Monday, October 27, 2008
The question the state of Queensland should be asking itself today is this: is Lex Wotton a danger to society?
The answer is that if Queensland Police stop killing black men in custody, and trying to cover it up, then Lex Wotton is no threat to anyone.
Not that it matters much. Late on Friday, Wotton was convicted of the offence of “rioting with destruction” following the November 2004 uprising on Palm Island. He is now in custody, awaiting sentencing on November 7 in Townsville District Court.
The scale of this injustice is hard to comprehend, and even harder to describe. So I won’t even try. I’ll just stick to the facts — the black and white of the issue.
These are the injuries sustained by black people at the hands of police in the days and months immediately surrounding the death in custody, and the uprising: Mulrunji Doomadgee suffered four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen a torn portal vein and a liver “almost cleaved in two” (it was held together by a couple of blood vessels). After his death, Mulrunji’s son Eric hung himself from a tree on Palm Island. The man who lay in the cell next to Mulrunji and comforted him as he died — Patrick Nugent — has also taken his own life. In the course of his arrest, Lex Wotton was tasered, as was a second Aboriginal man.
Now these are the injuries police suffered at the hands of black people during the November 26, 2004 uprising: One officer was hit in the stomach with a rock. Another was hit in the hip. Both suffered bruising.
Now to matters of criminality.
Lex Wotton has been convicted of inciting a crowd to move against police. It’s worth noting there was also substantial evidence presented at his trial — mostly by police — that Wotton ordered rioters to stop throwing rocks at officers and secured transport (later refused) to get police off the island safely. There was also video footage of Wotton trying to stop rioters from preventing a fire truck accessing the carnage.
Now here’s what we know the police did.
In June 2004 — five months before the killing and riot — Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley ran over an Aboriginal woman in a police vehicle. He didn’t stop to render first aid, and both he and a female officer present in the vehicle denied the incident had occurred.
In response, senior police in Townsville appointed a friend (and neighbour) of Hurley’s — Detective Senior Constable Darren Robinson — to investigate the matter. After doing nothing for a month, Robinson finally delivered his report to his superiors. His mate Hurley did nothing wrong, the entire complaint was fictitious. Robinson neglected to mention that he had not interviewed any witnesses, nor had he sought any medical evidence. Had he done so, he’d have discovered the injured woman, Barbara Pilot, had suffered a compound fracture to her leg, and her shinbone was sticking through her skin.
Robinson subsequently admitted on the stand during the Wotton trial that he lied in his report.
Three months later, in September 2004, Hurley assaulted a man — Douglas Clay — in the Palm Island police station. About half a dozen police — including his mate Robinson — witnessed the incident. Police denied an assault had occurred, but after the death of Mulrunji, the Crime & Misconduct Commission investigated, and found traces of Clay’s blood in the police cell.
In November, Hurley was implicated in the death of Mulrunji. Senior police from Townsville again appointed Hurley’s mate Robinson to the investigation. Robinson and several other police – including an Inspector of police from the Ethical Command unit sent to Palm Island to ensure the investigation was conducted properly – ate dinner and drank beers with Hurley that night. Mulrunji’s body was barely cold.
A few days later, detectives provided an interim report to the coroner’s office. They chose not to tell the coroner that an Aboriginal witness had seen Hurley assaulting Mulrunji on the floor of the police station. A pathologist’s report subsequently found Mulrunji had died as the result of a “fall”. It was some fall – his injuries were consistent with the sort of trauma you might see from a plane crash.
Now here’s the wash-up.
Chris Hurley — a white cop — was tried by an all-white jury, overseen by a white judge on a charge of manslaughter. He got off.
Lex Wotton — a black man — was also tried by an all-white jury, overseen by a white judge on a charge of rioting with destruction. He’s facing life. He may as well have a killed a copper — he’d be facing precisely the same jail time if he had. His family — wife Cecelia, and four children (two of whom are disabled) are without a father. His community is without a leader.
By contrast, police who lost property in the riot have been compensated.
Some officers are still receiving taxpayer-funded trauma counselling today. Darren Robinson has been promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant. Chris Hurley received a $100,000 compensation payout from the Queensland Government. He took a two-year break from the police service — on full pay — while awaiting a trial of manslaughter (unlike Wotton, an all-white Queensland jury acquitted him). He has since returned to the job on the Gold Coast. He has been promoted to the rank of Inspector.
And today, police present on the island on the day of the riot will receive bravery medals. One officer, describing the uprising, told the court last week: “I feared for my life. I thought I was going to die.”
So did Mulrunji. And I bet you Lex Wotton — a black man in custody at the Roma Street Watchhouse in Brisbane — feels exactly the same way.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
On Monday it was announced that the twenty-two Queensland police officers involved in Palm Island’s November 26 2004 riot would receive bravery awards. No doubt it was terrifying to wear a police uniform on the island that day. Nineteen police officers found themselves barricaded in the police barracks as locals threw rocks and mangos and steel pickets over the cyclone wire fence, yelling, “We are going to burn you! Kill the c-nts, the Captain Cook c-nts!”
Over the road the police station was ablaze, as was the house of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. A week earlier, Hurley had locked up Cameron Doomadgee for swearing, and left him to die with injuries consistent with a victim of a car or plane crash. Nevertheless that morning the State Coroner had announced Doomadgee’s death was the result of a fall. This riot was both a protest and payback.
A local plumber, Lex Wotton, had given the police an hour to get off the island. The officers passed around a mobile phone and rang their wives to say goodbye, then they counted their bullets. One man took a BBQ lid to use as a shield, another a cricket bat, someone else broke billiard cues in two and handed the pieces to his colleagues for protection. The police stalled for time until helicopters and planes with reinforcements arrived. Seeing they had no hope, the rioters went home and in the end no one was seriously hurt.
That night, crack police squads with tasers and other weaponry went from house to house arresting those identified as rioters. Pregnant women and children were made to lie on the floor while the laser lights of police rifles played over their faces. Nineteen men were flown off the island — one for each cop trapped in the barracks — and their bail conditions banned them from returning home.
Eighteen months later, most of the officers who served on that day filed Victim Impact Statements. (The first step towards receiving compensation.) These documents are revealing — and disturbing — for their frank descriptions of racial fear and loathing. One officer wrote that his children no longer played sport on the weekend because they didn’t want to mix with Aboriginal kids. Another wrote: “I do not trust indigenous people for fear of violence…if they can try to burn my body, they will burn and hurt my loved ones.” Another wrote that he stayed up all night guarding his infant son because he was scared Palm Islanders would find his house and attack him. More than one officer claimed that they wanted vengeance: “Right or wrong,” one said, “I have harboured unhealthy desires to seek revenge which often consume all my thoughts.”
If payback was a common desire then surely the police have now had their fill. In June 2007, Senior Sergeant Hurley, despite having been found responsible for Doomadgee’s death by the Queensland Deputy State Coroner, was acquitted of manslaughter in three hours by an all white Townsville jury. By contrast, last week Lex Wotton was found guilty of rioting with destruction — a crime which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
One of the officers who will soon be able to look at the bravery award on his mantelpiece and contemplate his courage and sacrifice will be Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson. Hurley’s close friend, Robinson flew to Palm Island the day of Doomadgee’s death to investigate the matter. He had previously investigated Hurley’s behaviour, including allegations that the Senior Sergeant had run over a woman’s foot and left her lying on the ground. Despite the woman requiring surgery, Robinson declared her claims were “fictitious”.
The Crime and Misconduct Commission has since recommended the Queensland Police Service consider disciplinary action over the incident, although none has been taken. The Police Service is also unlikely to take action against the officers involved in the investigation of Cameron Doomadgee’s death, despite the Deputy Coroner’s findings of wilful incompetence.
Doomadgee’s death triggered a kind of war — with Hurley becoming a battle martyr not only for cops who feel they are victims, but for anyone who believes blacks get too much from the system. At every juncture, the Police Service’s handling of the case has shown the vast gulf between physical bravery and moral bravery. Next week, while the police hold their awards ceremony in Townsville, over the water on Palm Island the Aboriginal Council might consider giving their own series of awards for hypocrisy, humbug, and hubris.
Chloe Hooper is the author of The Tall Man, published by Penguin.
[note: video has been removed as of 2012, reasons unknown]
The first of his two books on the subject, This is Palm Island (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1978) records Rosser’s observations of life on Palm Island during a series of visit he made there from the mainland in 1974. Invited by organizer Fred Clay and his wife Iris, Rosser’s narrative circles the twin poles of outrage and disbelief:
When I first went to the island, at the invitation of Fred and Iris Clay, I was a sceptic.
The stories I had heard about the bastardries, discrimination and injustices on Palm Island were, to me, just so much bullshit!
After all, wasn’t this 1974?
Within twenty-four hours of my landing on the island, my jaw dropped in amazement!
A black fellow was fined $40 for being drunk!
Another was convicted and fined for ‘arguing‘!
Thirty years later, you might think, not much had changed, and indeed, Rosser details an oppressive climate sanctioned by the regulations of the Queensland Aborigines Act, which in one guise and under one name or another effectively controlled most aspects of life on Palm Island from 1884 until its final repeal exactly 100 years later.
Sadly, Rosser’s second book, Return to Palm Island (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994) tells a tale that, different in its particulars, in no less grim. Ostensibly, it chronicles his return to the Island in 1988-89, after the final repeal of the Act, in a doomed attempt to help Fred Clay’s son start up a newspaper and re-ignite a spirit of activism among the citizens. In truth, it becomes a series of memoirs, stories from Rosser’s own life that of his friend Dot.
But these are not stories of Palm Island, nor of the 80’s, but stories of life on the mainland, and in Dot’s case, in the Queensland bush, stories of days when Indigenous people worked in harsh conditions on stations far from the coast. The stories on Palm Island that these memories provide respite from are stories of drunkenness and anomie, and in an awful addendum, of the onslaught of AIDS.
Rosser, to some degree perhaps unwittingly, has preserved a record of the brutalizing of island life in the late twentieth century, of the ways in which government control sapped the will of the Islanders, and of the ways that the lack of such control gave way to epidemics of dysfunction that seem to have served only to continue the cycles of brutality in different ways.
As Nick Lowe wondered, “Is there only pain, and hatred, and misery?” What will it take to win a better future for Palm Island?