Warriors for Peace: the political condition of the Aboriginal people as viewed from Palm Island

Glowczewski, Barbara (2008) Warriors for Peace: the political condition of the Aboriginal people as viewed from Palm Island. Indigene Editions, Montpellier, France, pp. 1-191.

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Barbed wire encircles the shiny buildings. Some ten families sit on rows of plastic chairs on the brand new concrete veranda, waiting. The officer, holstering a revolver, walks past the young kids, who hardly pay him any attention, and stops in front of some men and women. He hands them little strips of paper to rub against the inside of their forearm for traces of drugs. The next day, drug detection dogs on the leash sniff us. The routine of weekend visits at the Townsville correctional centre has us queue to show our application permit and ID. Some girls change their tops and shoes as the Board does not permit entry with open shoes and sleeveless shirts. All bags, watches, jewelry, food and drinks have to be left in a locker. No money allowed either; if a visitor wishes to give some to a prisoner; he needs to hand it over to the officer who writes out a receipt. Another officer operates the computer which scans fingerprints and takes digital photos for identification at the electronic entrance gate to the jail. But the machine detector did not recognize my face and finger, nor did it recognize a young Aboriginal mother carrying a baby, and a Papua New Guinean woman with her teenage daughter. Two older men were also blocked inside the electronic double door. The guards took it calmly: “it happens all the time” they said. So we just signed in and passed through the door. Then some ten of us squeeze inside a cubicle for another inspection before the door opens into a big white room with a glass door facing a small yard enclosed by a high grey wall. Each of us had been given a number to match the one on the low metal tables, and once we are all seated on the metal chairs, a little door with a glass window opens and some twenty men, mostly young and Black walk in.

Lex, wearing the prison uniform, brown T-shirt and trousers, comes to my table smiling. He looks handsome and serene, yet the serious and pensive expression on his face makes many people avert their gaze. It has been two years since he took me, his wife Cecilia and kids for a drive up to the spring of Palm Island. “Good memories, I like the way you describe that in the book…Happy time”, he said. He had brought the manuscript of the translation of our book, which the lawyer had sent him, for us to check together. He went to the machine in the corner of the hall to fetch tea and coffee. An officer brought a pen and paper I had been given permission to use during my special “professional visit”, organized by Levitt & Solicitors. I started to take notes of the comments Lex had penciled in the manuscript. We went through half the book in two hours. It was great to see the same concentration, precision, humor and impressive memory Lex had demonstrated when we worked on the book previously. The following day we finished checking the remainder of the book and started talking about the future. Lex was to be released on the 18th of July 2010, and he planned to tour Australia and possibly overseas to talk about his vision for his people.

Lex is a religious man with a spirituality he has forged for himself. As a young man, he read the Bible and had a revelation; he then adopted the Baha’i’ faith of his mother. After he had served a prison term for drunkenness, he asked his mother to leave him alone in his bedroom, so he could stop drinking. He never drank since. This is unusual for an Aboriginal man in jail, where most inmates are detained for assault under the influence. The Baha’i’ authorities had asked him to formally renounce his faith following an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on his speech at the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1957 strike on Palm Island. According to the teaching of Bahaullah, followers cannot engage in politics and make political statements. Lex thought this was fair as he needed to take care of mundane things before he could share his faith with others. In the meantime he was reading Gandhi and asked for books on the Dalai Lama. I wondered why the Baha’i had not demanded his abnegation previously, when he was charged for being the ring leader of the riot in November 26, 2004, which was sparked by the findings of the autopsy of Cameron Doomadgee, alias Mulrunji, who died in custody. During the inquest into the suspicious death and the committal hearing of the rioters, the media gradually changed their representation of Palm Island, from depicting it as a dangerous place to expressing compassion for the shocking inequalities, the traumatic history and the dysfunctional bureaucratic system which suffocates Palm and other Aboriginal communities. The reports conveyed a feeling of responsibility. But when the policeman accused of Mulrunji’s death was acquitted in June 2007, all seemed to be forgotten.

Lex tends to intimidate people. The media construed him as a potential terrorist, stereotyping him and the other Palm Islanders “as an uncontrollable and irrational group” by deliberately neglecting the cause for their uprising.1 The unbalanced adverse publicity of the events contrasted the immoral offenders with the righteous sacrificial police and created what Thalia Anthony describes as “Moral Panic”: “The mainstream media, along with the Queensland Government and police union, produced a moral panic over the Palm Island protest that overshadowed the death in custody”. She argues that “the court that sentenced Wotton appropriated the moral panic over the offence to remove the death in custody as a sentencing factor”. Indeed the judge decided that the background for the riot, the death in police custody and subsequent findings of the autopsy, was irrelevant to the trial of Lex, charged with leading the uprising. But he admitted in his conclusion, available online that: “In my view the only thing in your favour in this involvement in this was that at stages you made some efforts to lessen the chances of the police officers being injured. The most significant of that is that on two occasions you took the crowd away from besieging the police. This allowed the police to leave the police station to go to the barracks and later from the barracks to go to the hospital. Particularly in relation to that second episode, it is clear from the video that the crowd was not surrounding those police officers when the decision was made to move. I am of the view that you personally moved the crowd away on each of those occasions.” The judge further pointed out that although the police feared for their lives; no one had been physically injured and questioned the rioters’ intention to harm the police.

The judge argued that the monetary damage caused by the destruction of the barracks was a compounding factor in the seriousness of Lex’s offence; this is questionable given that four years earlier it had been decided to demolish these barracks and replace them with a new police station. The speed of the fire, due to the lack of water, belied the fact that the rioters comprised only around 30 men, 60 women and 90 kids, as one officer testified during the committal hearing. The judge initially stated there were 300 rioters, but after viewing the video shot during the riot he believed most of them were mere spectators. Why then were the few hours of Palm unrest considered such danger compared to the Macquarie Fields disturbances which lasted four days with burning and fights? 2

The trial of Lex was emblematic of the issue that no one should attack state property because of the power it represents, which is precisely the reason rioters in Australia or anywhere else in the world choose to put fire to it. The act is one of empowerment through destruction of the very symbol that embodies disempowerment in a dysfunctional justice system that does not protect all citizens. Riots are a response to provocation which sometimes is the last straw. This was the case in the French suburbs riots in 2005, which were sparked by the death of two young kids electrocuted while running away from a police control, because they feared arrest for not having IDs on them.

Could Lex’s trial have had a different outcome, similar to the famous American film 12 men in Anger, if only one person of the jury had argued a strong case to change everyone’s opinion? Or had the jury made up its mind before the trial even started? Lex saw one of the jury members asleep; others seemed not to listen to the defence pleading. Meanwhile lobby groups were protesting in support of Lex. YouTube broadcasted a protest by a group of people in support of Lex during his trial, amongst them a Bolivian woman who says that Indians were simultaneously protesting on the issue in front of the Australian Embassy in Bolivia. Internet networks of solidarity connect different victims of social injustice across the planet. The fact that the voice of minorities can be heard, even that of your neighbourhood when it experiences social and physical hardships should be seen as a hope for us all. But the agenda of Lex’s trial was political. Even though it coincided with Barack Obama’s election to the presidency and the media hailing a new era of no racial discrimination, the police officers on duty during the Palm riot were ceremoniously given bravery awards shortly before Lex’s sentencing. Palm Islanders’ reaction to this new provocation was unexpected, instead of social unrest they spoke to the media.

Real life is beyond symbols. Over the past three years there have been new deaths in custody, resulting in riots and social group actions. Without the riot in November 2004 there would have probably been no media interest in Cameron Doomadgee’s death in police custody. The sentencing judge chose to ignore the background of the riot, and instead argued the importance of deterrence to prevent lawlessness and anarchy. He thereby exculpated the action of the police and perhaps inadvertently condoned the inequity suffered by Aboriginal people. The tension between police and Aboriginal citizens is growing in spite of Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to Australia’s Stolen Generation on February 13, 2008. 3 Despite declaring his resolve that “the injustices of the past must never ever happen again”, and promising “a future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia”, the emergency intervention in the Northern Territory in June 2007 implemented by the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 has yet to be reversed. The communities exempted of the Racial Discrimination Act, 73 in total, saw their land confiscated for five years, and self-management and welfare programs suspended by the Federal Government. In March 2009, following a complaint lodged by a collective of Aboriginal communities, the UN wrote a letter to Kevin Rudd expressing its concern over the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. In April 2009 Kevin Rudd signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. In August 2009 the special Rapporteur of the UN to Australia stressed the need to reinstate the protection of the Racial Discrimination Act. 4

Many nations have what Appadurai calls the “Fear of small numbers”, of minorities who like Indigenous people in Australia demand to speak and act for themselves. Around the world Indigenous experience has led to a different perception of sovereignty; minorities can adopt sovereignty across borders, as they share the struggle against injustice. They look for a model of governance which is not restrained by the State.

Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, both famous French Caribbean authors have published a magnificent little book “L’intraitable beauté du monde. Adresse à Obama” (The intractable beauty of the world, a letter to Obama), in which they write that “people today have the premonition that the power of nations does no longer make them great”. They invite us on an imaginative ride of creating a new world beyond the discriminations produced by many States.

The following chapters try to put the Palm Island riot into perspective in order to understand the Aboriginal visions of contemporary Australia as well as the global world we live in where social justice means what Lex said in 2005: “I don’t want to be treated as an Aboriginal person, I want to be treated as a human being; we don’t want two laws, one White, one Black, we want one law for all, we want to live in peace”.

Item ID: 7286
Item Type: Book (Research - A1)
ISBN: 978-2-911939-61-7
Additional Information:

The title of this book is the English translation of the original work published in French as "Guerriers Pour La Paix: la condition politique des Aborigènes vue de Palm Island".

Date Deposited: 20 May 2010 02:36
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 50%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society > 169902 Studies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Society @ 50%
SEO Codes: 94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9404 Justice and the Law > 940499 Justice and the Law not elsewhere classified @ 51%
94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9401 Community Service (excl. Work) > 940102 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Development and Welfare @ 49%
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