While Protect Victoria promotes itself as a non-political and non-racist group, its biased portrayal of crime is increasing fear and making it a recruitment hub for far-right radicals. By Anthony Kelly.

Inside Protect Victoria

Protesters at the “Make Victoria Safe Again” rally last September.
Protesters at the “Make Victoria Safe Again” rally last September.

Hayden Bradford says he is an ordinary bloke. But the 59-year-old suburban father has found himself at the head of an unwieldy 34,000-strong online law and order army. Protect Victoria is one of a dozen or more Facebook groups that are the hidden engine rooms of Victoria’s persistent law and order crime panic.

Online, Bradford seems weary. Several times now Bradford has threatened to shut down the group, railing against the refusal of both major political parties to “take the safety of Victorians seriously”. He’s flabbergasted by how few people sign his petitions and the poor turnout to the many forums he organises. One rally he organised in Caroline Springs attracted four people. His latest “meet and greet rally” on the steps of Parliament House got almost 100. But Protect Victoria continues on its mission to save this state from the scourge of violent gangs, posting more crime reports and calling out incapable politicians and the “soft on crime” judiciary.

Bradford is an “ex-stockman, ex-military, ex-corporate”. He set up Protect Victoria in February 2017 after being interviewed on Channel Nine’s Today program at a time when the tabloid media, the state Opposition, and the far right were enthralled by the unfolding “crime wave”. No one was going to let it go. Coverage of sporadic carjackings and violent home invasions had been largely ignored in Victoria until March 2016, when mobs of teenagers rampaged through the late-night Moomba event and the story of a youth gang named “Apex” hit. The story fitted perfectly with long-held fears of ethnic gangs. Even when police reports contradicted it, it did not matter. An existential threat had arisen.

Bradford gets emotional in media interviews. He is clearly affected by the stories of violent home invasions and brutal crimes. He has listened to many victims and there is no doubt he cares deeply about people and families who have experienced crime. He calls Victoria the “Lawless State” and you can hear the tremble in his voice when he says “we’re hurting here, we’re grieving. We are worried for the future of our children.” Bradford seems shocked that such violence can occur in suburbs he once perceived as safe. It’s a shock shared by many members of Protect Victoria, who commonly refer to a safer, less crime-ridden time of their memories.

Youth crime rates in Victoria have been slowly declining for more than a decade. Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency (CSA) research has shown most youth crimes are committed by a small proportion of repeat offenders. There had been a jump in aggravated burglaries and some violent crime types, which is the focus of Bradford’s anxiety.

The increase in home invasions and carjackings during 2015-16, like the brief spate of jewellery store robberies, has abated. This brings no comfort to an online community of fearful people who continue to swap home protection strategies, asking what happens if they defend themselves with baseball bats and wishing they could buy guns or pepper spray.

In its December 2017 report, CSA found criminal incidents in Victoria were down 4.8 per cent. Rather than welcome this news, the members of Protect Victoria dismissed it as lies and conspiracy.

Bradford was initially heartened by his group’s rapid growth on Facebook. He reported on the numbers daily and you could sense the growing confidence in his new-found power. He began to see himself as a reluctant leader of a new social movement. He formulated principals and pronounced policies. He soon had a volunteer team to assist as he directed the thousands of frightened Victorians to write to Premier Daniel Andrews or Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, to sign petitions and invite others to the group.

Bradford was soon calling the Facebook group a “prominent advocacy/lobby group to inform the government”. Assessing his power, he wrote: “If they don’t change the laws, we will change the government.”

Protect Victoria is also defined by what it is not. “Protect Victoria is NOT a political group, NOT a racist group, and NOT a hate group, NOT a vigilante group and NOT an anti-police group.”

The group has attempted to hold what it views as the rational centre, the mainstream family, to reflect what Bradford sees as ordinary people being terrorised by rampaging gangs, people left unprotected by a left-wing judiciary. But Protect Victoria’s positioning is false and failing.

There’s nothing new about law and order panics. Driven by unscrupulous media focus on the violent and the unusual, the outrage has been capitalised on by candidates and politicians of all persuasions. They allocate blame, call for vengeful punishment and shift our criminal justice systems away from prevention and rehabilitation into a cycle of imprisonment and criminogenic practices. It’s a psychological, cultural and political dynamic that helps generate crime, creates more victims and ultimately reduces many hard-won freedoms.

When race is involved, however, these law and order campaigns become supercharged. That’s what we have seen since the Moomba brawl turned “Apex” into a code word for everything African, Sudanese and ethnic, everything most feared by white Australia. The “story” of African youth gangs terrorising the suburbs has framed the public’s perception of Victoria’s crime panic since. Protect Victoria was well primed by December 2017 to help ensure that a series of disparate youth crime events in Melbourne’s western suburbs over summer became a national political storm.

Studies conducted by The Sentencing Project in the United States found that journalists had the tendency to gravitate towards crime stories with a white victim and a black perpetrator. Studies drew the conclusion that crime reporting is often “scripted using stereotypes grounded in racism”.

This racialised perception of crime is replicated in the Protect Victoria newsfeed. Any stories featuring a suspect or offender of “African appearance” receive far more shares, reactions and comments. Even when the ethnicity of the offender is unknown or Caucasian, commenters will assume they are African. The calls for deportation or an end to immigration are prolific.

Every so often someone will challenge a racist comment. They will point out that, actually, things were pretty bad in the 1970s when crime was higher, when white, working-class gangs roamed the inner suburbs and domestic violence was a hidden form of terror. Another might confess that the Apex gang stuff seems to be a media beat-up and hardly a gang at all. Someone may even point out that African offenders are actually a tiny percentage of overall youth offenders – less than 2 per cent – but that they feature in almost all media reports of crime. These naysayers will be roundly condemned and then publicly banned from the page.

What Protect Victoria is, is a recruiting ground for everyone from the United Patriots Front and True Blue Crew to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Activist members of the Soldiers of Odin Australia, an offshoot of a Finnish neo-Nazi group, comment on every thread with their particular brand of biological racism. Bradford has said he is happy to meet with the Melbourne division: “I’m open to meet with anyone and will be … The point is we have got to do something.”

The irony is lost upon Bradford. The UPF and True Blue Crew are street gangs, plain and simple. Many involve convicted criminals. Yet Bradford is openly allying himself with them. Protect Victoria is being captured by the racist and hateful.

The notorious and outspoken Avi Yemini has been cross-promoting his anti-Islamic, far-right crime fighting to the group, and an alliance has formed. In September 2017 Yemini had Bradford speak at his “Make Victoria Safe Again” rally at Parliament House. Yemini is now promoted and live-streaming Bradford rallies on his own pages, trying to drum up “people power” and enough numbers on the streets to match “left-wing” rallies.

Bradford says the ultimate goal of Protect Victoria is to “reduce crime and bring a sense of safety back to the homes of all Victorians”. The policies Bradford has listed for action, however, would make things far worse. Each of the ideas trumpeted by Protect Victoria has been widely rejected by criminal justice and criminological research as ineffective or counterproductive in reducing crime. Misguided attacks on sentencing practices, bail or parole are common but deeply flawed positions. They demonstrate ignorance of how the criminal justice system works and the complex factors that generate and reduce crime in society.

Study after study has shown that increasing the length of sentences does not increase their deterrent effect. Mandatory minimum sentences do not work.

To create safety we need to invest in communities. This means resourcing programs that tackle disadvantage and the causes of crime. We need more drug and alcohol support and mental health services, youth workers and needs-based funding for early childhood services, family support and schools. Society is safer when we meet basic human needs.

It remains to be seen how the Protect Victoria phenomenon will translate at the state election in November. After being cold-shouldered by both major parties, Bradford is seeing the group’s only hope in the minor fringe parties, all of which are jumping onto comment threads, seeking votes with their own brand of punitive solutions.

In the lead-up to November, people will still lean in to fear-based responses until leaders show that crime says more about all of us as a society than it does about any one particular group.

The members of Protect Victoria have a right to feel safe. But they won’t feel that way while so many are seeking to capitalise on their fear.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 17, 2018 as "Crime raves".

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