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An Intervention? Alice Springs can't even get a new skate park

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Alice Springs needs functional community infrastructure for its youth (Screenshot via YouTube)

Funding appeals for better community infrastructure to divert troubled kids in Alice Springs are going unheeded. Instead, NT bureaucrats suggest restricting alcohol is the solution to growing youth crime, writes Tom Tanuki.

COVERAGE OF youth crime in Alice Springs frequently bemoans that “throwing money at the problem” has failed to solve anything. Senator for Northern Territory Jacinta Price says it a lot while calling for alcohol restrictions. 

The quiet implication from many media outlets at the moment is that because every avenue to help Indigenous youth has already been exhausted, our only remaining option is to send in the police and army to obliterate their human rights again with another NT Intervention. (The implication isn’t even that quiet, in fact. Moral panic merchants like 2GB's Ben Fordham are regularly calling for it — out loud.)

Alice Springs’s leaders and bureaucrats have not "tried everything". They have not, in fact, done some of the most basic things: Alice kids cannot even get a functional skate park.

Greg Barnes has worked in Alice and surrounding remote communities for around six years, mostly as a youth worker. He’s become an advocate in a lengthy battle to demand a new Alice Springs skate park development. 

Barnes told Independent Australia he was drawn to head up the effort not only because he’s a skater himself but also because he could see the local park

"... is one of the only places in town that kids are able to hang out without being hassled or moved on — and just generally, to be a kid.”

Being a kid is heavily policed in Alice. At a recent town hall – the one labelled as ‘white supremacist’ by an ABC reporter – meeting organiser Garth Thompson called for locals to start phoning police whenever they see any Aboriginal children anywhere in public. (Which seems a pretty white supremacist thing to say.)

That meeting was heavily attended by followers of the Action for Alice Facebook page, which catalogues videos of black crime which are fomenting the current state of nationwide moral panic. But the meeting affected the entire town so many others, including Greg Barnes, also went along.

The most popular suggestion was for a class action lawsuit to be filed against the NT Government seeking $1.5 billion to improve or repair residents’ damaged properties. 

Some residents voiced concerns with this "solution"; Barnes watched as irate residents sitting up the back told objectors to “fuck off”. (Many of them were drinking beer, which seems ironic, given the content of their usual demands.)

If it’s youth crime they all have a problem with, Alice residents should be delighted to hear that skate parks help kids stay out of trouble and away from the justice system. They also don’t cost $1.5 billion.

As A.C.T. Greens MP Emma Davidson recently said, drawing from Australian research conducted on skate parks:

“Park skating is more likely to generate pro-social behaviours like socialising with friends, respecting others and cooperation than antisocial behaviours.”

The relationship between better community infrastructure and better outcomes for youth is “actually just common sense”, Barnes says. He’s studied criminology in addition to his youth work experience and knows people who were diverted from the cusp of lengthy gaol stints simply “because they were getting more props [proper respect] for doing tricks than for stealing cars”.

Australia has one of the highest skate park-to-population ratios of any nation, so we appear to broadly agree. Skate parks are good for troubled kids. Simple.

Apart from a paint job in 2020 (which it did, using a dangerously slippery paint that caused skate park users to injure themselves), the Alice Springs Town Council has done little to help. The local skate park is run down, unsafe and outdated. People have been urging the council to work on it as far back as 2005: Greg Barnes has only been a part of the latest push.

If so much “throwing money at the problem” has happened, as Sky News regularly insists, then why in nearly 20 years has a simple upgrade to a skate park failed to happen?

There are a few reasons.

In the absence of cohering federal bodies like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) – which would help govern the consistent distribution of funds to benefit Indigenous communities nationwide – federal funding trickles down in a way that pits local-level community organisations seeking support against each other. 

Some of them are Indigenous-led while others are not. Without any coherence or guidance, smart money becomes dumb money; this problem is exacerbated in remote communities like Alice and its surrounds, where FIFO (fly-in-fly-out) bureaucrats regularly disappear once they have Alice experience to add to their resume. 

As Barnes explained:

“Money comes and goes in the town, but then there’ll be an election, or someone will quit their job, and suddenly we’re back at the start again.” 

The owner of the Action for Alice Facebook page himself, Darren Clark, is a baker by trade. A quick check of federal-and territory-level grants shows that via his Remote Food Solutions business, Clark was awarded over $2 million in funding between 2014-2017 alone.  

Much of that funding appears to have been in aid of initiatives designed to benefit remote Indigenous communities with food and training. But nowadays, it appears Clark spends all his spare time curating videos of Indigenous people committing crimes. Smart money: dumb money.

It would be naïve to pretend that a skate park would instantly fix all the obvious, long-term difficulties the Alice community is facing.

A more systemic approach to youth crime in Alice Springs would involve empowering Indigenous communities in the NT by collaborating with them on solutions. (As opposed to, say, calling town hall meetings to insist that everyone automatically call the cops on Indigenous youths. Or using them for Canberran political football.) 

Much of the current moral panic around youth crime doesn’t bother to involve the Indigenous communities being spoken about. 

As Children’s Ground chairman Uncle William Tilmouth told National Indigenous Television (NITV):

“Those people are never ever consulted and therefore the results are not proven to be. It’s mainly people with prominence, power, position and privilege who get the opportunity to speak to the prime minister.”

But laypeople might not understand what a "systemic approach" to youth crime means. They’ve been whipped into a frenzy by Clark’s crime video playlist: sucked into the moral panic campaign surrounding Alice Springs. It’s hard for them to calm down and have deeper conversations about how to help communities.

That’s why it’s helpful to talk about a single skate park. It’s a touchstone for broader discussions around better diversionary and infrastructural solutions for youth crime. 

As Greg Barnes reflects:

“We hope that a new skate park would be the tip of the iceberg. Pump tracks, trampolines, more basketball hoops and legal art walls. This town deserves something in every suburb.” 

Children’s Ground are currently crowdfunding to build a language school in Mpweringke Anapipe. There are many community initiatives taking place like this in the NT — many of them receiving no government support.

Consider Nicky Hayes, an Eastern Arrernte man and skater. Hayes fundraised to build the first indoor skatepark in Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa), a remote community 80 kilometres south of Alice Springs. Then he founded his own skateboard company, Spinifex Skateboards.

Since 2020, all profits from the Spinifex store have gone toward organising First Nations Skate Tours – interstate tours for young Indigenous kids from the NT – and bringing First Nations skaters from around Australia out to his community to mentor young people. Hayes' work demonstrates that much more opportunity comes from developing a skate community than simply the park itself.

If all this moral panic around Indigenous youth crime, fomented by the media and by pages like Action for Alice, can’t even get a simple skate park built, then who is all this moral panic actually benefiting? Clearly somebody is benefiting. But whoever they are, I don’t think they live in Alice Springs — or really care much about it.

If you care and want to help pressure Alice Springs Town Council to act now for a new skate park, you can click here and start by signing this petition.

These are initiatives that deserve federal funding now. That would help kids in Alice a lot more than sending in an army.

Tom Tanuki is a writer, satirist and anti-fascist activist. Tom does weekly videos on YouTube commenting on the Australian political fringe. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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