Kathy Marks: Australia's persistent racism

One Aboriginal leader compares it to Biko's murder in South Africa

Share
Related Topics

Nearly four years ago, an Aboriginal man named Cameron Doomadgee was escorted into the police station on Palm Island, off the coast of North Queensland. A healthy 36-year-old, he had never been in trouble with the law. An hour later, he was dead.

Mr Doomadgee had been involved in a scuffle inside the police station with the arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. An autopsy found Mr Doomadgee had four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a liver "virtually cleaved in two". The injuries were described as similar to those of a car or plane crash victim.

There have many such deaths; a Royal Commission even investigated the phenomenon 20 years ago. Its recommendations have not prevented Aborigines from continuing to be arrested and imprisoned at a far higher rate than white Australians. Thanks largely to the efforts of certain journalists, Mr Doomadgee's death wasn't just another black death in custody, of which there have been many. There was public outrage. One Aboriginal leader likened it to the murder by South African police of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist.

Queensland – governed for two decades by a despotic right-wing premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, with the assistance of an often brutal and corrupt police force – is still known as Australia's Deep North. And there are few spots worse than Palm Island, founded as an Aboriginal penal colony and nowadays a byword for dysfunction and despair.

Sgt Hurley's conduct was investigated by his friends; he even collected the detectives from the airport. He denied assaulting Mr Doomadgee, saying he must have fallen on him. The coroner decided Sgt Hurley caused the fatal inj-uries by punching him. However, no charges were laid.

Uproar ensued and the case was reviewed. In June last year, Sgt Hurley stood trial on the mainland, where an all-white jury acquitted him of manslaughter. The verdict was greeted with jubilation by police officers, who had staged rallies in support of Sgt Hurley, claiming he had been "hung out to dry".

Eight months later, prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to indigenous Australians for their past treatment, vowing that "the injustices of the past must never, never happen again". On Palm Island, people were still grieving for Mr Doomadgee – and for his son, Eric, who hanged himself in 2006, and for Patrick Bramwell, another islander who comforted Mr Doomadgee as he lay dying in his cell. Mr Bramwell hanged himself last year.

In parliament, Mr Rudd spoke of "unfinished business". Over the past 12 days, the loose ends of the Palm Island saga have been tied up. A community leader, Lex Wotton, was convicted by an all-white jury of inciting the riot that erupted after Mr Doomadgee's post mortem. And 34 Queensland police officers – the largest single batch ever – were awarded for their bravery during that riot.

Mr Wotton could be jailed for life. Sgt Hurley, who was suspended on full pay for two years, has returned to the police service and been promoted. He received a £40,000 payout. An inquiry into allegations that he ran over an Aboriginal woman's foot and then drove off concluded that he should receive counselling. Sgt Hurley has yet to be counselled.

Those who believe that Australia has cast off its racist past, or that a black man's life counts for much here, or that Mr Rudd's apology in February has improved the lives of ordinary Aborigines, would do well to reflect on recent events on Palm Island.

k.marks@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you have experience of B2B s...

Citifocus Ltd: German Speaking Client Specialist

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Prestigious asset management house seeks a...

Citifocus Ltd: Performance & Risk Oversight

£Negotiable: Citifocus Ltd: This is a varied role focusing on the firm's mutua...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of Scotland's leading train...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

David Cameron’s immigration speech: I broke my promise; this time will be different

John Rentoul
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game  

Manchester was ahead of the pack in honouring Alan Turing

Simon Kelner
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game