10 years ago today, on 27 November 2004, the indigenous community of Palm Island erupted. The islanders had just heard read out at a public meeting the autopsy report into the death of the local man known posthumously simply as Mulrunji. He had been arrested a week earlier and taken to the Palm Island police lock-up, where he died a short while later following a scuffle with a Senior Sergeant of Police. A medical examination found he had sustained a cut above his right eye and four broken ribs, his portal vein was ruptured and his liver was split almost in two.
When the autopsy report was read out, a succession of angry young aboriginal men addressed the crowd, branding Mulrunji’s death as “cold blooded murder.” An angry crowd of about 400 stormed the police station, forcing the 18 local police to retreat to their residential barracks. When the barracks were set alight the police barricaded themselves and their families in the local hospital, while the mob set fire to the courthouse and police station. After decades of neglect and disenfranchisement, the people of Palm Island had had enough.
28 Palm islanders were arrested and charged with offences ranging from arson to riotous behaviour. The Director of Public Prosecutions announced there was no evidence to charge any police officer for Mulrunji’s death, and a misconduct investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission found likewise. However, in response to mounting media and public pressure, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie eventually appointed former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Sir Laurence Street, to review the DPP’s decision. Following Street’s review, the Senior Sergeant who arrested Mulrunji was charged with assault and manslaughter, but was eventually acquitted. Meanwhile, on Palm Island, life goes on.
10 years after the riots, almost to the day, the Productivity Commission released its 2014 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report. Among its key national findings the Commission reported that for indigenous Australians ‘justice outcomes continue to worsen, with adult imprisonment rates worsening from already high rates, and no change in high rates of juvenile detention and family and community violence.’ Since 2000 the adult imprisonment rate has increased 57%, whilst the adult imprisonment rate of non-indigenous Australians has remained roughly the same, thus widening the gap. Adjusting for differences in population age structures, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are imprisoned at 13 times the rate of non-indigenous adults, whilst the average detention rate for ATSI youth is a staggering 24 times the rate of non-indigenous youth.
These woeful statistics could hardly offer a clearer measure of our failure to indigenous communities. As white Australians wring their hands and shake their heads this week at the turbulent developments currently unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, perhaps it’s time to stop and take a long, hard look at what’s happening in our own backyard.