Australian Legal Geography and the Search for Postcolonial Space in Chloe Hooper's the Tall Man: Death and Life On Palm Island

Australian Feminist Law Journal, TheNbr. 30, June 2009

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According to Hurley, Mulrunji then turned around and swore at the police officers.11 According to community witnesses, Mulrunji did not swear or turn around, but was singing "who let the dogs out?" - one of his favourite songs - as he continued walking down the street.12 At any rate, Hurley drove down to where Mulrunji had walked to, and arrested him.13 Mulrunji protested that he had done nothing wrong, and Hurley forced him into the police van.14 Less than an hour after the arrest, Mulrunji was dead. When describing Lex Wotton's role in the riots for example, Hooper claims that he turned off the water before the police station was set alight, a claim denied by Wotton himself172 and discarded in court.173 The book also lacks any warning that it contains descriptions and photos of deceased indigenous people - content which is perhaps obvious from the book's title but which nonetheless warrants warning to potential indigenous readers who may observe avoidance practices and/or be upset or offended by the naming and reproduction of descriptions and images of deceased indigenous people.

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Australian Legal Geography and the Search for Postcolonial Space in Chloe Hooper's the Tall Man: Death and Life On Palm Island

This essay reviews Chloe Hooper's non-fiction novel The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, a book about the 2004 death in custody of Cameron (who will hereafter be referred to as Mulrunji)1 Doomadgee on Palm Island in far north Queensland. After setting out the factual background to the death and its legal and political aftermath, I argue that The Tall Man is an original and important work that opens up the possibility for a space of Australian postcoloniality far more effectively than any of the legal proceedings surrounding the death did. I argue that the book can be described as a work of critical legal geography2 because it analyses the tensions between Australia's north and south, and traces the laws and state policies that continue to reproduce places of racial tension and violence. I further argue that Hooper's narrative provides an insightful depiction of the relation of white colonial patriarchy that is protected, reproduced and embodied by the Queensland police force. This relation of white patriarchy is one that has been associated with colonial policies since the beginnings of white Australia - from early policies of Indigenous genocide, to today's policies of saving Indigenous women and children from Indigenous men.3 And it is a relation of white patriarchy that was momentarily threatened by the possibility that a white police officer might be held criminally responsible for the death of an Indigenous man in his custody. The Tall Man is in one sense a book that demonstrates Australia's failure to move to a space of "postcoloniality", by which I mean networks of relations, processes, experiences, and understandings that have departed from their colonial antecedents.4 In particular, Hooper makes clear the failure of the Australian legal system today to operate for indigenous people in a way that can be meaningfully distinguished from the way it operated for indigenous people in less po st colonial times. But where Hooper finds a lack of postcolonial space in the Australian legal system, she strives in The Tall Man to find it somewhere else. Hooper does this by offering a narrative that attempts to encompass both indigenous and non-indigenous ways of knowing the world. While Hooper is explicit about writing the story from her perspective as a white woman from Melbourne, she also smoothly and respectfully weaves stories of Indigenous Dreaming into her narrative, most prominendy the story of the Tall Man. Hooper's book is at once an account of Mulrunji's fatal encounter with Hurley and its aftermath, and a rendition of the Tall Man legend. It is a powerful and productive attempt to find a space of Australian postcoloniality.


Palm Island is a stunning tropical island accessible by a two-hour ferry ride or a forty minute charter flight from the mainland. The island is home to around 3000 residents, almost all of them indigenous.5 Local man Mulrunji was planning to go fishing on the morning of November 19, 2004. Thirty-six years of age, Mulrunji was a fit and healthy man, who prided himself on providing self-caught food for his family.6 Walking barefoot and "in a happy mood" having drunk a fair amount of alcohol with a friend the night before,7 Mulrunji turned into Dee Street where Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and Indigenous Police Liaison Officer Lloyd Bengaroo were in the process of arresting a young man, Patrick Bramwell, for a public nuisance offence. Mulrunji knew Bengaroo, and as he walked past he said to Bengaroo something to the effect of "You're a black man like me, what are you doing this for?" - a kind of remark Bengaroo had received coundess times during his 25 years in the police force.8 Bengaroo responded by advising Mulrunji to continue walking down the street to avoid being arrested as well. Mulrunji followed this advice and continued walking...

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