Springs. Here it is a strong social convention amongst a great many people to ignore the plight of injured or needy Aboriginal people, on the grounds of alleged proven dangers. I can also think of many parallel situations, particularly at the level of politics, social planning, and business practices. There is much resonance between your observations and the behaviour of many civic authorities in relation to the NT’s governance and regulation of alcohol, for example; not least with those dominant players who cynically watch from their bridges and are entertained by the spectacle as too many people drown in alcohol, while the recreationists’ leaders find it too inconvenient to bother making the minor adjustments to all our conveniences which could dramatically reduce the drowning rates for everybody.
    For another example of this phenomenon (if you feel that you have a strong stomach and can cope with many threads dominated by rabid psychopaths, sociopaths, screeching racists, drunken cynics and other abusive types), displayed in great detail over an 18 month period, have a look at the Alice Springs Community Open Forum Facebook page between mid-2012 and late 2013. (You have to apply to become a member – it is called an “Open Forum” because the group of people who established it became tired of being upbraided for their prejudice and obsessive disdain for all things Aboriginal on other Alice Facebook sites, and set ASCOF up to be the place where members could speak their minds freely, unless they were opposed to racism etc; but it is in reality a ‘closed group’, so maybe try doing it under a pseudonym if you seriously want to see ingrained as well as casual Australian racism on open display. Since late last year its dominant clique have set up another more exclusive secret closed site and seem to confine much of their bile to it, whilst using it as a mustering point for co-ordinated forays into other sites).
    The police claim to be powerless to do anything about these sites, despite the regular encouragement to violence, hatred and discrimination which occur on them.

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  14. Glen Speering

    I can remember something similar. I was riding along the cycle way on Dick Ward Drive on a Friday afternoon. A man was lying on his back, clearly unconscious, along the bike path. So I got off, and went to roll him into the coma position. A group of kids and teenagers began to throw shards of metal at me and one was shaping up to wield a metal pole. So I had to get out of there and call an ambulance. But it’s left a really unwelcome feeling in my mind. I’m not sure what I would do again. I could have been seriously beaten up for trying to help someone. It wasn’t a nice situation.

  15. De

    Many years ago I was waiting for a bus at Central Station, Sydney. It was around 6pm & very busy with comutors on route home. A young teenage woman was laid in the bus shelter, face in her own sick. I awoke her, cleared her throat & rolled her into a recovery position. I have to be honest I can not remember what went on around us, someone had called an ambulance & I waited, talking with her to keep her conscious. Once the paramedics arrived 3 people approached me separately & told me I should not have touched her. It was too dangerous “you don’t know what those people will do”. This was a raw awakening for me. The young woman had an Australian accent & appeared to be of Aboriginal origin. I had never experienced a situation where a stranger had publicly criticised someone (me) for helping a fellow human being in need. It caused me great sadness.
    The current government have proposed to cut more than 1/2 a billion in funding for indigenous affairs. Is this another form of turning a blind eye to a problem that is just “too dangerous to get involved with”?
    Good job Penny Wong is in the Senate. We need more people like her in politics.
    Thank you everyone for your posts, it lessens my sadness to know that people have the strength to care.

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