There is a boy dead in a city morgue. A teenager. Thomas “TJ” Hickey. Dead at 17. How do you write about death? About riots? About an issue no-one in power seems to want resolved? The mad scramble of Australia as it is today. Inner city Sydney Redfern. Put on some music. Whatever is on the player. Hi 5 and Paul Kelly. And try and describe what happened this past weekend. Before time and more life fades.
THE SCENE: Sydney, Australia. Feb 14, Valentine’s Day: An Aboriginal youth- Thomas “T J” Hickey, aged 17 years. On his bike. Ends up impaled on a fence. How did he get stuck on a high metal fence? He dies the next day in hospital, from his injuries. Aboriginal people of Redfern get angry. People say he was chased by police. Tensions boil over. A riot takes place on Feb 15.
THE LOCATION: A slum corner of Redfern, central Sydney. Eveleigh Street. A one way street. Runs parallel to the railway line. Terrace houses, known as ‘The Block”. Expensive area. Except for the block. Aboriginal housing. Dispossessed people. Broken. Police on their backs. Lack of opportunities. Fracture. Poverty. Drink. Crime. Violence. University students getting the train in from leafy suburbs to Redfern pass Eveleigh Street on the way to Abercrombie Street, on the way to uni. On the way to a better world, a better future, by-passing Eveleigh.
TIME: SUNDAY FEB 15th: 9PM: 100 Aboriginal rioters. Midnight: 250 police called in. 50 police injured. Before Dawn Monday: Order restored.
MOTHER: The Mother of the dead teenager, Gail Hickey, says in an AM ABC radio interview with Michael Vincent on 16th February:
“MICHAEL VINCENT: Can you tell me what happened when you found out about your son?
GAIL HICKEY: I don’t know. I was terrified and that. Wild and that. I wanted to go up to the police station and smash the police station up, that’s how wild I was. My 17-year old boy was just coming down to get money off his mother and then these dogs here, fucking end up killing my son. How does a fucking 17-year old boy end up on the fucking fence?
MICHAEL VINCENT: Did you go to the police station last night and tell them how angry you were?
GAIL HICKEY: I went yesterday morning. I wanted to check the bike, check the bike out he was on. How’s he gonna…his bike, how’s he going to get off his bike onto that fence. These dogs up here done it.
MICHAEL VINCENT: You believe that the police are responsible?
GAIL HICKEY: I believe it. The police fucking killed my son.
MICHAEL VINCENT: What happened when you went to the police station yesterday?
GAIL HICKEY: Oh, they deny it. They never done it.
MICHAEL VINCENT: Did they show you the bike?
GAIL HICKEY: Yeah, the chain’s off the bike and it’s buckled the back wheel. I believe the bike been hit by a car.
MICHAEL VINCENT: What happened yesterday when you came home from the police station?
GAIL HICKEY: I was sitting down here at Redfern, here all day with my friends and that and all I could see was police driving round at the top, wouldn’t come down Eveleigh, only one car came down all day yesterday, they were intimidating us they was.
MICHAEL VINCENT: What happened when that police car came down yesterday? What happened to that police car?
GAIL HICKEY: All my son’s friends got wild and that, started throwing things at him. They deserve what they get.”
Residents say they saw Thomas chased by police. Then Thomas fell off his bike. Then he was impaled on the metal rods of a tall fence. Died the next day in hospital. Sunday after Valentine’s Day. 17 years old.
SUNDAY RIOTS- WHAT HAPPENNED: Images.
DESIRES OF THE AREA: Developers want it. Inner city-Redfern, part of it being an Aboriginal housing area, now eyed off for it’s prime inner city real estate value. Developers. Sold to more upwardly mobile inner city cool high earning business people, uni lecturers, film makers and designers. An area gentrified in the past 14 years. Terraces sold for around $100,000 15 years ago. One train stop away from Sydney’s Central station, a short walk to the prestigious University of Sydney. But the Aboriginal streets of Redfern are a thousand miles away from the best of Australia’s living standards. Respectable street’s terraces costing $600,000 compared to a national housing average of $200,000 or $300,000, depending on cities.
Poverty stricken Aboriginal Housing Company homes. Drug dealing is planted there, goes the urban myth, to passively destroy the community, in the hope of freeing up the land for development. It’s a meeting center for Aboriginal youth. Anthony Mundine’s Dad’s boxing gym is there.
The Redfern Aboriginals hang on, however dispossessed of dignity. By colonialism, unemployment, crime, drugs and racism. Homes of disempowered Aboriginals. Burning , destruction of the railway station. Sunday night. Breaking window glass with raw hands. Dropping burning bottles onto passing trains. Trains told not to stop at the station. Anger over their mate’s death. Their brother. Over everything. The last straw. Police turning on the water hose of the fire truck the firemen had left behind when they’d exited the scene. The riot squad were not called in. Wonder why not. Rioting.
CAGED: The poison of being contained within the occupied system. Dependent on welfare. The maze. The need to get out, but the incapacity to get through the system to get the employment/training/loans/self esteem/ self respect/ community’s respect. The racism. The lost literacy and education. The anger and despair. Get the police off your back. The pretending to be Spanish/Maltese/Italian to get out/get a job/cut your ties, or be swallowed up in the system that destroys and eliminates your existence, your people, at the same time as making you dependant. The social engineering, trying to run out of the maze of it. Yet never quite knowing the way out before it traps you, or the cop cars chase you, and you are cornered, impaled on the rods of a metal fence. Already at 17.
MEMORY: As a kid, used to visit a family friend there. Aboriginal kids knocking on her door asking for an egg or a bowl of flour. Like neighbors used to everywhere, when neighbors used to talk to each other. Before supermarkets were open all weekend and all night long. And she’d talk in hushed adult tones over a cup of tea about the police coming or a fire down the road. As we were supposed to be playing outside in the terrace courtyard. Coming in for a bikky or a sip of lemon cordial and hearing fragments of conversation about those people down the road.
Visiting a friend renting a terrace. A fire in a metal drum in the middle of the street down the road. Taking my son in, wondering about needles on the ground. Like St Kilda beach. Searching for star fish- finding them, under the pier.
SUNDAY- AFTER THE BOY’S LIFE CEASED: Aboriginal people of Redfern in mourning. Police patrol the streets insensitively, locals say. No consideration. History of harassment by police. They won’t leave us a lone. Riots broke out. Thomas died Sunday. In hospital. He was on his way to get $20 from his Mum. Told his girlfriend he’ll be 10 minutes, and she waited.
He went to get money for food and cigarettes. But he never got back. Police chased him, witnesses say, though they deny it. Witness saw cops chasing. On Valentine’s Day, he never got back to his girlfriend. Got stuck up on a fence and died. On Sunday local residents start putting up on telegraph poles printed posters of most wanted cops. Aboriginal guys, after hearing of their mate’s death, the TV news screen becomes like the anger of Palestinian guys on TV when someone’s been killed by Israeli forces. The occupied. The occupier. Death.
Boys and bikes. Violence. Flames. Stone and brick throwing. The next day’s/ that day’s anger. The anger of all the years. A brick at a policeman’s head. They say police chased a boy to death who ended up impaled on a metal fence. Anger. Throwing. Water spray. Arrests. Young men. Shirts off. Breaking and throwing. Then rounded up and arrested, after shots, video tape scanned for identifications. Lock them up. The ringleaders. Deaths in custody. Hatred of police. The cycle goes on and on.
THE LADY DOWN THE ROAD SAYS: “Well, those dark people are always getting into trouble. Yes, I suppose they were upset. They are very close, they live like that. At church, we pray for them. My Minister used to do a lot of good work for those people. God help us all. It’s terrible, life these days. These things never used to happen. Life used to be good. Life is not like that anymore. We must pray to God for peace and an end to all this violence.” As Paul Kelly sings beside me: “I keep my mouth well shut”.
STRANGE COINCIDENCES: Last week a state government train transport disaster. Commuters calling for the Premier’s head on a platter. Train commuters crammed into late trains like sardines. Hot sweaty days. Late summer. Underfunded trains delivering sub zero service. Newspapers actually talking about it. Now riots take over first place in the media. Last October, Sydney’s public hospitals were exposed as under funded and deadly. Avoidable deaths recorded and reported by brave nurses. Breaking the silence to a listening media.
At that time, there was the coincidence of ethnic violence- Lebanese gang shootings- drive by shootings. Hard to find who was doing the shootings- the mysterious sideshow detracting attention for government health disasters. First on the news. Convenient distractions from state political disasters of Bob Carr’s government. Chance.
The chance of Aboriginal or Arab violence, coinciding with the government’s health and transport disasters. Within 4 months of each other.
Yet one’d better shut up and not link one plus one equals 2. Not think about the recent council rezonings of Sydney by that Carr government. Not think about Redfern becoming part of the amalgamated Sydney City Council and how Labor will get voted in, with more people in government housing voting Labor. And wouldn’t developed Redfern bring in so many new council rates. But that’s unthinkable. Be positive.
BULLDOZE THE AREA: The opposition leader of the state, John Brogden says “I’d bring the bulldozers in.” The developers would be cheering from the sidelines. All those investors salivating like hungry wolves waiting to grab a piece of developed Redfern. The Premier of NSW responded by saying that by next year all “the Block” terraces will be demolished. And, surprise surprise, development plans will be finalized over the next few weeks. A riot is the perfect political launching pad for bulldozing these areas. The electorate have been revved up and prepared. “Those dark people…”
MY DIARY: That Sunday at 9:30 pm driving back from Coogee Beach. Across the city. But not through Redfern. Through McEvoy St, Alexandria. Instead of Redfern. There are 2 places to cut through the city from the sea. Redfern or Alexandria . We did Alexandria, by chance. By 1 km, missed the riots. Didn’t find out til Monday- when a friend called. The riots. At 2pm we found out about this city and what we’d missed by a whisker of a kilometere, last night, with the kids asleep in the back of the car, after digging sand at Coogee Beach and having a picnic. Just the other week I’d been lost around Redfern and headed over the railway bring towards the uni. Lost, but finding my way.
THE RESULT: There’s a boy, a young man, dead in a city morgue. Died after a police chase, witnesses say, which police deny. A person lost. A boy killed. A boy with his life ahead of him. Impaled on a metal fence on Valentine’s Day.
As I go to bed, I think of his mother, and how could she feel. And I can’t sleep. Toss and turn and shift. And I know that’s why it’s easier not to be Aboriginal. It’s easier to sit on the sidelines and watch, and be sympathetic. To be in it would be unlivable, unable to detach.
Like an Arab watching Iraq blown to pieces. In it. Occupied- physically or mentally. Attatched, no place to sit on the sidelines. Your brothers, your Aunts, your people. No way of sleeping, without feeling part of it.
Cut down in his youth.
Not the first, and, going by our colonial history, surely not the last.
MEMORIAL SERVICE: On the net I read about a memorial service, 2 hours ahead on Thursday. I think of going- call the Aboriginal Legal Service to see if it’s ok if non-Aboriginals go along. “Anyone can come -it’s open to anyone”. I didn’t know why I wanted to go. Show sorrow/solidarity/justice. I thought that if non-Aboriginals turned up, it shows people care.
Like crossing the Harbour Bridge back in 2000. The bridge full of people who cared about reconciliation. A cold and windy day. I called Redfern train station to see if the trains were running – no answer- is it still shut down after Sunday’s riots? I ring another station- yes, they are stopping- “someone’s probably having a smoko at Redfern”.
Coming back, off the train, there are still frangipanis on the tree. The kids are watching afternoon TV. Some frangipanis on the footpath. I buy a drink on the way home, it’s so hot. The Block, Redfern. People came together on that patch of earth next to a crumbling, broken down terrace, with the railway line opposite. Hot sun. Media people. Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. A couple of church priests. I see the Aboriginal politician Aden Ridgeway, in a suit, standing back in the crowd. I see the Christian politician Fred Nile. He sits under the tent that’s been put up for the elders. I comment to a bloke next to me how he takes the prime position. “Knows how to use the media” the man next to me says. But the elders ask him to move to the crowd, in the sun, to make way for the Aboriginal elders. No-one is there from the Carr state government. Thomas Hickey’s mother, Gail, sits with grieving relatives, under the shady tent structure. You can see the city skyline behind, behind the crumbling brick terraces- Centrepoint tower. As Aden Ridgeway commented later, the wealthiest and biggest city in Australia.
The man next to me says his parents were English, and that he’d come to the opening of the Block 30 odd years ago. 1973. When the then P.M. Gough Whitlam opened it. Land handed over to the Aboriginal Housing Company, run by Mick Mundine. He’d done his uni thesis on the taking away of Aboriginals from their mothers and the brutal treatment kids endured at church run orphanages. That most of the people on The Block were from those backgrounds, or from distant rural areas. That the Block had become a meeting place for rural people coming into the city. And a focal point for activism.
There were a lot of young kids around. The mini bus brought them in from school. One local kid befriended a Channel 7 cameraman, wore his cap and earphones, and the cameraman let the kid hold and look through his precious camera. Kindly, and patiently, letting him stand up on a blue plastic milk crate and see how the cameras worked. Cap on backwards. How the eye of the media is created. It seemed to sum up what some whites wanted. To be able to share and connect. It took very little. But too often there were too few opportunities to do so. Other cameramen raised their eyebrows. While a musician was singing.
When I arrived, there were a couple of cops at the station. The windows were boarded up with timber- where they’d all been smashed on Sunday. A section of the station was screened off and sealed with timber. The turnstiles were not working, and people walked through, ticket unchecked. There were no cops down at the Memorial service. Just up at the station. It was so quiet and simple. A no frills set up. Just the land, a few chairs, a shade cover tent structure. The ceremony started with the playing of the digeredoo. A woman spoke of sensing the ancestral spirits alongside the people who’d turned up. A dancer performed a traditional dance. People brought flowers. Non-Aboriginal people, mainly women, stepped forward to place them in front of the photo of Thomas.
I think many people had come to express disgust at the whole history of police connections with Aboriginal Australia. Police being the power structure which linked law and land and people. The whole loss. Thomas Hickey’s death was tragic, but somehow to understand this death was to understand so much of our shared history. One grain of sand within the whole lot. To show disgust at the whole process was atleast to show disgust. To do nothing would have been to do nothing.
An elderly woman told me that whites just don’t understand “us”, “our” connection to the land. That they just don’t understand. She moves the earth under her shoe. She says her Mum had lived on The Block. Says that no-one’s addressing the needs of young Aboriginal kids.
Drug and alcohol problems. Half the population are under 18.
A visiting man brings over 2 six packs of beer to a local crowd. At the end, people went over to talk to the mother Gail, to offer their condolences. She was sobbing with her relatives. The media cameras were clicking as each person went over, so I just walked away quietly. Up the station, looking back, once. Then the train I wanted came, and I was gone in a flash. The warmth of those people speaking together had left. A businessman opposite me, an Arab guy standing looking out the window. 2 Asian girls sitting chatting in school uniforms.
The Aboriginal people and even the politician Aden Ridgeway, spoke of having no powerful say in the direction of policies. But as the train sped away, I felt that few Australians had a say in policies that affected their lives. Money had the say, for access to education and healthcare, and there were millions of Australians going home from work that afternoon who had little say in their future, or the future of Aboriginal Australia. Who could guarantee that they’d get excellent tax payer funded health care at an emergency admission to hospital?
Who could say that the local primary school offered equal to expensive private schools? Why is university education getting dearer and dearer, and those who can pay can get in before those who can’t? We are all tied up in these policies and results together. It is not only Aboriginal Australians who are denied good education and skills access. It is a challenge we must all take up, and realize, for all of our lives, however weary we are after a hot day at work, on a crowded train home.
VANESSA JONES lives in Sydney. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org