Palm Island Stories, 4 Years On

November 19 marked the fourth anniversary of the death in custody of Cameron “Mulrunji” Doomadgee (left) in the police watch house on Palm Island. Earlier in November, Lex Wotton (below, right) was finally sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in the riots that erupted on November 24, 2004 after the autopsy results describing Doomadgee’s four broken ribs and bifurcated liver were read out to the community’s residents. 

Wotton’s sentencing on November 7 of this year followed a few days on from the awarding of medals for bravery to the twenty-two police officers who were on the island the day of the riots, although their bravery seems to have consisted largely of not shooting the rioters during a retreat from the police station, to the police barracks, and finally to the Palm Island Hospital.

There has been little news of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, the arresting officer, since May 2008, when news broke that he had received $100,000 in insurance claims for property lost when his house was burned by the rioters. In late July, he was reported promoted from the rank of Senior Sergeant to Inspector.

The Queensland Police have still not, four years later, completed an inquiry into the initial investigation of Doomadgee’s death. That investigation was conducted by Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson, a friend of Hurley’s, whom Hurley met at the Palm Island airport within hours of Doomadgee’s death, and who cooked dinner for them at Hurley’s home that evening.

After brief new reports of Wotton’s sentencing and the police awards, the story of Palm Island largely disappeared from the news in November. The National Indigenous Times ran a retrospective piece, “Unfinished Business,” in its November 13 issue. Living Black broadcast its final show of the year from the Island, interviewing former mayor Erykah Kyle, current mayor Alf Lacey, Doomadgee’s sister Valmae, and Wotton’s mother Agnes.

Much of this is old news, of course, but it has all been on my mind of late, as I marked the anniversaries by spending November reading the two books on the Doomadgee case that were published earlier this year. The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2008) began life as a series of reports published in the The Monthly. (The link is to the Penguin site, which has a wealth of supporting material, including a timeline of events and a post-publication video interview with Hooper.) Gone for a Song: a death in custody on Palm Island (ABC Books, 2008) is the work of longtime ABC journalist Jeff Waters, a Queensland native who returned to Brisbane after an absence of nearly two decades just months before the November 2004 incident that cost Doomadgee his life.

These are two very different books, and in searching for a metaphor to describe the difference between them, I fell back on an Indigenous distinction: women’s business and men’s business.

Chloe Hooper is a novelist. Her March 2006 essay in The Monthly, “The Tall Man: inside Palm Island’s Heart of Darkness” was her first extended piece of non-fiction. It won the Walkley that year for Magazine Feature Writing; the book, not surprisingly, was shortlisted for Walkley the non-fiction book award this year. And yet The Tall Man is deeply imbued with a novelist’s sensibility, with a focus on character and intimate detail. Brought into the community by Andrew Boe, who handled legal affairs for the family in the early years of the case, Hooper developed a close relationship with Doomadgee’s sister Elizabeth that illuminates much of the book. She witnesses much of the legal proceedings by the family’s side; it is primarily through them that she comes to know who Doomadgee was.

One of the ironies of this book is that for all her investigative labors, Hooper never speaks with either of the men who are at its heart. Doomadgee, of course, was gone in all but spirit long before Hooper arrived on Palm Island. Indeed, so was Hurley, who went into hiding after the riots. Although she sees him at the trial that forms the climax of the book, and in one almost terrifying moment meets his gaze, she was unable to interview him, and he remains an aloof, protected presence, always at a distance throughout her inquiries.

Doomadgee also stays just a bit beyond reach, his personality and character mediated by family. He is described as happy-go-lucky and genial. Another of the story’s ironies is that was his singing–call it taunting if you will, as Hurley did–that got him arrested on that fatal day. His partner and de facto of ten years, Tracey Twaddle, describes him as a happy drunk, but admits to locking herself in the bathroom in the event of trouble: one of the few hints of a darker side that emerges from Hooper’s association with the family.

Hooper does diligent research in search of both men, traveling north to Doomadgee, the town Cameron’s stepfather was exiled from in 1950 to gain a feel for country and family, and to Burketown, less than a hundred miles east, on the southern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, where Hurley was stationed prior to arriving in Palm Island. 

Many news stories about Hurley (left) have talked about his long career in Aboriginal communities and the friendships that he built in them. There is the obvious question: how did such a man come to be involved in a violent death? Hooper recounts his warm and long-lasting friendship with Murrandoo Yanner, whom she describes as “the face of radical Aboriginal politics” in Burketown while Hurley was working there. But she also notes that when passed over for promotion in 2001, Hurley blamed, not the police force, but the community, including Murrandoo Yanner. And then, to round out this series of contradictions, Hooper relates how Hurley heroically rescued a relative of Yanner’s from a flooding culvert, earning himself a Police Commissioner’s Certificate and putting his career “back on track.”

In the second half of the book, Hooper chronicles the aftermath of the death and the riots: the extended inquest; the controversial judgments of Deputy Coroner Christine Clements (who argued that the fatal injuries must have been caused, intentionally or not, by Hurley–a finding that Hurley came to agree with during his trial) and Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare’s decision not to prosecute for lack of evidence; and the series of external reviews that finally led to Hurley facing charges of manslaughter. She attends the trial in the company of Doomadgee’s grieving family, and her account is replete with courtroom drama. She offsets her portrait of Hurley in the dock with her growing outrage at the tactics of the Queensland police and their outrage at one of their number being held accountable for a death in custody. 

And in the end there is the shock of Hurley’s acquittal, the weariness of another loss for the people of Palm Island, and the grace of the family even at this moment of bitter defeat. Hooper has the perspective to note that John Howard’s announcement of the Northern Territory Emergency Response came less than twenty-four hours after Hurley’s acquittal, but she doesn’t dwell on the coincidence. Indeed the book ends a mere three pages after the verdict is announced, as though, having witnessed the story, exhausted, Hooper can say no more.

I wanted to leave Townsville as fast as I could. I didn’t have a ticket and the airlines said all their flights were full, but I packed and took a taxi to the airport. Even if I had to fly somewhere else and wait for a connection, I didn’t care, I just wanted to get out. The guard who eventually scanned my bags saw Hurley’s photo on my newspaper and said,’I’ve got a lot of sympathy for him. I’ve worked security in jails. A lot of them should be shot. The jail’s just a motel between raping women.’

Hurley had become a kind of folk hero. It was as if he’d been not so much acquitted as forgiven. And in forgiving him, people forgave themselves (pp. 265-66).

If I characterize Hooper’s narrative as “women’s business,” rooted in family and in deep personal connection (Doomadgee’s niece is her godchild), Jeff Waters writes “men’s business.” As he admits, much of what he relates in Gone for a Song is drawn from news reports of his fellow journalists. He did not visit Palm Island until nearly a year after the death and the riots, and during that visit he focused his reporting mostly on social and economic issues on the Island, particularly housing problems.

In fact, much of Waters’s story provides a broader look at the social environment that has given Palm Island its reputation as a small piece of Hell packed into a tiny piece of a tropical Paradise. He retells the Palm Island’s history as a penal colony, investigates the broader picture of race relations on the Island and in Queensland, and in his final chapter, perhaps ironically called “Hope,” he searches for news of a brighter future for the community. 

Waters treats the trial and Hurley’s acquittal in a two-page “Postscript.” This odd conclusion gives the impression that the book was largely written in 2006, laid aside, and then dusted off and rushed into print by the ABC to compete with or capitalize on the publication of The Tall Man

Still, Gone for a Song has its merits, chief of which is the record of the riots and their aftermath. He gives a chilling account of the night of the riot, when police on Palm Island stormed the homes of suspected rioters on the equally suspicious grounds that the community–and more pointedly the police themselves–were still at risk from the ringleaders’ anger. In another bit of “men’s business,” Waters owes this splendid piece of recording to his contacts in the television world. Through the agency of the unnamed cameraman who recorded that anarchy (still photo, right), and through censored reports of the Crime and Misconduct Commission’s investigation of the arrests of the rioters, Waters paints a vivid, troubling, and unforgettable picture of violence, black and white, capturing the chaos and anarchy of those eighteen hours. In doing so, he casts into sharp relief the countless other moments of casual violence, domestic cruelty, and simmering hostility–like a drunk’s cursing of a police officer–that characterize daily affairs on Palm Island.

Both The Tall Man and Gone for a Song supply extensive lists of source material. As might be expected, Waters’s bibliography is especially strong in documenting the media’s reporting of the story as it unfolded, with lengthy lists of newspaper articles, television reports, and web postings, supplemented by government documents. (Unfortunately, however, he does not cite Hooper’s publications in The Monthly.)

For all that Chris Hurley is the central figure in these stories, neither Hooper nor Waters cast him as the villain, and neither author judges him forthrightly. Waters’s focus rests more the effects of the death on the community at large, Hooper’s on the family. For Hooper in particular, Hurley becomes the shadowy, mythical “Tall Man,” glimpsed only dimly, spoken of more than seen, the monster that is said to haunt the hills of Palm Island. 

For both authors, and especially for Hooper, the harshest judgments are reserved for the Queensland Police. Hooper’s last sighting of Hurley, with which she closes off her narrative, is at a Queensland Police Unions “Pride in Policing Day” two months after Hurley’s acquittal, “the march the union had threatened before Hurley’s trial and could now hold with impunity.” (Still an extraordinarily ill-timed event, much like November’s bravery awards to the police who fled the riots.) Here are her final words in the book:

I watched the Police Commissioner shake Hurley’s hand. Then the Senior Sergeant joined his division. Other cops came over to congratulate him. Hurley, like his supporters, was wearing a blue band with his serial number, 6747, around his wrist. He shook more hands. Then he talked to man holding a little blonde girl. He leaned toward her, pretending to be a monster. “Grrrr!’ he cried, holding his hands like clawed paws in from of his face. The girl laughed with delight. He tickled her: ‘Grrrr!’ There he was, the Tall Man. But when I looked for him in the parade I couldn’t find him. It was as if he’d dissolved into a long stream of blue (p. 266).

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