Tasered and blinded, Shelia Oakley vows to hold police to account

Shelia Oakley is a brave and inspiring woman who personifies the saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." The 36-year-old Aboriginal mother of two lost her sight in one eye after being tasered by the police, but is now leading a fightback.

Sheila Oakley speaks before leading the protest rally.

Alison Thorne March 2014

Not safe in her own home.

On 6 February Oakley, distressed after a social worker home visit, picked up a table leg. According to neighbours who witnessed events, two police cars arrived and the cops told Oakley to drop the object. She did so immediately but, without any warning being issued, was tasered. The metal taser barb lodged in her eye. Her sister told the ABC that Sheila was screaming in agony. Brisbane Murri leader, Sam Watson, has characterised the event as "a criminal act of assault."

Oakley was rushed to hospital for surgery. But two weeks after the injury, family spokesperson, Paul Butterworth, told the Freedom Socialist Organiser (FSO) that Oakley was back in hospital and in a lot of pain.

Sheila Oakley lives in Woodridge, a suburb of Logan City south of Brisbane. Logan City is on the stolen land of the Yuggera, Turrbal, Yugarabul, Jagera and Yugambeh peoples. It is now one of the most culturally diverse communities in Australia.

Logan police, who claim they have an excellent relationship with the local Aboriginal community, need an urgent reality check! Pastor Lester, who is a local, describes police harassment as an everyday occurrence. One of Oakley's neighbours, who spoke to the media after witnessing events, has since told the ABC that his family are experiencing police harassment for going public. While brother, Joseph Oakley, says local police are heavy handed and argues, "the violence has to stop."

Justice for Sheila

A petition was launched immediately, calling for an independent enquiry. On 15 February, Shelia Oakley, who was released from hospital for the day, led almost 200 people in a spirited march.

Oakley, with her eye bandaged, addressed the rally and thanked supporters. She called for the officer to be publicly identified, sacked and charged with assault. She says, "I have lost my sight, he should lose his job."

Aided with a walking frame, she led the rally from her home to the Logan District Police Station, where she presented the petition to Acting Superintendent, Noel Powers.

While Powers was forced to express regret about the injuries sustained by Ms Oakley, he attempted to divide the community, provocatively labelling the protest the result of "outside interference." Police clearly have no understanding of solidarity. Sheila Oakley and the Logan community know and appreciate that the movement to hold the police to account for their harassment and racial profiling is national in scope.

The FSO spoke with Boe Spearim from the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy, who explained that the rally was organised by Logan people at a community meeting. He also noted that Aboriginal people and their supporters everywhere are outraged when "a women who was tasered has four police officers jump on her back, roll her up in a blanket, all while the taser barb is still in her eye."

Spearim says the rally aims were broad. "The family and the Logan community are calling for justice for Sheila Oakley and for all Aboriginal people who are brutalised by the Australian police state and for non-aboriginal people who stand up as well."

Spearim was part of a group stopped by police on the way to the rally. He said they were subject to licence checks and breath tested. He described how the police officer "walked all around the car looking for anything to pin on us to keep us from getting to the rally ... As he finished, the cop asked 'Are you guys on your way to the protest?' We said 'Yeah mate' and then he said 'Well I hope it's a peaceful protest and not a violent one.' We were stopped going to a protest against police violence by the police asking us if we were going to be violent!" Spearim added that a Logan elder had warned him to watch out, because police have previously blocked roads to stop people from Brisbane attending protests in Logan.

As well as harassing protesters on the way to the rally, the police presence at the rally was of intimidating proportions. Dozens of police heavily armed with tasers, met the rally. On standby were cars and vans full of police officers, as well as mounted police. Rally organisers labelled this "provocative."

The protest ended with Sheila Oakley and community leaders giving police seven days to respond to their demands, or there would be more marches.

Paul Butterworth, Logan community leader and family spokesperson, told the FSO that the police responded unsatisfactorily to two of the demands and have not responded to the others. They refused to publicly name or stand down the officer involved. The community again rallied on 22 February and were again met by a wall of police armed with tasers. Butterworth said "We'll return every Saturday until our demands are met."

Stop police investigating police.

A key demand being raised by Oakley and her supporters is for an independent investigation accountable to the community. The community has no confidence in internal police investigations. Logan police command is already saying that the officer in question "is a qualified taser instructor." Well, if so, why did he fail to issue a warning? And why were police guidelines ignored, which warn of the risk of eye injuries and direct those using tasers not to strike anywhere near the neck or head?

Boe Spearim is sick of cover-ups. He says, "We need justice, but it's a question of who should investigate. We know nothing good will come from this when it's their own people looking into it."

See also "Say No to Deadly Tasers" by Alison Thorne,