Crime hysteria threatens youth, civil liberties


By Sean Healy

SYDNEY — The Daily Telegraph runs headlines about "Sydney's streets of fear", with half-page photos of 25 cm knives; Today Tonight runs a two-part "exposé" on a western suburbs youth "gang"; the police union clamours for the power to search anyone, anywhere; and the politicians vow to "get tough" on crime and "gangs" — these are all the ingredients for a traditional law-and-order scare campaign.

The trigger for the campaign was the stabbing death of Senior Constable Peter Forsyth on February 27 in inner-city Ultimo. The official police funeral a week after his death and the saturation media coverage gave it a good kick along.

The dirt had hardly settled on his grave before the Police Association and police commissioner Peter Ryan were demanding increased powers, particularly powers to search people, ostensibly for illegal knives. Opposition leader Peter Collins jumped on the bandwagon and, after some very brief dithering, so too did Labor Premier Bob Carr.

According to Carr, "The basic principle is that the streets belong to law-abiding citizens, not to hooligans who try and intimidate them or commit criminal acts". If increased police powers involve "some reduction in civil liberties, so be it", he added.

No-one should imagine that this is a case of the government going to war with organised crime or even with well-armed US-style street gangs.

The target is youth in general and working-class youth in particular. It's groups of innocent young people who are the "street gangs" in the government's sights.

This is clear from the centre of the hysteria — the main cinema and entertainment strip on George Street in central Sydney, where young people congregate in their thousands. Already, the council is planning to put surveillance cameras in the area, and on the last two weekends there has been saturation police presence.

It's clear from the police commissioner himself. Ryan, in the week after Forsyth's death, remarked, "It's getting to the stage that everyone who police talk to, every young person who police approach, gets aggressive". People in Sydney, particularly youth, were getting "ruder" and "unfriendlier"; they "don't apologise when they bump into you on the street".

The NSW police have even been circulating a questionnaire to householders. Amongst exhortations to dob in your neighbour's dope plants and alongside questions about the local incidence of sexual assault, muggings and car theft, it asks, "Have you been harassed by groups of young people on street corners?".

It's equally clear from looking at the hysterical media campaign. Today Tonight's "youth gang" was a group of a dozen-odd 15- and 16-year-olds involved in nothing more serious than being aggressive and swearing. Hardly the murderous cutthroats you'd imagine.

There is no crime wave in NSW at present, nor is there an increase in gang activity or in assaults by young people on others.

Nor is central Sydney a particularly dangerous place. On any given Friday or Saturday night, 500,000 people venture onto the "streets of fear", with very few incidents of violence — in fact, on March 13, there was a grand total of one arrest in the CBD. There were more arrests on the streets of Newcastle on that night.

The motives for the campaign are worthy of attention.

Police forces all over the country are demanding further powers and always have been. As the situation for many young people looks bleaker and as desperation grows, so too do police demands for increased repressive powers.

Already, NSW police are being issued new Gloch automatic pistols to replace their service revolvers (Glochs fire more shots that the old revolvers). There is discussion of issuing NSW police capsicum spray, which Victorian police already have. Wider search and harassment powers fit this pattern.

The current hysteria comes at a time when police operations and powers have come under focus. The week of Forsyth's funeral, the state coroner concluded an inquiry into the police killing of Roni Levi, shot by on Bondi Beach. The coroner found that two of the constables involved may have a criminal case to answer, and the matter has been referred to the state prosecutor.

The Levi killing was particularly outrageous. Levi was undergoing a psychotic episode and brandishing a knife. However, he was surrounded and contained by five heavily armed police officers, yet police still made the decision to shoot to kill rather than try to disarm him.

But rather than this raising the issue of police training and their proclivity to use lethal force at any excuse, such has been the "crime" hysteria that the coroner's finding became an argument in favour of the police, who now were being victimised.

Beyond a grasping for increased powers is something broader — the step-by-step criminalisation of youth and other "undesirables" in public space. As any young person in Sydney knows, the police already have sufficient "move on" powers to harass any young person they come across, and they frequently use it. Indiscriminate search powers would add to that harassment.

In particular, these powers are used in suburban shopping centres, where mall managements see groups of young people hanging out as a threat to their business and bad for their image. This is now being intensified in the CBD. The George Street entertainment centre has been marked for some time as a "blight" because of the large numbers of young people — and with the Olympics coming soon, the government is keen on "cleaning up" and prettifying the centre of town.

This is what's behind the talk of "rudeness" and the declining quality of life. These were exactly the catchcries of the New York police and New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani and their justification for "zero tolerance" policing, which has led to skyrocketing arrests and police harassment of "undesirables" like the homeless, blacks and youth.

Finally, the current hysteria is another example of the total cynicism of mainstream politics, of both Labor and Liberal varieties. As Carr knows from the last election, pandering to prejudices and beating the law-and-order drum are popular with talkback radio and the tabloids. And if that's at the expense of civil liberties and increased harassment of youth, "so be it".

[Sean Healy is the national coordinator of the socialist youth organisation Resistance.]