Normally, any news story involving Victoria Police is met by commenters complaining about how poorly they are doing as an organisation; how their top brass have no idea, and how the officers on the ground either don't care or have their priorities all wrong. Many of these criticisms are entirely justified, particularly when you read stories about police in Geelong conducting a blitz on jaywalking, while our streets at night increasingly become a no-go zone due to drunken violence and teenage thugs.
So what about when a newly released study claims that the force has another significant problem of racist treatment of young African people?
That story provoked 226 comments on the day of its release, but if you thought the readers would stay true to form and embrace another reason to be critical of the police, you would be wrong. Instead, the comments section turned into one of the ugliest showcases for racist thought that I have witnessed in a mainstream news outlet.
But first, to the findings of the study. Conducted by Springvale Monash Legal Service, it drew from interviews with young Africans and community workers in Melbourne suburbs with large African communities. It detailed examples of racism such as use of terms such as "black c**t" and "monkey", of overzealous harrassment of young African males for no apparent reason, and even an example of police removing their uniforms and returning to bash a group of African youths.
Now I have no idea of the truth of these allegations, and I would expect some level of exaggeration on the part of the young people who gave the evidence, but I would not be surprised if they were true. I certainly do not think that is a reflection of the whole police force. But it reflects the broader picture of how Africans can be treated in this country. This article describes some examples:
They spoke about having eggs thrown at them on the streets, about profound bullying within their schools, about being accused of "blackriding" (riding without a ticket) on public transport before their tickets had even been checked, and shoplifting when they simply walked into a shop. They described systematic police abuse, and felt that there was nothing they could do when institutions discriminated against them.
Now obviously there is a problem with some young Africans in Australia, who have embraced gang culture and do cause problems for police. (And we are not really talking about Africans in general, but primarily a minority of young people within the Sudanese and Somali communities.) The problem we are talking about occurs when the suspicion of these African youths becomes a suspicion of all African youths. A consequence of being an extremely visible minority is that any negative perceptions become amplified and extended to a whole ethnic community, in a way that is unimaginable with white criminals. Police on the front line who deal with the criminal elements of the African community might start to view all African youth through that same lens.
Sadly, this sort of treatment can perpetuate a dangerous cycle. In the news story, an African boy named Aran Brown describes constant harassment from police, to the point where now he runs whenever he sees them. Clearly this makes him look suspicious to them, resulting in further hassle. If young Africans feel that they are disconnected from a society that treats them with disrespect and suspicion, that sense of alienation can be what pushes them over the line and into the sorts of anti-social behaviours they were feared for in the first place. If you treat someone like a bad guy, it makes it more likely they will start to assume the role of the bad guy.
In reponse to the study's findings, Police Commissioner Simon Overland seemed to say all the right things.
"If (someone has taken their uniform off to bash a victim) it’s criminal and if we find evidence of that I would expect that officer, or those officers, to be charged,’’ he said.Nothing wrong with that; anyone who thinks there would not be racist elements within the police force is dreaming. Clearly racism is present, as well as corruption, sexism, homophobia and a whole host of undesirable traits, simply because police officers are humans and will thus display these traits as will anyone else.
"There will be a small number of police who clearly have racist attitudes and occasionally act on those racist attitudes and what I’m saying to them is where we find you we will deal with you in the strongest possible terms.
"I have to acknowledge that like the broader community, undoubtedly we will have some people who have racist attitudes. That is not okay.
"It is particularly not okay if they act on those racist attitudes in a work context and where I find evidence of that those people can expect to be dealt with very decisively because it is simply not okay for people to hold those attitudes or to act on them in Victoria Police,’’ he said.
“Clearly there are some tensions and there is some more work we need to do out there." He said the problem had its roots in "a whole series of reasons".
“This is not a new problem. With every wave of migration, we’ve had problems with youths. If you go back far enough it was the Italian wave, the Greek wave, the Vietnamese wave and what we’re seeing now is a wave of migration coming out of Africa. And predictably we’re seeing some tensions with youth."
“We are dealing with it. But we’re not going to get it right every time.”
But judging by the the response from readers, there is very little appreciation of this fact. As Overland said, the police are a reflection of the community, and some in the community have racist views; and those views were quite brazenly on display among the Herald-Sun readership:
All this for being innocent bystanders, right? I'm sick of this politically correct shite of treating Africans and other "non whites" with kid gloves. Perhaps Aran Brown would be better off in the country he left behind. Sick of racism yes, but directed at whites...and proud of my skin colour.
Comment 3 of 226
Stevo of Yarrambat
What a load of crap. These thugs deserve everything they get. Go into their territory, see how intimidating and threatening and abusive they are to Aussies. Back the cops up otherwise these low life scum will control the streets.
Comment 6 of 226
You don't like it of GO HOME
If you don't like it then move back overseas. Crimes have gone up since so many people have been allowed in the country. The cities are over populated with gangs and crims. Parents have no control or even any ideas where their darling children are as they are busy playing the pokies and drinking all their dole payments away.
Comment 10 of 226
Ian Astbury of St Albans
This is not a symptom of racism but rather a failure of governments failed refugee and immigration policies. These African groups like the Indians play the race card every-time an incident happens. The real issue is that these groups come from societies where racism is rife i.e Zulus and Caste system. I say time to close the door on these groups who cannot integrate into Australian society.
Comment 97 of 226
Sounds more like African criminals are feeling the heat so they've pulled out the old tried and tested racism card compliments of the advocacy groups. Seen and done all before by the certain other mintority groups that we're not allowed to complain about.
Comment 170 of 226
Scott of Heathmont
It would be nice to see our Police Commisioner support our police force rather than bend over to political correctness (yet again).
Comment 224 of 226
Of course, I don't wish to pretend that all African young people in Melbourne are cherubs who would not hurt a fly. But for so many of the people commenting above, "African youths" form a single identity - the thug in hip-hop attire. So it does not occur to them that an African boy harassed by police might not have actually done anything - by being African, he is "one of those" who commit crimes.
Even if you assume that the report is only partly factual; it is a worrying indictment on those we put faith in to keep our streets safe. The simplistic either/or mentality being displayed by the above commenters reduces the argument to EITHER police are racist and Africans are innocent OR Africans are not innocent and therefore they are lying and police are not racist. There is no room for nuanced thought; the idea that there can be problems with youth crime in the African community AND problems with racism in the police force, which might actually be contributing to the causes of crime.
One of the complaints expressed by the young Africans interviewed in the study is that assumption that because they are African, they are being tarred with the same brush as the Africans who are involved in street gang activity, and are therefore presumed guilty. The attitudes expressed on the Herald-Sun website show exactly how this can happen; most of the commenters seem to find it inconceivable that there could possibly exist any African youth who are not criminals.
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