So it is Australia day 2007. Today the news is that Chris Hurley, the police officer that killed Mulrunji in the Palm Island watch house is to be prosecuted for manslaughter. The independent review of the evidence has recommended prosecution, contradicting the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions who dismissed the evidence of the coronial enquiry into the death by saying the whole thing was a tragic accident.
For many non-Aboriginal Australians the death of Mulrunji and the apparent cover up by the first police investigation and the DPP’s refusal to lay charges has been an abrupt awakening into the institutionalised legitimisation of killing Aboriginal people, a reality that has been a hallmark of Australian police forces from the marines of the first fleet in 1788 right through to the officers who patrol Aboriginal people today.
In the 1800s the “Native Police” was established which was the most brutal killing regime that this country has ever seen – bands of death squads who opened up Australia’s rural frontiers by exterminating those Aboriginal people who resisted the invasion of their lands.
The key element of the native police was the invisibility of their deeds. At the time Aborigines were considered not competent to take an oath in court and as such were unable to provide any evidence to enquiries into the activities of the native police. The only official records of their many murderous raids on Aboriginal camps were the squeaky clean official reports written by the sole white officer in charge of the “dispersals”.
It is clear that today’s police force is just as capable as the old native police to falsify and sterilise information to disguise the truth of the killing of Aboriginal people. While it is of some comfort that Hurley will face a trial for his actions, the truth is that this killing would have remained swept under the carpet if it wasn’t for an extra-ordinary backlash from the community including the burning of the Palm Island watch house and the many high profile people who have publically condemned the cover up. Most Aboriginal people when they come into conflict with police, including the many who die in police custody, do not share the same sensational and widespread media coverage as the Mulrunji death and consequently the bulk of injustices in this country remain as a simple matter of routine policing with squeaky clean reports providing the official record of events.
The still unresolved death of Mulrunji was a major focus of the “Invasion day” rally and march which I attended in Brisbane today. Speaker after speaker delivered heart felt statements of anger, indignation and sadness, emotions that the whole crowd seemed to share. The names Danny Yock (killed by Brisbane police in 1993) and TJ Hickey (killed by Sydney police a few years ago) were mentioned many times as well as references to many other incidents of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
The rally clearly articulated the pain of Aboriginal Australia as well as the defiant assertion that this is an Aboriginal country no matter what white authorities say or do. But there was no plan of where to go, no suggested direction for political organisation of strategic considerations. The recent growth of land rights marches has been a knee jerk reaction to the high profile flashpoints such as Mulrunji’s death. They are not (as yet) being used to build a movement ot campaign (though there is much rhetoric along those lines).
I have had the priviledge in my life to have been taught by Qawanji (Vincent Brady) and Bejam – (Denis Walker). These two men were, in their youth, key supporters of Pastor Don Brady – the key Aboriginal leader of Brisbane during the land rights movement of the 70s and 80s.
Pastor Brady had a plan for his times which included the development of an Aboriginal legal, health and housing service in Brisbane – inspired by the U.S. Black Panther movement who Pastor Brady met while on a Churchill Scholarship visit to the U.S.
Pastor Brady’s plan for the empowerment of Aboriginal people was never seen as a solution, as a welfare strategy. It was a step towards consolidating the community to develop its own power base so that it would have the capacity to take the next step whatever that turned out to be.
But the principles of radical self determination were washed out of all the Aboriginal services through the development of ATSIC which bureacritised and sterilised the key functions of Aboriginal power and turned the organisations into bureacracies every bit as dysfunctional as mainstream bureacracy.
Now ATSIC has gone and Aboriginal Australia is developing again a new desire for radical self determination in the face of an inflexible white state apparatus just like in the 70’s when Aboriginal people were first freed from the restrictions of the Aboriginal protection act .
Just as in the days of Pastor Brady or Charles Perkins and Bruce McGuinness, there is now a power vacuum in Aboriginal society that must be filled with vision and political direction – with no help from and in direct resistance to the various laws policies and agencies of white Australia.
On the first Oz day – January 26 1788 – the myth of Austrtalia was born. The lie of Terra Nullius was the basis for the new British colony which has denied the truth of Aboriginal Australia from that day until today. Hopefully one day a new generation of non-Aboriginal Australians will accept the truth of this country’s history as well as the truth of the widespread institutional racism that our whole public service is saturated in – especially the police. Until that day Aboriginal people and their supporters, it seems, must remain outside of the legal and psychological matrix that is “Australia”.