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The Tall Man :  Death and Life on Palm Island  - Chloe Hooper

The Tall Man

Death and Life on Palm Island

Paperback

Published: 9th September 2009
For Ages: 11 - 14 years old
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Published: 30th June 2008
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Awards

Shortlisted - 2008 Walkley Award for - Non-fiction
Shortlisted - 2008 Human Rights Award - Non-fiction
Winner- 2009 NSW Premier's Literary Awards - Douglas Stewart Prize
Winner - 2009 Australian Book Industry Award – General Non-fiction
Shortlisted - 2009 The Age Book of the Year - Non-fiction
Winner - 2009 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards - Non-fiction
Winner - 2009 The Indie Book of the Year Award - Non-fiction
Winner - 2009 Queensland Premier's Literary Prize
Winner - 2009 Davitt Award - Best True Crime
Winner - 2009 John Button Prize
Winner - Victorian Premier's Literary Award 2009
Winner - 2009 Ned Kelly Award - Non-fiction
Shortlisted - 2009 Prime Minister's Literary Award - Non-Fiction
Finalist - 2009 Melbourne Prize Trust Best Writing Award
Winner - 2008 Western Australia Premier's Literary Awards - Book of the Year & Non-Fiction

Book Description

The story of a death, a policeman, an island and a country

In 2004 on Palm Island, an Aboriginal settlement in the "Deep North" of Australia, a thirty-six-year-old man named Cameron Doomadgee was arrested for swearing at a white police officer. Forty minutes later he was dead in the jailhouse. The police claimed he'd tripped on a step, but his liver was ruptured. The main suspect was Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley, a charismatic cop with long experience in Aboriginal communities and decorations for his work.

Selected for 'Best books of the year' lists by Ali Smith, Colm Tóibín, Matt Condon, Peter Carey, Salon.com, The Globe & Mail and Dwight Garner in The New York Times.

About the Author

Chloe Hooper won a Walkley Award for her writing on the inquest into the death of Cameron Doomadgee, published in The Monthly and internationally. Her first novel, A Child's Book of True Crime, was critically acclaimed around the world. Chloe's most recent book, The Tall Man, won the 2009 New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for Non-fiction and the 2009 ABIA General Non-fiction Book of the Year Award. She lives in Melbourne.

They are and will always remain children, and therefore must be protected, even sometimes against their will.

'Annual Report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1904'

All I really knew about Palm Island were the headlines I'd been reading: 'Storm brews within Aboriginal Australia'; 'Tropic of Despair'; 'Island of Sorrow'. On 19th November 2004, a drunk Aboriginal man had been arrested for swearing at police. Less than an hour later, he died with injuries like those of a road trauma victim. The State Coronor reported there was no sign of police brutality, backing up the police claim the man had tripped on a step. The community did not agree, and a week later burnt down the police station. Police immediately invoked emergency powers, flying in special squads trained in counter-terrorist tactics, who arrested countless locals including teenagers and grandmothers. I went there two months later.

Traveling to Palm Island is like a sequence from a dream: the sea seems so luminous and so fecund, and the plane flies so close to it, that you see seals, and maybe dugong and giant turtle. As the plane turns to land, momentarily, the island unfolds. The mountains meet the palm-lined shore which meets the coral reef. From the air, this is a tropical paradise. But step from the plane into the hot, still day and you notice something is not right. The besser-block air-shelter is decorated with a collection of the local fourth-graders' projects on safe and unsafe behaviour: I feel safe when I'm not being hunted, one project reads.

I had never been in an Aboriginal community before for more than a day, and I'd been having nightmares about arriving in this one. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Palm Island, population three thousand, sixty-five kilometers North of Townsville in Far North Queensland, is the most dangerous place on earth outside a combat zone. I try to appear nonchalant.

Two men in their early thirties are stumbling around, leaning on each other. 'They're brothers,' a local tells me. 'They're blind.'

'Obviously,' I think, assuming she means blind drunk. One of the brothers then shakes out a white cane and my heart nearly stops. 'How did they go blind?' I ask.

'Nobody knows.'

The men are connected to one another with string: the brother with the cane holds the string leading his brother through their dark maze by the wrist.

I am traveling with two criminal lawyers who will represent pro bono Palm Island's council in a coronial inquest into the man's November death. The island's chairwoman, wearing a hat emblazoned with the Aboriginal flag, collects us from the airstrip and drives us into town along an old road fringing the water. Two white women-teachers, or nurses, or police-are walking briskly in shorts and t-shirts. They look as awkward, and out of place as I feel. 'Who are they?' I ask the chairwoman.

'Strangers,' she says.

One of the women smiles at me, curious perhaps, and briefly I'm not sure whether to reciprocate. I feel luminously white.

In the township there is a jetty, a beer canteen, a hospital, a long-broken clock tower and one store. Outside the store a child sits in a rubbish bin while another child cools him with a fire hose.

'Isn't it beautiful?' says a lawyer, trying to make conversation.

It is very beautiful. In 1916, the island appeared to the Chief Protector of Aborigines as, 'the ideal place for a delightful holiday.' The surrounding shark-infested waters also made it, 'suitable for use as a penitentiary' to confine 'the individuals we desire to punish.' From 1918, Aborigines were sent to the Palm Island Mission in leg irons deemed variously: 'a troublesome character'; 'a larrikin'; 'a wanderer'; 'a communist.' Usually they had made the mistake of asking about their wages, or were caught speaking their languages, or practicing traditional ceremonies. In its isolation the mission became increasingly authoritarian-a kind of tropical gulag with all the arbitrary abuse of power that term implies. Each superintendent 'got the law in his own mouth.' Even in the 1960s a man could be arrested for waving to his wife, or for laughing. A teenager whose cricket ball broke off a short length of branch could spend the night in gaol.

In the 1970s it became legal in Australia for Aborigines to drink alcohol and on Palm Island a canteen selling beer was opened. For a people long used to intense subjugation, it was an opportunity to literally be 'out of control.' It also unleashed a violence that had always been under the surface. In 1912, Queensland's parliament was advised that, 'the grouping of many tribes in one area would mean continual warfare amongst themselves and practically survival of the fittest.' Nonetheless, over forty tribes were sent to Palm Island, often grouping together Aboriginal people with completely incompatible territorial, language and kinship ties. The island's superintendent noted to a visitor, in 1929, 'since there were many different tribes if there was to be any letting off of steam, they would go for each other.'

The chairwoman drops the lawyers and me at the community 'motel': a series of spotless rooms with no apparent overseer. My room has barred windows; a steel framed bed; a ceiling fan; and a nail on the wall with a coat hanger-the wardrobe, I suppose.

Outside it is humid. Cicadas tune in and out of the heat. As it grows darker, I sit with the other 'strangers' on the veranda, drinking contraband red wine. Virgin forest surrounds us filled with unknown creatures audibly beginning their nocturnal rounds. We should, in theory, be safe. The motel is next to the locked police compound. Through the high cyclone wire fence, I can see a group of police in a mess room playing pool with some of the nurses. Two officers arrive and park their van, then heave an old mattress over the windscreen to protect it from stray rocks.

My lawyer companions, however, are on a mission and have no doubts: they drink a toast to the revolution. I'm still wondering what I'm doing here.

~

As far as I can see, the 19th November 2004 must have looked like another grindingly banal day. Shortly after 10am, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, the island's officer in charge, and Lloyd Bengaroo, the Aboriginal Police Liason Officer, were escorting Gladys Nugent, a big gentle-looking woman, to collect insulin from her de facto's fridge. She needed the escort because her de facto, Roy Bramwell, had just beaten her.

Hurley, 33, a tall, handsome man, waited on Dee Street-where among the fragrant frangipani trees every second house has broken windows, graffiti, small children playing in the trash. It was Hurley's natural environment. He had spent most of his career working in a succession of Far North Queensland's Aboriginal communities: Thursday Island, Aurukun, Kowanyama, Bamaga, Cooktown, Laura, Pormpuraaw, Doomadgee, and Burketown. All hot, despairing, impoverished places with chronic alcoholism and violence.

Lloyd Bengaroo was in his late fifties, overweight and burdened. A Police Liaison Officer is supposed to work with police, representing the interests of the community, but Bengaroo did not convince in the role. Instead he was seen as a police 'watchdog' or 'errand boy' and was not much liked or respected.

While the two men waited, Gladys's nephew, Patrick-drunk and high from sniffing petrol-started calling them 'fucking queenie cunts.' Hurley arrested him. Bengaroo held the doors to the police van open.

Cameron Doomadgee walked past. 'Bengaroo,' he said to the police aide, 'you black like me. Why can't you help-help the blacks?' To which Bengaroo said, 'Keep walking or you be arrested too.' Doomadgee, 36, a happy-go-lucky character who loved to hunt and fish, had been drinking cask wine and 'goom'-methylated spirits mixed with water. For all he'd drunk he was 'walking pretty good, staggering but not falling over.' He retreated, but when he was twenty metres away, turned and appeared to say something. Bengaroo didn't hear anything. Others, closer than Bengaroo, reckoned he was singing. But Chris Hurley heard something disrespectful, and decided at 10.20am to arrest him for creating a public nuisance.

When they reached the police station, Cameron was 'going off, drunk, singing out and everything.' As he was taken from the back of the van, he struggled and hit the Senior Sergeant on the jaw. Two witnesses say they then saw Hurley punch Cameron back. Due to the struggle, as the two men entered the watch house they tripped on a step and landed in the doorway side by side. Hurley then stood and pulled his prisoner into the hallway. He didn't, at the time, notice there was another Aboriginal man sitting, waiting to be questioned.

Roy Bramwell, 29, had been brought into the police station to answer questions relating to the earlier assault of his de facto, Gladys, and her two sisters. The day before he and the sisters had started drinking at 11.30am, and Roy had drunk forty cans of beer before he went to bed around midnight. Then he got up early in the morning and had six more. Standing on the sister's verandah, Roy-'plenty drunk'-became angry because Gladys wouldn't go home with him to take her medication. They started to fight:

During this argument I punched her sister, this is Anna Nugent, and hit her in the face. I punched her with one punch and this knocked her out. This was in the front yard. I punched Anna because she was being smart with her mouth.

I then punched the other sister, this is Andrea Nugent, and punched her once to the face and this knocked her out. I punched Andrea for the same reason. I dropped her on her knees and then the smart mouth did not get back up.

I then got into Gladys. I punched her once to the face and knocked her out. This was in the front yard as well. Gladys dropped to the ground and was on her knees. I started kicking into her and kicked her about three times. I kicked her in the face. I did this cause I was angry with her cause she didn't want to come home with me.

After beating the three women, he returned home alone. He took a shower to cool off, then headed to the post office to pick up his social security check. While waiting, the sister's uncle found him and another 'tongue bang' or argument began. Another policeman came and brought Roy to the station.

Roy was sitting in the station's yellow chair when Hurley dragged Cameron Doomadgee into the hallway. Roy heard Cameron say: 'I am innocent, don't lock...Why should you lock me up?'

Chris dragged him in and he laid him down here and started kicking him. All I could see [was] the elbow gone down, up and down, like that.... 'Do you want more Mister, Mister Doomadgee? Do you want more of these, eh, do you want more? You had enough?'

Although his view was partially obscured by a filing cabinet, Roy could see Doomadgee's legs sticking out. He could see the fist coming down, then up, then down: 'I see knuckle closed.' Each time the fist descended he heard Doomadgee groan.

Cameron, he started kicking around and [called] 'leave me go' like that 'now.' 'Leave me go-I'll get up and walk.'

But Hurley did not stop:

Well, he tall, he tall, he tall you know...just see the elbow going up and him down like that, you know, must have punched him pretty hard, didn't he? Well, he was a sober man and he was a drunken man.

Doomadgee was then dragged into the cells. Moments later, Chris Hurley came back and Roy saw him rubbing his chin. He had a button undone. 'Did he give you a good one?' Roy asked. 'A helluva good one,' Hurley apparently replied. Then Hurley asked Roy if he had seen anything? Roy said no, and Hurley told him to leave. Roy went to get his social security cheque, along the way telling some friends: 'Chris Hurley getting into Cameron.' They told him, 'Go tell someone, tell the Justice Group.' But none of them did anything, and instead continued drinking.

The cell's surveillance tape shows Cameron writhing on a concrete floor, trying to find a comfortable position in which to die. He can be heard calling, 'Help Me!' Another man, paralytic with drink, feebly pats his head. Before he dies, he rolls closer to him perhaps for warmth or comfort. The camera is installed in a high corner, and, from this angle, when Hurley and another police officer walk in they look enormous. The officer kicks Cameron a few times-which later in court is referred to as 'an arousal technique'-then leans over him, realizing he is dead. At 11.22 Senior Sergeant Hurley called an ambulance. Three minutes later the ambulance arrived, and determined that Cameron had been dead for at least twenty minutes. The tape records Hurley sliding down the cell wall with his head in his hands. Doomadgee, it would turn out, had a black eye, four broken ribs and a liver cleaved in two. His injuries were so severe that even with instant medical attention he was unlikely to have survived.

ISBN: 9780143010661
ISBN-10: 0143010662
Audience: General
For Ages: 11 - 14 years old
For Grades: 7 - 10
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 288
Published: 9th September 2009
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 13.1  x 2.1
Weight (kg): 19.8
Edition Number: 1