“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced“. – James Baldwin
I had planned to post on Wednesday but the planned post suddenly seemed so trivial in light of on going events in America. It has to be said that Australia has been just as guilty of systemic violence towards citizens of colour, particularly Indigenous Australians. “Deaths in custody” is an issue that has never gone away here. It is not my place to tell those stories but it is my place to listen and support. This is just a brief post. I felt horrified by the death of George Floyd but sadly not surprised, just as I felt horrified by the deaths in custody of 432 Aboriginal Australians since the royal commission into deaths in custody. Every time it happens here I feel a sense of disgust and rage, that this does keep happening. Now the protest in America is about something even more, it has become about, democracy and freedom itself, and it is hard not feel deeply disturbed by the events in America.
This was meant to be a short post as I find myself haunted by what I am seeing in the news. Below I have copied bits of a review post I wrote some time ago for another blog. There are many compelling stories written by remarkable Aboriginal Australians. University and public libraries all contain stories, read them. Our First Nation People have much to say and it is more than time we started listening.
If you want to gain some insight into the Australian tragedy of death in custody I urge you to read The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper. This remarkable and compelling book is a factual account of the 2004 death in custody of a Palm Island man and the subsequent investigation and later trial of Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley. The shocking circumstances of Doomadgee’s death, the anger and outrage from the indigenous community and the riot that followed still loom large in my memory. Hooper’s book is a brilliant account, not just of that tragic event, but an attempt to understand the historical and cultural factors that fed into it, and it leaves the reader contemplating not just Hurley’s guilt or innocence, but their own complicity in indigenous disadvantage. Compelling and rich in its attempt to understand tragic events, Hooper’s account is magnificently written, in describing the book I can do no better than to re-produce the goodreads blurb:
In 2004 Cameron Doomadgee, a 36-year-old resident of the island, was arrested for swearing at a white police officer and locked in the cells. Within forty-five minutes he was dead. The police claimed he’d tripped on a step, but the Government pathologist later said that his injuries were consistent with a car or plane crash. The community rioted and burnt down the police station. The main suspect was Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley, a tall, handsome, charismatic cop with long experience in Aboriginal communities and decorations for his work.
Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island recounts this story with the pace of a thriller. Following Hurley’s trail to some of the wildest and most remote parts of Australia, she explores Aboriginal myths and history and uncovers buried secrets of white mischief. Atmospheric, gritty and original, The Tall Man is an absorbing and moving account of the lives of people of Palm Island, of the Doomadgee family as they struggle to understand what happened to their brother, and of the complex, enigmatic figure, Hurley.
Hooper combines reportage with a novelist’s command of character to tell a story that takes readers not only inside the courtroom and the notorious Queensland police force, but into Australia’s indigenous communities-and to the heart of a struggle for power, revenge and justice.
This was a seriously compelling and informative read. Hopper walks a very fine line in maintaining objectivity and attempting to understand the tragic events. At the time the events inspired much speculation and talk surrounding the guilt or otherwise of Hurley and perhaps, I should state my own position. My natural sympathies at the time, were with the family and indigenous community, aboriginal deaths in custody have become, an all too familiar event, and this one seemed to present overwhelming evidence of police complicity. I believed at the time that Doomadgee’s death was the result of police assault and I still believe that Hurley was responsible for the death of Doomadgee. The book though, is really about more than just the incident itself, but deals with attitudes to race in Australia, and north Queensland in particular, and the ongoing tragedy of indigenous disadvantage. Hooper’s narrative is disciplined and tense, with the suspense of a thriller, and the eloquence and poetry of the best literary writing. Hooper attempts to position her account within a framework of mythic narrative, with great effect. There is intelligence and ambiguity in this account, it is designed to inform but also to leave the reader thinking deeply about what it seeks to examine. This is a book about empathy in many forms and it asks the reader to bring empathy to their understanding of the events both for the indigenous community and the police involved. This is a book I can highly recommend, it has much to say about modern Australia and Queensland in particular. This is a powerful read.
In recent week’s we had a local commercial news network; channel nine come out with the most appallingly racist and classest story about the compensated Palm Island people. People who were awarded compensation as a result of police behavior on the Island in the aftermath of Domadgee’s death. Nine reported that the people of Palm Island spent their money on boats and four wheel drives, as if the public should be entitled to opinions on the decisions of private citizens with lawful compensation.
Shamefully there have been many deaths since Doomadgee’s. And only this week we saw a police officer assault a teenage boy over a provocation not dissimilar to circumstances in the Palm Island case. We have seen Aboriginal Australians assaulted in custody, we have seen Aboriginal Australians arrested over trivial issues like the non payment of fines, I am thinking of the case of Ms Dhu. If ever a case exposed the ugly nature of systemic racism in this country that case did it. In case you don’t remember, you can read about here, but in summary: When police attended the reported breaking of an apprehended violence order by Dhu’s partner they arrested him but on discovering there was an outstanding warrant for Dhu over unpaid fines, they arrested her as well. Dhu was unwell at the time, suffering from infection that resulted from broken ribs her partner had previously inflicted. Police failed to take Dhu’s increasing pain and requests for help seriously, when they did finally take her to hospital, the seriousness of her condition was overlooked by medical staff. A white Australian would never have been treated by medical staff or police the way Dhu was! If you want to know what the term white privilege really means that is it, the fact that the mere colour of our skin protects us from that kind of treatment. We or our children are unlikely to ever face the prospect of dying in agony in a police cell over unpaid fines, refused adequate medical treatment, that is what white privilege means and we all benefit from it, lets not forget that.
The kind of attitudes that lead to the death of George Floyd are the same things that happen here. “I can’t breath” is a phrase uttered by Australian man David Dungay as he was similarly restrained, Dungay also died as a result of that restraint https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-02/us-riots-indigenous-deaths-in-custody/12309010.
Systemic, institutionalized racism belittles us all. But what is happening in America now is about more than the all important demand for equity, respect and justice for all. When Trump ordered the clearing of peaceful protest by force, so he could get a staged photo in front of a church with a bible I doubt he has ever read, he stepped into tyranny and that left me with a whole other depth of horror. When the world is sliding into increasing injustice and tyranny when it should be uniting to face common threats; the pandemic and climate change, it is hard to continue with business as usual.