Opinion

Nyadol Nyuon
The Victorian election and the politics of fear

Today, Victoria votes. It marks the end of a long, brutal campaign – the “law and order” election, as it has been called. A “referendum on who can fix violent crime in Victoria”, according to shadow police minister Ed O’Donohue. In the past year, Victoria’s descent into “lawlessness” has been a constant presence in political commentary and media coverage. Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has proposed a simple solution – embedded in his election slogan – “Get Back in Control”. But the slogan poses the question: get back control from whom?

All of the commentary, coverage, incorrect statistics, intentional mischaracterisation and exaggeration has entrenched the narrative that there are violent African gangs in Victoria. Now, to speak of “gang violence”, “Victorian crime crisis” or any of the other terms concerned with the law-and-order stance is simply shorthand for “African gangs” or gangs of “African appearance”. What O’Donohue means is that the Victorian election is a referendum on who can fix the “African gangs” problem. It is a referendum on people who look like me.

In its rush to find “African gang stories”, the media has become a dangerous part of the story it is attempting to tell. Incidents with a tenuous connection to crime or gangs have been reported as examples of the gang crisis in Victoria.

Channel Seven recently reported that up to 100 youths of “African appearance” terrorised “terrified train passengers” in Lynbrook, about an hour south-east of the city. A quick online search reveals other headlines such as: “Dozens of youths terrorise train passengers in Melbourne” and “African gang of youths run amok through Melbourne’s south-east …” Linking to a news.com.au story titled “Mob rampages through Melbourne train”, the area’s local Liberal candidate, Ann-Marie Hermans, posted on Facebook: “Gangs can’t be allowed to do this in our community.”

The official account is entirely different – “no victims” made themselves known to the police, no arrests were made. I attended an election event soon after this incident that included a senior member of Public Transport Victoria. They told me they saw “nothing” on their live video monitoring system.

The list goes on and on. There was the Daily Mail’s “exclusive” story about a “violent confrontation” between African teenagers and police at a suburban shopping centre in Tarneit. “Police SPAT ON and abused as officers arrest African teenagers … in latest gang flare up”, the article alleged. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. There was no “gang” involved, no “flare up”, according to Victoria Police. In fact, in reality, it emerged the Daily Mail’s photographer approached a group of African teenagers who were socialising outside a shopping centre and doing nothing to draw police attention. As the photographer moved in closer to take pictures, the teenagers reacted and the police were called – a “scuffle ensued and arrests were made”. The photographer later acknowledged it was his behaviour that “provoked the incident and apologised”. Confirming the seriousness of the Daily Mail incident, Victoria Police wrote a confidential email to the editors of media outlets “expressing concern that aggressive behaviour by journalists might exacerbate the current tensions”.

Yet the Daily Mail hasn’t taken the article down, hasn’t amended its headline or removed the confrontational photos of the teenagers being arrested. A group of teenagers hanging out at a shopping centre were treated like nothing more than animals on an African safari. The photographer’s interest in a story meant these teenagers now face having their characters permanently tarnished by a criminal record. If they are not citizens and are convicted, it could mean exclusion from attaining citizenship. These teenagers’ experiences are an example of what happens when people’s lives, and the possibilities they contain, are reduced to mere means to an end. The Daily Mail got its “exclusive story”. The photographer got his pictures. The African teenagers got arrested.

I have watched the devastating effect this year that media coverage and political commentary has had on Victoria’s African communities. Community legal centres have seen a more than 50 per cent increase in racist attacks on African Australians and other people of colour, according to the Federation of Community Legal Centres. Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner reported that “racially divisive statements about the African-Australian community had contributed to a 34 per cent increase in the number of reports of racial discrimination over the past financial year”. A survey of 2500 people living across 150 suburbs in Melbourne by Associate Professor Rebecca Wickes of Monash University found that one in four people reported “very low levels of warmth towards African people”. There have been threats of violence by vigilante groups against African communities. There have been reports that members of the nationalist True Blue Crew are planning to “take a stand on the streets” in response to Melbourne’s so-called “African gang crisis”. I was recently stopped on the street by an African woman, an academic, who told me about a Facebook group where people were being called on to “get together and do some night walking … [and] hunt these so called human beings”. These kind of comments online – especially for those who have attempted to push back against the destructive narrative of “African gangs” – have become so commonplace that I normally set aside at least a few hours after every media appearance to block similar racist comments.

Many in the African community are just waiting and wishing for the election to be over “so we can return to normal citizens again”, as Biong Deng Biong, executive director of Edmund Rice Community and Refugee Services, put it. But the end of the Victorian election is unlikely to be the end of the African community’s pain.

Jason Wood, Liberal MP for La Trobe, recently told Four Corners that he predicts the African gangs issue will “play a role in the upcoming federal election, as it already has in the Victorian state election”. His prediction has always been my fear. “African gangs” is merely standing in as a placeholder for a slew of federal policy concerns – immigration, citizenship, Australian values – which should’ve been apparent from the way federal politicians have involved themselves in what is seemingly a state issue. As the MS-13 gang is to Donald Trump, “African gangs” have become the elected monsters for certain state and federal politicians.

The politics of the law and order and the relentless media coverage has demonised the African community and made many afraid of our mere presence – being in public spaces, we’re seen as a threat. I was struck by Four Corners’ interview with Leah Meurer, a victim of crime, who said that every time she sees “a black person down the street or just anywhere, it’s like a trigger”. Meurer’s fear is real, but what is the proper solution to her fear? What is to be done to the black people “anywhere” who have now become a trigger? It is to remove them from public space, to follow and monitor them in shopping centres, to “move them on” from parks and eventually, to permanently remove some – even children – by deporting them to countries they may never have lived in with languages they cannot speak.

The day after the tragic Bourke Street attack, the Herald Sun ran two stories on its front page. “Forever in our Hearts” was the headline at the top, accompanied by a photo of Sisto Malaspina – a Melbourne icon, a man worthy of a state funeral. Immediately below was another story with a statement in bold, capital letters: “Kick Them Out”. I knew where many people of colour were presumed to belong. It was a moment that brought forth for me how painful the politics of exclusion from belonging can be. The manner in which these stories were told did not permit people like me to take part in Sisto’s mourning. We were not part of the “our” with hearts. We were part of the “them” to be kicked out. What is left when you can’t grieve with a community at a tragic moment of national significance?

This is another, deeper layer of exclusion – a psychological one – a denial from identifying as Australian. Our skin colour means that our lives in Australia could never mean more than where our parents come from or how we arrived. To some people the acts of living in this country – making friends, falling in love, getting married, giving birth or dealing with death and grief – do not transform us. But they do. I have visited South Sudan, the land my father died to liberate, a place to which my mother dedicated a significant part of her life, but I felt there is someone I can be only in Australia. When I landed back at Melbourne Airport and heard the customs officer say “Welcome home” as she handed me my passport, I felt at home.

African-Australian communities suffer greatly under the politics of fear, but we are not its only victims. “A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick,” writes Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri. In Victoria, this election, it feels as if the community has become sick with fear. That is neither a solution nor a healthy vision for a community.

When the voting is done, and political careers are secured or lost, when the journalists put down their “pens” and head to their families or bed, and when the publishers are onto the next story, the resultant scars from this episode of moral panic will still be carved into our lives. And they will still be there, weakening the ties that bind us into a shared identity as Victorians. To borrow the words of American poet Saeed Jones: “What have we done to ourselves – what have we done to one another – in order to survive?” It’s a question this election should raise for all of us concerned with building a better society.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "Collateral damage". Subscribe here.

Nyadol Nyuon
is a lawyer at Arnold Bloch Leibler in Melbourne.