Carlo's Corner: Invasion? Genocide? Black deaths in custody? Let's move on

January 11, 2013

It is nearly that time again, the time to celebrate all that is great about this nation on the date that commemorates its founding by Europeans who discovered what they considered an empty continent.

We have made a lot of progress since then. For instance in 1967 we agreed in a landmark national vote that Aboriginal people were people, and not fauna.

Luckily, the decision was not made retrospective — otherwise the continent could not have been considered empty in 1788 and there might be some tricky issues relating to the fact that, if other people lived here, what happened was not a “settling” of the continent but actually an invasion and dispossession of others.

When it comes to January 26, some people take the “black armband” view of history and refuse point blank to acknowledge the great progress this nation has made. Yes, it might have been founded on stolen land, made possible by the genocide of another race, but we sure have a great cricket team!

There may have been a few unfortunate instances in relations with Aboriginal people, but we really have come quite a long way.

Take Queensland's former police commissioner Bob Atkinson, who retired in September just hours after a court banned him from deciding the fate of six police officers involved in two official police cover-ups over the killing of Aboriginal man Mulrunji Doomadgee in 2004.

Atkinson, described by Crime and Misconduct Commission chair Martin Moynihan as presiding over a corrosive “culture of self-protection” for refusing to discipline the six officers, gave a very brave and moving speech when he stepped down. Queensland's top cop expressed his “sorrow” over the incident in which Doomadgee was taken to a police watchhouse on Palm Island and died from injuries so severe his liver was nearly cleaved in two.

The September 11 Brisbane Times reported Atkinson described the death, for which a coroner's inquest found Sergeant Chris Hurley responsible, and subsequent events were “a tragedy for everyone involved”.

Now the Queensland police force and Atkinson personally have copped a lot of flack for what have been widely denounced as repeated cover-ups over the death, but such an even-handed approach is surely to be applauded. A lot of people have suffered tragic consequences from this incident.

Doomadgee, who was picked up for being drunk, tragically lay dead a few hours later on a cell floor with four broken ribs and a ruptured portal vein. Sergeant Hurley, on the other hand, was tragically promoted and transferred to the Gold Coast.

Then there was the further tragedy of angry protests that erupted on Palm Island after Doomadgee's death. Respected Aboriginal community leader Lex Wotton was tragically jailed for his role in the protests, and Hurley was tragically paid $100,000 in compensation by the Queensland Police Service for property loss suffered in the protests. It really makes you wonder how much one man can be expected to bear.

Then take the case of Roy Bramwell, who told the third inquest into Doomadgee's death in 2010 that he saw Hurley repeatedly kick and punch Doomadgee. He said: “I told police he kicked him and all that, but he [Detective Darren Robinson] crushed it and put it in the trash. He then took me and made a second statement. They told me if I told anyone what I saw they would come after me."

So Bramwell was tragically forced to make a false statement and Detective Robinson was tragically forced to waste a piece of paper. We can only hope it got recycled.

But, while Atkinson expressed his “sorrow”, he also wisely noted that “we can't go back and change what happened”. We have to “move forward and move on and we are doing that”.

Yes, because as tragic as these events were “for all involved”, it is not like Black deaths in custody is any kind of constant systematic feature of Australian life. After all, since the Royal Commission into Black deaths in custody handed down its final report in 1991, there have only been nearly 300 more Black deaths in custody, which is only a rate of about one a month.

So let's just move on. We have an invasion to celebrate.

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