On June 4 this year, a 45-year-old Darwin man allegedly went on a gun rampage through the streets of Darwin, killing four people and injuring one. The alleged killer, Benjamin Glenn Hoffmann, is Darwin born and bred and appeared in the Supreme Court this month on four charges of murder. Martin Pike looks back on a city he loves, but which has an undeniable history of extreme violence.
‘This is not Darwin’.
An understandable response to an extended violent incident that left four people dead, from angry, hurt locals and a Chief Minister visibly struggling with shock. An incident wholly incompatible with the Darwin of warm sunsets, multicultural markets and smiling tourists.
This was the town in which I spent most of my teens and 20s, a place I am often quick to defend and yes, there’s a multicultural ease you won’t see elsewhere. You could find yourself at a barbeque with someone descended from early 20th century Chinese divers, someone else whose grandad came over from Kalymnos and married a Larrakia woman, and a sunscreen-slathered Irish Australian, all talking in the same easy Darwin drawl about barra or the arrival of the wet.
Yet I also thought: ‘Is this not Darwin?’ Friends were reeling in all directions, more than one knew the alleged shooter at school, and they were talking about how rough the high school and suburbs were where he came of age. A friend struggled with the simplicity and ignorance in the online anger: did these people have any idea how rough Darwin could get? How many kids got caught in violent circles from an early age and never escaped?
I unloaded memories of violence on Facebook. The reactions were strong. People who’ve never lived there were stunned. Some locals were defensive, a couple offended, but many others agreed and added their own experiences.
A common theme was that people knew this other Darwin, but its menace crept around in the shadows of their memories, obscured and denied by the official, tourist-friendly narrative.
We had normalised the violence and buried our stories. We’d arrived in Melbourne, Brisbane or London, expecting the worst, only to realise the difference is not in the existence of serious violence, per se, but the accepted narratives. Those places could be bad, but it doesn’t come as a surprise if you’ve read the papers or watched Underbelly or The Bill.
Meanwhile there is blood soaked into every pavement in Darwin, our school grounds, the parks, the beaches, and it seemed nobody ever acknowledged it. Not, at least, for what it actually was.
Violence is certainly acknowledged in the law and order rhetoric that has dominated most elections since self-government, frequently overlapping with an unsympathetic view of Indigenous people visibly living rough on the streets.
Characterised this way, the problem lies within distinct groups, ‘criminals’, the visibly indigent, who can be treated as aberrations. This avoids acknowledging a more pervasive social problem that would require a wider lens, perhaps one that takes in flippant attitudes towards aggression in the wider population, the impact of fluctuating numbers of local and visiting military personnel, the gender balance (over 110 men to every 100 women), even the wider bloody history of the NT itself; still a frontier a hundred years ago and only recently wrenched from its original inhabitants.
My memories don’t confine the violence to any particular race or socioeconomic group. It was as multicultural as the town itself, and it could appear anywhere. When a politician from the then-ruling Country Liberal Party felt brazen enough to wrap a cord around a journalist’s neck, why would the wider culture strive to be better?
I saw so many bashings and heard about many more, the times and places start to blur. But I am confident their substance took place, and that, taken together with the memories of my friends, they are stories that have been repeated over and over.
I remember coming out of a nightclub I see an ambulance, a man lying on a stretcher, another sitting on the kerb, head almost entirely wrapped in bandages, and there was a huge pool – more than a metre across – of pink blood. There was froth in the blood. I still sometimes wonder what took place to create that scene, and whether both of those males recovered fully. Could one of them have ended up with brain damage? It seemed impossible for so much blood to be on that concrete without some permanent loss.
I remember two steroid-built males, one in a bouncer’s uniform, laying into each other in the middle of the road between two of Darwin’s busiest clubs, the sound of each blow like someone hitting a bed with a cricket bat, while about 100 metres away two cops chatted up a girl who wouldn’t have been more than 17. We got in our car and left. As we drove away the fight was still going.
I remember the trial of some young men who had gone full Clockwork Orange, wandering the dark empty streets kicking and bashing drunks and ‘long grassers’ – Aboriginal people living rough – until one of them stabbed an Indigenous man and killed him. And I’ll never forget the wail from the people up the back of the court, who’d travelled to Darwin from the victim’s community, when the all-white-woman jury threw out the worst of the charges.
A couple of my friends were bashed for the life-threatening mistake of answering back. Black eyes, swollen faces, split blood-blistered lips. One copped more than one horrendous bashing, he was just too proud and cheeky, though he’d never hurt a fly. His trademark was long flowing hair, which he swung around at gigs. One time, in the middle of the day, someone yelled ‘get a haircut’ and he carelessly responded ‘why don’t you give me one?’
After the heckler and his girlfriend beat him up, they tore out most of his hair, fistful by fistful. He never grew it long again.
I remember dozens of similar stories, some more reliable than others. Did a group of Darwin’s omnipresent bikers really bash, rape and dump a young man on a road at the edge of town as a lesson? Did the quiet, modestly-built guy who always had his long hair pinned back with a baseball cap at gigs really go berserk at a party and smash a sink off a wall with someone’s face?
On top of this mostly-male violence, there was an awful corollary for women. As the balance of my friendships tilted from male to female, I started to realise how much sexual assault there was. And how much of that is not, for understandable reasons, reported.
Darwin is sui generis; unlike any other city in Australia, or anywhere. Its people can be all the good things they’re held out to be; down to earth, multicultural, easygoing and full of character. It has been bombed, blown down, rebuilt, and gratuitously insulted by people, even prime ministers, who will never understand it.
None of this erases the complex history of its violence.
There has always been another Darwin stashed behind the tourist-friendly, sunbaked veneer. It does nobody any good to deny it is there.
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