Kathy Marks: Australia’s persistent racism

    Free Lex Wotton rally : Solidarity on Wurundjeri land: Friday, November 7, 2008, 1.00pm, Melbourne County Court, Cnr of William & Lonsdale Streets, Melbourne.

Kathy Marks: Australia’s persistent racism
The Independent
November 5, 2008

Nearly four years ago, an Aboriginal man named Cameron Doomadgee was escorted into the police station on Palm Island, off the coast of North Queensland. A healthy 36-year-old, he had never been in trouble with the law. An hour later, he was dead.

Mr Doomadgee had been involved in a scuffle inside the police station with the arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. An autopsy found Mr Doomadgee had four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a liver “virtually cleaved in two”. The injuries were described as similar to those of a car or plane crash victim.

There have many such deaths; a Royal Commission even investigated the phenomenon 20 years ago. Its recommendations have not prevented Aborigines from continuing to be arrested and imprisoned at a far higher rate than white Australians. Thanks largely to the efforts of certain journalists, Mr Doomadgee’s death wasn’t just another black death in custody, of which there have been many. There was public outrage. One Aboriginal leader [Noel Pearson] likened it to the murder by South African police of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist.

    Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: On 10 August 1987 Prime Minister Hawke announced the formation of a Royal Commission to investigate the causes of deaths of Aboriginal people while held in State and Territory gaols. The Royal Commission was established in response to a growing public concern that deaths in custody of Aboriginal people were too common and poorly explained. The Letters Patent formally establishing the Commission were issued by the Governor-General on 16 October 1987. Similar Letters Patent were issued by the States and the Northern Territory.

    The Commission examined all deaths in custody in each State and Territory which occurred between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989, and the actions taken in respect of each death. The Commission’s terms of reference enabled it to take account of social, cultural and legal factors which may have had a bearing on the deaths under investigation.

Queensland – governed for two decades by a despotic right-wing premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, with the assistance of an often brutal and corrupt police force – is still known as Australia’s Deep North [and its capital, Brisbane, as Pig City]. And there are few spots worse than Palm Island, founded as an Aboriginal penal colony and nowadays a byword for dysfunction and despair.

Sgt Hurley’s conduct was investigated by his friends; he even collected the detectives from the airport. He denied assaulting Mr Doomadgee, saying he must have fallen on him. The coroner decided Sgt Hurley caused the fatal injuries by punching him. However, no charges were laid.

Uproar ensued and the case was reviewed. In June last year, Sgt Hurley stood trial on the mainland, where an all-white jury acquitted him of manslaughter. The verdict was greeted with jubilation by police officers, who had staged rallies in support of Sgt Hurley, claiming he had been “hung out to dry”.

Eight months later, prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to indigenous Australians for their past treatment, vowing that “the injustices of the past must never, never happen again”. On Palm Island, people were still grieving for Mr Doomadgee – and for his son, Eric, who hanged himself in 2006, and for Patrick Bramwell, another islander who comforted Mr Doomadgee as he lay dying in his cell. Mr Bramwell hanged himself last year.

In parliament, Mr Rudd spoke of “unfinished business”. Over the past 12 days, the loose ends of the Palm Island saga have been tied up. A community leader, Lex Wotton, was convicted by an all-white jury of inciting the riot that erupted after Mr Doomadgee’s post mortem. And 34 Queensland police officers – the largest single batch ever – were awarded for their bravery during that riot.

Mr Wotton could be jailed for life. Sgt Hurley, who was suspended on full pay for two years, has returned to the police service and been promoted. He received a £40,000 [$100,000] payout. An inquiry into allegations that he ran over an Aboriginal woman’s foot and then drove off concluded that he should receive counselling. Sgt Hurley has yet to be counselled.

Those who believe that Australia has cast off its racist past, or that a black man’s life counts for much here, or that Mr Rudd’s apology in February has improved the lives of ordinary Aborigines, would do well to reflect on recent events on Palm Island.

[Hat tip : Ana]

I don’t live this life for me
In Orstralia land so free
Everybody lazing in the sun
Nobody cares so let’s have fun

We got no problems, got no wars
And you don’t need your brain no more
No sir

Orstralia goes in once again
We must remember all our friends
And to make sure always
That we support the CIA

We got no problems got no wars
And you don’t need your brain no more
No sir

Hang your washing on the line
It’s okay, the weather’s fine
Your hubby goes out don’t commit no crime
He always gets to work on time

We got no problems got no wars
And you don’t need your brain no more
No sir

You know you’re blah blah blah
In Orstralia
In your own backyard
In Orstralia
So come on, let’s have fun
In Orstralia

…in the land of the hope ‘n’ glory…

~ ‘Orstralia’, The Saints, Eternally Yours (Released May 1978)

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2020 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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