“Remember the past.
Live for the future.”
These words – printed on a sign at Palm Island’s tiny airport – are of unique pertinence at a time when the indigenous Queensland community revisits the turbulence and trauma sparked by a high-profile death in custody 11 years ago.
A groundbreaking Federal Court trial will determine whether alleged police failures after the 2004 death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on the local watchhouse floor were racially discriminatory.
For two weeks, the Federal Court has heard of buildings being burnt by rioters, children having guns pointed at their heads by police and a woman urinating herself during home raids.
The most detailed account of the events has come Lex Wotton, who was jailed for inciting rioting a week after Mulrunji’s death.
The man – who launched the case on behalf of Palm Islanders – watched his younger self tell a crowd that “things gunna burn” in footage shot after a coroner’s preliminary findings report was read at a public meeting.
Mulrunji had four broken ribs and his liver was almost cleaved in two when he died, but the coroner found his death was the result of falling over a step.
“I’m not going to accept it and I know a lot of you other people don’t,” a shirtless Mr Wotton is shown telling locals in the footage played in court.
“So, let’s do something.”
The police station and home of Mulrunji’s arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, were razed in the rioting that ended after a state of emergency was declared on the island.
The class action alleges the police response to the unrest, including raids and arrests without warrants, were excessive and wouldn’t have happened in any other Queensland community that wasn’t predominantly Aboriginal.
Much of the emotional evidence from people caught up in the raids was heard in a makeshift court set up in a Palm Island school.
One acquitted man said he was hit in the back with a butt of a gun and dragged by officers.
A woman, Jucinta Barry, said she was not allowed to go to the toilet and urinated herself at the bathroom door.
Then, there were the five witnesses who were children when masked police holding guns raided their houses.
All but one described having guns pointed at them. Most said the weapons were pointed at their heads.
“I can’t stop crying. You’ve got a gun to my head,” Mr Wotton’s daughter Schanara Bulsey recalled saying to an officer when he asked her to stop sobbing.
Albert Wotton, who was 12 when his father was taken away, told the court: “(I thought) what happened to Mulrunji is going to happen to my dad.”
Most of the Palm Island witnesses said they thought they or one of their family members would be shot by the police.
One was Mr Wotton, who was tasered after telling his crying children not to come onto the veranda, where officers were telling him to put his hands behind his back, the court heard.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the plumber had walked to the police station with an angry crowd, smashed in windows with a wrench and invited an officer to shoot him.
“Why are you afraid?” he recalled yelling when the officer did nothing.
“Cause everyone’s watching?”
Crown lawyers say islanders, some armed with spears, threatened to kill officers during the riots.
Mr Wotton denies making such threats and says he didn’t tell police they’d be burned out if they didn’t leave the island.
The arrested locals were flown to Townsville and weren’t allowed to live on the island as part of their bail conditions.
The court heard confusion reigned in the hours after the raids as people tried to find out where their loved ones had been taken.
Indigenous legal service field officer Andrea Sailor said police usually rang her if someone was to give an interview.
But, the court heard, in the days after the riots, she was forced to set up watch outside the police barracks so she could tell people going in that they didn’t need to give statements.
She and a solicitor flown in from Townsville were at times overwhelmed by the number of people being interviewed.
“We were standing at the fence trying to give them legal advice,” Ms Sailor said.
“Many of them themselves weren’t aware why they were being picked up.”
Justice Debbie Mortimer will decide whether the state of Queensland should pay compensation and damages to the community, which has also asked for an apology.
Ms Barry told the court she had to fix a door damaged by riot police, with the expense coming out of her rent.
She also said part of a recorded conversation she had with Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson after the raids had been omitted from a police tape played in court.
“Don’t you come looking for help if (your partner) bash you or rape you,” Ms Barry recalled Detective Robinson saying to her daughter.
“I said, `Mate, you can’t say that to her’.”
Other alleged failures by police include Sen Sgt Hurley not immediately being stood down, evidence from Aboriginal witnesses being unfairly discredited and a school bus being commandeered, forcing children to walk to school in the heat for a week.
After the first day of the trial, Mr Wotton told reporters he hoped the case would lead to more professional policing in indigenous communities.
He said he’d thought “they’re going to cover it up” as soon as he heard of Mulrunji’s death.
“I think my prediction was right,” he told the court in Townsville.
Snr Sgt Hurley was acquitted of Mulrunji’s manslaughter in 2007.
The Federal Court trial will continue hearing from police witnesses at a later date yet be set.