Nyadol Nyuon on the scars left by law and or­der elec­tions

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To­day, Vic­to­ria votes. It marks the end of a long, bru­tal cam­paign – the “law and or­der” elec­tion, as it has been called. A “ref­er­en­dum on who can fix vi­o­lent crime in Vic­to­ria”, ac­cord­ing to shadow po­lice min­is­ter Ed O’Dono­hue. In the past year, Vic­to­ria’s de­scent into “law­less­ness” has been a con­stant pres­ence in po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary and me­dia cov­er­age. Op­po­si­tion Leader Matthew Guy has pro­posed a sim­ple so­lu­tion – em­bed­ded in his elec­tion slo­gan – “Get Back in Con­trol”. But the slo­gan poses the ques­tion: get back con­trol from whom?

All of the com­men­tary, cov­er­age, in­cor­rect statis­tics, in­ten­tional mis­char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and ex­ag­ger­a­tion has en­trenched the nar­ra­tive that there are vi­o­lent African gangs in Vic­to­ria. Now, to speak of “gang vi­o­lence”, “Vic­to­rian crime cri­sis” or any of the other terms con­cerned with the law-and-or­der stance is sim­ply short­hand for “African gangs” or gangs of “African ap­pear­ance”. What O’Dono­hue means is that the Vic­to­rian elec­tion is a ref­er­en­dum on who can fix the “African gangs” prob­lem. It is a ref­er­en­dum on peo­ple who look like me.

In its rush to find “African gang sto­ries”, the me­dia has be­come a dan­ger­ous part of the story it is at­tempt­ing to tell. In­ci­dents with a ten­u­ous con­nec­tion to crime or gangs have been re­ported as ex­am­ples of the gang cri­sis in Vic­to­ria.

Chan­nel Seven re­cently re­ported that up to 100 youths of “African ap­pear­ance” ter­rorised “ter­ri­fied train pas­sen­gers” in Lyn­brook, about an hour south-east of the city. A quick on­line search re­veals other head­lines such as: “Dozens of youths ter­rorise train pas­sen­gers in Mel­bourne” and “African gang of youths run amok through Mel­bourne’s south-east …” Link­ing to a news.com.au story ti­tled “Mob ram­pages through Mel­bourne train”, the area’s lo­cal Lib­eral can­di­date, Ann-Marie Her­mans, posted on Face­book: “Gangs can’t be al­lowed to do this in our com­mu­nity.”

The of­fi­cial ac­count is en­tirely dif­fer­ent – “no vic­tims” made them­selves known to the po­lice, no ar­rests were made. I at­tended an elec­tion event soon af­ter this in­ci­dent that in­cluded a se­nior mem­ber of Pub­lic Trans­port Vic­to­ria. They told me they saw “noth­ing” on their live video mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem.

The list goes on and on. There was the Daily

Mail’s “ex­clu­sive” story about a “vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion” be­tween African teenagers and po­lice at a subur­ban shop­ping cen­tre in Tarneit. “Po­lice SPAT ON and abused as of­fi­cers ar­rest African teenagers … in lat­est gang flare up”, the ar­ti­cle al­leged. It couldn’t have been fur­ther from the truth. There was no “gang” in­volved, no “flare up”, ac­cord­ing to Vic­to­ria Po­lice. In fact, in re­al­ity, it emerged the Daily Mail’s pho­tog­ra­pher ap­proached a group of African teenagers who were so­cial­is­ing out­side a shop­ping cen­tre and do­ing noth­ing to draw po­lice at­ten­tion. As the pho­tog­ra­pher moved in closer to take pic­tures, the teenagers re­acted and the po­lice were called – a “scuf­fle en­sued and ar­rests were made”. The pho­tog­ra­pher later ac­knowl­edged it was his be­hav­iour that “pro­voked the in­ci­dent and apol­o­gised”. Con­firm­ing the seriousness of the Daily Mail in­ci­dent, Vic­to­ria

Po­lice wrote a con­fi­den­tial email to the ed­i­tors of me­dia out­lets “ex­press­ing con­cern that ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour by jour­nal­ists might ex­ac­er­bate the cur­rent ten­sions”.

Yet the Daily Mail hasn’t taken the ar­ti­cle down, hasn’t amended its head­line or re­moved the con­fronta­tional pho­tos of the teenagers be­ing ar­rested. A group of teenagers hang­ing out at a shop­ping cen­tre were treated like noth­ing more than an­i­mals on an African sa­fari. The pho­tog­ra­pher’s in­ter­est in a story meant these teenagers now face hav­ing their char­ac­ters per­ma­nently tar­nished by a crim­i­nal record. If they are not cit­i­zens and are con­victed, it could mean ex­clu­sion from at­tain­ing cit­i­zen­ship. These teenagers’ ex­pe­ri­ences are an ex­am­ple of what hap­pens when peo­ple’s lives, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties they con­tain, are re­duced to mere means to an end. The Daily Mail got its “ex­clu­sive story”. The pho­tog­ra­pher got his pic­tures. The African teenagers got ar­rested.

I have watched the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect this year that me­dia cov­er­age and po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary has had on Vic­to­ria’s African com­mu­ni­ties. Com­mu­nity le­gal cen­tres have seen a more than 50 per cent in­crease in racist at­tacks on African Aus­tralians and other peo­ple of colour, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­er­a­tion of Com­mu­nity Le­gal Cen­tres. Vic­to­ria’s Equal Op­por­tu­nity and Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sioner re­ported that “racially di­vi­sive state­ments about the African-Aus­tralian com­mu­nity had contributed to a 34 per cent in­crease in the num­ber of re­ports of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion over the past fi­nan­cial year”. A sur­vey of 2500 peo­ple liv­ing across 150 suburbs in Mel­bourne by As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Re­becca Wickes of Monash Univer­sity found that one in four peo­ple re­ported “very low lev­els of warmth to­wards African peo­ple”. There have been threats of vi­o­lence by vig­i­lante groups against African com­mu­ni­ties. There have been re­ports that mem­bers of the na­tion­al­ist True Blue Crew are plan­ning to “take a stand on the streets” in re­sponse to Mel­bourne’s so-called “African gang cri­sis”. I was re­cently stopped on the street by an African woman, an aca­demic, who told me about a Face­book group where peo­ple were be­ing called on to “get to­gether and do some night walk­ing … [and] hunt these so called hu­man be­ings”. These kind of com­ments on­line – es­pe­cially for those who have at­tempted to push back against the de­struc­tive nar­ra­tive of “African gangs” – have be­come so com­mon­place that I nor­mally set aside at least a few hours af­ter ev­ery me­dia ap­pear­ance to block sim­i­lar racist com­ments.

Many in the African com­mu­nity are just wait­ing and wish­ing for the elec­tion to be over “so we can re­turn to nor­mal cit­i­zens again”, as Biong Deng Biong, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Ed­mund Rice Com­mu­nity and Refugee Ser­vices, put it. But the end of the Vic­to­rian elec­tion is un­likely to be the end of the African com­mu­nity’s pain.

Ja­son Wood, Lib­eral MP for La Trobe, re­cently told Four Cor­ners that he pre­dicts the African gangs is­sue will “play a role in the up­com­ing fed­eral elec­tion, as it al­ready has in the Vic­to­rian state elec­tion”. His pre­dic­tion has al­ways been my fear. “African gangs” is merely stand­ing in as a place­holder for a slew of fed­eral pol­icy con­cerns – im­mi­gra­tion, cit­i­zen­ship, Aus­tralian val­ues – which should’ve been ap­par­ent from the way fed­eral politi­cians have in­volved them­selves in what is seem­ingly a state is­sue. As the MS-13 gang is to Don­ald Trump, “African gangs” have be­come the elected mon­sters for cer­tain state and fed­eral politi­cians.

The pol­i­tics of the law and or­der and the re­lent­less me­dia cov­er­age has de­monised the African com­mu­nity and made many afraid of our mere pres­ence – be­ing in pub­lic spa­ces, we’re seen as a threat. I was struck by Four Cor­ners’ in­ter­view with Leah Meurer, a vic­tim of crime, who said that ev­ery time she sees “a black per­son down the street or just any­where, it’s like a trig­ger”. Meurer’s fear is real, but what is the proper so­lu­tion to her fear? What is to be done to the black peo­ple “any­where” who have now be­come a trig­ger? It is to re­move them from pub­lic space, to fol­low and mon­i­tor them in shop­ping cen­tres, to “move them on” from parks and even­tu­ally, to per­ma­nently re­move some – even chil­dren – by de­port­ing them to coun­tries they may never have lived in with lan­guages they can­not speak.

The day af­ter the tragic Bourke Street at­tack, the Her­ald Sun ran two sto­ries on its front page. “For­ever in our Hearts” was the head­line at the top, ac­com­pa­nied by a photo of Sisto Malaspina – a Mel­bourne icon, a man wor­thy of a state fu­neral. Im­me­di­ately below was an­other story with a state­ment in bold, cap­i­tal let­ters: “Kick Them Out”. I knew where many peo­ple of colour were pre­sumed to be­long. It was a mo­ment that brought forth for me how painful the pol­i­tics of ex­clu­sion from be­long­ing can be. The man­ner in which these sto­ries were told did not per­mit peo­ple like me to take part in Sisto’s mourn­ing. We were not part of the “our” with hearts. We were part of the “them” to be kicked out.

What is left when you can’t grieve with a com­mu­nity at a tragic mo­ment of na­tional sig­nif­i­cance?

This is an­other, deeper layer of ex­clu­sion – a psy­cho­log­i­cal one – a de­nial from iden­ti­fy­ing as Aus­tralian. Our skin colour means that our lives in Aus­tralia could never mean more than where our par­ents come from or how we ar­rived. To some peo­ple the acts of liv­ing in this coun­try – mak­ing friends, fall­ing in love, get­ting mar­ried, giv­ing birth or deal­ing with death and grief – do not trans­form us. But they do. I have vis­ited South Su­dan, the land my fa­ther died to lib­er­ate, a place to which my mother ded­i­cated a sig­nif­i­cant part of her life, but I felt there is some­one I can be only in Aus­tralia. When I landed back at Mel­bourne Air­port and heard the cus­toms of­fi­cer say “Wel­come home” as she handed me my pass­port, I felt at home.

African-Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer greatly un­der the pol­i­tics of fear, but we are not its only vic­tims. “A peo­ple are as healthy and con­fi­dent as the sto­ries they tell them­selves. Sick sto­ry­tellers can make na­tions sick,” writes Nige­rian poet and author Ben Okri. In Vic­to­ria, this elec­tion, it feels as if the com­mu­nity has be­come sick with fear. That is nei­ther a so­lu­tion nor a healthy vi­sion for a com­mu­nity.

When the vot­ing is done, and po­lit­i­cal ca­reers are se­cured or lost, when the jour­nal­ists put down their “pens” and head to their fam­i­lies or bed, and when the pub­lish­ers are onto the next story, the resultant scars from this episode of moral panic will still be carved into our lives. And they will still be there, weak­en­ing the ties that bind us into a shared iden­tity as Vic­to­ri­ans. To bor­row the words of Amer­i­can poet Saeed Jones: “What have we done to our­selves – what have we done to one an­other – in or­der to sur­vive?” It’s a ques­tion this elec­tion should raise for all of us con­cerned with

• build­ing a bet­ter so­ci­ety.

WHEN THE VOT­ING IS DONE, AND PO­LIT­I­CAL CA­REERS ARE SE­CURED OR LOST, WHEN THE JOUR­NAL­ISTS PUT DOWN THEIR “PENS” AND HEAD TO THEIR FAM­I­LIES OR BED, AND WHEN THE PUB­LISH­ERS ARE ONTO THE NEXT STORY, THE RESULTANT SCARS FROM THIS EPISODE OF MORAL PANIC WILL STILL BE CARVED INTO OUR LIVES.

NYADOL NYUON is a lawyer at Arnold Bloch Leibler in Mel­bourne.

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