Politics, media and the ‘African gangs’
On his return from sick leave earlier this month, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton might have been surprised to learn that, in his absence, the jurisdiction he had sworn to protect had suddenly and catastrophically succumbed to lawlessness.
The devolution was so stark it had compelled the surprising rhetorical intervention of the federal government. African gang crime had affected Melbourne such that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton declared its citizens were afraid to go out for dinner. The prime minister said his government was very concerned about the “growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria”. Newspapers were splashing daily with the words “crisis” and “epidemic”. Ashton’s distant predecessor, Kel Glare, thought Victoria Police had “lost the plot”. New South Wales MP Craig Kelly suggested the erection of billboards on his state’s border, warning his compatriots of car theft in the Victorian “badlands”. It was a boon for the Victorian Opposition leader, Matthew Guy, who will challenge the Labor premier, Daniel Andrews, in this year’s state election.
All of this might have surprised the chief commissioner, because in November Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency declared crime had decreased by 6 per cent, the largest drop in 12 years. In December, The Economist’s intelligence unit published its yearly Safe Cities Index and listed Melbourne as the world’s fifth safest city – Australia’s highest position.
A police veteran, and the man who led the Australian Federal Police’s investigation of the Bali bombings and with Victoria Police had commanded investigations of organised crime, Ashton might have also been surprised to learn that he had become an emblem for feckless political correctness. Some in the media thought the thoughtful but unpretentious commissioner had developed an exotic sympathy for criminals.
For years now, African crime in Melbourne has been a popular anxiety, but it reached its crescendo in the past two months. A series of crimes in December – a violent brawl on St Kilda Beach, the trashing of a property in Werribee, and the assault of a police officer – attracted excited headlines about Sudanese “gangs” and Victorian “lawlessness”.
Having returned from leave, the chief commissioner called a press conference to address the issue. It would be his first public appearance of the year. Internally at Victoria Police, there was resentment about the hyper-politicisation of their duties and frustration with elements of the media for irresponsible reporting. Surrounded by African community leaders, Ashton said: “I’ve heard people say that Victoria is not a safe place to live. That’s complete and utter garbage. There are people who have been affected by crime, and that’s always been the case, and that’s the case in every city in Australia, and the same as every city in the world.
“If you put it into context, you’ve got a few hundred offenders engaged in offending in a city of four-and-a-half million people … We have some young people that are engaging in ... gang-related behaviours, we’re not shying away from that, but I think it’s important we keep it in perspective.”
A Sudanese man, who doesn’t wish to be named, returned my call this week. He had offered to serve as a liaison between community leaders and me, but he was calling with an apology. “There is too much suspicion of media,” he said, explaining that the community was unwilling to talk to me. “It is too political. Everyone is scared and the community is tired. They all say: if you know of any African gangs, please let them know. But there is no trust of media. They remember the media who took photos at the shopping mall.”
The man was referring to an incident earlier this month, when a Daily Mail Australia photographer arrived at a mall in Melbourne’s west where a group of Sudanese teenagers were socialising. The aggressive actions of the photographer incited a fracas, and police were called. One officer was spat on. Following the incident, garishly written up by the Daily Mail, Victoria Police sent a confidential email to a number of media editors. It read, in part: “The teenagers had been doing nothing of public interest prior to the photographer’s decision to move in and take the photos and [the group] reacted to the photographer and what he was doing. This led to police being called in and a scuffle ensued in which police were spat on and arrests were made. After the event, the photographer acknowledged that his actions had provoked the incident and apologised.”
The email strongly counselled journalists against inflammatory reporting and “inciting conflict”.
“Fear – justified or not – is damaging to social life, to social cohesion,” Rebecca Wickes tells me. Wickes is an associate professor in criminology at Monash University, and has recently completed research into perceptions of crime. “We have 50 years of literature on this. Unfortunately, when something like this is whipped up, an exaggerated fear breaks down cohesion. People are less willing to respond in pro-social ways.
“Concerns about crime are disproportionate to reality. But for victims of crime, the consequences of crime are terrible. There are real victims, and they need support. But the likelihood of an individual experiencing serious and violent crime from someone they do not know is low.”
A surreal development in the African crime debate was the sudden, ubiquitous appearance of young Sudanese man Nelly Yoa. On New Year’s Day, The Age ran on its front page an opinion piece by him, which also carried the byline of a junior reporter. Presumably, the piece ran because of Yoa’s alleged credentials and elevated status in Melbourne’s Sudanese community. Certainly, to hear Yoa tell it, he was a man of precocious achievement: a professional soccer player who trialled with Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers, and had been on the cusp of a multimillion-dollar contract with Melbourne Victory.
He claimed that after recovering from a machete attack – he had heroically intervened in an assault, sustaining injuries that cruelled his soccer career – he sought to reinvent himself as an AFL player and began trials with Collingwood. He had been mentored by Usain Bolt, counselled gang members in and out of prison, and was a “brand ambassador” for some of the world’s biggest companies. This isn’t an exhaustive account of his CV.
An impressive man, it seemed. For The Age, he wrote: “After watching the horrendous and appalling behaviour committed by my fellow South Sudanese youth in the past few weeks, I am furious – and in total disbelief – to hear our top cop and government officials say there are no Sudanese gangs in Melbourne. Nobody should ever try and cover up or defend this unacceptable behaviour – to do so is immoral and inexplicable.”
Commentators seized on the report, and Yoa was suddenly given airtime on multiple television and radio networks. The problem was, the “story” of Nelly Yoa was a tissue of lies. Like fraudulent wellness blogger Belle Gibson, Yoa was a florid, if not especially guileful, liar. Yet he had duped the media for years. A number of sports reporters were long aware of his deceptions, but this didn’t prevent his “story” being recycled by the major networks. The media often functions as a centrifuge for tropes – spinning complexity until nuance is discarded and one is left with a satisfying narrative. For years, the media trope Yoa fulfilled was “ambitious immigrant defies adversity to chase dreams”. In January, it became “black leader speaks common sense”.
The Age story contained numerous lies and extensive plagiarism. But Yoa was a useful fraud. This week, the former editor of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, reflected on the reception of Yoa’s piece: “Even The Age … managed to offend Twitter by publishing a strong page one piece by self-styled Sudanese community activist Noa ‘Nelly’ Yoa,” Mitchell wrote. “Yoa argued that denying African gangs existed would be counterproductive... Some Sudanese community leaders challenged Yoa’s claims and denied his role in mentoring young Sudanese and his sporting claims. Twitter was outraged The Age even published the piece, which on re-reading was an entirely sensible appeal to wider Victoria and Sudanese immigrants, whatever the truth of Yoa’s community and sports interests.”
“Self-styled” is a cute gloss on “raging fantasist”, and I’m unsure of the universe in which “strong” is an appropriate word to describe a piece that is half lies, half plagiarism. The promotion of this egregious fraud damaged both the debate and the reputation of journalism.
In September 2007, Liep Gony, a 19-year-old Sudanese immigrant, was found bleeding to death on a nature strip in Melbourne’s south-east. He had suffered catastrophic head trauma, sustained after being repeatedly struck with metal poles. The weapons were wielded by two young men, both of them white, who had previously trashed their rental property and spray-painted its walls with “fuck da niggas”. On the evening of the murder, a neighbour of the killers heard one rant: “These blacks are turning the town into the Bronx. I am going to take my town back, I’m looking to kill the blacks.”
In the weeks before the killing, one of the convicted men showed his girlfriend a copy of a newspaper with the headline: “Bronx fear”. It seemed an obvious, and nauseating, case of profound racial hatred. But in sentencing the two men – Clinton Rintoull and Dylan Sabatino – in 2009, the judge reflected on the sad complexity of the case. Perhaps counterintuitively, the judge said: “To say that this killing was racially motivated is to deny a complex set of factors. Your concerns seem to have stemmed from the presence of a group of youths congregating in the vicinity of the Noble Park Railway Station, your perception of lawlessness as a result of this and the police’s inability to deal with the problem as you perceived it, your own experience with the gang in the days before and the article in the newspaper.”
The judge reflected on the fact Rintoull had, the previous week, twice taken food to a homeless African man. An Indigenous friend offered personal testimony. The judge also remarked on the abusive childhood, substance abuse and occasional homelessness of the killer. Gony himself had experienced extraordinary trauma and suffering, on the other side of the world, and the sum of the sentencing remarks suggests a terrible, traumatic trajectory of both killers and victim.
It was precisely this complexity that Chief Commissioner Ashton discussed this week on local talkback radio. Responding to an angry caller, who wanted to know what was being done about African crime, Ashton said: “If you’re looking for police to put it to bed, you’re looking in the wrong direction. We’re locking ’em up, as many as we can … We’re responding more quickly than we’ve ever responded, we’re making more arrests than we’ve ever made in total, so we’re doing plenty about it; but you’re talking about bigger social issues than police solve.”
This wasn’t capitulation, but simple honesty. Ashton was attempting to properly circumscribe police responsibility – an area that attracts impassioned but often implausible expectations.
“Police are between a rock and a hard place,” Wickes tells me. “To be honest, I think they’re doing the best they can do. But whatever they do, they experience backlash. The management of this situation is so politically loaded currently.”
Wickes expressed frustration with the quality of our public discussions of crime. “Attempting to understand crime is not the same as excusing it,” she says. “I’m not going soft on someone who beats somebody in the street. Do the crime, do the time. But can we express our outrage in ways that are going to result in sustainable, preventative programs? This is what most frustrates me about the debate – the idea that these things are mutually exclusive. The idea that explaining things means being soft.”
Summer is a vacuum. Newsrooms are quieter, parliament vacant, the public’s gaze determinedly turned away from Canberra. It’s an easier time to assert a political narrative, to tend a particular hobbyhorse. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do journalists.
In an opinion piece earlier this month, the editor of The Conversation wrote of an encounter with a senior federal minister more than a year ago. The minister began complaining of Victoria’s crime and its premier’s weakness. “He made it clear that he and his colleagues saw a political opportunity to get involved and use the issue to help the Liberal Opposition win the next state election in Victoria.” This summer, that opportunity arrived.
African Australians have committed crimes. Some were extremely violent. There were real victims with real trauma who, understandably, might have little patience for words like proportionality and complexity. Our response should not be to wish that away. But there has also been a cynical intemperateness to “the discussion”. For the past two months it has been operatic. African Australians have been demonised, police undermined, and our collective fear recklessly amplified.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Politics, media and the ‘African gangs’". Subscribe here.