It is striking, sometimes, how one loses touch with bits of one’s past. I was reminded of this, last week, when I learnt that the Queensland Supreme Court has been completely rebuilt. The dingy piece of 70s ugliness where I did the Brisbane bits of my pupillage is, from what I can gather, no more (say farewell, then, to those hideous green and orange carpets, and decor in chambers that managed to look like something from the Starship Enterprise gone terribly, terribly wrong). The new courthouse, like Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome, is a thing of light and air: a statement of transparency and openness, perhaps. It only opened officially in August this year.
That discovery wrenched me, sharply, even dizzyingly, back to the last trial in which I participated in my home state: the Palm Island Case. Called north to Townsville from Rockhampton, my pupil-master and I had to find our way around an unfamiliar courthouse and a city divided against itself: hence my choice of the American photograph to the left, because it catches something I saw day after day at the trial and never want to see again. My pupil-master is dead now, but this thing was so obvious that everyone noticed it, not just the Judge and his pupil who stared face-on at the ground floor and the gallery day after day: Chloe Hooper, who later wrote an award-winning book–The Tall Man–about the case, described it thus:
By the Friday morning of the trial, day four, the courtroom was divided like some disastrous wedding. The two families had been waiting nearly three years for this. And now time stood still; it bent and stretched and both sides waited for the seconds to pass. [...] An Aboriginal law student attending the trial with some Palm Island friends told me she had never been in a courtroom with a greater sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Downstairs, everyone was white. Upstairs, everyone was black.
This, note, was in 2007.
I do not know who took this photograph, but it depicts a Georgia State Trooper with a riot shield at a KKK protest in a north Georgia city at some point in the 80s. The trooper is black. Standing in front of him and touching his shield is a curious child (I am not certain of the gender) dressed in a Klan hood and robe.
I have stared at this picture and wondered what must have been going through that trooper’s mind. Before him is an innocent child who is being taught to hate him because of the color of his skin. The child doesn’t understand what he is being taught, and at this point he doesn’t seem to care. Like any other child his curiosity takes hold and he wants to explore this new thing that this man is holding – probably because he can see his reflection in it and that’s a cool thing and he wants to check it out.
In this, I see innocence mixed with hate, the irony of a black man protecting the right of white people to assemble in protest against him, temperance in the face of ignorance, and hope that racism can be broken. This child may remember that a black man smiled at him once and he didn’t seem so bad after all.
Immediately after the Hurley trial–within a month, if I recall correctly–I was on my way to Oxford on a Clarendon Scholarship.
Lucky me. Rooty toot. Cameron Doomadgee was still dead. Chris Hurley still damaged. Townsville still divided against itself.
Friends tell me that controversy over the Hurley matter is ongoing: not having been back to Australia in the interval, I have lost touch with the trial that was once so much a part of my life. And while I seldom talk about it, I know that–with Justice Dutney gone–I have privileged mental access to one of the defining events of Australia’s recent history. One day I’ll figure out what I’m supposed to do with those memories. Well, I hope I will.
And sometimes I am reminded of it, unbidden, for reasons almost entirely unconnected to the case. Queensland gets a new Supreme Court. Lucky Queensland. Rooty toot. Sometimes the reasons for my spontaneous recollection are related, however. How am I supposed to explain to Scottish and English friends the complexities of race in my home state? Should I tell them about the courtroom that managed (voluntarily) to turn itself into a scene straight out of To Kill a Mockingbird? Yeah, right. Rooty toot. That’ll work. Not.
I thought about using another Crowded House song as a title for this post: Don’t Dream it’s Over, but I thought better of it. I haven’t been in Australia since July 2007. I’m no longer qualified to comment on what may or not happen when it comes to race in Australia. In an important sense, my memories, diary notes, and impressions of the Hurley trial are preserved in that special sort of aspic that emigrants take everywhere with them wherever they go.
So Weather With You it is.
Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you.