Friday, December 18, 2009

Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper

36-year-old Cameron Doomadgee died in jail 40 minutes after a white police officer arrested him for swearing in the street. This happened in 2004 on Palm Island, an Aboriginal community in the far north-east of Queensland, Australia. A decade prior to this, a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had investigated 99 deaths over a 10-year period, calculating: "if non-Aboriginal people had died in custody at the same rate ... there would have been nearly 9,000 deaths."

Doomadgee had four broken ribs, a black eye, much bruising to his head, and his liver had been nearly cut into two pieces by his backbone. Chris Hurley, the arresting officer and only person who could possibly have injured Doomadgee, was found not guilty of any wrongdoing. Palm Island's residents rioted after that verdict and burned down the police station and Hurley's house. At an inquest held later, Queenland's state coroner found reason for Hurley to stand trial for manslaughter and recommended charges be laid. "It was the first time in Australia's history a police officer had ever been found responsible for a death in custody."

The story of what happened after Doomadgee's death has the suspense of a legal thriller, culminating in Hurley's trial by jury. Chloe Hooper's investigative journalism documents the tragedy of depression, violence and substance abuse in Australia's Aboriginal communities and places them within the context of a corrupt police force and the legacy of racism and the stolen generations of children separated from their families. Alexis Wright covers similar ground in her novel, Carpentaria. Peter Carey writes "it is impossible to overestimate the importance of [Tall Man]."

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