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'Still angry' over Palm Island custody death

  • 04 July 2008

Waters, Jeff, Gone for a Song: A Death in Custody on Palm Island, ABC Books, 2008, RRP $24.95, ISBN 9780733322167

ABC journalist Jeff Waters gives a highly readable account of the death in police custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in November 2004, the subsequent reaction of the community, and the process leading to the eventual acquittal of the police officer involved.

After reading and re-reading his work Waters describes his reaction as 'still angry'. He hopes his readers 'become so too.'

The book succeeded with me. I became angry at two levels. The first was for the tragic waste of a life and consequent pain and misery to all concerned in such trivial circumstances — a drunken altercation in the early morning. The other is sheer frustration at how often events like this and other expressions of futility and pain occur in Aboriginal communities.

Waters situates the event in the context of the history of Palm Island and race relations in Queensland. Palm Island was a penal colony for Indigenous people from all over North Queensland and the Torres Strait. Over the years, attempts at assertiveness have been quickly crushed. Waters describes Queensland as a 'racist state' where anti-Indigenous sentiment lays just beneath the surface — hence the strong reactions in terms of popular and political support for the police in this case.

Such events are not restricted to Queensland nor are they confined to penal communities or communities under government or church management, as the Inquiry into Black Deaths in Custody shows. The Mulrunji incident is an example of the failure of the security and justice systems to serve the interests of Indigenous people almost everywhere.

Community leader Brad Foster echoed the sentiments of Indigenous people across the land when he said 'the people of Palm Island want to see a fair hearing — at the moment they're not going to get a fair hearing under the process ... [Mulrunji's family has] been saying all along that the system's flawed — they feel that it's already been stitched up from the start.'

It is not only the security and justice systems which are impenetrable to large numbers of Indigenous people. With higher than average unemployment, high drop-out rates from the education system and life expectancy 20 years less for Indigenous people the conclusion follows that they also have inadequate access to the economic, educational and health systems.