The Australian newspaper’s coverage of the Palm Island outrage has, up to this point, been outstanding. It’s thanks to excellent reporting from The Oz that much of the misconduct of the Queensland Police has been publicly exposed.

Unfortunately, someone let Michael McKenna loose on the story in the last few days and, well … there goes the neighbourhood (no pun intended).

Briefly, for those living under a rock, on November 19, 2004 an Aboriginal man was arrested by Snr Sgt Chris Hurley for no good reason. Within an hour he was dead in his cell, having sustained the sorts of fatal injuries you might expect to see from a body pulled from a plane crash.

A week later, local residents torched the Palm Island police station, courthouse and a residence after a pathologist’s report claimed the man, Mulrunji Doomadgee, had died from a fall.

Last week, the man accused of leading that uprising, ­Lex Wotton, ­was convicted in the Brisbane District Court.

He is facing life in prison, and will be sentenced in Townsville on November 7 (the 15 year anniversary of the death in custody of Daniel Yocks, another story for another day).

To this day, no police officer has even faced disciplinary proceedings, despite a state coroner’s report revealing the police investigation was woefully inadequate and wilfully blind.

Re-enter The Oz. For three days now, McKenna has been squeezing every drop of hero envy out of the Palm Island tragedy, based solely on an interview he secured with a police officer on the island at the time of the riot.

The reality is, the story doesn’t need to be sensationalised ­ — it already beggars belief.

Sgt Darren Randall feels that police sent to Palm Island after the riot were treated as pariahs by the public. He reminds us, through The Oz, that police sent to Palm were just doing their job in difficult circumstances.

Fair enough. So I look forward to the outspoken Sgt Randall’s public comments on the disgraceful conduct of his colleagues. In the interests of my own safety, I won’t be holding my breath. Cops stick to each other like sh-t to a blanket. Let’s not forget it was a death in custody and an attempt to cover that up that directly led to this tragedy in the first place.

But Randall went way too far when he told The Oz: “I felt all my life I have dedicated myself to helping people and, with all that controversy, no one appreciated me; Darren Randall was on that island and he nearly died.”

Nearly died? Let me remind Crikey readers of the extent of injuries suffered by police on Palm Island during the uprising. One confirmed bruise. One suspected bruise.

Sgt Randall was no doubt traumatised by his experience, video footage of the uprising shows it was clearly quite confronting on occasion. But the only people who “nearly died” were black. And as we all know, some of them actually did die. One while in police custody, and two by their own hand as a result of the injustice. Many others were injured. By police.

McKenna continues: “… those police who were armed resisted the urge to pull out their guns, as others donned cycling helmets for protection and grabbed pool cues and cricket bats as their only defence.”

Well, that’s one interpretation. Here’s another. Video evidence played at Lex Wotton’s trial shows ONE police officer pulling out ONE bike helmet. And as he does so, he can been seen joking and laughing with other police. And the same video evidence shows police with guns and batons. Plenty of them.

Palm Island police did show restraint. They had guns, they could have used them. But Aboriginal people also showed restraint. They had numbers (over 400, if you believe some police, although the video suggests a number actively involved in the riot below 50). They could have killed every cop in sight. But like I said, one bruise. One suspected bruise.

I accept there are police heroes in this story, officers who did an outstanding job in the face of genuine adversity. I believe Sgt Darren Randall is one of them. But there are Aboriginal heroes as well, Lex Wotton chief among them. Just ask any blackfella on the street.

The police don’t like to admit it (but had to in court), but Wotton on repeated occasions intervened to ensure police weren’t physically harmed. So did several other Aboriginal leaders.

It’s worth noting that just as there are heroes, there are villains as well. I can’t think of any black ones, but I can sure name a few white ones.

The police on the front line at Palm Island did face adversity, but if it wasn’t of their own making, it was certainly made by their colleagues.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey