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Oct 29, 2008

Chloe Hooper: In search of Palm Island’s true victims

Cameron Doomadgee’s death on Palm Island triggered a kind of war, writes Chloe Hooper.

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.

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17 thoughts on “Chloe Hooper: In search of Palm Island’s true victims

  1. Stuart

    Just read ‘The Tall Man’ last night. I thought it was a great work. ‘Kate”s comments above are undeserved. Hooper has dug hard into the story, exploring her own and the nations prejudices with great insight. I was hoping to understand the outcome of the trial, but unless evidence has been ommitted from Hoopers account, I still cannot. Certainly there is only circumstantial evidence of a bashing, however the negligence required to let a prisoner bleed to death on the floor while listening to his cries beggars belief. It reminds me of the horrific Brimble case. The arousal technique of a kick is telling.
    The time for our tears however is the shoddy investigation & the undemocratic threats of industrial action trying to put some citizens (police) above the rule of law. Hooper does a good job of trying to understand this corrupt culture, but understanding it doesn’t make it right. Police calling for video surveillance is laughable, as anyone who has ‘fallen over’ outside the station will attest.
    Police deal with the most difficult of situations, and the community afford them special powers to do so. The use of those powers must be scrutinised with utmost integrity. In this case, and sadly many others, it has not.

  2. Jo Mack

    I can understand the bitterness on both sides of the sorry mess that is Palm Island. There is no clear-cut justice on either side of the unfortunate events surrounding the death of Mr Doomadgee. For those of you who feel the police over-reacted, I suggest you spend a year on Palm Island living as a minority white person before you close your mind to the police perspective. For those of you who feel that the indigenous population brought it on themselves, stop to reflect that Palm Island is not their real home. Several tribes were relocated from all over QLD and dumped on the Island, causing total destruction of their social, cultural and religious structures and cohesion. They are a disperate group of people struggling to find where they fit into a broader, alien culture. It truly is one of those situations where you need to fully understand the situation before you can judge others, and in this case, everyone on Palm Island that day, lost something.

  3. Stuart

    Very true Kate, no book is gospel (except, I suppose, the Gospels). We must pass through our critical filter the subjective opinions and prejudices of any author. To Hooper’s credit I dont think she claimed objectivity at all.
    To those of us with an interest in (but no connection to) the case, her book provided some detail not available to a casual reader of the media reports at the time. If there are errors amongst these details I would be interested to know, rather than surmise Hoopers account is fiction because it is (inevitably) subjective. Please do elaborate when you get the chance.

  4. Xazron

    Sharing the cartoon of “First dog on the Moon” re Palm Island death in custody and the local indigenous riot with my peers ( English Teachers) and the follow on Crikey comments resulted in much silence from said colleques. And I teach in a High School with a couple of hundred Indigenous locals aged 15-18 years of age. Disbelief and personal awkwardness in how to respond was paramount. We who teach our local aboriginal students are not too sure what to say. Placing the First Dog and follow on comments on the Department display board met with indifference. Sighee.

  5. Tom McLoughlin

    Very interesting Xazron. My feeling about that silence would be confusion – authority figures meant to protect us accused of ultra violent murder. It’s genuinely confusing especially as the cultural settings are virtually subliminal regarding the role of the coppers. And it’s one thing to think intellectually some police are rotten but another to experience the shock of it directly. And when there is serious criminal violent threats who do you call – the coppers who are everyones ‘mommy and daddy’ at such times, including this writer.

    And then there is Obama who shuns any hint of the angry black man persona.

    And I know I can’t speak for Indigenous Australians about their problems and their struggle. So I will just suggest this for the coppers and the black folks from a short brown pigeon chested man who has helped me think these things through alot:

    Gandhi’s ten principles of nonviolence:

    1. Humiliating or deliberately provoking your opponent invites violence.

    2. Knowing your facts and arguments well helps avoid violence.

    3. If you are open about your cause your opponent is less likely to be violent.

    4. Look for common ground between you and your opponents to promote trust and understanding.

    5. Do not judge others.

    6. Trust your opponent. They will sense this trust.

    7. Compromise on inessential items to promote resolution.

    8. Sincerity helps convert your opponent.

    9. By making personal sacrifice you show your sincerity.

    10. Avoid exploiting weakness in your opponent. Aim for integrity, not simply to win.

  6. dermot

    yes kate how do you know

  7. Kate

    give me a break Dermot – I have read the book, but don’t have it in front of me at the moment! I’m sure I can throw a few more errors at you tomorrow if that’s what you want. But really, isn’t it just easier to NOT take the book (any book, in fact) as gospel? Don’t believe everything you read, that’s what it boils down to. And as far as my credentials for ‘knowing’ these things about the case, I think the fact that the author herself approached me to be a source should indicate I’m not bullshitting you

  8. Kate

    Jeez Chloe, and to think you’ve made money off this whole episode by penning a book – how do you sleep at night? Given that Mr Wotton’s violence was caught on camera, I don’t think he could have reasonably expected a ‘not guilty’ finding. Not to worry, the awful injustices inflicted by our legal system also include the appeals process, which I understand is now underway on Mr Wotton’s behalf.
    You once asked me to be a source for your novel, and I’m pleased I declined. Emotive language and flights of fancy are fine if you’re writing fiction – but what happened on Palm Island deserves more level-headed scrutiny than that. Tucking yourself under the wing of the Palm Island Council’s lawyer and gathering scuttlebutt on Chris Hurley doesn’t give you some all-powerful insight into Palm Island – it actually makes you a partisan part of the problem.

  9. Cathy

    It’s called Queensland. Rudd country. It’s where the unpardonable, irrational and treacherous unfolds on a daily basis with the help of the political and parliamentary process. The deep north has set a cracking pace on assuming a Robert Mugabe-style governance. How are so many breaches of human and civil rights in this parlous state passed off as hiccups in the ‘political’ process?. Maybe this audio of its former Premier Peter Beattie at a Rotary event in South Carolina earlier this year sheds light on why the sunshine state mirrors Beattie’s new found home circa slavery. Here’s the now Trade Commissioner to the Americas giving southerners an insight into how he turned Queensland (including Palm Island) from a rocks and crops economy into a “Smart State’ and how he personally conducted business. It’s an insightful clip ending with Beattie doing everything but foster confidence in economic development pineapple style.
    Here’s a brief: “General MacArthur had his headquarters in Brisbane and a developer wanted to knock the building down and local councils had given him approval. So I rang him and said did you know that state governments can over rule councils? Now, you have an opportunity to make yourself incredibly well respected in the community. If you want to dedicate a floor to Gen Mac and make a big thing of it we’ll invest a lot of money in it. Because if you don’t you know where this conversation is going. So he made a hero of himself.” !!??## Smacks of bullying, bribery and generally what you’d call ‘unethical conduct’?

  10. Stuart

    I am not vaguely connected with the case, Kate. Can you tell me what the errors are?