The Palm Island Uprising

We've had enough mate, this is ridiculous.The system not only is not working for us, it has never ever 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.
Murrandoo Doomadgee, cousin of Mulrunjie Doomadgee, on Lateline, 26th November 2004

On the 26th of November, 2004, around 300 members of the Aboriginal community on Palm Island in northern Queensland rioted, burning down the police station and courthouse, and setting fire to the police barracks, a police officers house, and a stolen police car, by throwing Molotov cocktails (as well as rocks and other projectiles). The islands armed police force were helpless to stop the destruction, and the scores of riot police ready to be flown in from the mainland to put the riot down were prevented from doing so by rioters blockading the islands only airstrip with cars.

On the 19th of November, 36-year-old Palm Islander Mulrunjie (Cameron) Doomadgee had died in police custody, after being arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior. The riot came in immediate response to the reading of the coroners autopsy report a week later, which detailed Doomadgees injuries at time of death as being four broken ribs, a punctured lung, and his liver literally torn in two an injury most commonly seen in serious road accidents. The coroner deemed these injuries to be in-keeping with the official police line of Doomadgee having fallen on a concrete step during a scuffle as he was being led from the police paddy wagon to the islands watch-house. It seems the Aboriginal community of Palm Island did not agree.

Palm Island has quite a history of colonial brutality and indigenous resistance. Before white invasion in north Queensland, the island belonged to the Manbarra people. It was only in 1914 that the Queensland Government claimed the island as a reserve, and shortly decided it would make an appropriate dumping ground for Aboriginal and Islander people regarded by the colonial establishment as uncontrollables. By 1940, at least 1,630 people from 40 different Aboriginal communities around Queensland would be forcibly removed from their communities and deposited imprisoned on the island.

Removal to Palm Island was the heaviest punishment a colonial officer could legally administer. In charge of the new reserve settlement was an ex-army captain, Robert Curry, a man with no previous administrative experience. From the start the settlement was under-financed, with the residents (that is, prisoners) of the island violently denied their traditional ways of life (even speaking Aboriginal languages was forbidden) surviving on meagre rations and living in complete poverty. Leprosy and venereal disease spread through the settlement, and the doctors appointed to the island by the colonial administration were, unsuprisingly, less than enthusiastic in their attempts to curtail the diseases spreading.

Perhaps an indication of just how desperate things were on the island during this time is the mental collapse of Administrator Curry whose living conditions would have been positively luxurious compared to the settlements Aboriginal population who in February 1930 went on a destructive rampage, killing his own children and torching several buildings before he was shot by one of his own Aboriginal staffers.
In 1957 a series of incidents involving the colonial staffs treatment of Aboriginal women and a decision by the colonial administration to cut wages, led to a strike by the residents. The authorities responded by expelling 25 identified ringleaders of the resistance, and their families, from the island. A second strike occurred in 1974 when the colonial administration sacked the local Community Council and threatened to turn control of the island over to the City Council of Townsville the nearest mainland city.

The Australian Govenment finally relinquished control of Palm Island at least on paper in 1985 when title for the island was passed to the Community Council in the form of a DOGIT (Deed of Grant in Trust). While this gave the residents a greater say in the administration of the island, the transfer of title led to the removal of much of the Government infrastructure. Soon after the decision was made, barges arrived and houses, shops, the timber mill and farming equipment were disassembled and shipped back to the mainland. The Aboriginal residents of Palm Island some of them Manbarra people, indigenous to the island, many of them indigenous to elsewhere in Queensland and transported (or the descendents of those transported) to the settlement as punishment for their defiance of colonial authority had their traditional ways of life stamped out and replaced with the poverty of colonial capitalist life by the white European occupiers over the course of 70 brutal years. Then, when they protested their slave-like conditions and insisted upon some semblance of independence, the Government punished them for their perceived ingratitude and removed everything it had taught them to rely upon.

In the 20 years since this event, familiar symptoms of social trauma and denigration have set in as a direct result of the poverty, appalling conditions and subsequent desperation of the community of Palm Island, who grapple with the weight of a common legacy of colonization: they are at once brutally oppressed and utterly abandoned. A Department of Public Works Director-Generals briefing note records that in an 8 month period in 2003, there were 16 youth suicides and 8 domestic murders on the island. The community of 3500 indigenous people is squeezed into about 220 houses, averaging 17 people to a house. The unemployment rate on the island remembering that the Aboriginal people comprising the community of Palm Island have had their traditional ways of life completely annihilated is said to be around 95%. In the late 1990s, The Guinness Book of Records listed Palm Island, Australias largest indigenous community, as the most violent place on earth outside of a war-zone. Here we see the extent of the damage Australia has done to its surviving indigenous communities; the legacy of colonization in its starkest tones.

Since the uprising, the Palm Island community has been vilified by the very political and cultural establishment that created its problems in the first place. Peter Lindsay, The Federal Member for Herbert (in which Palm Island is situated), for instance, recently called his constituents dysfunctional and hopeless. Perhaps a reporter for the ABC went even further in revealing the true nature of Australias supposed multi-culturism and respect for its indigenous cultures: during the inquest into Mulrunjie Doomadgees death (which at this writing is still in progress), legal representatives for Aboriginal witnesses requested interpreters for the witnesses, for whom English is not a first language (Aboriginal people are now at least permitted to speak their own languages on Palm Island). The reporter in question asked an Aboriginal spokesperson, why cant these people just speak English?
Aside from the unabashed white supremacist commentary of the occupying culture which, by the way, has no more legal right to be occupying a single square inch of Australia than, say, the U.S military in Iraq the Palm Island community has been terrorized since the uprising by a paramilitary police force that has itself been nothing short of an army of occupation on the island.

Indeed, well-respected Aboriginal activist Sam Watson responded to a question from the mainstream media about violence in the Aboriginal community in the wake of the riot thusly: The only violence weve had in the Aboriginal community within the past few hours has been the tactical response force running through our homes and terrorising our old people and our children Weve had small children, eight and nine-year-olds, cast onto the ground and their heads forced into the dirt by these thugs in balaclavas with submachine guns. That sort of thing doesn't even happen in Iraq.

As well as verifying Watsons shocking assertions, U.K newspaper The Guardian (Australias corporate media has evidently been too busy wondering why residents of Palm Island wont just speak English to bother reporting any of this repression) also reported that police smashed down front doors of homes and stormed in with shotguns and riot shields. An alleged leader of the protests, Lex Wotton, was arrested by four car loads of police, who shot him with an immobiliser gun while he was stood with his hands up and the police guns were trained on him.

More than 30 people were arrested by these methods plus of course the countless people terrorized by the Tactical Response paramilitaries who werent taken into custody. 18 men, 3 womyn (one of them 65 years old) and 2 children (of undisclosed age) were charged, and eventually released on bail, but for many of them it was a condition of their bail that they could not return to Palm Island not for the funeral of Mulrunjie Doomadgee, not to be with their families for Christmas, and not even if they were the sole provider for their families.

Meanwhile, the man clearly responsible for the violent demise of Mulrunjie Doomadgee, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley the arresting officer on the night he died, who was seen on top of Doomadgee, punching him, by another man arrested that night was whisked away from the island soon after the death (for his own safety) and transferred to a cushy post on the Gold Coast, apparently rewarded rather than punished for the murder.

As the inquest into Doomadgees death drags on it seems less and less likely that Hurley will ever face charges; but 23 of the men, womyn and children arrested so brutally on Palm Island face charges of arson, serious assault of police, rioting with intent to cause damage to property and riotous demolition of a building (and it could have been worse: a few days after the uprising the Queensland Police Union made a failed bid to ensure that the charges against those accused of firebombing Palm Islands police station be upgraded to attempted murder, as there were cops hiding in there). The Queensland Police Union also launched a government-sponsored public appeal for donations to help the officers whose belongings were destroyed or stolen in the rebellion this, of course, includes Hurley, whose house was burnt down (sadly not with him in it he had already left the island). Perhaps a fat cheque helped ease Hurleys disappointment at not being honored for his bravery unbelievably, at least two of the 18 armed police who fled the 300-strong insurgency of 26th November were said by Queensland Police Minister Judy Spence to be in line to be awarded bravery medals!!!

Absurd double-standards, lies, hypocrisy, brazen racism, murderous police state brutality and repression; all of it part of an unbroken circle of occupation and genocide in this country that has been spinning continuously for 217 years and counting. There has been no great change in the megalomaniacal ideals or vicious conduct of the invading European culture that has colonized Australia. But indigenous resistance to this spinning circle of death and money, this McCulture of annihilation, is changing, is fluid. In Redfern in early 2004, we saw a small but militant reprisal from the Aboriginal community of the Block when a young Aboriginal boy was impaled on a fence while being chased by police [see The Redfern Uprising by Dave Antagonism]. The Palm Island uprising less than a year later involved at least twice as many Aboriginal people, and, although there was little direct engagement with the cops (who were hopelessly outnumbered and thus beat a hasty retreat), the insurgency was both militant and focussed the primary vestiges of colonial authority on the island (the police station, the courthouse) were attacked and destroyed outright. The Palm Island uprising also showed clear signs of tactical awareness, particularly in the blockading of the islands airstrip, preventing police reinforcements from arriving.

This, in my view, is what elevates it from a riot spontaneous, unfocussed, easily out-maneuvered, contained or crushed by a large enough enemy force to an uprising, an insurgency, an insurrection.

But thats semantics. What we need to do is piece together what these recent ruptures in Australias otherwise undisturbed colonial realities mean for us anarchists, radicals, indigenous sovereignty advocates, environmentalists, anti-racists, criminals, malcontents; whatever space we occupy in the underbelly of occupied Australia. Because clearly, our standard practice when we even bother of giving lip-service to Aboriginal struggles as some kind of medication for our White Australian guilt-complex (whether we personally are white or not), is just not going to cut it anymore. The Aboriginal rebellions in Redfern and on Palm Island have been the only serious challenges to the colonial capitalist power structure in Australia in recent memory, and the fact is, to paraphrase Ward Churchills Pacifism as Pathology, the rest of us are in danger of being left behind to feel good about ourselves (if that), while the revolution goes on without us.

So if were serious about liberation in any way at all, we must find ways to contribute to the burgeoning Aboriginal militant resistance. Granted, the examples I have given here Redfern and Palm Island are clear cases of Aboriginal communities reaching a breaking point and spontaneously revolting against the colonial power structure as it manifests in their own community. But its increasingly clear that all Aboriginal communities are approaching this breaking point, and so our options for how and where to contribute to the resistance are practically infinite earning the trust and respect of Aboriginal communities with support and solidarity, furthering discussion and action around issues of Aboriginal sovereignty in the political circles we are already moving in, and I would say most important of all, readying ourselves for militant resistance in a very serious way.

At Redfern and Palm Island, the Aboriginal Nations of this country let it be known that, after more than 200 years of genocide, they are not about to be pushed over the brink without a fight. Now we must all decide to stop waiting for provocation, and finally carry the fight to our enemy.


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