THE class action being brought against the State of Queensland by leading human rights law firm Levitt Robinson Solicitors on behalf of the Indigenous community on Palm Island was the subject of a full episode of the Law Report show on ABC Radio National.
Entitled ‘Lex Wotton Speaks Out’, the documentary by ABC reporter Damien Carrick constituted the first major media appearance by the lead applicant in the class action and long-time Levitt Robinson client Lex Wotton since his parole period ended.
Mr Wotton’s parole conditions, which forbade him from speaking to the media without permission from the Government, were the subject of a High Court case on which Levitt Robinson also acted.
Mr Carrick interviewed Levitt Robinson Principal Stewart Levitt for the documentary, as well as meeting with Levitt Robinson’s Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz on Palm Island whilst he was taking statements.
The full episode can be listened to or downloaded at this link.
During his interview, Mr Levitt gave his thoughts on the 2004 Palm Island riot:
Damien Carrick: Stewart Levitt is Lex Wotton’s lawyer. He represented Lex both in the 2012 High Court challenge to the parole conditions as well as the 2008 criminal trial for inciting riot.
Stewart Levitt: Well, Cameron Doomadgee, now known as Mulrunji out of respect, was walking home one day, intoxicated. He was singing, he was swearing. He was apprehended by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, there was a little bit of an altercation getting him into a van, and then he arrived at the police station. A couple of hours later he was dead. His liver was cloven in two and he had fractures and had generally speaking injuries consistent with him having suffered massive trauma and dying over a period of time when he was heard by witnesses in the cells to be moaning and groaning and was not offered any assistance.
And then in the week that followed there was a build-up of anger, suspicion, widespread belief on the island that Chris Hurley had killed Mulrunji, and that spilled over into a riot when the mayor of Palm Island, Erykah Kyle, delivered the autopsy report in the town square which effectively sought to cast the incident as an accident.
Lex Wotton made what could be described as an incendiary speech, although there is no evidence that he actually intended to happen what did happen, but he said, ‘Things are going to burn and we’re going to choose a time…basically we’re a mad as hell, we’re not going to take it anymore.’ At that about 300 people marched on the barracks and on the police station and so forth…
Damien Carrick: The police station and the courthouse were both burnt down.
Stewart Levitt: Yes, and there were also rocks thrown and abuse directed at police. But it’s a strange sort of riot because all the way through, Lex Wotton was actually negotiating with the senior police about providing them with safe escort off the island, basically saying that the Palm Islanders didn’t want the police around anymore if that was the way they were going to conduct themselves and that they weren’t going to protect the life and limb of Indigenous people.
Mr Levitt also commented on Mr Wotton’s goals in bringing the current class action.
Damien Carrick: Stewart Levitt, what role do you think that Lex Wotton can play in the Palm Island community now that the gag has been lifted?
Stewart Levitt: Well, I think that he recognises the force of law is prepared to do something which involves leading the charge through proper legal channels. You know, he is not a person who riots, he is not a revolutionary, he’s a person who is looking to change Australia and the way Australia treats Indigenous people. I think he’s taking a very heroic role because he has demonstrated that he has the courage of his convictions and that if he has to get down and dirty he is prepared to do it, and he did that on 24 November 2004. Now he’s taking the responsible approach of leading his community to seek vindication through the court system.
Meanwhile, Mr Meyerowitz-Katz gave Mr Carrick some specifics on the legal claim:
Damien Carrick: But many on the island, including Lex Wotton, don’t think it’s possible to move forward without first squarely facing the events of November 2004. Last week Lex Wotton’s lawyers filed an amended statement of claim in the racial discrimination action against Queensland Police.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz works with Lex’s lawyer Stewart Levitt. He’s on Palm Island collecting witness statements. We meet on the sidelines of a rugby game.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz: Essentially it’s a representative action in the Federal Court of Australia brought by Lex, also his wife and mother, but it’s on behalf of the entire class of Indigenous people on Palm Island who were residents during the 2004 protests and the subsequent events.
Damien Carrick: As I understand it you’re alleging institutionalised racism by Queensland Police for the events of that time.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz: Yes, we are essentially alleging that the whole process would have been different if this had happened anywhere else in Australia, and that was owing to the fact that they were Aboriginal.
Damien Carrick: And specifically you’re talking about the way the police came back onto the island post the riot and, what, entered into people’s homes?
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz: That’s definitely a strong element of it. But even the events around the death of the Aboriginal man Mulrunji or Cameron, the way that that was handled, especially given the seniority of the people who were involved, the fact that it seems like the entire Queensland Police Department were implicated in what has since been quite strongly criticised by a number of Queensland government bodies as a very poorly conducted investigation.
Damien Carrick: There was a report by the CMC, the Crime and Misconduct Commission, wasn’t there, which had a lot to say about that investigation.
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz: Yes, that’s correct, and in fact that report came out in 2010 and I believe was part of the impetus behind the current proceedings. That report was very damning of the investigation and found that the police did not act in such a way as would encourage confidence in the police and in the justice system in Queensland. And essentially we’re saying that as a result of that the community here on Palm Island have not been afforded the appropriate treatment by the justice system.
Damien Carrick: As I understand it a lot of people are angry about the way the police burst into houses. Lex has told me about…he says that guns were aimed at his children’s heads. Is that something you’ve also heard?
Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz: Yes, and in fact what we’re doing at the moment on Palm Island is hearing those stories and recording them to put them on record and to hopefully use them in the claim and to bring some justice to these people.