The first week of the new year in Australia has been dominated by the issue of so-called African gangs.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Sydneysider (as residents of the city of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales, are called), kicked off a furore when he accused the government of Victoria state government of not addressing gang violence by African youths in the state's capital, Melbourne.
He was supported by the Immigration and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, from the state of Queensland, who claimed that Melburnians are scared to go to restaurants because of rising street crimes.
Both Turnbull and Dutton are members of the Liberal Party, while the Victoria state government is run by the Labor Party. The statements come ten months before elections in Victoria and at a time of rising nationalism across the country.
Allegations of fear-mongering and racism soon followed their remarks. Others, however, thought the prime minister was simply speaking plainly about an actual problem of crime.
Are African youth ‘gangs’ a real issue in Victoria?
The issue had first arisen in 2016 over the controversial Apex gang, which police declared a “non-entity” by April 2017. Later in the year, a string of recent crimes, from vandalism and assault, jumped into the national spotlight. The incidents were blamed on groups of African youths.
This perceived wave of “gang” violence fits with some people's perceptions:
Unbelievable how many people on here are trying to say that African youth gangs aren't a problem in Melbourne. My mother in law lives in the western suburbs and believe me, they're a huge problem.
— Jon (@Melbourne_Red) January 3, 2018
However, many disputed whether there are gangs as such. Pieces of the Puzzled @chris8875 claims to be from one of the hot spot suburbs:
Tarneit? I live, we live, in Tarneit. African “gangs”? Absolute hokum. Small numbers of bad eggs … Yes, but what group doesn't have that?
— Pieces of the Puzzled (@chris8875) January 3, 2018
The Victoria-based Police Accountability Project was one of those who questioned if a spate of street crime among African young people was truly happening, arguing that “coverage of ethnicity is selective”:
[…] for crimes involving caucasian people, the suspect’s ethnic background is not relevant to mention, but for the same crimes involving people of African background, we hear conjecture and discussion about the backgrounds, culture, community, and the ethnicity of those involved.
It also cited data that challenged the notion of an African youth crime crisis:
[…] Victoria does not have a youth crime wave – ethnic or not. […] Youth crime rates in Victoria have been slowly declining for more than a decade. Crime Statistics Agency research has shown that most youth crimes are by a small proportion of repeat offenders. Despite this, there’s been a jump in aggravated burglaries and some violent crime types that has got everyone’s attention.
[…] Evidence showed that migrant youth and newly arrived migrants are not involved in criminal activity with less than 10 per cent being overseas born offenders. The second-highest country, after Australia, of alleged offenders in Victoria is New Zealand (2.8 per cent of the total offenders), followed by Indian (1.5 per cent), Vietnamese and Sudanese (both 1.4 per cent).
Victorian Crime Statistics Agency clearly show that the vast majority of offenders in Victoria are Australian born and older than 25.
The ‘gang’ narrative
The Victorian government and police appeared to falter in their handling of the issue, at first denying the existence of gangs then explaining how they were dealing with them.
In a press conference, Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton contradicted what his deputy had asserted days earlier and said the “young thugs” in question weren't organised, but are “behaving like street gangs, so let's call them that — that's what they are”:
We have for a significant period of time said that there is an issue with overrepresentation by African youth in serious and violent offending as well as public disorder issues.
Footballer and community activist Nelly Yoa has been very public in arguing that “enough is enough”. In the interview below, he told SkyNews:
There is a gang. We have a problem. Let’s solve it. […] As Melburnians, we are sick and tired of having to live in fear for the last two years.
Nelly came to Australia as a refugee from South Sudan in 2003. Much of the debate has centred on youths of South Sudanese background.
.@NYoa88: We have a gang problem, let's solve it… Melburnians are ‘sick and tired of having to live in fear.’ MORE: https://t.co/vS5BXF0Kwh pic.twitter.com/ZOBTXU82bI
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) January 2, 2018
One South Sudanese community leader, Richard Deng, however, took issue with the “gang” characterization. Speaking with ABC news, he pointed out that the youth in question are Australian of African descent, not African.
He also argued that the “tiny number” involved are not members of a gang, but simply disengaged youth; the solution, he said, is reengaging them with employment and school, not further isolating them by labeling them.
Accusations of partisan politics and ‘dog-whistling’
Some commenters have taken the prime minister to task for opportunism, suggesting he is playing partisan politics in a Victorian state election year with his claims of an African gang crisis. The election is due in late November.
Sydney-based writer Osaman Faruqi maintained in an article on local news site Junkee that:
[…] if there’s one thing conservatives love doing in an election year it’s breaking the emergency glass and pushing the giant red button labelled “race”.
[…] The insidious thing about this kind of craven political campaigning is that the details and facts don’t matter. The conservatives think that as soon as the topic shifts to law and order, as opposed to things like health and education policy, they win.
Additionally, Turnbull and the politicians who have supported him have been accused of dog-whistling, with appeals to anti-immigration sentiments and racism. Wikipedia defines dog-whistling as “coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.”
John Wren presented a list of possibilities on Twitter:
Today @PeterDutton_MP said Melbournians are too scared of African gangs to go to restaurants. Is he;
c) a racist;
d) projecting his own irrational fears;
e) an idiot;
f) all of the above#auspol
— John Wren (@JohnWren1950) January 3, 2018
‘Media and reactive politics at its worst’
Social media has been dominated by humourous responses to perceived “fear-mongering”. Twitter hashtag #MelbourneBitesBack and “Peter Dutton” trended strongly throughout the week, even against the Sydney Ashes cricket test against England.
Activist group GetUp! joined the throng with this suggestion:
Melburnians – if you head out to a restaurant tonight, why not send @PeterDutton_MP a pic of your dinner? Let's show him we're not affected by his brand of fear-mongering.https://t.co/WMkwjAyfgQ
— GetUp! (@GetUp) January 3, 2018
Plenty of Twitter users were on the same track:
Hey @PeterDutton_MP I went out last night in beautiful Melbourne. Here's a quick photo of a packed restaurant. We don't have a gang violence problem & no one is afraid to go out for dinner. Please stop your politicised fearmongering and take your racism elsewhere. #auspol pic.twitter.com/FwWyBUghT7
— rosie scroggie (@rosieanice) January 4, 2018
As someone who eats in restaurants all the time because she can't actually cook, I'm more afraid of running into @PeterDutton_MP at a restaurant and losing all my stomach contents as a result.
— Celeste Liddle (@Utopiana) January 3, 2018
Chris Graham, editor of independent media outlet New Matilda, chipped in with “18 Of The Best Melbourne Eateries Where Gangs Of African Youths Probably Won’t Kill You” with his characteristic sarcasm:
African Youth Crime Gangs are out of control in Melbourne. People are being slaughtered. And then eaten alive, after they’ve been slaughtered. And then re-animated and slaughtered again. It’s that bad.
[…] New Matilda hit Melbourne town to find out the best places to eat where you won’t get stabbed or maimed or killed. Turns out the safest place to eat, amidst the chaos and panic, is at an African restaurant.
But not everyone agreed with this approach:
How pretentious, ignorant and naive of (eastern suburbs?!) #MelbourneBitesBack intelligentsia to flagrantly disregard the experience of ppl in the western suburbs. “Bite back” by helping the ‘African’ community address a real issue affecting them – and others https://t.co/Py6PhUSP6D
— Sally Davis (@DavisConcept) January 6, 2018
Journalist Jonathan Green, who likes to straddle old and new media, was highly critical of some of his colleagues:
The gang story is media and reactive politics at its worst: reducing complex social, economic, identity, justice, inequality and inclusion issues to a cynical play designed purely to provoke fear and political advantage. It’s a grotesque exercise. It betrays all of us.
— Jonathan Green (@GreenJ) January 5, 2018
However, football writer Michael Sapro’s reply confirms that it is an issue that won’t be going away soon.
Hos would you feel if you'd been beaten up and robbed by one of these gangs, only for someone like yourself to lie and pretend it didn't happen? The cops are looking for these thugs. Don't make their job any more difficult.
— Michael Safro (@safrossydney) January 6, 2018
The Victorian opposition has called for a recall of state parliament to debate the street crime issue.