On a very hot and very sad day in October 2007 I attended Liep Gony’s funeral. Gony was a 19-year-old Sudanese man, beaten to death with a metal pole in Noble Park. His funeral was crowded, a small suburban street choked with black dresses, elegant scarves, suits and gangster best. Grief flowed — mourners wailed and fainted and sang hymns spontaneously, beautifully.
Gony’s death sparked a media debate after then immigration minister Kevin Andrews publicly questioned the capacity of African refugees to successfully "integrate" into Australian society. The liberal media rushed to profile members of the Sudanese community as exemplary multicultural citizens. After the public debate subsided, funding and attention were directed toward African young people’s "issues", including their experiences of policing.
Last month, Gony’s death made the news again in Victoria, after suppression orders surrounding the images of the men convicted of his murder were lifted. Justice Elizabeth Curtain encouraged the public to make up their own minds as to whether or not the killing was racially motivated.
And just last week, African young people’s relationships with the police hit the front pages. Three community legal centres released a report into African young people’s experience of policing across three areas of Melbourne: Braybrook in the western suburbs, Flemington in the gentrified inner-city, and the City of Greater Dandenong — the south eastern region encompassing Noble Park, known to some as "Sudandenong" which details overwhelmingly negative experiences with street-level policing. (My partner, Shane Reside, co-authored this report with Bec Smith.)
Titled "Boys, you wanna give me some action", the report found that African young people are often scared to complain about their mistreatment and it identifies some of the underlying issues which precipitate police-youth conflict. The authors also present young people’s perspectives on seemingly "progressive" community policing initiatives.
What’s lost when race-based issues become front-page news is something to which the authors of the report are attuned: social conditions. Life is organised and experienced differently according to race and other factors too: poverty, postcodes, struggles to define and affirm positive identities.
The authors tell us upfront that their participants expressed extreme cynicism about participating in yet more research: "the majority of the participants in this study were chronically ‘over-consulted’."
However, the authors argue, these young people are the object of so much police attention, and one of the foci of fear and suspicion as law and order state election campaigning intensifies, and the Victorian Government grants police extraordinary discretionary powers. These young people are the object indeed, not just of debate and policy-making, but of concern — their voices need to be heard. The hope of the report’s authors is that these voices will shift African young people’s experiences, stories, analyses and visions to the centre.
The media has seized on research participants’ accounts of police harassment and violence.
The coverage took an early turn when Simon Overland, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner appeared on local ABC radio talkback, directly after an interview with the report authors and Helen Yandell from Springvale-Monash Legal Service. While Overland was on-air, an email arrived from a listener who had been at a BBQ in Dandenong the previous weekend. A Dandenong cop was present with a tailor-made stubby-holder in hand: it was one given to all members of a unit whose focus was African youth: "Welcome to the jungle!"
African young people’s "allegations" that they were regularly taunted with calls of "monkey", as well as "black c*nt" and the like, did not seem all that hard to believe. Overland was forced to concede on-air and in subsequent interviews that there are racists in his ranks.
"Almost all the young people we spoke with reported being stopped and questioned and/or being directed to move on by police several times in the same day," says the report. African young people describe being regularly stopped and questioned in public by the police; being asked to move on; and being asked for their name and address without police providing a reason. As one participant put it: "Why do I need to get asked three or four times a day for my ID because I’m walking down the footpath?"
Experiences of violence ranged from roughing ups, a serious assault requiring hospitalisation, being beaten up and left stranded far from home without cash or shoes, to sinister stories of out-of-uniform police thrashing a group of young people in a park.
Contrary to popular belief it’s not the case that African young people, many of whom have spent most of their lives in Australia, do not understand the role of the police, or do not know their rights. In fact, this report explains that young people frequently find that police think they’re "being smart" when they assert their formal rights and that encounters quickly escalate.
At the report launch I spoke to Keyr Warsame about his experience of the police in Braybrook. He told me: "These officers don’t understand the challenges we face … most of us, we don’t have father figures, we don’t have places to go. We only have our mates to rely on."
This is one of the primary sources of tension between police and young people: their presence in public space. The researchers found that "for many police the presence of young people, particularly in groups, in public space, is a problem whether or not those young people are participating in illegal or ‘anti-social’ behaviour."
One of the report participants explained that life in the high-rise, public housing towers of Flemington meant that they don’t have backyards: "Culturally we tend to hang out in big numbers, and not only culturally … I can’t invite [my friends]to my house, but if I come downstairs, we can really see each other. However, police frequently questioned the young estate residents: " [The police say] ‘What are you guys up to? What are you doing?’ We were like: ‘We’re not really doing anything other than standing around.’ Some of the police didn’t like the idea of talking back to them, so suddenly we became … the police told us we were hostile."
The other focus of this report is young people’s perspectives on the community policing initiatives that have flourished in Melbourne since the 1980s.
Community policing involves police taking a proactive, crime-prevention approach, diversifying the nature of police contact with targeted communities. This contact might involve friendly sport and recreational activities, co-organising youth camps with community/welfare organisations and running accessible education sessions. Ultimately however, community policing results in increased contact between police and the affected community: when the police aren’t hassling you on the street they’re busy beating you at basketball.
Keyr told me that after being on a camp he has forged a trusting relationship with one officer in particular "he’s one of my good mates now, when he sees me around he gives me a lift home." This officer, Keyr thinks, "understands where I’m coming from".
Overall, however, research participants expressed much dissatisfaction with community policing activities. It’s not just that the "trickle up" logic — whereby cops whose personal contact with communities have altered their views and practices are meant to influence the police force more generally — is weak. Research participants explained that community policing adds an extra layer of police involvement in their lives. After getting to know individual officers research participants were frequently vulnerable to "coercive contact with police", often being pressured to provide intelligence: "Once [the police]think they know someone, they call you by name and they tell you ‘come here’ and they try to talk to you … if you keep walking away they’ll get out of the car. ‘Don’t be a smart-arse.’"
Gony’s killers were sentenced in December of last year. The judgement makes for tragic reading: Clinton Rintoull, who pleaded guilty to murder, was 22 in 2007. His life had been shaped by instability, violence and his own and his mum’s fragile mental health. After an altercation with a group of Sudanese people, and influenced by reactionary local newspaper reporting, he left the house in which he was temporarily staying on the night of September 26, 2007, fuelled with paranoid, racist fantasies and armed with a metal bar. He bashed Gony unconscious — with the involvement of 19-year-old Dylan Sabatino — and left him lying unconscious and bleeding. Liep Gony died the following night, after his family decided to switch off the life support system.
It’s not that the question of whether or not this was a racially motivated crime is irrelevant. And nor is the debate about racist police, as defined by Simon Overland, the "wrong" debate to be having.
But what Boys, you wanna give me some action insists on, and what the Gony judgement reveals, is that we cannot understand any of this without also talking about underlying social conditions and the violence of everyday life in places such as Melbourne’s stretch of poor outer south eastern suburbs.
We certainly won’t make any headway in our understanding, or efforts at change, by talking about human rights, which the Left in Victoria appear to have embraced in a desperate and ill-fated move. These issues simply cannot be understood without examining material inequities, experiences of poverty and social insecurity as well as race and the criminalisation of marginal, although frequently dignified, lives.
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