African gangs scare campaign: there must be an election coming

A rally against the criminalisation of the African community, in Melbourne on February 5.

It has started again.

This week’s statement by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that there is “genuine concern about Sudanese gangs” suggests we have reached the epitome of this ongoing scare campaign. Offering the same rhetoric the Victorian Liberals have has been drumming out for the best part of the past two years, Turnbull unashamedly entered the fray.

Earlier this year, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton claimed that Melburnians were “afraid to go out to restaurants” due to concerns about such gangs. Just last month, Liberals were also seen handing out leaflets at Noble Park railway station in the marginal Keysborough district, highlighting the threat that “gangs hunting in packs” pose.

With Victorians becoming increasingly accustomed to this standard refrain, one has to wonder where this all came from.

The current wave of concern about gang crime emerged in the aftermath of the Moomba Festival in March last year when about a dozen youths caused disturbances at the annual event and were met by police with capsicum spray.

With the next state election at the front of their minds, both the Labor government and the Coalition opposition scrambled to portray themselves as tougher on crime. Recognising the potential for a hard-line law-and-order strategy to appease the population, policy announcement after policy announcement determined the trajectory of the November poll.

Thus the battle lines for the election were drawn. In one corner, the Liberals have promised to deploy police in shopping centres and “high-risk” schools, institute stringent mandatory sentencing and “bust up gangs”.

In the other corner, Labor has already put children in adult prisons, reversed the onus of proof in attaining bail, handed out military-grade weapons to police and, most recently, proposed legislation to ban teenagers as young as 14 from associating with others.

This degree of bipartisanship is truly terrifying.

But worse is the degree of racism attached to such a “crisis”. Sensationalised fear and a cheap target make for the perfect scare campaign, which is exactly what has been done with the African community.

Sudanese youth, in particular, have been singled out for such scapegoating. But they were not the first. Australia has a long history of such targeting — from “Asian gangs” to “Lebanese violence”.

The media’s role in facilitating the situation cannot be understated either. Coverage of what has been drummed up to amount to a crisis has confirmed the faults inherent in commercial media.

Bound only by profit, outlets such as Channel 7 and the Herald Sun continue to spew right-wing, fearmongering headlines, believing they will attract greater audience numbers and readership.

This culminated in a racist piece aired on Sunday Night, which degraded Channel 7’s already low journalistic standards.

Signals that these racist claims about a crime crisis have gone too far are becoming more apparent. Politicians, 3AW commentators and Channel 7 presenters have crossed the line. Dutton’s latest opportunistic claims that the shocking murder of a young Sudanese woman from Pakenham is due to a “major law and order problem in Victoria” have rightly been rebuked.

The Project host Waleed Aly has pointed out statistics from the Crime Statistics Agency that reveal crime has dropped by 8.8% this year. It is a further confirmation that Melbourne continues to be one of the safest cities in the world.

Aly was right on many fronts but did not explain why the parties involved in this racist dog-whistling are so adamant in focusing on this issue.

Crime is a class issue. If you are disadvantaged, poor and non-white you are far more likely to end up in prison. A quarter of all prisoners come from 2% of the state’s postcodes. That 40% of those incarcerated are either from an Aboriginal, Pacific Islander or African background is a damning indictment of our failed criminal justice system.

Let’s not kid ourselves — while no crime crisis exists, communities are hurting. Public housing is being sold off to developers as waiting lists skyrocket; the transport system is unreliable, privatised and car dependant; wage growth is stagnant; and high youth unemployment is attributable to chronic underinvestment in outer suburbs.

When these factors are combined, it is not surprising to see why increasingly disengaged youth are dropping out of the system. Instead of presenting solutions to these systemic issues, those in power, pre-occupied with the profits of the few, highlight this blown-up crisis instead.

That is what this entire episode is ultimately about. It is a racist distraction, meant to take focus away from the causes of real problems within society. It pits working-class people against one another under the false guise of an ethnicity-based crime problem that exploits the poor economic situation and diminishes consciousness of the real enemy — the corporate elite.

This game is a dangerous one, which threatens the lives of many. It is depressing to think that capitalism offers crime as the only possible life aspiration for many.

We can and we must do better.

[Leo Crnogorcevic is a Year 11 student and a member of Socialist Alliance and Victorian Socialists.]