The media’s reporting of gang crime across Melbourne has racial overtones, singling out Sudanese Australians and engendering fear and stereotyping in the community. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Race, stereotyping and Melbourne’s Apex gang

A scene from the Moomba festival brawl in Melbourne’s CBD last March.
A scene from the Moomba festival brawl in Melbourne’s CBD last March.

In the past couple of weeks, a federal parliamentary inquiry has been quietly holding public hearings into issues that may have long-term consequences for many Australians. 

The joint standing committee on migration is looking into migrant settlement outcomes.

Among the issues the inquiry is considering is whether Australia should amend its laws to send back non-citizens under the age of 18. 

As the law stands, Australia does not deport minors.

Federal Liberal MP for La Trobe Jason Wood has been vocal about his concerns over the so-called Apex gang.

“They are causing absolute fear in the streets of Melbourne,” Wood told federal parliament last year.

The former police officer is also the chairman of the committee looking into deporting minors. 

He has proposed punitive measures including the expansion of the National Anti-Gangs Squad and a joint taskforce that Wood says would bring together federal and state police, immigration officers and the Australian Gangs Intelligence Co-ordination Centre to target “violent youth gangs”.

Speaking to Sydney’s 2GB, Labor leader Bill Shorten indicated that the federal opposition would be open to supporting plans to deport children who commit serious crimes.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Apex gang is an issue in Victoria,” he said. “You’ve got to have an honest discussion about what is the best message to send every other person. If someone was sent back to the old country, I reckon that would straighten out a few people.” 

Over the past few years, the so-called “Apex gang” has become synonymous with African youth crime in Melbourne. Across the media, the narrative of this “notorious gang” of “thugs” “terrorising” Melburnians is almost inescapable.

The group gained notoriety following the now infamous Moomba festival brawl in Melbourne’s central business district in March last year. 

That incident, involving more than 100 young men and teenagers, interrupted a fireworks display and led to violent clashes. At the time, Victoria Police alleged a group known as “Apex” was to blame for the violence.

1 . Social media’s influence

Images circulating on social media and across various media outlets seemed to point to young people of “African appearance” as the alleged perpetrators.

However, police stressed that those involved came from various backgrounds.

That didn’t seem to satisfy some commentators, with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell criticising the way Victoria Police handled the matter. Mitchell went on to accuse Sudanese and Islander gangs of committing the violence. 

“We can’t dodge this. There is a racial element to it,” he told his listeners. “The gangs are organised mostly on racial grounds. Police need to be able to deal with it. Police are too frightened now to stop somebody.

“They see a carload of kids that happen to be black, but they’re reluctant to stop them. I see no problem with police saying we’ve got a Sudanese and Islander gang problem.”

Victoria Police assistant commissioner Rick Nugent was asked if he thought there was “a problem with young African Australian kids committing these crimes” during a press conference about jewellery store thefts across Melbourne. 

“I think that’s a bit strong,” he said, “because we find that through the style of offending and we know that over the last 12 months that there have been more Caucasian youth apprehended than African Australian kids so I wouldn’t say that.” 

Data from the Crime Statistics Agency on youth offending in Victoria, specifically burglary offending incidents, also paints a different picture.

From October 2015 to September 2016, more than 2000 people between the ages of 10 and 17 years old were alleged to have committed such crimes. Of that number, about 1700 were Australian born. The rest were born overseas in various countries.

Whether by omission or commission, the media coverage of the “Apex” gang frequently reinforces racial stereotypes about black African Australians. It is also devoid of fact and evidence to back up these racially charged claims. Words like “thug” have often replaced “alleged offender” in reportage.

Scott Hanson-Easey is a research fellow at Adelaide University. His work has covered the discourse around Sudanese Australians used by politicians and on talkback radio in South Australia.

He found a distinct difference in how the media reported on crimes committed by Sudanese Australians and those committed by Australians of Anglo-Celtic backgrounds.

“It wasn’t just that they were having trouble socio-economically or they didn’t have work and they were struggling to find themselves or they were just going through normal traditional kind of youthful problems; it was a cultural and in a way more subtle problem, based on ethnicity and previous experience,” Hanson-Easey said.

“You’d see reporting of, say, Anglo-Celtic youth on the street causing trouble. We don’t get those sorts of causal explanations. We just say these people are problematic. But you don’t get that depth of explanation.”

It’s a view shared by sociology professor Karen Farquharson of Swinburne University. The use of racial descriptors in reporting about certain groups of people is worrying, she believes.

Farquharson says a research project she undertook looked at every mention of Sudanese Australians in newspapers over a 10-year period, and every mention of Sudanese youth in TV news over six years.

“We basically found that the kinds of stories that are on Sudanese [people] tend to focus on violence and crime in a way that is different than other ethnic groups,” she says. “When you have stories of crime, and it’s an African person that’s committed the crime, that’s mentioned. When you have stories of crime that’s not an African person offending, ethnicity is sometimes mentioned but not nearly as often.” 

2 . Stereotyping race and crime

Farquharson believes the tendency to simplistically link race and crime is a result of stereotypes. 

“That is why I think there are negative racial stereotypes of Africans and that is translated into how we report on crime,” she says. “When you think about ideologies of race, ideologies of race are hierarchical, so they situate privileged races at the top of a hierarchy and non-privileged races below them in a hierarchy, and Africans are down the bottom of the hierarchy in the global colonised world – including Australia.”

And there are consequences to this kind of coverage. When not covered responsibly, hot topics such as race and immigration encourage discrimination against groups of people that are already marginalised.

While conducting his research, Hanson-Easey met with leaders from various African communities.

“They didn’t feel like they belonged. I think being represented in that way, and having your whole community kind of tarred with that kind of brush, is really hard, especially if you’re already struggling with work or economically, or if your identity is being challenged,” Hanson-Easey said.

“You’re Australian, you also have African heritage, but in the media you are being critiqued for having that heritage or not fitting into an Australian culture.” 

And for young people, that can be especially hard. “I think it’s quite abusive and it’s unfair…” Hanson-Easey said. “It’s fundamentally quite racist.” 

It can also influence policy. In 2007, Howard government immigration minister Kevin Andrews drastically cut Australia’s African refugee intake. Andrews had singled out refugees from Sudan as being problematic and not fitting into Australia.

“We know that many of them, if indeed not most of them, have spent up to a decade in refugee camps and they have spent much of their lives in very much a war-torn conflicted situation,” he said. 

“They have the challenges of resettling in a culture which is vastly different to the one which they came from. Modern Australia, modern urban Australia largely, is vastly different from the conditions people have come from.” 

Hanson-Easey says that kind of language is deliberately crafted to not come across as racist. He said politicians present cases “in ways that don’t sound, one, irrational; two, racist; and three, that it’s not based on any sort of ongoing problem with multiculturalism or immigration”. 

3 . Underlying factors

Many experts, including the Victorian children’s commissioner, Liana Buchanan, have suggested that underlying factors – not race or background – may explain why young people commit crimes. 

Buchanan told the ABC that two-thirds of Victorian children in prisons were victims of abuse or neglect, with a third experiencing mental health issues.

Assistant Commissioner Nugent agreed: “Are they disengaged? Are there social disadvantages? A whole range of underlying causes here that has resulted in these kids getting involved in these crimes.” 

In the Herald Sun, the headlines continue: “Police bracing for youth crime wave with imminent release of notorious Apex gang members”. And: “Gang invasion made us all nervous wrecks”.

In the paper columnist Rita Panahi claims political correctness stops police from dealing with gang violence. She asks how long it will be before someone is killed. She reminds readers that the gang members are “predominately of African origin” and, later, “Sudanese, South Sudanese, Somali or Islander”.

She writes: “Christine Nixon’s legacy is still evident with sections of Victoria Police all too reluctant to address the issue for fear of appearing bigoted.”

Panahi quotes Police Association of Victoria secretary Ron Iddles to support this line. 

“Let us not mince words, Victoria Police and the state government have become too timid towards ethnic-based gangs,” he says. “Their timidity is because of political correctness. Police have been handcuffed by fears of being labelled racist. The ethnic gangs then become emboldened and believe they can indulge in violence with impunity.”

The evidence to support this is scant. The impunity, it seems, is the way in which such claims can be made by the mainstream press.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2017 as "Fright attendant".

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Santilla Chingaipe is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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