Lex Wotton was an angry young man. Now he’s a placid grandfather frustrated by his inability to end the world’s injustice, writes Michael Madigan
IT WAS the torches in the early morning darkness and the gun pressed to his temple and those lightemitting diodes on the rifles sprinkling him with red dots, just around his heart, that he remembers most vividly.
Those things and that gruff voice from a face hidden behind a balaclava ordering “get down on your knees!”.
And then there was the cold terror of the knowledge swiftly rising within that if he did that, if he did go down on his knees, the cover his body afforded the hysterical kids just behind him would be significantly reduced, and just the slightest rearward pressure on one trigger …
Lex Wotton, Palm Island plumber, two-term councillor, top of the Palm’s “Most Wanted’’ list had spent the previous evening explaining to his wife and children that he was probably going to be taken off to jail for a long time.
“The kids were crying but I was pretty calm, just telling them to learn at school, saying ‘if you don’t know something at school put up your hand, never be afraid to do that’, and I was telling them to look after their mother,’’ he recalls as he chews thoughtfully on a burger at the island’s coffee shop.
The day before the guns, Wotton’s muscular frame had been caught on film and televised in lounge rooms across the nation. He was stripped to the waist, a shovel and a 90-degree cast iron plumber’s bend in his hand, looking enraged as he walked with a purposeful gait towards a police precinct filled with terrified officers which, within a few hours, was a smouldering ruin.
Palm Island is defined by many things: awe-inspiring beauty, welfare dependency, homicidal violence. But in the past century, two dates have emerged as historically defining and they both involve pre-dawn police raids.
On June 15, 1957, police stormed into the homes of seven strike breakers who had asked the government for better conditions and some pay for their 30 hour week. The men and their families were banished to the mainland.
On November 27, 2004, 47 years later, hundreds of police, who had converged on Palm after a riot sparked by the previous week’s death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee, stormed houses wielding guns and tasers. They dragged alleged riot ring leaders, once again, off their island home for some continental Australia punishment.
That event, which marked the climax of the hideous, week-long saga that followed Cameron Doomadgee’s death, has, much like the strike, led to massive changes on Palm Island. Despite a permanent shroud of demoralised, tropical lethargy, Palm seems to simultaneously harbour endless wellsprings of optimism that somehow, some way, a bright new day is about to dawn.
Wotton, the man alleged by prosecutors to have issued a “call to arms’’ is the self-styled prophet of that shining new day. He led a riot so terrifying that a police officer soiled his pants when the mob appeared, hellbent on burning him and his colleagues alive in the police station.
The Wotton journey has been extraordinary.
He rose from being a 20-yearold criminal drunk on his knees in a Townsville prison cell praying for redemption in 1987, to the height of respectability as a local government councillor, presiding over meetings with Cabinet ministers and agitating for change from inside the tent.
And then, from that dizzy climb in just a decade, Wotton in just one day in 2004 transmuted into a dangerously violent radical, the firebrand poster boy for indigenous armed resistance.
In the decade since the riot and his arrest, Wotton has been the focus of national and sometimes international attention, from various judicial figures fascinated by the legal nuances of his case to the indigenous youngsters who a few months ago mobbed him at a Sydney rugby league game, lauding him as a hero in the fight against injustice.
Wotton and the tragic Cameron Doomadgee have almost merged in the nation’s mind as a joint version of Steve Biko, the South African founder of the Black Consciousness Movement who was found dead in a police cell in 1977. But while Wotton and Doomadgee may be linked in public imagination, they were not close friends, only vague acquaintances.
Wotton readily admits he stood at Doomadgee’s gravesite and wept when he was first allowed to return to the island after his two years in jail, but his ambitions for the future are not compromised by sentimental musings on the past.
Wotton has more chapters to complete in his evolution.
Just last Thursday, on the corner of Mango Ave and Main near Palm’s central business district, he emerged in his latest incarnation – conservative grandfather approaching the age of 50, raging against the lack of respect shown by the dissolute island youth.
“They think this is normal life!’’ he snapped, gesturing furiously towards a block of flats pumping out loud music only metres from the spot where he had been caught in that legendary footage grasping the shovel as he stalked towards the police station.
Someone in a party mood had cranked up the stereo to full volume.
Oddly enough, it’s not a cop-killing rapper beat that the hooded youths of Palm’s mean streets are broadcasting.
It’s The Eagles singing You Can’t Hide Your lying Eyes but the easy listening ballad infuriates Wotton who rages at the lack of respect for ordinary locals.
“They don’t understand this is not what ordinary people do in the middle of the day,’’ he hisses, flashing eyes demanding affirmation his indignation is warranted, arms gesturing wildly to simulate the chaos the music represents.
The Wotton rant widens as we walk on towards the seaside coffee shop, and now incorporates school truancy rates, alcohol and drug abuse, his respect for the local police sergeant, the shoddiness of all three tiers of government, poor nutrition and the evils of takeaway food.
“People don’t cook! Do you know there are people here who walk into that fish and chip shop every night and they don’t even have to give their order. The people behind the counter just know what they want,’’ he says with deep disapproval.
Wotton lives in a well maintained home, the interior kept spotless by his partner Cecilia, the fridge and pantry stocked with food for visiting kids and grandkids.
He never drinks, rarely socialises, follows the football but appears to prefer reading as a hobby and is so deeply comfortable with his own company that prison guards were stunned at the ease with which he dealt with weeks of being alone in a cell 22 hours a day.
The angry young man has gone, replaced by the frustrated grandfather who can no longer take refuge in righteous anger at the world’s injustices, but only grow frustrated at his own inability to end them.
And that’s where the class action comes in. A longterm project by Sydney based law firm Levitt Robinson, the action will use the federal Racial Discrimination Act in a first-time effort to show an entire state government infrastructure, including all arms of law enforcement, were guilty of institutional and systemic “racial prejudice” in the aftermath of the 2004 riot.
Police had raided houses across the island and terrified innocent women and children in the process.
The principal, Stewart Levitt, has become a mentor and friend to Wotton who has trusted him completely ever since Levitt was invited to an indigenous secret men’s business meeting in Townsville in 2005.
Levitt has more than a passing interest in the case. He is doing a doctorate at the University of NSW on police sabotaging cases involving white crime against black people.
“I was born nine years after the Holocaust,’’ he says. “I believe Jewish people have a duty to be the light unto the nations, to help others understand the golden rule – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.’’
The matter is now before Federal Court Judge Debra Sue Mortimer who devoted much of her career prior to going to the bench to work in discrimination, acting at times for boat people.
Judge Mortimer has agreed it is important for part of the trial to be held on Palm Island this September.
The material already on file is confronting.
Wotton’s “outline of anticipated evidence’’ says he was watching the cricket on television the morning after the riot, anticipating his arrest ju s t before 5am.
The headlights of up to 10 police vehicles ranging from police cars to buses rounded a curve, briefly illuminating his lounge room wall.
Wotton says he went to the door and put up both arms with hands open to show he was ready to comply with their instructions, and was told to get on his knees.
“Mr Wotton recalls that he was very concerned at the moment for the safety and wellbeing of his family,’’ his statement reads.
“Mr Wotton noticed a number of red dots targeted at his chest, around his heart.
“He recalls thinking that the red dots must have been guns pointed at his heart, and of becoming even more frightened.”
It was at that moment Wotton alleged the taser went off. He recalls “something like lightning hitting him in the chest’’ and pain shooting through his whole body.
With a gun to his temple and another against his back, between the shoulders, a knee went into his lower back forcing him to the ground.
Then he was hauled to his feet, as the taser electrodes were removed from his chest and placed in a Mount Franklin water bottle, presumably to retain them for evidence.
Loaded into a helicopter but denied any safety equipment such as a life jacket, he was deposited at a Townsville watch house.
A police officer told him: “What you have done has made it bad for all your people.’’
Depositions from his family, including Albert Wotton who was aged just 10 and remembers masked men coming into his bedroom, are possibly even more distressing.
“The (masked) man stood at the doorway to the bedroom and began yelling words to the effect of “get down, don’t move.’’
“Mr (Albert) Wotton will say he recalls looking up as he lay on the ground and seeing that one of the masked men was pointing a gun at him.
“He recalls feeling terrified and that he was trembling and whimpering.’’
Statements from other community members describe similarly harrowing treatment involving masked police in riot gear, wielding weapons; and of children witnessing acts of violence against their relatives.
The Class Action asserts that members of the mainstream community would not have been treated in such a manner and the Wotton family appears determined that much of the cash that may be extracted from the Queensland Government by way of a settlement, will go to the community.
Wotton acknowledges the spoils lavished on Palm Island in the wake of the riots are still being channelled in by governments, embarrassed at the decrepitude of a Queensland community televised across the world in November 2004.
He has his own wish list, including an Olympic pool, new training infrastructure and maybe even the re-establishment of a community radio station that broadcasts information to those who cannot, or simply won’t, read vital health and welfare information posted on boards across the island.
“I don’t want to get back into politics,’’ he says dismissively when asked about a return to public office.
“I can do much more out here.’’
Wotton insists there is a spiritual side to every life. His own search led him to take an interest, if not a formal role, in the Baha’i Faith.
He concedes, almost with every sentence he utters: “I don’t have all the answers.’’
He is not even sure if the prayer for redemption delivered up by his 20-year-old self in that prison cell 27 years ago has been answered.
But Wotton is supremely confident he is on a righteous path: “All I do know is if I can do just some good somewhere, it can ripple out and have an impact on thousands of lives.’’