Trees and Shade on Palm Island
In a dark room of the Sydney Contemporary Art Museum (MCA) – when it's not closed because of pandemics – is an 11 minute film called tall man by Vernon Ah Kee. Well, film's not exactly the right word because it's actually a " four-screen video installation", according to the MCA's website.
These video installations tend to feature a few people dressed in eccentric costumes, moving strangely for an indecipherable purpose, at least that's been my experience.
Not tall man – not even close – because tall man is more like a supercut of four movies all telling the same story from different perspectives and recorded on different mediums.
What differentiates tall man even further from your usual art gallery fare of dancers moving 'artistically' across multiple screens is its subject; tall man is a documentary. Specifically, it documents civil unrest on Palm Island, in Far North Queensland where the community rioted and burnt down the local police station after Mulrunji Doomadgee was killed in police custody. Punched to death.
The film loops through. You might walk in to watch speeches, sad speeches, angry speeches, caught on tape as a community simultaneously grieves, demands justice, and seeks to fight against oppressive forces entrenched on their home.
You also see the local police trying to grapple with a situation they are desperately losing control of – they retrieve their weapons, hide at the local hospital, and wait for reinforcements to arrive by helicopter.
The setting is idyllic: only smoke and anger mar an otherwise paradisal day.
Why don't I remember Palm Island?
Last Friday – from 15,000km away – I watched in real-time as an enraged community burn down their local police department because of another black death in custody. From multiple angles, I saw the protesters breach the Minneapolis PD and cheer as it burnt to the ground.
"I have never seen a police building on fire. Ever," New York Times correspondent, Audra Burch, told The Daily podcast. "Regardless of how intense demonstrations have been, I’ve never seen that before."
Yeah, wow, I thought, listening to that podcast the next day, me either. The United States of America – the land of the free™ – was burning, after all, and it would keep burning.
But I had seen a police building on fire before. Three years prior, and from a distance of 13 years more, I walked into that dark room in the MCA on a visit to a city that I would come to call home and witnessed a righteous act of civil disobedience on stolen land.
Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, hung out in the 2GB studio on Sunday, referenced a meme about Martin Luther King Jr, and reflected on a version of his trite line 'How good is Australia™'.
"As upsetting and terrible that the murder that took place – and it is shocking, that also just made me cringe – I just think to myself how wonderful a country is Australia."
Why doesn't he remember Palm Island?
At least I was just a young boy when it happened: I can hide my ignorance with youth. Morrison had just started his job at Tourism Australia when the Palm Island police station was burning – he very well may have suggested shooting the 'Where the bloody hell are you?' on the tropical island.
And it's not like the community effects of Doomadgee's death only lasted the one day. Police hit back, and they hit back hard.
In May 2018, a $30 million class action lawsuit was settled after the Queensland Police response was found to be extreme and racially motivated. The police reacted "with a sense of impunity, impervious to the reactions and perceptions of Palm Islanders, and very much with an 'us and them' attitude".
I remember the day the Twin Towers fell and I can more easily recall obscure quotes from The Simpsons than I can the second verse of Advance Australia Fair. For better or worse, we drink deep from the cup of US cultural imperialism in this country. We won't forget the images beamed live from the US as their cities burn, and nor should we. But whenever someone says we're the Lucky Country and asks 'How good is Australia?' we need to remember our past and acknowledge that this nation is built on blood-soaked sand.