The politics of 'African gangs' and racial profiling

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Meme by @michaelhallida4 (left) and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews may counter Coalition and media attacks by introducing new laws to curb the so-called gang problem, but the new laws seem just as hollow as the crisis that sparked them, writes Jeff Waters.

VICTORIA's new draconian crack-down on teenage “African gangs” may result in more votes outside inner Melbourne, but it appears quite unlikely to be functional.

What’s been overlooked in the tabloid media's celebration and civil society’s condemnation is the fact it will have to be applied by a police force with new guidelines and rules aimed at stopping racial profiling.

The Andrews Labor Government is facing an election at the end of the year and its principal opposition (as is the case in any Australian polity) – the Murdoch and other commercial media – have created a faux law and order issue to try to oust it.

So overwhelming is the fear campaign, the 99 per cent of Victorians who are the victims of crime – and this is an actual figure – must be relieved they didn’t come into contact with anyone of African origin.

The new law extends the legislation enacted to tackle motorcycle gangs so that it applies to young teenagers.

Even these children can now be prevented by police from associating with anyone, either in person or electronically, who has been convicted of a serious (the Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville says “violent”) offence.

Police could thus hand any teenager with an unlawful association notice – even if they had committed no offence themselves – and to break that notice could bring a prison term as long as three years. 

On the surface, that might seem quite logical and it is true authorities have enjoyed some success with exercising this technique in the previous faux law and order battle over biker gangs. But those so-called gangs did not publicly assemble because of a shared race-based identity, so there was nothing wrong with targeting them.

For police to apply the new laws, they would have to turn their backs on years of internal reform and new guidelines that have been brought about by their own internal battle against racial profiling.

Although never so intensely and certainly not as widely in a national sense, the commercial media has been whipping up fear of Sudanese or other African youth, particularly in Melbourne’s inner north, for more than 15 years.

In 2006, police began routinely hassling and harassing young African-Australian males who tended to gather below their government-housing tower blocks — possibly sometimes with criminal intent, but, on the whole, just to mingle socially.

“Operation Molto” targeted African youths around Flemington and it resulted in almost 30 formal complaints, a major court case and ensuing controversy.

The six young men who were represented in the Federal Court case against the police settled out of court, but part of that settlement involved a court order, to which police agreed, demanding widespread institutional change, including a revamped education program for officers working with ethnic groups.

The assistant commissioner who was in charge of the Operation Molto area would subsequently rise to be Victoria’s chief police commissioner at the time the resulting faeces hit the fan. 

Ken Lay initially refused to acknowledge his force had undertaken any form of racial profiling — indeed, he denied it. Repeatedly. But then he went on a trip to the United Kingdom, which had dealt with police racial profiling a very long time before.

Lay returned an entirely new man. He called a media conference to publicly acknowledge that he had been wrong and his force had indeed been racist in its application of the law. 

The results, although chequered, appear to have been very encouraging.

This time around, the police have been swift in trying to bring a sense of reality to the debate, and warning about exaggerations and blaming the African community.

So it is extremely unclear how Victoria Police will be expected to issue these so-called unlawful association notices without their actions being viewed both publicly and, more particularly, legally (given their loss in court last time), as racial profiling.

These are not bikers, or cricketers, or crocheters — they are African-Australians.

Surely the police realise Melbourne’s army of human rights lawyers will challenge it as soon as it is first enacted? And if history serves as a guide, the Government will lose the case.

They may give Premier Daniel Andrews a few political centimetres in the short term, but these new laws seem just as hollow as the crisis that sparked them.

Jeff Waters is a former ABC national and international journalist, and author, who is now working freelance.

Jeff Waters is a former ABC national and international journalist and author, now working freelance.

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