By Jason Smith
I remember when I heard the tragic news on October 5 about two pedestrians hit in an accident. My heart sunk as I posted the details on our Facebook page, advising people to avoid the area.
When it was discovered that the two people had died, all of Geraldton was greatly saddened and shared a massive amount of heartfelt commiseration. Family members of the victims told of the children left behind, crying for their mother, unable to comprehend what had happened. This was heartbreaking as a parent to read.
As details emerged over the following days that the driver had allegedly fled the scene before later handing himself in, and been charged with a blood alcohol reading of excess .05, the community was more upset.
On October 16 with no charges having yet been laid, a protest was held outside the Police station and courthouse buildings by family and friends of the victims.
The father of one of the victims was kind enough to talk to me, and I was humbled by his composure and kind demeanour. He shared with me his desire to see social justice carried out, and said charges needed to be pressed. The family of the deceased felt like nothing was happening, and the matter hadn't received enough attention from the Police or the media.
The following day charges were laid by Police. The charges were: Fail to Stop, Fail to Render Assistance, and Excess 0.05%.
These charges were seen as too light by the family of the deceased. This, and the fact that they still felt like justice wasn't being served caused the family and friends of the deceased to organise another protest. This protest was to occur outside the courthouse again on the day the accused was to face court for the first time, November 7.
On the morning of the protest, I debated in my mind whether to go and cover it or not. I didn't want to disrespect the families by being yet another sticky beak media member looking for a juicy story. But at the same time I had received complaints from people and family involved for not giving the story enough coverage. Either way people were going to be displeased, but I decided to head down to the courthouse.
In the car on the way there a reporter from the ABC came on the radio saying that the protest had turned ugly. She said police had barricaded the entrance to the courthouse, and she wouldn't want to go outside.
I arrived at the protest and found the scene under control.
We published a brief story advising of what had occurred thus far at the protest, and advised people to avoid Marine Terrace as protestors had decided to march along it.
Much to my disappointment, within moments people were commenting on our posts saying things that were only making people upset, and so I decided to forgo being a fast news service that day, and remove all stories. We received complaints from people for not having a story up, and we received complaints for having posted anything at all. Other media like the ABC had posted things on Facebook, but were deleting all the comments, and even the Guardian removed the link to their story from their Facebook page due to the nature of the commenting.
As I watched, it occurred to me how incredible it was that around 150 (though some people estimated 300) people had come together to try and see justice done. I admired their unity, and the sense of community was unquestionably strong. I wondered if two of my children had died in similar circumstances, would even five people bother to rally around me for justice.
As the protest officially ended, what had actually happened started to be analysed. Some publications changed the headlines of their stories. The media stopped using the word "riot" on Twitter, and Police made some statements.
It appeared that the entrance doors to the courthouse had been damaged as the crowd moved forward, and a man was to be charged over breaking a window. But it was certainly not an "out of control" riot.
It is true that the Police did receive a large amount of verbal abuse. And sadly someone started a false rumour that the accused was related to a former Mayor of Geraldton. The family of the former Mayor asked us to clarify to the community that it was not true, holding serious safety concerns. Many people told us that should have been irrelevant anyway, and they have a good point.
The organiser of the rally spoke with me during some of the protest speeches and said she and the protesters are unhappy with the system, but hold nothing against any individuals in the community or even individual members of the police force. She even explained one of her own relatives was a police officer in Geraldton. Her calmness and professionalism was evident, as was her desire to see the rally remain peaceful.
The Police conducted themselves beyond reproach the entire day. They took the abuse without blinking or retaliating, seeming to understand how upset everyone was and not taking anything personal.
News emerged from the court proceedings.
GWN7 reported that the police said the initial charges were actually wrong, caused by an admin error.
The man accused had his charges changed to the more serious "failing to render assistance when death was caused", and "failing to report an accident causing death". He has also been charged with drink driving.
The new charges carry a more serious penalty. If found guilty of all three, he could face more than 30 years behind bars.
He did not enter a plea, and was released on bail to reappear in court next month.
The entire incident is such a sad event for the Geraldton community to go through. But the last thing the family of the victims want is to feel as though the entire situation is being swept under the carpet.
Anyone deserves the chance to protest peacefully if they believe they see a lack of justice, and while perhaps at times emotions boiled over, I saw no violence toward any persons and I felt safe being there.