It's not a crime to be young


By Danny Fairfax

There are gangs operating widely in western Sydney. They carry guns, drive expensive cars, communicate with each other by radio, are recognisable by their distinct clothing and make their presence fully felt on the streets. They even receive full government support.

These gangs are not "Lebanese youth". They are the New South Wales Police Service.

At 1:30am on November 1, 16 shots were fired into Lakemba police station in western Sydney. No-one was hurt and there's little evidence of who was responsible. However, NSW Premier Bob Carr was quick to target a "Lebanese gang of drug dealers and car thieves".

Immediately, the mainstream media and the two major parties went into hysterics, expressing more than a tinge of racism against the Lebanese people in Lakemba and nearby Bankstown.

The Daily Telegraph printed a front-page photograph of half a dozen Lebanese younth which portrayed them as a terrorising gang. As one young local said on Triple J radio, "As soon as the shooting occurred, he [Bob Carr] blamed us".

Even before the shooting, Lebanese people had been targeted by police. After the stabbing of Edward Lee on October 17, which has also been blamed on young Lebanese, police swarmed into Bankstown and Lakemba. Rose Markad from the Australian-Arabic Welfare Council said: "It was like a siege. We were blitzed with hundreds of police strip searching people as young as 14."

All this comes on top of the fact that young people are constantly the victims of police intimidation, strip searches and "move along" policies. It's getting so that being young and in a public place is a crime.

Eighty per cent of young people have been harassed by police, and for young Aboriginal people that figure jumps to 95%.

Instances of police stopping young people in the street and strip searching them in public are becoming common and usually occur in areas with a high proportion of Aboriginal and non-Anglo residents. As one young person of Arab descent said on Triple J about the Bankstown blitz, "The cops never target the white kids".

Every current government in Australia is determined to give police even more powers and, more often than not, these powers are directed against youth.

The rantings and ravings of NSW politicians after the shooting in Lakemba launched the state election campaign. Both major parties are gearing up their campaigns — the election is due next March — and it is certain that law and order, police powers and "toughening up on crime" will be among the main issues.

Since his government was elected in 1995, Premier Bob Carr has established one of the toughest law and order regimes in the country. The number of police has been significantly increased and they have been armed with automatic pistols, capsicum spray and extendible batons.

Successive bills passed by the state parliament have restricted civil liberties. Carr has admitted this, stating: "If increased police powers involve some reduction in civil liberties, then so be it."

Various pieces of legislation have given police the power to disperse groups of three or more young people, demand anyone's name and address, and stop and search people without reasonable suspicion.

Laws against possessing knives have given police unrestricted powers to stop and harass young people — powers that are frequently used.

It seems that even this isn't enough, however. Carr said recently: "If police can identify another power they need to protect order and public safety, they will get it." Opposition leader Peter Collins has gone further, calling for police to be even more heavily armed and for the removal of access to bail of those charged with violent crimes.

This scourge is not confined to NSW: governments across Australia are attacking civil rights, especially those of young people.

  • In Western Australia, the Liberal government has moved to allow police to search school bags and lockers without a warrant. This is despite the WA Crown Solicitor's Office advising against it. Last week, WA police arrested hundreds of young people in a blitz against that most heinous of crimes, grafitti.

  • Over the last few years, Victorian police have killed more people than the rest of the police in the country have. They have recently started to target youth groups.

  • In South Australia, the recently elected Olsen Liberal government installed the rabid right-winger Dorothy Kotz as the police minister. She immediately called for, and is preparing bills for, youth curfews, greater police powers and a return to corporal punishment!

  • The Northern Territory's Country Liberal Party government has introduced mandatory sentencing legislation and young people are confined in adult prisons. Other proposals have been a review of the right to silence and a youth curfew enforced with electronic ankle bracelets, even for those without convictions.

All of these reforms target one group in particular: young people. Why is this?

The law and order push is not about combating crime, that's for sure. Before Carr began extending police powers, there had been no increase in assault and robbery in NSW and no increase in youth crime rates either. The only increase was in the politicians' and media's scare campaign about crime and youth gangs.

Such measures do not address the reasons for crime. Rather, they attack the symptoms. As Bernadette O'Reilly from the Youth Justice Council says, increasing police powers "fails to address the complex causes of crime such as homelessness, neglect, boredom and unemployment. It fails to recognise complex social, economic and emotional factors facing young people and the community."

Extending police powers is, however, a safe electoral tactic — there's plenty of votes in manipulating people's fears of "rampaging youth gangs". And, because under 18 year olds are the only group in society which cannot vote, the politicians can kick youth without fear of an electoral backlash.

But more than that, increased police harassment of young people is necessary if the government (and the rich minority that it represents) is to keep control of society. It's no accident that police harassment of young people is greatest in areas which are heavily non-Anglo, such as Bankstown, where youth unemployment is high, where hope for the future is low and where young people's anger with society is enormous. This is the same old repression: keep hitting them so they won't get up and fight back.

As young people we have to get up and we have to get organised to oppose, not only increased police powers, but a whole social system which makes such repression necessary for "preserving order".

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