This week marked ten years since the Palm Island uprising over the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee. It was chief on the minds of Aboriginal people across the country as we watched the scenes in America.
The stench of injustice surrounding the killing of African American teenager Mike Brown by a cop is so strong the distance did not stop it infecting our communities.
This week a Missouri Grand Jury chose not to indict the officer who fired at least six shots into Mike’s body.
The prosecutor Robert McCulloch gave a press conference blaming social media and the 24-hour news cycle and the “sensational appetite for something to talk about” as significant challenges. His words were quickly labelled “bizarre” and “inappropriate”.
Civil Rights activist Al Sharpton told a press conference he had never seen a prosecutor try so hard to discredit a victim: “Have you ever heard a prosecutor go in a press conference to explain to the press why the one who did the killing is not going to trial, but the victim is guilty of several things?”
Mike Brown’s case upsets Aboriginal Australia because it is so familiar to us. You need only think of Mulrunji.
Mulrunji died in November 19 2004. He was only 36, a proud father of Eric Doomadgee, a loved partner to Tracy Twaddle, an excellent hunter, a brother to a family of strong sisters. He was all of these things when he was picked up on the street by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley after drunkenly singing his favourite song “Who Let the Dogs Out”. Hurley allegedly heard him swearing and arrested him for public nuisance.
Within an hour, he was dead on the floor of the Palm Island watchhouse. His liver was almost cleaved in two, he had a ruptured spleen, a torn portal vein, four broken ribs and several abrasions on his scalp.
He had an unexplained, visible black eye.
A doctor told the 2010 coronial inquest his injuries were like those caused by a high speed car or plane crash.
According to Snr Sgt Hurley, he had fallen over a step at the watchhouse, and Hurley had fallen beside him. Hurley would later change his testimony to claim he must have fallen on top of him.
An Aboriginal witness at the watchhouse testified he had seen Hurley punching Mulrunji saying “Have you had enough Mr Doomadgee”, but he was later deemed unreliable. An Aboriginal Liaison Officer had been at the scene but had chosen not to go in the watch house because he didn’t want to see anything.
It was just the beginning of a long saga filled with injustice, and pain and hurt and trauma. Hurley became one of the few police officers to ever be charged over an Aboriginal death in custody.
But it is doubtful he would been charged if Palm Island hadn’t staged an uprising after they were read the findings of Mulrunji’s autopsy report the next week.
Palm Islanders burnt down the police watchhouse and station where their brother had died, and the home of Chris Hurley. It sparked enormous media interest and rallied allies to their cause.
Before they “rioted”, they were ignored, and Mulrunji’s death would have remained largely out of the public spotlight.
All up 12 Aboriginal people were jailed, including the leader of the uprising Lex Wotton. But the man responsible for the death – Hurley – was acquitted on charges of manslaughter before an all-white jury in Townsville, one of the most racist towns in Australia.
The only people jailed over the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee have been Aboriginal.
While Palm Island has never seen justice for Mulrunji, Hurley won a compensation payout and the police officers stationed on Palm during the “riots” received bravery medals.
When Hurley was first charged, the Queensland Police Union marketed blue rubber wristbands with Hurley’s police number written on them for those who wanted to stand in solidarity with the person who killed Mulrunji. They sold out. It came as members of the Queensland police stacked out public forums in many Queensland cities – from Rockhampton to Brisbane – and protested in the streets at Hurley’s treatment by the justice system.
Meanwhile Mulrunji’s only son Eric, traumatised by the death of the father he adored, ended his life shorty after. The light in his eyes faded. In the words of Murundoo Yanner “half his heart was ripped out”.
Before he passed, he told an interviewer: “So I’m trying to be strong. But when I think about him it just takes that bit of strongness away… Make me go all hollow inside.
“…I want to dream about him but I can’t. I can’t dream about him you know.”
Patrick Bramwell, who shared a cell with Mulrunji the day he died, but was so intoxicated that he didn’t realise this until the coronial inquest, was shattered and took his own life as well.
They are also victims of black deaths in custody. The lives lost in connection with these deaths are not reported, but they are just as worthy of memory.
There was an overwhelming odour of tragedy which mingled sickeningly with the fake perfume of hope that is the “white justice system”, which wafted over this parade of black funerals on Palm Island.
It was a disgrace and it continues to be a stain not just on Queensland, but on the rest of the country.
The strench of this injustice should reach the shores of America, just as Mike Brown’s killing has reverberated across the world.
But as much as I want to hope people remember, I know they won’t. People forget the sheer scale of injustice on Palm Island, it gradually sifts away as time flows. Ten years from the tragedy and people barely remember the circumstances of the case.
How do I know? Because as members of the public rightly pointed out, no officer had ever convicted over the death of an Aboriginal person in custody. But while some claimed Hurley was the first police officer charged, he wasn’t.
Three decades ago, four police officers and an Aboriginal police aide were charged and acquitted for manslaughter over the death in custody of Aboriginal teenager John Pat in Roebourne, WA.
The 16-year-old was involved in a fight outside a Roebourne hotel between several other Aboriginal youth and police officers, and died with a closed head injury in the police station. He had been struck in the face and knocked to the ground, where he smashed his head on the road.
Last year, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death, members of the WA Parliament gave an uncharacteristic ode to John Pat’s memory in a motion moved by Aboriginal MP Ben Wyatt. Mr Wyatt said “witnesses claim his lifeless body was picked up and ‘thrown like a dead kangaroo’ into the back of a police van”.
“After being unloaded from the police van, the report states that Pat and at least two other prisoners were assaulted to various degrees,” Mr Wyatt said.
“Witness reports maintain that the police were yelling at the prisoners while beating them upon arrival at the jail yard in the hope of inciting further conflict. Pat was then placed, in an unconscious or semi-conscious state, in a cell and was later found dead after a cell check.
“A subsequent autopsy revealed a fractured skull, haemorrhage, and swelling as well as bruising and tearing of the brain. Pat had sustained a number of massive blows to the head.
“One bruise at the back of his head was the size of the palm of one’s hand; another above his right ear was perhaps half that size. Five other bruises were visible on the right side of his head. In addition to the head injuries, he had two broken ribs and a torn aorta—the major blood vessel leading from the heart.“
Mr Wyatt said the five who stood trial for John Pat’s death were later reinstated to duty.
“For Aboriginal people, the death of John Pat symbolises injustice and the oppression of Aboriginal people.”
John Pat’s death was one of the tragedies that sparked the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
While many blackfellas and supporters remember and commemorate John Pat’s death every year, his name is largely forgotten in the wider Australian consciousness.
The fact we don’t think of him, despite it being the first time police officers were charged over a death in custody, points to my fear that these injustices will fade away with memory, leaving only those who are close enough to visit the tombstones to mourn.
There are many other victims who have never received justice. Eddie Murray and Douglas Scott are just two of them. Mr Ward, a respected elder who suffered third degree burns after being left in a sweltering prison van, which acted more like an oven, on Invasion Day in 2008, is another.
Ten years on from Mulrunji’s death, 30 years on from John Pat’s death, we are also mourning the death of Julieka Dhu, who was only 22, and died in acute pain after being refused hospital care in South Hedland earlier this year. She had been jailed for parking fines.
It is easy to pass judgement, and shake our heads at the circumstances surrounding the killing of Mike Brown, but for Australia, it is almost controversial simply to remember.
WA Labor MP Roger Cook, told Parliament last year on the 30th anniversary of John Pat’s death:
“Although John Pat’s death was a very physical and violent expression of racism, we cannot forget that, today, those acts of racism are continuing to take place, albeit in different ways.
“One of those ways is through the process of invisibility.”
“By ignoring and marginalising Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal society, we are essentially trying to hide from the difficulties and issues that Aboriginal people confront by making Aboriginal people invisible.”
“If we are to overcome that invisibility, and therefore the racism that underpins it, it is essential to write Aboriginal people back into the history that we hold as our own.”
Lest we forget black deaths in custody.
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