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'Still angry' over Palm Island custody death


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

Gone For A Song, by Jeff WatersABC 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.

Mulrunji's death is a tragedy in any terms. But it is tragic in the wider context of a nationwide malaise whereby access to the most cherished institutions of western democracy is unavailable to many Indigenous people. And that makes me, as an Australian, not just frustrated but also ashamed.

Gone for a Song (Allen and Unwin)

Pat MullinsFather Pat Mullins SJ is the Australian Jesuits' Assistant for Ministry Among Indigenous Peoples.

Topic tags: Pat Mullins, book review, Gone for a Song, Jeff Waters, ISBN 9780733322167



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Existing comments

Your point about unequal access is similar to the fact that, say, the head of Macquarie Bank gets $40M, but some of the workers for Macquarie Bank may be working in poor conditions in India.

I am aghast that the policeman was charged with murder - he was working within parameters that were handed to him by politicians and bureaucrats.

Sarkozi had an army general sacked the other day, because a child was killed by live rounds (when dummies should have been used). Isn't it obvious that if you practice using blanks, you have to accept that occasionally someone will fire off live rounds by mistakes. For safe practice, you would never point a gun at anyone, let alone fire blanks.

Trying to blame someone for Doomadgee's death is seeking a scapegoat, as was done when two ships collided in a navy exercise in 1964, sailing towards each other without lights, in the dark.

Isn't it obvious that the conditions have been DESIGNED to be a recipe for disaster?

richard | 04 July 2008  

Amen! We need to start highlighting the insidious racism that exists in Australia...just beneath the surface, bubbling away and seethingly waiting to escape with vicious vitriol at the very first opportunity...such as with the Mulrinji case, where the police have been protected and now Lex Wotton faces criminal charges for reacting quite naturally to the travesty of justice that occurred (if indeed he did incite the riot at all).

Similarly, we see examples of this disgusting racism virtually daily in our newspapers...when and where are they going to be held accountable for their responsibility in terms of supporting and feeding into a broader milieu of racist and venomous attitude.

We, in WA, recently experienced the death of four beautiful Aboriginal in a 'stolen car' accident, one of the mothers lost ALL her sons in this one fatal tragedy. The Sunday Times (and I believe the West as well) printed vile racist vitriol they pulled from some website blog (which probably would have remained relatively anonymous had it not been printed in the paper) that applauded the death of these CHILDREN and bemoaned for the "poor owner" of the vehicle ... "what will he now drive" that his car has been smashed! The owner, a decent and caring human being, asked that such vile comments not be made on his behalf and felt the pain of the tragedy for the mothers and families of these BOYS!!

My point being, the seething racism of Australia lays just beneath the surface...waiting for such tragedies to occur to then equally blame those involved in the tragedies, whether someone else was at fault....like Hurley (who incidentally received a nice compensation payout for his murderous efforts...well, it was for "damage to property"...though the other police officers received $1700 each, he appears to have received $100,000?? One can only wonder).

Tragedy is tragedy...much of it resulting from the systemic racism in relation to much of the negative outcomes in terms of broad social indicators of wealth and wellbeing for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters!
My heart bleeds and cries for Mulrinji's family...and for the families of the beautiful young boys here in WA...whilst others rejoice! This is the greatest tragedy of all!

Sanna Andrew | 04 July 2008  

Thanks, Pat. I'm moved by your last sentence. It seems that the next goal will be to make the Australian people so aware of the real dimensions of the situation that we will want, as a nation, to say, not only 'I'm sorry' but 'I'm ashamed'.

Joe Castley | 04 July 2008  

This article echoes my sentiments and no doubt those of many other Palm Islanders (including my dad's if he were alive). Good to see you're still involved with advocacy on behalf of us Queensland murries.

Delphine Geia | 08 July 2008  

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