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The right to be an agitator

  • 11 June 2020
In the 1982 High Court decision of Neal v The Queen, Percy Neal appealed his sentence of six months imprisonment with hard labour for serious assault. Mr Neal, an Aboriginal man who subsequently became the mayor of Yarrabah near Cairns in Queensland, had spat at Mr Collins, the manager of the local store, following an argument.

The magistrate had described Mr Neal as an ‘aggressive agitator’, and in what Justice Murphy later described as a political statement, continued: 

‘I can say unequivocally that the majority of genuine Aboriginals (sic) do not condone this behaviour and are not desirous in any shape or form of having changes made. They live a happy life, and it is only the likes of yourself who push this attitude of the hatred of white authority, that upset the harmonious running of these communities.’

The High Court overturned what it found to be an excessive sentence. Of interest, especially in light of the current peaceful protests around Australia as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, is the context for Mr Neal’s actions. Justice Murphy described these in some depth — characterising the matter as a ‘race relations case’.

‘The evidence showed that Mr Neal and his fellow Aborigines (sic) at the Yarrabah Community have a deep sense of grievance at their paternalistic treatment by the white authorities in charge of the Reserve, including Mr Collins. The Council and Aboriginal members of the Community had no control over what was sold at the store under management of Mr Collins. The evidence… was that although Mr Neal complained that Mr Collins sold rotten meat, Mr Neal and the Aboriginal Council were powerless to do anything about it, apart from making representations to departmental officers.’

The Neal decision is an example of the over-reaction of the law to ostensibly minor actions taken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that inevitably lead to the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people. But it also speaks to the daily experience of many Indigenous communities.

This was a point made at the 7th June Cairns Black Lives Matter protest. Terry O’Shane, a member of the North Queensland Land Council board, pointed out to the crowd that Black Lives Matter was about much more than deaths in custody — as important as that issue was. He reminded those present that we stand on stolen land. That the country is profiting from the free labour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait