Nik Dimopoulos is surrounded by flowers. It’s a fitting flourish for the humble man behind some of Melbourne’s most beloved queer parties. There’s no techno pumping through the speaker here though, no throb of shirtless gay men in varying stages of undress and debauchery.
Dimopoulos is in St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy, just a short walk from Melbourne’s queer hub of bars, sex clubs and one very iconic bookstore, Hares & Hyenas. It was there, in the early hours of last Saturday morning, he was arrested by Victoria Police during a raid on his home in what police have described as a case of mistaken identity. Dimopoulos’s arm was torn from its socket, broken so badly it required hours of surgery just so he didn’t lose the limb.
When I visit him, Dimopoulos isn’t in a partying mood. Amid all the chatter of visiting gay friends, he pauses for a moment, overwhelmed by it all again. We let him catch his breath. Doctors say it’s still too early to know whether he will recover full use of his arm.
Four days earlier, about 2am on May 11, members of Victoria Police’s Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) entered Dimopoulos’s home, a residence connected to Hares & Hyenas, through the alley behind the bookstore. The officers were seeking to apprehend an “armed member of a Lebanese gang” linked to a May 5 home invasion and carjacking in Melbourne’s southern suburbs.
Dimopoulos is not Lebanese. Nor is he a member of any gang. He is Greek Australian – his hair is dark, he has a beard. He’s also well built. In the eyes of the CIRT though, he matched the description of their suspect, at least enough to warrant pursuit as he attempted to flee the residence.
Dimopoulos and his housemates, Hares & Hyenas owners Crusader Hillis and Rowland Thomson, all emphatically state that at no point did any member of the CIRT announce their presence or say they were police. Dimopoulos tells me he believed these men – storming into his home, shining torches in his face, loudly demanding he “not move” – were there to commit an anti-queer attack. So he ran.
By the time Crusader Hillis realised the men were in fact police and made his way to the front of the building, Dimopoulos’s arm was already broken. “Nik was already completely slumped,” Hillis explains. “He was screaming. At that point, my only concern was to get across to police that it was a case of mistaken identity. There was no one showing any concern for his level of pain.”
According to Hillis, the “bigger brass” soon started to arrive at the shop and realised the CIRT had the wrong man. But Dimopoulos’s arms, one severely broken, were still cable-tied behind his back. According to Hillis and Thomson, no one in the CIRT had a way to remove the cable ties. Dimopoulos remained bound until the ambulance arrived. At the hospital, medical staff explained the severity of his injuries. “I don’t know if we can fix this,” they told him.
On Monday, Victoria Police assistant commissioner Luke Cornelius addressed the media, telling reporters it is “very clear to us that police stuffed this one up. Very clear to us that the injuries occasioned by the individual who was arrested by police. Very clear to us that those injuries are very serious and the nature of those injuries demand explanation.”
Hares & Hyenas has been a fixture of Melbourne’s queer community since 1991. More than a bookstore, it is also a licensed performance venue that hosts queer theatre, cabaret and storytelling along with an endless stream of community launches, events and support groups.
Ro Allen, Victoria’s first gender and sexuality commissioner, was “appalled” by the raid at the Hares & Hyenas building. Allen described Crusader Hillis, Rowland Thomson and Nik Dimopoulos as “Victorian LGBTIQ royalty”.
For Melbourne’s queer community, the violence of the incident has triggered not-too-distant memories of a time when the gay rights movement often found itself brutalised at the hands of a homophobic police force. Of the Tasty nightclub raid in 1994, during which Victoria Police detained the patrons of the gay nightclub in Melbourne’s CBD and subjected them all to a demeaning stripsearch over the course of seven hours.
Hillis and Thomson both acknowledge Saturday’s incident was not motivated by the homophobia for which the police force was once known. But they remember those days all too well.
“We had issues with police at various times in the ’80s before we opened the shop, and then in the ’90s,” Hillis tells me. The pair were gay bashed in front of Hares & Hyenas’ original store, in South Yarra, in 1993. Hillis describes the attack as a “hate crime”, just one of a spate of homophobic bashings in the neighbourhood. When Victoria Police attended the scene, Thomson explains, they “initially refused to drive us to The Alfred [Hospital], which was a block away, because we were bleeding”.
Thomson says Hillis stood up to the police back then, as he did during last weekend’s raid. “Crusader, in his usual way, confronted them,” Thomson says, “and told them [in the 1993 incident] they had to educate themselves on HIV and that they had to take us [to hospital], which they ended up doing but it shows the level of ignorance of the police at that stage. They thought it was dangerous to have queers bleeding in the car.”
According to Lee Carnie of Equality Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, “There have been many positive steps that Victoria Police has taken to build bridges with the LGBTQ communities, but the sad reality is that the legacy of past negative experiences lives on today.” The raid has also renewed the polarising debate from within the LGBTQIA community about the presence of police marching in uniform in pride parades such as Mardi Gras.
On Monday, Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission announced they would be taking over the investigation into Nik Dimopoulos’s arrest.
“Police should not be investigating police, it’s as simple as that,” Carnie says, supporting an independent investigation into the incident. “Victorians deserve a police force they can trust – a police force that is transparent and accountable when it does wrong.”
Hillis and Thomson are also pleased the botched raid will be investigated independently and acknowledge the lobbying power of the queer community helped make it happen. “When the police take on the queer community, we’ve got that history. We’ve got that fear,” Hillis says. “But we’ve also got incredible fightback”.
They hope this event can be a flashpoint “to drive this towards bigger cultural change” within Victoria Police. But Hillis believes this change “has to extend to other groups of marginalised people, who get far too much attention from the police and are arrested at far greater rates”.
Nayuka Gorrie is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta writer and member of Melbourne’s queer community. They tell me they weren’t shocked to hear about the raid, citing many examples of police raids and excessive force on their community.
“We have a premier like Daniel Andrews who relies on the gay community to appear progressive but at the same time is expanding prisons and giving police more powers. We’re seeing the militarisation of police, and also quashing civil action and protest. So, it’s not shocking to me. We’re not shocked to see this happen,” Gorrie says.
“It’s just another day, if you’re a queer black person. Part of me is a little bit frustrated that it takes this much for white queers to recognise what the relationship really is and how quickly the supposed contract between queer communities and police can be broken.”
In his hospital room, Nik Dimopoulos is trying to finish a statement to send to friends and supporters with Crusader Hillis’s help. Both say the community’s response has been overwhelming. Yet another gay male friend wanders into the room to visit. There is now an official guest list, such is the demand. Much like one of Dimopoulos’s parties.
Hillis intercepts the new visitor, and for a moment it’s just Dimopoulos and me in the room. He tells me why he ran that night.
“I’ve always had a thing in the back of my mind that there would be a likelihood that [Hares & Hyenas] would be targeted. I’ve already had this concept in my head of what I would do if we were broken into, and it was understood to be a gay hate crime. What would I do, how would I react?
“That kicked in immediately as soon as I realised there were men with torches who – without introducing who they were – yelled at me, ‘Don’t move!’ and started running towards me. By the time I got downstairs, fumbling, they caught up with me, I saw there was a group outside. It was so quick. It went from thinking there were two intruders to a gang. A hate gang.”
Dimopoulos stops. The trauma of what happened has grabbed him by the throat and he can’t speak anymore. It took six hours for surgeons to reattach the severed muscles in his arm and, using a leg graft and metal pins, reconstruct his shoulder socket. And so we leave it there.
On Thursday, during an interview on 3AW radio, Police Association of Victoria secretary Wayne Gatt told host Neil Mitchell that he was “proud” of the actions of the officers involved in Dimopoulos’s arrest.
He said he didn’t think any of the CIRT had been suspended over the incident. “I would certainly hope that they are not, to be honest,” he said.
Gatt said members of the police association had told him the CIRT clearly identified themselves when entering the property. “They do that clearly and they are recorded doing that, that’s what they tell us,” he said.
No such recordings have been made public as yet.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Troubled memories".
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