African community hits back at Dutton’s racist hysteria

The hashtag — #AfricanGangs — has been the popular response to the fear campaign. Here, two #AfricanGangs graduate 'with a degree in crime' as the Road to Africa cheekily proclaims. Photo: Olamide Michael

There is a popular folk saying: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”.

The Malcolm Turnbull government’s hysterical warnings about “Sudanese gangs” in Melbourne certainly look and sound like a blatant case of trying to stir up a racist moral panic that can be used to his political advantage.

Fearmongering about the fictional “Apex gang” started in March 2016 in trashy Victorian tabloid the Herald Sun. The tabloid was experimenting with different angles for a “law and order”-based attack to smear and divide the Daniel Andrews state Labor government.

By October 2016, fascist vigilante grouplet the Soldiers of Odin were conducting patrols of Melbourne’s CBD looking for African youth to target in response to constant front page headlines in the Herald Sun about the amorphous and ill-defined Apex gang.

But, as Melbourne trade unionist and anti-fascist activist Kieran Bennett blogged in November 2016: “There is no ‘Apex gang’, but there is a hell of a brand, and who wants to let the truth get in the way of a good story? Both the police and media outlets profit by stoking racist hysteria around the ‘Apex gang’. The gang narrative sells papers, drives website clicks, and justifies police budgets.”

By April last year, even Victoria Police deputy commissioner Shane Patton was forced to admit to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry headed by Liberal MP and ex-police officer Jason Wood that the Apex gang was “a non entity”. But the scandalous Herald Sun fearmongering continued.

Brazen racism

Fast forward to early January when, after a year-and-a-half of field testing their demonisation of a fictitious gang to stir up racist hate in Victoria, the Liberal Party decided to take the campaign national. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, home affairs minister Petter Dutton and energy and health minister Greg Hunt rang in the New Year by talking up Melbourne’s “African gang crisis”.

Osman Faruqi, writing for the blog Junkee, succinctly sums up how blatant the current fear campaign is: “The thing about dog whistling is that you aren’t supposed to say ‘I think black people are criminals and we should jail them all’. That kind of gives the game away. Instead you talk about stuff like the need for ‘strong borders to protect Australia’s integrity’. Sounds more reasonable, but you’re basically saying ‘Fuck off, we’re full’.

“On New Year’s Day the federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, said that “African gang crime” was “out of control” and blamed Premier Daniel Andrews. Now, that’s less a dog whistle and more like that enormous speaker from Back to the Future Marty blows up at the beginning of the film.”

Far from there being a crisis, Guardian columnist Calla Wahlquist has shown that both the overall crime rate and the youth crime rate in Victoria have fallen in the past 12 months. In fact, unsurprisingly, the majority of crimes in Victoria are committed by people born in Australia. The second-highest cohort of offenders was New Zealanders.

Groups of drunken youths leaving a huge mess in St Kilda and fighting cops in Sydney and Torquay over the Christmas/New Year period were not described as “white gangs” or “Anglo Saxon gangs”. Funny that. It seems skin colour is only relevant to the story if you are black or brown.

Far right emboldened

The re-emergence of the fascist far right in Australia and elsewhere in the past few years has been the focus of debates about face punching, actual counter protests, and now even poorly scripted pop culture. Online streaming outlet Stan has launched a new series, Romper Stomper, based on the 1992 film about neo Nazis of the same name, ads for which can currently be seen on billboards in major Australian cities.

Notably, according to one scathing critique, while the series takes the time to explore the day-to-day lives of the Muslim Australians targeted by fascists in the series, there is no such attempt at character development of African Australians portrayed in the series, who are crudely depicted as “members of a violent, criminal, gun-toting Sudanese gang”.

It should come as no surprise that real life fascist groups have latched onto the Liberal/Murdoch “African gang crisis” campaign and promised further vigilante type lynch mobs targeting black people.

Indeed, the original Romper Stomper movie depicted fascists latching onto mainstream racism aimed at Vietnamese migrants. A social media post that went viral recalls this and other anti-migrant “gang crisis” scandals aimed at Greek and Middle Eastern migrants. Others recall that before this it was the Italians and the Irish.

The bedrock upon which top down Australian racism is built is the settler colonial racism, which was used to justify the violent and bloody theft of Aboriginal land and resources at gunpoint — a dispossession that continues to this day.

Anthony Kelly, from Flemington Kensington Legal Centre, told the Guardian that the current hysteria about African gang crime is creating dangerous conditions: “When it becomes a racialised moral panic, then we start to see the things that lead toward Cronulla over 10 years ago. That was instigated by a very similar array of panics.”

Already there are reports of increased racism towards African Australians, and a Brisbane family has been followed home and attacked by a far right stalker (who was eventually repelled).

Sudanese teenager Liep Gony was bashed to death near Noble Park train station in October 2007 following a similar racist fear campaign about supposed African gangs, led by Kevin Andrews, a former minister in the Howard government.

Where does Liberal Party fearmongering end, and the re-emergence of fascist groupings begin? State racism aimed at asylum seekers, Muslims, Aboriginal people and Sudanese or African Australians is what neo-Nazis feed off. The Liberals and Murdoch media are knowingly giving the far right oxygen.

Popular response

African Australians have crafted a witty popular response to the fear campaign, with the hashtag #AfricanGangs highlighting people who have migrated here from South Sudan or other parts of Africa and have excelled as professionals, entrepreneurs and sports people.

Maker Mayek, a legal practitioner who initiated the hashtag, told AlJazeera that the community has received lots of support. “We knew and we suspected all along that Australians do not endorse these sensational headlines by politicians — particularly Liberal Party politicians — aimed at political point scoring,” he said.

Another popular social media campaign has people calling irritated staff in home affairs minister Peter Dutton’s office or tagging him with the hashtag #Melbournebitesback to let him know they were not, as Dutton claimed, “too scared to go out to a restaurant for dinner”.

If a significant portion of the wider community can band together in public displays of solidarity alongside our African Australian brothers and sisters the current right-wing fear campaign can be exposed as the vile and dangerous incitement of racist hatred that it is.

The Liberals don’t care if their racism puts people in danger and energises fascists. They will only care (and back off) if their cynical fear campaign backfires.

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