Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Australian Frontier and the Meaning of Justice

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Eleven
Chloe Hooper, Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee

On Friday, November 19, 2004, Sergeant Chris Hurley, at the end of his second year in the Aboriginal settlement at Palm Island, Queensland, Australia, arrested Cameron Doomadgee for cursing at him and another officer. Doomadgee was drunk at ten a.m. Forty minutes later, Doomadgee was dead, with injuries consistent with a massive car crash. What happened in those forty minutes would bind up the Australian court system for the next three years.

Chloe Hooper combines gripping narrative with harrowing reportage to convey an act of violence in a land of stunning brutality. When an Aboriginal man dies in custody on an island off Australia's Queensland coast, the event becomes national news after a pathologist renders a flippant report and the white police want to write off the event, so the locals riot. It has been a long time since a book has moved me as deeply as this book does.

In Hooper's heartrending language, Palm Island mixes the worst aspects of an Indian reservation, a penal colony, and Hell. Though Hooper conducts her reportage with the help of Doomadgee's family, her frankness creates a world of moral compromise, stunning melding of honorable and shameful traits, and a people wracked with generations of pain and abjection. There is enough in this book to stun and appall anybody of any social or political point of view.

Sergeant Hurley comes across one moment as a sterling lawman who builds bridges between white government and poor black Aborigines, then as an evasive, angry bigot. Cameron Doomadgee is a loving father and leader, and at the same time a chronic drunk with a brutal temper. The trial to see who was responsible for what drags out an entire province's buried racism as well as its higher ideals. Australian frontier justice is swift, sure, and unforgiving.

The story unfolds in a way comprehensible to world audiences. Comparisons to the Wild West and the American Civil War make the story of a crime on the far side of the planet feel as close as my own history. But this very clarity also makes this book such an impactful read. I can imagine having a beer with Chris Hurley, or a friendly dust-up with Cameron Doomadgee; and I can imagine having to choose sides when one dies in the other's custody.

Australia has a North like America has a South—a sun-baked land of beloved tradition and shocking bigotry. When Hooper quotes white Queenslanders’ casually racist attitudes about Aborigines, most Americans will find this language shockingly familiar. At a time when the US Supreme Court is seriously considering declaring race relations solved, and I keep hearing flip N-bombs at work and my favorite pub, this story reminds me that even bad ideas never truly die.

This makes Chris Hurley even more strangely compelling a character. According to his CV, he was long regarded as an unusually friendly white voice for Aborigines. Yet when he finally went to trial in 2006, he became the first white lawman ever tried for an Aborigine’s death in custody. He quickly became an emblem of a nation’s struggle with his own history. How do you assemble a jury for such a case in a state where people still drop racial epithets on the street?

Hooper unflinchingly depicts the story's participants as they are, with the glory and pain intact. In reading this, I was struck by one question: how different is this from America? Looking at suffering urban blacks or reservation Indians, and the way people who look like me deny that anguish while crushing those who dare rise up, I have to confess, maybe not much. But does that make the present culpable for the crimes of the past?

I can't say. And though she remarks on the parallels, Hooper mercifully refrains from trying to answer the questions she raises. These questions matter because they remain part of our cultural scene, an inextricable track through our history which we must resolve, as individuals and a people. Hooper shows us the road, without providing a facile map to the conclusion. We have to walk that road ourselves.

Hooper’s narrative brims with harrowing truths and hard-eyed views of human nature’s extremes, a story as moving as it is terrifying, as uplifting as it is appalling. It matters, not because it describes a decade-old crime in rural Australia, but because it holds a mirror up to us, here and now. What that mirror shows isn’t pretty, but it is ours, and we must own it.

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