Review: Tabitha Leanon Veronica Gorrie

More Black Than Blue: A Confession

I was going to start this book review with a confession. I wanted to confess to you the reader, that I had already decided that I would love this book before I had even read it. Not because Black and Blue had just taken out one of Australia’s most prestigious literary accolades, the Victorian Prize for Literature, as well as the Prize for Indigenous Writing, but because I love Ronnie and her family. I think the world of all of them and figured I would love every single word that Veronica Gorrie wrote. Add to that, I hate cops, and every other agent of the carceral state. So, it was only natural that I would relish reading what I imagined would be an exposé of Ronnie’s time in the force: exposing the levels of racism, corruption and sheer arrogance of the institution of policing. But as it turns out, this review of Veronica’s memoir won’t be starting out as a confession to you, dear reader, but rather to Ronnie, and to be honest, I’m a little nervous.

So here goes.

Dear Ronnie,

I have a confession to make.

This book was a hard read for me.

Even now, as I type these words to you, I feel conflicted and sad, and really tired.

You see, I haven’t slept properly in over a week because my nightmares have returned. The midnight hours are consumed by harrowing excursions back to the devil’s playground where I’m held captive by the state and tortured by people in uniforms.

So, I want to tell you that I loved your book. I want to say it was a pleasure to read. I want to say that your story moved me, and I’d read it over and over again because I couldn’t put it down. Please don’t be angry with me, Ronnie, but I can’t say those exact words. Well, not quite.

Let me explain.

When I was contacted and asked to do this review, I almost fell over myself in a hurry to say yes! A hundred times, yes! I have wanted to read your book since it was published, and it was at the top of my ‘to buy’ list as a gift to myself for handing in my Master’s thesis. So, this offer was like a gift from the ancestors. Even better, I was being given the book and I planned to take it on my honeymoon to get a head start on the reading. I had visions of myself laid out on a tropical beach: sandy toes, salty lips, wind-swept hair, sun-kissed cheeks and your book in my hands. I waited every day for the postie to deliver the book, but it didn’t arrive. While I was packing my bathers and knickers before we left for our holiday, I watched you win a major literary prize – nothing gammin mind, a proper big one. Not only was I stoked for you and your family, I was so damned proud of you. Not just because this was your debut memoir, but I was proud that a Black fulla telling their story, and the story of our people, had been recognised in this way. I was proud that truth had prevailed and was being regaled rather than erased. I was beyond excited to read the book and as we drove to the airport, I decided I would just buy a copy so I could start reading it straight away. I could not wait. However, very quickly, I was brought back to earth and reminded we live in a colony designed to erase Black people, not elevate and uphold us (how could I forget?). I tried to buy your book at every bookstore I could find – and not a single one stocked it. Not a single one, Ronnie! You had just won Australia’s richest literary prize and not one bookstore in Meeanjin was stocking your book. I was fucking outraged.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I got home from the honeymoon and on my doorstep was a parcel. I knew it was your book. I ripped it open and, ahhhhhhhh, there it was, like a little red ray of light. I got stuck in. Now, I am a fast reader. I always have been. Even when I was at primary school, and we had to do Round Robin reading I was always pages ahead of my peers. I would be frustrated at the snail-pace of my fellow students and when it came around to my turn to read, I never knew where we were up to in the text. Your book was no different. From the moment I started, I just kept going. I ploughed through line after line, page after page, chapter after chapter – until I reached the end. Your book was filled with memories – memories of family, love, loss, raising three kids and being Blak in the colony. But it was also a memoir of your ten-year career in the police force, so the chapters were also filled with pain, racism, grief and trauma. And as I closed the book and lifted my head from the pages, only then did I exhale. I realised I had possibly held my breath through the whole thing. And why? Because you were a cop, Ronnie. A cop. I think my heart broke a little. I mean, why? I knew this. It’s just that I never imagined you as a cop. And as I watched your career unfold word after word, my ACAB activist heart sank further and further. But here’s the thing…and brace yourself, Ronnie, because I’m going to use a cliché here. You’re not like the other cops, you’re different. You’re Veronica Gorrie, Aunty Ronnie. A descendent of the Krautungalung clan of the Gunai/Kurnai nations, first and foremost. Staunch. Black. Mother. Different. You’re not a cop, and I don’t actually think your Black body was ever truly Blue.

Your book, I guess, is itself a confession of sorts. A plea for absolution (knowing that none can really ever come). With the words, ‘towards the end of my time, I regretted the fact that I was in the police at all. There are some memories that play over and over,’ you speak with such regret and remorse (shame, even) for the things you have done, and with such grief for what you have witnessed. There were moments where I felt distinctly uncomfortable, like when you talked about pulling someone over and giving them a ticket even when you could have just cautioned them: ‘I intercepted a vehicle that failed to stop at a stop sign. When I asked the driver their reason for doing so, he replied that he was rushing to get to the hospital, as his brother was dying. Instead of being empathetic towards [him] and letting him off with a warning, I issued him with an infringement notice.’ Or when you walked away from a close friendship with a family who had succumbed to drug use. Your regret over this still lingers today: ‘I feel bad about this now, and I know I should have contacted them.’

There were also moments where I felt sad. Sad for you and sad for the kids, especially when you were recounting financial struggles or talking about going without a feed: ‘I would have to go to work knowing that my children were going to school hungry’. There were stories that made me sad for our mob, and sad for the people being policed by you and your colleagues. And there were so many times I felt angry. Angry at the force, what you saw them do to our people, and at what they did to you and what they took from you and the kids.

But Ronnie, there were times I also felt immensely proud. Proud to know you. Proud of who you are and what you are and what you stood for, despite the uniform you wore – and that challenged me. It challenged the abolitionist activist in me, and it still does. And every time I think about that, I think it’s true that the only good cop is the cop that hands in their badge. And you did that, Ronnie. You walked away, to save yourself, in order to save others, because you didn’t want to ‘conform to become one of them and allow yourself to be a part of the racist system and their racist ideologies about your own people.’ I admire that. I admire that infinitely. In fact, my admiration and love for you has grown so much.

The genius of your book is in its sophisticated simplicity. Dividing the book into two sections – the Black and the Blue – as if your life was indeed lived as two separate identities is brilliant. The play on words using ‘black’ and ‘blue’ to denote bruising, damage and trauma quickly gets to the heart of the book’s central reflection, which is that Black people who occupy both willing and unwilling positions within the carceral state are damaged by them. Certainly, you explore the traumas suffered by yourself, as a paid servant of the carceral state, as well as the damage inflicted upon Aboriginal people more generally by the police, in equal measure.  

I read Part One: Black with such ease. Your story is all of our story: growing up, being Black in this colony. But for me, it was the relationship with your Dad that struck a chord. I also grew up with just my Dad and when you wrote, ‘I may have had a dysfunctional life, but I was always loved and cared for by my father,’ I gasped. It was as if you had reached into my being and yanked those words from the very base of my crimson heart and spoke them into existence. I enjoyed reading the love you and your Dad shared. You say, ‘my father has been my rock in my life.’ I know it warms me because I can relate, but also because I think Black love is one of the most beautiful forms of love. Even witnessing the relationship with your mother was joyful, not for the angst it caused, but for the enduring love you held despite the trials, and for the eventual peace and healing that came. I was especially moved by these words of realisation and resolve: ‘there was a moment, when I was sitting beside Mum, that I had the sense that I finally understood her.’ I was struck in reading the stories of your childhood how every one of those stories are tragically so relevant today. Nothing bloody changes for Black fullas, just the fashion being worn while it happens.

It was when I got to Part Two of the book, Blue, that I struggled. As I said, I struggled because I watched you become a cop before my eyes. So weird, right? I know this about you. But still I was shocked. Ronnie’s a copper? You arrested people. You chased them down. Hell, you even narked on them when you were off duty – it’s how you got a high arrest rate. Man, I sank deep into that rabbit hole of wonderings. But as deep as I dove, Ronnie, the fact is that no matter how many years you had that uniform on, how many collars you had under your belt, you were never really Blue. You were always Black. I mean, the force was never going to let you be Blue, were they? But you were never really going to be either. You are a Black fulla through and through. That’s the thing though, we all think we can be the ‘exceptional one’, or as Dr Chelsea Watego phrases it, ‘the Black whisperer.’ Some Black fullas subscribe to the thinking that we can be the palatable Black who can somehow magically fix things for our people. Fix things where no other Black fulla has been able to fix things before (who we think we are? Some Black Star Trekker or something?) That one special Black fulla that can make a difference. The one that can pull us from the margins into some other place and space. A place with less suffering. A kinder place. A healthier place. It’s just another colonial form of domestic servitude that we’re forced into in trying to be who they want us to be. You had hope, sis. I can see it when you say, ‘I wanted to help people in the community, people of all backgrounds – the needy, the vulnerable – and to treat them with respect and dignity.’ Hope’s not necessarily a bad thing, but to draw on sista Chelsea’s words again, fuck hope. Look at what it got you: racism and buckets full of trauma. Fuck that.

As the words tumbled out page by page, as I read what they did to you and what you went through, my heart ached for you. When you wrote, ‘policing fucked me up big time. I spent half my time in the job educating other cops about my culture, and the other half explaining the reasons I became a sworn police officer… Not to mention the shit I put up with from other officers’, I kept thinking about this idea that we are required to walk in both worlds. You indeed were a Black woman walking in a blue world full of white men. White men in a white institution paid to uphold white supremacy. And as you said, ‘no amount of Black cops can make a difference if the force itself is racist,’ because ‘racism lives and breathes in the police.’

Your story is one of defiance and ongoing resistance, Ronnie. Every day you drew breath as a Black woman wearing a blue uniform you were resisting. You may have been required to walk in that world, but your bare Black feet never left our world. I think that’s why you came home. I think it’s why you left the force. Yes, you had post-traumatic stress disorder. Yes, you were harmed on the job. But Ronnie, your ancestors never would have wanted you in that place. They never would have wanted your Black body to have borne so much pain and so many wounds. Even as I write this my eyes well for you, what you have endured, what we all endure. I weep for our people because of what the carceral state and every one of its agents enacts in order for the punishment state to perpetuate itself. I’m sorry, Ronnie. I’m sorry you suffered. But I am thankful too. I am thankful for your acts of resistance. The most significant and understated act that stands out for me and will remain with me long after the memory of this book is gone, was when you chose not to walk away and quit this particular day that you recount, despite being encouraged to by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander worker in the ethnic and diversity unit, instead you responded with power to your peers’ abuse by placing the Aboriginal flag on your desk. It was this simple, yet beautiful act of resistance that was breathtakingly powerful. It symbolised for me the impregnable strength of Black women. It epitomised you, Ronnie. Strong. Black. Staunch. A fighter. A survivor.

As I was nearing the end of your book, the Rolfe verdict was being handed down. The ‘not guilty’ resolution sent a ricochet of grief through our communities. The fact that Constable Rolfe, who in November 2019 shot and killed Warlpiri teenager Kumanjayi Walker, was found not guilty, was unfathomable to us. I am guessing it wasn’t a shock to you, though. In chapter 24, you say, ‘white cops know they can pretty much get away with anything – and they do.’ I think about your words in that chapter now as the suppression order is lifted on Rolfe’s text messages, which the jury never got to read. Rolfe’s text messages describe being able to do his job like a cowboy: ‘The good thing is it’s like the Wild West and fuck all the rules in the job really.’ Things will never change in the force, will they, Ronnie? It’s funny because people have described your book as brave, and I guess it is. You have spoken out about your time in the force and being honest and speaking up and out about the cops is always a risk. A risk to your liberty, and as a Black fulla that means a risk to your life. But actually, I think what you are asking in this book is for us to be brave. You are asking white fullas to reckon with the idea that policing does not provide safety for all, only safety for some. You are giving them a history lesson of the brutal aspects of colonial history and reminding them that these events did not begin and end 233 years ago, but that they remain a feature of the colonial project today. Yet, even more so, in this book you invite us all, Black and white, to be brave in imagining a world where policing doesn’t exist. A world where safety and justice can be experienced by everyone. A world where our communities can be immersed in abundance and healing not consumed by scarcity and harm. A world where we all flourish, and where we can live and keep drawing breath.

Ronnie, I love you and I do love this book, but it’s a tough read. It’s tough for me because I am a criminalised Black woman. I know the violence of the carceral state, and I have had their hands around my throat for some time now. Your book took my breath away and I am not sure I have been able to breathe properly ever since. But this is a story that must be told, and we cannot look away, no matter how ugly the subject matter. We cannot shy away from the hard stuff, we cannot. You finish your book by saying ‘everyone has a story – we just need to listen to them long enough’, and in that vein, I don’t have much to offer you by way of thanks, so I gift you these words from my Leempeen. She gave them to me a long time ago. She said to me:

Freedom will begin when you loosen their grip from your throat. Trying to live in a world that is designed to kill and erase your very existence is tiring…come home to country. Rest those feet in cool waters, lay your head on the leaves under the ancient gneering, spread the puuyuupkil on your wounds…and be still, and listen, for the ancestors will send messages through the wind that will rustle the leaves of the trees. Those winds of words will fan a flame, that will either light a way, or burn a path depending on what stands before you.

I guess we just have to learn how to listen, unna Aunt? Because even the winds have stories to tell, and Ronnie, I am so grateful you told us your story, no matter how hard it was to read.

Much love, my sista