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Embellishing Crime: Melbourne’s “African” Gang Problem

Always trust the handy anecdote to overwhelm reality with force and false persuasiveness.  The taxi driver irate at the latest opportunistic scribble in a Rupert Murdoch rag is bound to regale you with a story as you speed to the airport: “Those bloody gangs.  And the police didn’t even bloody mention they were African!”  A vital canon of reactionary politics is extolling the supposed reality of a phenomenon that does not affect you.  All that matters is its existence, however modest its effect.

 

Forced difference matters in the politicisation of crime.  Certain offenders command more attention than others.  Saying that a good deal of crime is done by Caucasians in a still dominant Caucasian country or state is a fairly valueless exercise, a commonality that will, at best, induce a yawn.  Let those felons be.  Attention should be paid, rather, to acts that can be underscored as spectacular. Besides, it sells papers, however poor the copy.

Take such headlines from The Australian, calculated to chill the blood and curdle compassion: “Melbourne is most liveable city for gang members and bully unionists”.  Another: “Streets of menace: gang violence in the suburbs.”  This is entertaining stuff giving the impression that going out on a Melbourne street would be akin to strolling in an unlit part of fifteenth century London.

Over the course of the last Australian summer, the Turnbull government was gifted gold. Its least imaginative minister, an unreformed member of the police, all growl and snarl, pounced on a spate of violent attacks featuring South Sudanese youths.  But Peter Dutton was attempting to outdo his predecessors.

In 2007, the murder of South Sudanese Melburnian Liep Gony became the basis of moves by then immigration minister Kevin Andrews to restrict refugees from settling in Australia, ostensibly on the basis of non-integration.

More recently, Dutton made a good deal of the death of a South Sudanese teenager.  (Deaths supply excellent currency in the market of fear.)  Nineteen-year-old Laa Chol had given the pretext to Dutton to suggest that Victoria had become the badlands of Australia.  “There is a major law and order problem in Victoria and more people are going to be hurt until the rule of law is enforced by the Victorian Government.”  New South Wales and Queensland, by way of contrast, were spick and span on the issue, while the Andrews government in Victoria had “created this problem”, a result of “pathetic bail laws.”

Dutton’s untutored meddling in the Victorian policing scene is spectacular, claiming that he is on to something others in Victoria are not.  “Andrews can’t even admit Sudanese gangs exist so how can he hope to fix the problem. He is out of touch and more people will get hurt or worse until the problem is fixed.”

For a Home Affairs minister to be using the rule of law as a point of execration for Victoria must be another one of life’s curious ironies, given the utter incapacity on the part of the minister to comprehend the term.  Under Dutton laws suggest weapons rather than shields.  During his troublesome reign, liberties have been clipped, scraped and accordingly eroded in what is becoming an amateurish police state.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has convincingly dispelled any notions of being moderate during his tenure, seconded his minister on July 17 during a visit to Melbourne, claiming that “there is a gang issue here and you are not going to make it go away by pretending it doesn’t exist.”  You can sense the acrid smell of elections around the corner.

The Victorian police have thus far resisted joining in, much to the angst of the crime-seeing fantasists.  “Absolutely there’s some problems we have to tackle,” admitted Victoria Police Commander Stuart Bateson on radio 3AW with eminent sensibility, “but we also have to be aware of what happens as a result of over-exaggerating, and targeting them and tarnishing a whole community.”

Each incident triggers a fear that clouds an otherwise engaged, integrated majority of African residents.  They, in Bateson’s careful words, “feel they are excluded from lots of things because of this feeling that everyone is looking at them thinking they’re a gang and out to assault [people].  Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation AU while fully admitting to the existence of those community fears about gang violence, “based on real experiences of violent criminal behaviour” was adamant.  “What we are seeing is the most shameless opportunism dressed up as leadership.”

Melbourne, typical of other cities with a cosmopolitan core, receives groups with uneven success.  By in large it does fairly well. Over time, individuals find their feet; others will be consumed by the beast, lost in the crunch of urbanisation and its depredations.  South Sudanese Kuon Gido, profiled in a news report for the ABC in February, is one example: angry, impulsive, testosterone in search of a purpose. “Understanding Kuon’s story is the key to understanding this summer’s heated debate about African-Australian youth crime: the push factors are disadvantage, education, employment and cultural clashes.”

That particular account is of interest on several levels, complex, nuanced.  South Sudanese parents conceded struggling with disciplining their children, hampered by the attractions of social services which provide housing and assistance to them.  Home becomes a place to avoid, while the memory of the refugee camp, ironically enough, features as a curiously mixed blessing: the security of the gate.  “We came here for freedom,” an unnamed community leader notes, “but this is too much freedom.”

This could be seen in medical, therapeutic terms: youth dislocation, the trauma of war, the disturbances of adjustment.  As Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews asserts, “enormous efforts” are underway to engage the youths in question, their families, community leaders, emphasising training, education and moving into the job market. It could also be seen as an Australian youth problem: some of the offenders are actually Australian born, a point easily missed by the law-and-order heavies.

Another reaction, easily undertaken by the politically desperate, is condemnation, isolation and expulsion, applying the heavy, often insentient arm of the law. This might just as well be called the politics of disintegration.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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