"There needs to be action in this country. People like yourselves can make it happen", Palm Island Aboriginal leader Lex Wotton, who is facing a jail sentence of 10 years, told a public meeting at the Queensland University of Technology on September 10.
Wotton will face trial on October 6 on charges of "riot with destruction". He is being prosecuted for taking part in a November 2004 protest which ended in the Palm Island police station and residence being burnt down.
Four hundred people marched on the police station and courthouse. The emotion was high because it came after a police report on the death in custody of Aboriginal man, Mulrunji (Cameron Doomadgee), which claimed he had died in an accident following a "scuffle".
The police officer responsible for Mulrunji's death, senior sergeant Chris Hurley, was charged with manslaughter in 2007. However, after a seven-day trial in Townsville, in which details of the vicious assault and Mulrunji's extensive internal injuries became public, an all-white jury took just three-and-a-half hours to return a "not guilty" verdict.
To add insult to injury, in May this year the Queensland state government awarded Hurley $100,000 — which it claims to be compensation for items and effects lost in the 2004 riot. But the family of Mulrunji has received nothing, and Wotton has been slapped with exhaustive court costs.
Wotton has been on tour throughout the country talking about the case, the racist persecution and ongoing injustices suffered by all Palm Islanders. In Melbourne, supporters held a speak-out against deaths in custody and the vilification of Wotton.
"They can lock me away, but the fight will continue", Wotton told the QUT meeting. "People are demanding the charges against me be dropped. But I'm just a small part of the struggle", Wotton said.
In Brisbane, 120 people took part in an organising meeting on September 11 to prepare for the upcoming trial. "Lex has been prepared to take on this fight for the cause of the Palm Island people", said Stuart Levitt, the solicitor acting for Wotton. "This case against Lex involves absolute double standards. While he is charged, constable Chris Hurley gets off scot free, with massive compensation. The whole criminal justice system of Queensland deserves condemnation."
Sam Watson, Indigenous spokesperson for the Socialist Alliance, told the meeting of the numerous deaths in police custody, including the 1993 case of Daniel Yock when "the community reacted and confronted the police".
"There is a long history which shows that the white criminal justice system always takes the side of the white perpetrators. The most effective method of fighting back we have found has been to take it to the streets."
Watson said that Aboriginal people are committed to "defend our own" and that "the battle is not just for Lex Wotton but for the whole country".
Activists are organising a rally and march on October 4, which will also demand the Rudd government end the Northern Territory intervention. On October 6, activists will assemble outside Brisbane courthouse when the case is due to be heard. Meanwhile, the argument is being put to the High Court that the charges against Wotton be thrown out altogether.
Referring to the European invasion more than 200 years ago, Wotton told the public meeting that, "A great wrong has been done ... Our land has been stolen. We need change in the 'Lucky Country' ... I hope that you will continue to fight the wrongs."