In early September 2015, the Federal Court proceedings commenced for the first-ever class action filed against the Queensland Police. If it is won, Wotton v. State of Queensland will be the only case in Australian history in which a community has successfully sued the Queensland Police on the grounds of racial discrimination.
When asked whether he was expecting many locals to show up in court, Lex Wotton, the lead applicant, answered in a gentle voice, not befitting his muscular and staunch appearance. ‘A lot of people have trouble relating their experience of everyday racism to institutional racism. I keep on telling them to stand up and be counted but it’s hard, a lot of them think it’s hopeless.’
Hopelessness seems like the logical conclusion for the Bwogcolman community on Palm Island. History has been desperately unkind, not only to them, but also the Manbarra people before them. Both the traditional owners and the Bwogcolman (meaning something close to ‘many tribes together as one’) people have been victim to systemic control and containment by police, only recently becoming the Palm Island Community Council in 1986 after generations of it being run as a penal settlement.
In her book Palm Island: Through A Long Lens, Joanne Watson recounts the oppressive conditions for workers on Palm Island in the 50s. Superintendent Bartlam, known as the ‘red emperor’ and likened to Hitler by the island’s elders, used police force to pick up workers who were late to their shifts. Not only were these workers paid one tenth of their non-Indigenous Australian equivalents during this period, but they also had food rations withheld if they refused to work.
The locals also had their wages pilfered into trust funds that became known as ‘stolen wages’, which to this day have not been fully repaid. In 1957, activist and community leader Alby Geia drew a line in the sand. He refused to take extortionate wages, slighting Superintendent Bartlam, which led to his arrest. What followed was a general proletarian strike, whereby nearly all 1400 locals took control of the food supplies to the exclusion of the white administration.
As a result, Bartlam flew in twenty police in an RAAF crash launch. Forty Palm Islanders were subjected to summary arrests and marched off the island in manacles. On the trip back to the mainland they sang triumphantly while police held machine guns at them, a historical scene that would repeat itself in the community just over 50 years later.
Readers are likely familiar with the story: in 2004, Mulrunji Doomadgee died in police custody on Palm Island after being arrested for ‘public nuisance’ by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Police used the same violence as Bartlam’s men before them. However, it wasn’t simply the brutality but the lack of transparency and collusion surrounding the investigation of his death that would open up old wounds.
In the wake of his death, Mulrunji’s family and the rest of the close-knit Palm Island community were left hanging on tenterhooks. On Monday 22 November, the community marched to the Police station to demand answers. Hurley and his Police liaison officer Bengaroo were subsequently flown off the island and replaced by eighteen extra police.
It was as if the events of 1957 were repeating themselves, first as tragedy then as farce. Two days later, the second autopsy report by Dr Guy Lampe was conducted and the Queensland Police Service Commissioner requested the Crime and Misconduct Commission take control of the investigation. Tensions simmered as police allegedly threatened and intimidated locals, in anticipation of a coming ‘riot’. On the 26 November, the report declared that Mulrunji had died of ‘intra-abdominal haemorrhage, due to the ruptured liver and portal vein’ and that no evidence suggested the injuries resulted from a direct use of force.
During what followed, the police station, the barracks, the courthouse went up in smoke and down in history. Peter Beattie declared an emergency situation under the Public Safety and Preservation Act 1986. At least fifteen men and women were taken into custody, this time by post-September 11 counter-terrorist forces.
While history had repeated for the Palm Islanders, for Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley the march of progress carried on. He was acquitted in 2010 and continued to serve as a police officer on the Gold Coast for years until earlier this year, when history shocked him out of his complacency and he was stood down for an unauthorised highway pursuit and excessive use of force.
A state of emergency is lawful in Queensland under particular circumstances deemed to be against the public interest. But this begs the question, which public interest did the raids serve? The trail of tears suggests it’s not that of the Indigenous community of Palm Island.
Applicant Cecilia Wotton is the niece of Sonny Sibley, who was arrested for his involvement the 1957 strike and had his home invaded in much the same way Cecilia did when her husband Lex was arrested for ‘inciting riot’ after the sub-standard investigation into Mulrunji’s death.
Witness for the applicants, William Blackman Senior is the grandson of Peter Prior, who was forced to gun down the rampaging Superintendent Robert Curry in 1930 after he had murdered his own children and shot two others officials after being taken by a fit of bloodlust. Prior had fulfilled his duty only to be arrested and deported to the mainland for murder, acquitted after months in custody.
Applicant Agnes Wotton was forcibly removed from her country and made to live under humiliating circumstances on Palm, prohibited from speaking her own language and living in separate dormitories to the men in the community until married.
What these victims share is that they have already lived in a state of emergency for most of their lives.
In Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin wrote: ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’ In other words, it is not the exception that proves the rule, but that the rules don’t apply equally to those in power. It is this fact and the unfair exclusion of those in power from the rule of law that has caused the historical irruptions and violent protests on Palm Island.
In this particular trial, the application of the state of emergency, as it was used to control and contain people of the Bwgcolman community, is being presented as a problem of institutional racism: an expression of systemic institutional violence.
A couple of weeks ago, Justice Debbie Mortimer heard the closing submissions for this case. Whether Mortimer rules that the state of emergency was unlawful is not necessarily what will decide the verdict, but whether the force used during the raids was excessive. Only a ruling in favour of the people of Palm Island can break the tradition of oppression, and what Lex Wotton describes as institutional racism. But, as an acting senior council member warned us on the boat trip over for the trial, this may just be a speed bump on the way to Canberra.