Palm Island’s black resistance is still being white-washed

“Lex Wotton ruined my career. He does not deserve one cent of that money.”

“Lex Wotton ruined my career. He does not deserve one cent of that money.”

Those were the words from former Queensland cop Kathy Richardson on Channel Nine news yesterday. Talking to ‘journalist’ Tim Arvier, Richardson claimed that on the day of the Palm Island uprising, she thought Wotton was going to “kill me”. The piece used overlay of Wotton leading the protest to back up Richardson’s claims of white victimhood, relying on the two-century old trope of the innocent white woman at the hands of the violent, black man. The latest attempt from Tim Arvier again breathes life into Malcolm X’s words, the press “will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”.

Richardson was deployed to Palm Island in the wake of the tragic death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee, who within an hour of being arrested by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, largely for having the audacity of being black in public, died of injuries akin to a plane crash on the floor of the watchhouse.

Richardson was at the public meeting where Mulrunji’s autopsy results were read out. He had a cut above his right eye, four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and a liver that had been almost cleaved in two. Hurley claimed he had fallen on Mulrunji as they tripped over a step. Roy Bramwell, who was in the station when Hurley brought Mulrunji in, saw the tall white police man over his body, his arm ploughing down three times, although obscured by a filing cabinet. “All I can see is Chris elbow going up and down and “You want more Mr Doomadgee, you want more? Have you had enough Mr Doomadgee?,” Bramwell told a coronial inquest. Six months earlier, Hurley had run over the foot of an Aboriginal woman.

Hurley denied Bramwell’s version of events, and the Aboriginal man was relegated to an unreliable witness by a white legal system that so often deems black witnesses unreliable. It was these four contested minutes that laid to the groundwork for Hurley’s acquittal over Mulrunji’s manslaughter. But even getting him to court was historic. It was the first time since the death in custody of Aboriginal teenager Jon Pat in 1983, that a police officer had ever been charged over a black death in custody. It was this sad, tragic fact, that lay the groundwork for the uprising of Palm Island. The reality that when a black person dies in custody, there is never accountability. There is never justice. If it was not for the Palm island uprising, if it was not for the public display of anger and defiance, it would not have even made it that far.

One white man’s riot is a black man’s uprising. The slandering of the Palm Island community, who rose up in protest after losing their own to a justice system that sees black bodies as expendable, was a deliberate attempt by the media to realign the police officers as “victims” while Aboriginal people were again painted as violent and savage.

The Queensland Police Service held marches for Hurley, they retailed blue armbands with Hurley’s police number on them, they gave themselves bravery awards, after they corrupted the investigation by appointing Hurley’s mates as lead investigators and then cleared themselves after a CMC report found they had botched it and recommended disciplinary action against the police officers involved.

While the Palm Island settlement vindicates the communities’ knowledge of institutional racism within the police and the state , the media has again shrugged off accountability for their own violence.

Yuin academic Amanda Porter, in her analysis of media following the uprising, found the media painted Palm Islanders as ‘folk devils’, and black resistance was equated with criminality. Mulrunji was stripped of humanity, an attempt to again devalue him and deem him less than in order to escape accountability. He was referred to as “drunk” and “drunken”, rather than the proud father, son, brother and community member he was. The Palm Islanders were painted as living in a “warzone”, they were described as going on a “tropical rampage”, as “rioting mobs” and “offenders”, and were accused of “threatening to kill”. Meanwhile, Hurley was referred to as a “gentle giant”.

The true history of Palm Island’s resistance was whitewashed. The island had once been an open prison where Aboriginal families from all across Queensland were ripped from their country and forced onto the island. They were prohibited from speaking their languages, or conducting ceremony. They had their wages stolen and lived under the paternalistic hand of the protector. In 1957, Palm Island workers held a strike after the superintendant threatened to deport local man Albie Geia. NITV reports: “After five days, the strike came to a dramatic end. Police raided the homes of the seven men at dawn. Shackled and held at gun point, they and their families were shipped to the mainland, ordered never to return.”

It was a similar tactic used in the wake of the uprising. The island again became an open prison where police acted with impunity. In dawn raids, they burst into homes and held men, women and children at gun point. Lex Wotton was tasered in front of his small children. To this day, the only people who have ever been convicted in relation to the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee have been Aboriginal people, protesting for justice. The historic settlement, led by plaintiff Wotton, was a vindication for the community — a concession from a white justice system of the racial discrimination within the police. It was an acknowledgment of what Aboriginal people already know from experience — that this would have never happened in any non-Indigenous community.

But there was no such concession from some sections of the white media, most notably Channel Nine, who have continued its crusade. Arvier again characterised Palm Islanders as black savages, existing outside of civilisation, and unworthy of grief if it is not palatable to white consumption. Kathy Richardson, in her whiteness, is held up as an acceptable victim, a true victim, a white woman who was ‘in danger’, rather than the member of a powerful class who can kill without accountability. The threat was not from the Aboriginal people who rose up in an act of resistance, the true threat was in the police officers stationed on that island, who were not protectors, but aggressors. Within a week, a state of emergency had been called, and the police numbers on Palm swelled from 7 to 20. Imagine if you were on an island, where a police officer had killed a member of your community, and then sent more over? Why is black fear construed as violence, when it is white fear that is much more threatening?

The reframing of the victim is an act of violence on behalf of the media. It does not exist in a vacuum. It again reiterates the disposability of black lives and elevates white fear over black pain. It whitewashes the intergenerational trauma that has existed on Palm island from the very early days, where the injustices are an inheritance. Richardson’s proclaimed victimhood is dangerous because we all know what happens when white people are threatened, and when there is a complacent media so willing to carry out the work of the oppressor. The killing fields of Queensland are still drenched in the memory of the hunting parties, of the Billy Frasers’ who were given unofficial licenses to kill in retribution for the actions of Aboriginal warriors who were fighting for their country.

In the Channel Nine piece, Tim Arvier attempts to extract an apology from Lex Wotton, with Richardson in the background. In his response, Lex flipped the script: “She can move on. If she wants to live in the past, then that’s her.”

After years of white people telling black people to “move on”, the Queensland Police and sections of the white media hold themselves to different standards. With the settlement, the Palm Island community have a chance to heal, although the large wound — the injustice of Mulrunji’s death — is still there. Meanwhile the extent of Richardson’s sympathy lays in her employment, where she blames Wotton for ‘ruining her career’. She has no regard for the life of an Aboriginal man, who died so young and at the hands of one of her own, and for the lives of the Palm Islanders who died after.