Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Powderfinger silenced on deaths in custody

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Brisbane band Powderfinger is known for its use of music for political protest. But a song about Aboriginal deaths in custody on the band’s forthcoming album has faced legal threats from lawyers of former Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, who has been charged with manslaughter and assault after a death in custody on Palm Island in 2004.

Powderfinger’s lead singer Bernard Fanning said he believes the song ‘Black Tears’ would have no bearing on the trial of the Senior Sergeant. He said “In the interests of removing even the slightest suggestion of any prejudice, we have included an alternative version on our album”. The controversial verse reportedly described a scene similar to events surrounding the 2004 death of Aboriginal man Mulrunji in the Palm Island watchhouse: “An island watchhouse bed, a black man’s lying dead”.

A report by former NSW chief justice Sir Laurence Street handed to the Government in January this year found there was sufficient evidence to charge the police officer involved in Mulrunji’s death with manslaughter and to secure a conviction. Sen-Sgt Hurley will face trial on manslaughter and assault charges in Townsville Supreme Court due to commence on June 12th.

This is believed to be the first time in Queensland’s history that a police officer has been charged over the death of an Aboriginal person in custody. There have been more than 200 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody. And only in two incidents in Australian history, have police been charged in connection with an Aboriginal death in custody – in John Pat’s death in 1986 the police officers were acquitted, and now Mulrunji’s case in 2007.

Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare recommended Hurley not be charged over the death in custody but a later judicial review overrode her findings. The charges against Hurley were the result of a sustained public campaign, with many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people mobilised in street marches and rallies. Many thousands signed petitions calling for justice for Mulrunji.

Labor Premier Peter Beattie declared a state of emergency, when the Palm Island community mobilised in protest to the initial declaration of DPP Leanne Clare, that there would be no charges against Hurley. The heavily armed Tactical Response Group (riot police) was sent in, arresting unarmed and unresisting members of the Aboriginal community. While there was widespread condemnation of the heavy-handed tactics, Beattie defended the use of force as “appropriate”, stating “I don’t expect police to deal with these matters with one hand tied behind their backs”.

Bernard Fanning says the Palm Island case inspired the verse, and the song Black Tears was written to bring attention to the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia. Despite this the former police officer’s lawyers claim the case can be jeopardised by the song, even though Fanning’s sources for the lyrics were entirely from newspaper reports. Not only that, the coroners report is online.

The final coroner’s report found that after taking Mulrunji into custody Hurley “hit Mulrunji whilst he was on the floor a number of times in a direct response to himself having been hit in the jaw and then falling to the floor”. The coroner’s report states: “After this occurred, I find there was no further resistance or indeed any speech or response from Mulrunji. I conclude that these actions of Senior Sergeant Hurley caused the fatal injuries.” Mulrunji’s injuries included four broken ribs and a liver “cleaved in two”.

Powderfinger has in some ways caved to these bullying legal threats by making the changes to the lyrics. Fanning hopes, “the song still has its desired effect, which is to bring attention to the obvious disadvantage that is still being suffered by Aboriginal people in this country and in particular, the issue of Indigenous deaths in custody”. The democratic right to voice dissent and to demonstrate should be supported particularly in light of the continuing legacy of police brutality and systemic racism against Aboriginal people.

By Kylie McGregor


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