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GLW: Police Terrorise Palm Island Aborigines

Australia: Police Terrorise Palm Island Aborigines

Green Left Weekly
By Sarah Stephen

At 11.20am on November 19, a 36-year-old Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, died in the police watch-house on Palm Island, 70km north of Townsville. An hour earlier he was very much alive, singing along the street. He was arrested for public drunkenness and locked up as a ‘‘public nuisance’‘.

The first autopsy found that he had four broken ribs and a ruptured liver and spleen, and had died from internal bleeding. The state coroner released a statement to the media on November 26, which said ‘‘the forensic pathologist is of the opinion that [Doomadgee’s injuries] are consistent with the deceased — and the policeman with whom he was known to have been struggling — falling on to a hard surface, such as the steps outside the watch-house’‘.

Brad Foster, chief executive of the Carpentaria Land Council and spokesperson for the Palm Island community, told the media that people ‘‘just don’t believe it was an accident. They think it was murder.’‘ Palm Island mayor Erykah Kyle told the November 29 Brisbane Courier-Mail that she had seen the full autopsy report and it mentioned that heavy pressure or a weight might have been placed on Doomadgee’s chest.

On November 30, Sister Christina McGlynn, a pastoral carer at the Palm Island hospital, told Tony Koch from the Australian: ‘‘It is a tragedy this gentle man died in custody. But to say that four broken ribs and a ruptured liver is a consequence of a fall is something I, as a trained nurse, find hard to accept.’‘

Koch wrote in the Australian on November 29: ‘‘Two Aboriginal men who were in the cells at the time have given statements that they saw [Doomadgee] being punched and beaten by Chris Hurley, a senior sergeant.’‘

Many questions remain unanswered, such as why, following the alleged scuffle, was Doomadgee left in a cell without medical attention? Kenny Georgetown, manager of the Brisbane Murri Watch program, doesn’t believe that Domadgee should have been taken into custody in the first place. Georgetown asked Brisbane’s November 30 Courier-Mail why, if Doomadgee had been picked up drunk, he was not taken to a ‘‘safe place’‘ as the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act requires. ‘‘This policy is supposed to be operating right around the state and came out of the Royal Commission’‘ into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The coroner’s report into Doomadgee’s death was read to a community meeting on Palm Island on November 26. Anger at the report’s findings boiled over and 300 people marched to the police station 100 metres away, demanding that the police officers come out. The court house, police station and police barracks were set on fire.

In a complete overreaction, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie immediately declared a state of emergency, evacuated teachers and medical staff from the island, and sent in 80 Tactical Response Group commandos on the night of November 26, armed with riot shields, balaclavas, helmets with face-masks and semi-automatic weapons. They took over the local school to use it as a command post. They roamed the streets, arresting unarmed and unresisting members of the Aboriginal community. They even used Tasers, paralysing electric-shock weapons, on at least three people.

Looking for what they called the ‘‘ringleaders’‘ of the ‘‘riot’‘, they stormed people’s houses, forced children face-down onto the ground and pointed guns at their heads. Koch, who was present at one such arrest, recounted how a young man who refused to supply a signed statement was handcuffed and taken to the airport to be flown to Townsville and locked in the watch-house. ‘‘No admissions, no statement, no legal representative on the island, so a convenient ‘holding’ charge gets this suspected villain off the island.’‘

There was widespread condemnation of the heavy-handed tactics, but Beattie defended the use of force as ‘‘appropriate’‘. ‘‘I don’t expect police to deal with these matters with one hand tied behind their backs’‘, he said.

Foster was furious at the police’s actions. He told Koch on November 28: ‘‘They deliberately closed off the island while they practised their terrorist drills on unarmed Palm Islanders. If they asked the council and put up the list of people they wanted to speak to, they would have been presented to them without the arrests being made at gunpoint and women and children being terrorised in their homes.’‘ He said it was ‘‘appalling’‘ that no-one from Aboriginal Legal Aid was allowed on Palm Island to help those being arrested.

Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner, Doomadgee’s cousin, told ABC’s PM on November 29: ‘‘A couple of blokes burned down the police station [and] they’re immediately caught and charged by the largest armed contingent since we sent soldiers over to Iraq. It’s ridiculous.’‘

Eighteen people were immediately arrested, among them a 14-year-old boy. By December 2, police had charged 28 people with 64 offences. Charges included riot, arson, going armed with intent to cause fear, serious assault on police, burglary, wilful damage, unlawful assembly, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle and possession of a drug utensil. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service solicitor Kevin Rose told ABC News on November 30 that the rioting charges could be particularly serious. ‘‘Riot simplistically is three years, but if it involves with it the destruction of a building, it’s life imprisonment maximum.’‘

In a statement released on November 29, state coroner Michael Barnes said: ‘‘Given the sensitivities around the man’s death, and [the fact] that medical evidence will be crucial to establishing how the man died, it is important that I have a second opinion.’‘ A second autopsy was performed by a different pathologist on November 30. The results won’t be known until the second week of December, after which time Doomadgee’s funeral will take place.

With just 48 hours’ notice, 130 members of the Murri community attended a meeting in Brisbane on December 1 to plan action. Green Left Weekly spoke to Sam Watson, a Murri activist and one of the meeting’s organisers, about the mood among the community in Brisbane.

‘‘Indigenous people are so angry and hurt about this latest death in custody, and the fact that the police who committed this horrific act of violence on Cameron Doomadgee are still walking around at large. We’re angry that the police are being held up as martyrs, and that radio stations and newspapers are running appeals for people to donate furniture and whitegoods! Not a cent has been offered to the family to help with funeral expenses.

‘‘Already, the mindset is that we’re going to blame the victims — attack, dehumanise and terrorise the Aboriginal community in the wake of the latest outrage, and continue to absolve the police of any blame.’‘

The media and the Beattie government ignored Doomadgee’s death when it happened on November 19. Yet two days after the Palm Island police station burnt down, journalists jumped on planes to get on-the-spot reports, Beattie visited the island and it became an international news story. Yet the cause — the death of an Aboriginal man in custody in extremely suspicious circumstances — continues to be ignored.

The ‘‘dangerous’‘ situation on Palm Island was greatly exaggerated. The police were cast as martyrs, fearful for their lives and apparently too scared to ever return to the island. The Queensland Police Union launched an appeal for police who lost their belongings in the fire and Beattie was quick to assure the QPU that no officers would be left out of pocket. He hasn’t been so forthcoming in expressing sympathy for Doomadgee’s family.

In a November 28 Herald Sun article titled ‘‘Palm rioters almost killed us: police’‘, QPU acting president Denis Fitzpatrick made the ridiculous and inflammatory comment that he expected rioters to be investigated for attempted murder. The November 28 Queensland Sunday Mail reported that there were ‘‘fears that hidden weapons and a large supply of alcohol could fuel more riots’‘. It quoted police minister Judy Spence saying, ‘‘that is why we are very concerned about the next 24 hours, in case people start drinking again and tensions flare up’‘.

Beattie presented a five-point ‘‘peace plan’‘ to the Palm Island council when he visited on November 28. A key proposal was for an alcohol management plan, yet alcohol had nothing to do with the protest. Tony Koch confirmed that sales of alcohol stopped on November 23, so there was nothing more than anger and grief fuelling the protesters’ actions. ‘‘Beattie and his five-point plan can go take a running jump’‘, Watson commented.

Yanner told ABC News on November 27: ‘‘If the system works we’ll respect it. The system not only is not working for us, it has never worked for us or delivered justice. What is going on on Palm Island is a genuine reflection of how all Aboriginal people are feeling at this stage across Aboriginal Australia.’‘

The Crime and Misconduct Commission is investigating the death, and deciding whether any charges should be laid. Watson said: ‘‘The Aboriginal community has no confidence in the CMC. We see it as a rubber stamp for police brutality and terrorism. Neither the Criminal Justice Commission nor the CMC [which replaced it a few years ago] have ever recommended criminal proceedings against any police officer. In every situation, the Aboriginal person is the wrongdoer and the police are the good guys.’‘


* SHOCKFACTS: Aboriginal deaths in custody
* Not one death but two
* Indigenous paper's editor condemns leaked welfare proposals
* Government, developers threaten Redfern Block

From Green Left Weekly, December 8, 2004.
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