‘I’m black … I’m seen as a threat’: Crime and panic on the streets of Melbourne


Updated

November 05, 2018 20:13:34

For more than two years, media reports have portrayed Melbourne as a city under siege, in the grip of a crimewave, overrun by African gangs. Four Corners spent weeks on the ground talking to those at the heart of this debate — teenagers, parents, victims, Victoria Police and the judiciary to get to the truth about “African” crime.

Panic in the night

“A carload of Africans has hit the front fence and are now hanging around in the front yard,” comes the crackly voice over the police radio.

Four Corners is out on patrol with Victoria Police in Melbourne’s north-west.

“Apparently there is a car full of people of African appearance… we have a couple of vans heading there… 251 [the sergeant] has just asked if there is a highway unit that can perhaps head there as well.”

Detective Acting Inspector Helen Chugg and Senior Sergeant Jason Forster exchange looks. So far, the night has been quiet.

We arrive in St Albans to find an L-plater has badly overshot a roundabout during a driving lesson, smashing through the brick wall of a house.

The driver is a middle-aged Asian woman and there’s a young South Asian man in the front yard who has rushed to help her.

Despite the initial report to police there are no people of “African appearance” involved.

In the driveway, a man is reassuring his elderly parents who clearly got a huge fright when the car crashed through their front fence.

“They stressed out. They thought it was Africans out the front for some reason I don’t know,” the son says, exasperated. “They always watch the news.”

Detective Acting Inspector Chugg says such incidents are becoming more common.

“We have certainly seen it happening more in recent times where people [are] not actually clearly seeing who’s involved, but because of all the media attention they have jumped to the conclusion it’s African offenders,” she told Four Corners.

Tim Hansen, Commander of Melbourne’s North West Metro Region, describes the past few months in Melbourne as having elements of “moral panic”.

“We’re seeing headlines and reporting that exacerbates the problem. Reporting on things that we’re not necessarily seeing,” he said.

“It’s driving community angst and people are seeing African crime everywhere, which is not necessarily the case.”

‘Nobody feels safe’

For some people, the fear is based on reality.

In the suburb of Kings Park in Melbourne’s west, Leah Meurer is unsure if she’ll ever get over the night four teenagers broke down her backdoor and stormed into her bedroom.

“I don’t know how they can say that the crime rate is falling. Nobody feels safe,” she told Four Corners.

On March 2, Leah and her husband Gavin were asleep when the four teenagers broke in.

“I just remember yelling and screaming at us to ‘shut up and give us money’. Gavin got out of the bed and physically pushed them out and shut the bedroom door on them,” she said.

“He’s then grabbed a baseball bat from underneath the bed, at which point a hammer’s come through the bedroom door multiple times. [We had] literally our entire body weight on the door, trying to prevent them from getting to us.”

Leah and her husband chased the young men out the front, but they couldn’t stop them stealing both their cars.

Police are still looking for four teenagers described as being of African appearance over the home invasion. They arrested a 14-year-old, but charges against him had to be dropped due to a lack of evidence.

“Every time I see a black person down the street or just anywhere, it’s like a trigger,” Leah said.

“I think that’s really unfair, and it shouldn’t be like that. It’s not them. They haven’t done anything wrong to me, but I can’t help but associate that night with them, and that’s what’s really unfair,” Leah said.

‘They look at me as a black thief’

Not far from where Leah lives, Four Corners meets 20-year-old Titan Debirioun. He was separated at birth from his parents during Sudan’s brutal civil war and hasn’t seen them since. He describes the past few months as “exhausting”.

“You feel like you’re representing your skin colour for everyone that’s just like you. So you have to be an extra nice person, extra smart. Even if you’re not feeling it that day, you just have to have a smile on, because if you don’t, you look scary,” he said.

Nineteen-year-old Pronto’s parents are still in Africa but he lives in Melbourne with his aunt and is an aspiring rapper. He also can’t escape the feeling that people are scared of him.

“I’m black, I’m 6’5″, and I’m dark skin, really dark skin. So to other people that are not like me, I’m a threat,” he told Four Corners.

“It’s hard for me to walk these streets sometimes.

“I actually walk outside, go to a shop, try to buy something, and they look at me as a thief. Even though I have my money and my coins in my pocket, they still look at me as a black thief.”

A few weeks ago, 23-year-old Awak Kongor was sitting in her car with some friends at a park near her home in Melbourne’s west.

“We were just listening to music. Just waiting on another friend of ours. And I saw the patrol car drive past us, and I laughed, and I was like, ‘Ha ha, what if they come and check us’, because, you know, there’s three black girls in the car.”

The police did circle back.

After checking their IDs, they told Awak and her friends a neighbour had called the police because they “looked suspicious”.

“It was kind of really hurtful,” the aspiring producer and director said.

“But, that’s the kind of reality I live in. Just being pulled over for no reason. Being followed by police cars. And I think the public don’t understand that.

“It’s unfair that I have to go the extra mile just to be a normal person.”

‘Criminology 101’

The latest statistics show people born in Sudan make up 0.1 per cent of Victoria’s population, but account for 1 per cent of the state’s alleged criminal offenders.

Young Sudanese males are over-represented in certain violent crimes — allegedly committing close to 10 per cent of all aggravated robberies.

“We do know that they’re responsible disproportionally for some of those high-crime or high-harm offences, particularly aggravated burglaries and robberies. So that’s concerning for us, and that’s the issue that we’ve been dealing with for a couple of years now,” said Stuart Bateson, the commander of the Priorities Taskforce.

“In terms of overall numbers for that high-impact crime, the numbers are quite small. That doesn’t lessen the damage of course that they do to victims and the community, but in terms of overall numbers, it’s quite small.”

Victoria has the largest South Sudanese population in Australia, with approximately 9,000 people.

“The Sudanese population is overwhelmingly young, significantly younger than the general Australian population, so we know that youth offend between the ages of 15 and 24, that’s the peak age of offending for any particular group, whether it be an ethnic minority, or Australian born,” said Dr Rebecca Wikes from Monash University.

“There is a complete over-representation of Sudanese young people who are excluded from school, who are excluded from the workplace, who are marginalised and discriminated against in society, who are living in highly disadvantaged criminogenic settings.

“That they are offending is criminology 101.”

Victoria had a spike in violent crime in 2016, but for the past two years it has decreased, including in home invasions and burglaries.

Despite this, research from the Productivity Commission now measures Victoria as the “most fearful state” in the nation, with a significant drop in the number of people reporting that they “feel safe at home”.

South Sudanese community leader and lawyer Nyadol Nyuon says with some of the media and political commentary around the issue, it’s no wonder.

“The public is being told that there’s a crisis, that they live in a state that is becoming lawless,” she said.

Unrest in the suburbs

Taylors Hill resident David Driscoll believes there is a crisis and he says people living around him are terrified.

On August 8, the police riot squad and helicopter unit had to be called in to disperse a group of teenagers of African appearance who had gathered near a local shopping centre for a planned fight between two girls.

The kids threw rocks at police and a patrol car had its back window smashed. No injuries were reported, and no arrests were made.

“When I first walked out it was the fear of what could happen with the kids, because there were that many of them,” Mr Driscoll said.

“African gangs are here. The Government and councils and the police say they are not here. They are here and people, residents are scared.”

The next day, a special response unit patrolled the area to reassure residents.

Martin and his friend Deng had nothing to do with the fight the night before, but were accosted by police while they were studying at the local library.

They filmed the incident on their phones; the footage shows the police forcing them to leave.

“They just said, ‘You’ve been identified.’ I’m like, ‘Identified how?’ They’re just saying, ‘You’ve been identified, and you have to leave. If you come back, you will be arrested’,” Martin said.

Deng was fined $347 for not “moving on” fast enough after leaving the library.

Martin and Deng are working with lawyers from the Flemington Kensington Legal Centre to file an official complaint against police.

Anthony Kelly, the chief executive officer of Flemington Kensington Legal Centre, says Victoria Police have done a good job of trying to correct the narrative around African gangs, but he says there is still evidence some policing units have been discriminatory in their treatment of people of African appearance.

“We continually have complaints from people who are stopped and moved on or have their daily life intervened by police purely because of the colour of their skin, or their perceived ethnicity, rather than lawful purposes,” he said.

A political issue

In the south-east Melbourne electorate of La Trobe, Liberal MP Jason Wood says fear of crime is the number one issue.

He predicts it will play a role in the upcoming federal elections, as it already is in the Victorian state election.

The retired police officer says the police and the State Government have been too soft.

“Victoria Police Command go along for the ride, taking instructions, I assume, from state Labor saying, ‘Don’t mention the word African gang’,” Mr Wood said.

“In my electorate they’re more concerned about being attacked by Sudanese than any other group, I can tell you that.”

Mr Wood wants to make it easier to deport immigrants who have been found guilty of a serious crime.

He is personally lobbying for far-reaching changes to the Migration Act, that would introduce mandatory visa cancellation for any person — including children — convicted of an offence by which they can be jailed for two years or more, even if they escape a jail term or are sentenced to less than 12 months.

Figures provided by the Office for Home Affairs show 100 Sudanese people have had their visas cancelled since 2014 on character grounds, after being found guilty of a serious crime.

Nyadol Nyuon sees the current environment in Melbourne as part of a wider movement that has seen conservative politicians in the EU and the US link immigration to crime.

“I think it’s a part of the global narrative of anti-immigration, which is a big part of things like even Brexit, and I think was a big platform of Donald Trump winning the US election,” she said.

“We’re using the African gang as a broader debate about immigration, about population, about struggling infrastructure. But to get a way into having that debate, you’ve got to find the scary monster … and the Africans are that monster.”

Crime & Panic: Race and fear on the streets of Melbourne airs tonight on Four Corners at 8.30pm on ABC TV and iview.

Topics:

law-crime-and-justice,

race-relations,

police,

government-and-politics,

melbourne-3000,

vic

First posted

November 05, 2018 20:06:00



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