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

Author:Keenan, Sarah

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 ... (see full summary)


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. When Hurley got back into the police van, he asked Bengaroo what Mulrunji had said, and who he was - unlike many men in this over-policed9 community, Mulrunji had never been arrested on the island before and was thus unknown to Hurley, who had been stationed there for two years.10 Bengaroo informed Hurley of the interaction and told him Mulrunji's name. 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. His body lay on the concrete floor of the police holding cell, having bled to death from a severe compressive force which cleaved his liver in two and ruptured his portal vein. He also had four broken ribs and a black eye.15

A couple of hours after his arrest, members of Mulrunji's family went to the police station to ask after him. Knowing that Mulrunji was dead, Hurley told the family that he was asleep and that they should come back at three o'clock.16 Hurley had already notified his police superiors in Townsville of Mulrunji's death, and two officers from Townsville, Detective Senior Sergeant Raymond Kitching and Detective Sergeant Darren Robsinson, were by that stage on their way over to the island. Both officers knew Hurley as a colleague, and it was common knowledge that Robinson and Hurley were close friends.17 Hurley picked up both men from the Palm Island airport that afternoon and entertained them as dinner guests at his home that evening.18 Over the course of the following week, Kitching and Robinson conducted interviews with Hurley, and with other witnesses to the events leading up to Mulrunji's death. It became clear that upon arriving at the station and opening the van to escort Mulrunji and Patrick Bramwell into the cells, Mulrunji had punched Hurley in the face, and the two men had then had "a tussle" as Hurley forced Mulrunji into the station.19 Hurley alleged that during the "tussle", he and Mulrunji had both tripped up the single step that leads into the station and fallen to the floor, being specific that they had fallen beside and not on top of one another.20 Local man Roy Bramwell (Patrick's uncle), who was sitting inside the station when Hurley and Mulrunji came in from the van, gave a statement to Robinson that he had seen Hurley repeatedly punch Mulrunji when the two were in the hall of the police station, with Mulrunji on the ground and Hurley standing over him.21 This allegation of assault was not, however, included in the police information provided to the pathologist who was to perform the autopsy on Mulrunji's body.22 Lacking the allegation that there had been any kind of assault, this first autopsy attributed Mulrunji's death to an accidental fall.23

On 26 November, the autopsy results were publicly announced to the Palm Island community by then mayor Erykah Kyle. It had been a full seven days since Mulrunji died, and this announcement was the first information the community was to be given in relation to the death. Over a hundred people had gathered in the town square to hear the announcement. When Kyle made the announcement that Mulrunji's death had been caused by an accidental fall, the crowd was dissatisfied. Local men David Bulsey and then Lex Wotton stepped forward and took the microphone, expressing their anger at Mulrunji's untimely death at the hands of the police and demanding a full explanation.24 Soon, a small riot had begun, with members of the crowd throwing rocks and other make-shift projectiles at the police station, telling the police to leave the island and setting fire to the police station where Mulrunji had died, the nearby courthouse and the police barracks where Hurley had lived.25 The police took refuge in the local hospital, though none were seriously injured.26 In reaction to the riots, a senior Townsville police officer declared a state of emergency under the Public Safety Preservation Act 1986 (QId) and by late afternoon, 80 police from a range of mainland cities had been deployed onto the island. They included the state's Special Emergency Response Team, who wore full battle armour and carried semiautomatic weapons.27 In total, 35 Palm Island residents were charged with offences relating to the riots.28 The majority of those charges were eventually withdrawn or dismissed, though significantly, Lex Wotton was recently sentenced to six years imprisonment for his involvement in the riots.29

Although the state of emergency response to the riot brought further trauma to the community, it also brought significant publicity to Palm Island. While some media reports focussed on the "lawlessness" of the indigenous rioters rather than on the death in custody that had provoked them, protest rallies around Australia demanded a full investigation into Mulrunji's death and the apparent police cover-up that had followed it.30 A second autopsy was ordered, to be undertaken by a doctor from Melbourne.31 The upcoming coronial inquiry was guaranteed to be an event of significant public interest, and the prominent Burmese-born human rights lawyer Andrew Boe, from Brisbane, decided to act pro bono on behalf of the Palm Island Aboriginal Council.32 Boe met Chloe Hooper through mutual friends while he was visiting Melbourne shortly before the commencement of the inquiry in February 2005, and asked her to come to Palm Island and write an article about the proceedings, estimating that it would take around two weeks.33 As a young, white Australian woman novelist who had never heard of Palm Island before meeting Boe, Hooper was not the most obvious person to provide coverage of the inquiry.34 She ended up spending almost three years visiting and writing about Palm Island first publishing a series of articles in the current affairs...

To continue reading