By Kathy Newnam
A 400-strong rally was held in Brisbane on November 1 as part of the campaign to free Lex Wotton, an Indigenous community leader from Palm Island, who was found guilty on October 24 of “rioting with destruction” by an all-white jury in Brisbane’s District Court. Wotton was singled out for his participation in the protest on Palm Island that took place following the death in custody on November 19, 2004, of Mulrunji Doomadgee, a 36-year-old Palm Island man, at the hands of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Despite admitting responsibility for the death, Hurley was subsequently acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white jury in Townsville on June 19, 2007.
In the week following the murder, Palm Island residents demanded justice and were met with a massive increase in police repression. At a community meeting on November 26, 2004, the autopsy report into Mulrunji’s death was read out. The report found that the massive injuries, including four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a torn portal vein and his liver being cleaved in two were as a result of an “accident”.
The murder of Mulrunji was the 147th Aboriginal death in custody since the 1987-91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Most of these deaths were hidden from the public. The protest that took place on Palm Island, which involved at least 400 people (at least 10% of the population of the island), was instrumental in bringing the murder to public attention. As a result, political pressure was bought to bear on the Queensland government which was the main reason that Hurley was eventually charged.
But the capitalist “justice” system has many an escape clause to protect its own — and staging the trial of Hurley with an all-white jury in the racist heartland of Townsville was only the beginning. The prosecution failed to call key witnesses and other evidence of murder was disallowed in the trial. The collusion between the Queensland Labor government and the Queensland Police Union ensured that, as usual, the racist criminal “justice” system would look after its own. On the other hand, the same “justice” system will bring its full weight down on those who resist racist police violence.
Immediately following the uprising of November 26, 2004, Palm Island was put under police siege. An illegal state of emergency was imposed and the anti-terrorism squad sent to the island. The squad spent the night illegally detaining those suspected of involvement in the protests; smashing into homes, carrying out illegal searches, brutalising and bashing residents, including attacking them with Taser electric shock guns and police dogs. There were reports of police pointing rifles at children. Police told residents that they could kill them and no-one would know what had happened. Wotton was arrested by 50 police and Tasered while standing outside his house with his hands raised. The police then went into his house and forced his children to lie face down on the ground with guns to their heads.
The raids and illegal detentions continued into the week following the protest. At least 80 heavily armed police continued to lay siege to the island. During Wotton’s trial, evidence was presented of a 22-year-old woman who was detained for a day without food and dressed only in a nightgown then pressured into giving a statement against Wotton. Eighteen men, three women and two children were arrested and flown off the island to Townsville. One man, David Bulsey, was unable to return to his home and his eight children for six months because of the bail conditions. He was subsequently acquitted by a Townsville court.
This show of brute force had nothing to do with “restoring order” as claimed by the Queensland government and police. There was no physical threat. But there was a political threat — and the force used was commensurate with how seriously the authorities took this threat. The Palm Island protest posed a serious public challenge to the immunity given to police who kill Aborigines in custody. Similarly, to protect this immunity immense resources are put into the cover up of Aboriginal deaths in custody — which are not so much about protecting individuals like Hurley as they are about protecting a racist system of intimidation and control. The protest on Palm Island set an example that the police could not allow to go unchallenged. If Indigenous people rose up in mass protest every time there was an Aboriginal death in custody or instance of racist police brutality, the police force’s power to intimidate and control Aborigines would quickly erode.
The brutal state repression of Aboriginal resistance has been a critical function of the police throughout Australia’s history. This repression was, and still is, essential in the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land. The social devastation that Aboriginal communities face today is a direct result of this dispossession and the attempts to disperse, disorganise and crush any resistance to it.
The intensification of this repression that is currently taking place in remote Aboriginal communities affected by the federal government’s Northern Territory “emergency intervention” can be directly linked to the mining companies’ increasing thirst for access to land — which requires a roll back of the gains of the land rights movement. An example of this intensified repression was the military-style police raid on Kunoth, a town camp in Alice Springs, on the night of October 9. According to a statement issued by the Alice Springs-based Intervention Rollback Action Group, “Police jumped over fences, displayed rifles, pushed and abused residents and trained a red laser light on the chest of one man, perhaps from a taser or a gun”.
Aboriginal resistance to this sort of police repression is presented as being an act of aggression in order to justify further repression. The corporate media plays a central role in this, acting to fuel racist bigotry in order to undermine the other working people’s solidarity with Aboriginal people struggling for their rights. This tactic — of presenting the resistor as the aggressor — is also used internationally. It is used particularly successfully by the Israeli government and the Western media to justify the Zionist state’s occupation and repression of the indigenous Palestinians. A 2001-02 study by the Glasgow University Media Group in Britain found that 90% of British students did not know Israel was occupying Palestine and some who believed that the Palestinians were the occupiers!
This is what the Queensland government, police and corporate media have attempted to do in their singling out of Lex Wotton. He was targeted and charged on concocted evidence to draw attention away from the cause of the Palm Island uprising and to make an example of him. His case is being used as an attempt to re-win ground that the police lost in the massive public exposure of the brutal murder of Mulrunji and the subsequent cover up. As part of this effort, the corporate media reported just days after the guilty verdict was handed down against Wotton that the 22 police on Palm Island on the day of the uprising would receive “bravery awards” at a ceremony in Townsville on November 3 — four days before Wotton’s sentencing in the Townsville District Court. Not a single cop was injured by the Palm Island protesters.
Lex Wotton is a political prisoner. He is behind bars for speaking out against the murder of his friend. He is behind bars because he is an esteemed leader of his community. Meanwhile, Hurley and the hundreds of other cops who have murdered in cold blood, walk free. When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.