If I had to choose one word to described Palm Island community leader, Lex Wotton, it would be “tenacious.” In 2008, Wotton visited Melbourne for his first speaking tour, organised by the Indigenous Social Justice Association. At that time, Wotton faced the threat of jail for his role in a protest in November 2004, following the release of autopsy results for the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee in the Palm Island lock-up. Police branded the protest a “riot.” Three months after Wotton’s tour, an all-white jury found him guilty of “riot with destruction.” He was sentenced to six years and became Australia’s most famous political prisoner. Nineteen months later, Lex was released on bail, but a “gag order” banned him from speaking about his case.
Things are now looking rather different. On December 4, Justice Debbie Mortimer in the Federal Court found that the police acted with a sense of impunity in the case. Mortimer ruled that the failure to suspend the police officer responsible for the death of Mulrunji, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, was unlawful discrimination. She found that the police officers who investigated Doomadgee’s death did not act impartially or independently. She further found that the police’s emergency declaration, under which they treated Palm Island like a war zone, was excessive.
Lex and his family—his partner Cecilia and his mother Agnes, who pursued the class action with him—were awarded modest damages of $220,000, which is just a token amount given the abuse they endured, Wotton’s jail term and the costs of fighting for justice for 12 years. While Wotton’s lawyers pursued the case pro-bono, other costs have been borne by the family with the support of the movement to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody.
However, this win is important for the movement throughout Australia, because the case can be used to show that the treatment of the Palm Island community is not an aberration when it comes to deaths in custody.
The Freedom Socialist Party first interviewed Wotton in 2008, when he discussed the importance of union support for his struggle and called for a re-examination of the whole case. Wotton was pleased to discuss the latest developments with us.
He thinks the importance of this ruling is the impetus it gives to the ongoing demand to fully implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. “This ruling brought to light the discrimination surrounding the death in custody itself and how the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have been ignored.” Wotton says that “over the last 25 years, the system has looked after police.”
While all the recommendations are important, he thinks that the most crucial one is an end to police investigating police. Wotton argued, “we need fair and impartial investigations. To achieve this, it has to be independent from the police and governments.” He advocates an independent national body that is properly funded and that will look at all future deaths in custody. He also says that “a big push needs to come from the grassroots.”
Lex and I discussed the decision at the recent ISJA Melbourne planning day to make a priority of campaigning around the call for Elected Civilian Review Boards with real powers. Wotton says it’s crucial “that such a body must be accountable to the community.”
Lex Wotton emphasises the importance of the ruling for the national movement. The same month that he won his class action, the Western Australia Coroner released its findings into the 2014 death in custody of Ms Dhu. The coroner found that the police involved were “inhumane and unprofessional,” but no one was held accountable for the death of the 22-year-old who had been injured through domestic violence. Ms Dhu’s family demanded the release of CCTV footage of her final hours. Wotton said, “It was appalling to see how she was mistreated. I hope that the lawyers in WA will pick up the outcome of the class action and use it as a precedent.” Already the family of 14-year-old Elijah Doughty, whose death in Kalgoorlie sparked national protests, have said they are looking at how they can use the Palm Island class action.
Wotton is clear that what the Palm Island community endured—like so many other communities—was systemic racism: “It’s not just one death in custody. The police must be made accountable for all their actions. They are given powers and they must be accountable for how they use them.” Wotton argues that the way the Palm Island community was treated “was over the top. It was pay back against the community when the struggle started to gain momentum. They tried to smother it by keeping a lid on things. This class action win will snowball, and I hope many others can use the outcome to hold the police accountable.”
Having won the case, Wotton sees the need for the broader movement to pick it up and run with it. He said his lawyers, from Stewart Levitt, “deserve a lot of credit. They never let the community down. But now it is up to the movement to win the changes we need, which will come from grassroots organising. We need all the organisations to become one voice to achieve bigger things out of this win.”
Wotton says of the win that “it hasn’t really sunk in yet.” He also stressed the importance of solidarity, “I want to thank everyone for getting behind us and supporting us in so many ways. Thank you to all the Melbourne supporters who backed me from the start. The State tried to silence me but it was the grassroots movement that made sure that my voice was heard.”
The Freedom Socialist Party supports the work of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, which is campaigning to stop deaths in custody permanently and end the practice of police investigating police. ISJA meets the first Thursday of every month at Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road, Brunswick.