Movement gains momentum to free Lex Wotton, jailed for protesting Aboriginal murder in custody

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A little over four years ago, in 2004, a policeman beat to death an Aboriginal man known as Mulrunji on Palm Island, a part of Queensland in Australia’s racist deep north. Today, the battle for justice continues.

On Dec. 7, 2008, Aboriginal community leader Lex Wotton was sentenced to six years in jail after an all-white jury convicted him of “riot with destruction.” His crime? Taking part in a large, militant, and completely justified community protest that erupted a week after a coroner ruled Mulrunji’s death accidental. Wotton is a political prisoner, and he must be freed now.

Interviewed by the Australian Freedom Socialist Bulletin (FSB), Wotton told this reporter, “I was targeted as the ringleader in the so-called Palm Island riots. I am the scapegoat for both the federal and state governments’ inaction and failure to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.”

Blood on police hands. During the 1980s, the huge number of Indigenous deaths in police custody sparked nationwide organizing in which the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women played major roles. In response to the pressure, the government in 1987 established the Royal Commission to investigate.

Indigenous people are jailed at record rates. Although they comprise a mere 2.2 percent of Australia’s population, they represent over 22 percent of the prison population and 30 percent of all deaths in custody.

In its 1991 report, the commission made 339 proposals, many of which the government has failed to implement — including the recommendation that Aboriginal people should be imprisoned only as a last resort, and not for petty crimes.

Mulrunji’s murder is a case in point. On Nov. 19, 2004, Mulrunji allegedly mouthed off to police officer Chris Hurley as he was arresting another Aboriginal man on the street. Hurley arrested Mulrunji for being “drunk and disorderly,” beat him, and took him to jail. Mulrunji was found dead on the cell floor 40 minutes later. He had suffered head and jaw trauma, four broken ribs, and massive internal bleeding. His liver was literally cleaved in half.

Had the commission’s recommendations been implemented, Mulrunji would not have been arrested in the first place; if he had been, he would have been properly monitored in the police station; and, finally, the investigation into the officer responsible would not have been so spectacularly tainted.

Enough!When the first coroner’s inquiry into Mulrunji’s death declared it an accident — police withheld names of witnesses who had seen Chris Hurley punching Mulrunji — the community rebelled. More than 10 percent of Palm Islanders, who are overwhelmingly Aboriginal, took to the streets. Protesters burned down the police station, courthouse, and Hurley’s police residence.

These events revitalized the movement against police violence. Demands to know the truth and hold those responsible to account resulted in a proper coroner’s investigation in 2006 that found Hurley culpable for Mulrunji’s death. More mass protests were necessary before Hurley was hauled into court, making him one of the few cops responsible for a death in custody to face trial.

But, in 2007, an all-white jury acquitted Hurley. He was promoted, transferred to a sought-after location, and given $100,000 to compensate for belongings lost in the fire. In contrast, Wotton, a plumber, was found guilty in 2008 of riot on the flimsiest of evidence: film footage of him with a wrench.

The last chapter of this struggle is still to be written. As 2008 ended, the 2006 coroner’s finding that Hurley was responsible for Mulrunji’s death was set aside. The inquest will be reopened.

Join the fight. The movement to free Lex Wotton, win justice for the Palm Island community, and stop Aboriginal deaths in custody is spreading.

Examples of strong union support for Wotton are the peak union body in the state of Victoria; the Rail, Tram and Bus Union in Queensland; and the Maritime Union of Australia, which has a proud tradition of solidarity. Warren Smith, Secretary of the Maritime Union branch in Sydney, told the FSB, “Rank-and-file wharfies consider the jailing of Lex Wotton a complete injustice. On the day of Lex’s sentencing, the entire Sydney waterfront came to a standstill — for only a brief period, but for enough time to make a very symbolic gesture of solidarity from maritime workers.”

Across Australia, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are mobilizing, and support is coming in from around the world. Protests demanding freedom for Wotton have been held in England, Japan, and New Zealand. Radical Women’s 41st Anniversary Conference in San Francisco in October 2008 also took solidarity action.

The Indigenous Social Justice Association-Melbourne (ISJA) arranged a speaking tour in Victoria for Wotton in August 2008. The ISJA is an activist group open to everyone who works collaboratively with others to end anti-Aboriginal police violence.

FS readers can help! Raise Wotton’s cause in unions and on campus. Collect signatures on the petition circulated by the ISJA-Melbourne. (For a copy, email alison.thorne@ozemail.com.au.) Express your support to Wotton directly by writing to him at Townsville Correctional Centre, PO Box 5574 MSO, Townsville, QLD 4810, Australia. Last but not least, write to Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, PO Box 15185, City East, QLD 4002, to demand freedom for Wotton and support calls for a Royal Commission to investigate the killing of Mulrunji, the sabotage of the investigation, and the targeting of protesters.

Freedom Socialist Party Organizer Alison Thorne, active in the campaign to end Aboriginal deaths in custody since the 1980s, is a founding member of the ISJA-Melbourne.

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