The habit of referring to the young men
The start of the 2018 has seen a rise in the representations of the Sudanese community in media as a group of “african gangs” because of the involvement of a small section of their community in various crimes around Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria. The media coverage this issue overwhelming. It has also attracted attention of high ranking politicians and government officials like Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the governor of Victoria and so on. So is there an implicit problem with the Sudanese Community in Victoria or has this just been blown out by the media? Is this a problem of forcing yet another community “assimilate” into a specific idea of the Australian way of life? These questions will be explored in this op-ed article.
In other to start answering these questions, there is a need to explore the history of this situation in relation to how the media has covered it. Where it started from and how we got here and how the media, both conservative and liberal, has presented it to the public. Though there has been a surge in articles and representation on this issue recently, it actually started off two years ago when people identifying as members of the “Apex gang”, a gang that has come to stand for the Sudanese-Australian community in Victoria, were involved in a brawl during the Moomba Festival. This was brawl led to an initial flurry of coverage. All news agencies, including the Age, Herald Sun etc, carried it and before long, they had established the habit of referring to the young men in these groups as gang members or “thugs”, a term which has, in the US, been described as a “nominally polite way of using the N-word”1. A columnist by name, Andrew Bolt, wrote in a column that “there seems almost a conspiracy to stop the public knowing that our refugee and immigration policies have become a threat, introducing new levels of violence and gun crime to our cities”. Before long, a lot of far-right forums had picked up on this idea which was not surprising as the idea that refugees are in themselves social poison, and that this is being covered up, is a central claim of the contemporary far right. The far right from this point formed an associative relation among “Apex gang”, “Sudanese-Australian community in Melbourne” and crime.
After everything died out and the Victorian Police had destabilise the so called “gang”, it did not stop the right wing news outlet from continue perpetuating this stereotypical idea of the “Apex gang”. “According to Nexis searches, the Australian edition of the Daily Mail has published the largest number of articles on the “Apex gang”, with 344 in the last five years. But the Herald Sun is close on its heels with 320. Each have run more than four times the number of articles that the Age has run, with a mere 76. The Age only just beat out News Corp’s national daily, the Australian, with the quantity of its coverage”2. So even when there was nothing to write about, the right-wing media still found something to write about, refusing to let this die a natural death and keeping the the public conscious of a threat that is not there. And slowly, the use of the “Apex gang” evolved to be synonymous with “African”. Stories about “African” crime persisted in the face of efforts by police to point out that the story had been blown out of proportion, and the refusal of local residents to say there was a problem.
With recent high profile incidents that has occurred over the last four weeks, this issue has now dominated the news as it did two years ago and there have been various responses from almost everyone to both the actions of these youths and the media representation of them. On the one hand, are the far-right who have held onto their position that these crimes committed in Melbourne over the past few weeks have been perpetuated by the African community in Melbourne and there have been calls from within these groups that these African gangs if caught should be deported if they are not Australian citizens. This group comprises of all the far-right vigilante groups, that refer to themselves as “patriots”, government officials like the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, PM Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Health Greg Hunt. On the other hand, are the people who believe this crimes are committed by groups of misguided youths and have described the situation as a ‘crisis’ and not a case of ‘gang violence’. On this side of the equation are the Victorian state police, the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews and the Sudanese Community Leaders like Richard Deng.
Federal politicians have attacked the Victorian government and judiciary for failing to tackle the issue, despite the Victorian police deputy commissioner Andrew Crisp stating that only a relatively small number of people of African background were being convicted of crimes. Peter Dutton in an interview stated that Victorians are “scared to go out to restaurants” because of “African gang violence”, continuing that Victorians were “bemused” when they look “at the jokes of sentences being handed down” due to “political correctness that’s taken hold” and that “there’s no deterrence towards these african gangs there at the moment”. Though the Victorian deputy police commissioner, Shane Patton, has reassured the public the police are taking youth crime seriously and said that “networked criminal offenders” are not technically “gangs” because they lack any organised structure, Dutton claims that the Victorian government has “wrapped the police force in this politically correct conversation, which he Dutton think they’re trying to break out of and do the right thing, but the state government has been caught flat-footed”3. Even data from Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency shows youth crime has fallen considerably as a proportion of total crime in the past 10 years. People under 25 were responsible for 40% of all incidents in 2015-16, compared with 50% in 2015-20164. And we have to keep in mind that the population of the Sudanese-Australian community makes 0.14% of the population in Victoria. So we have to ask ourselves who is exaggerating this problem?
The far-right vigilante groups that have also sprung in response to these incident have stated that they have come together to help average Australians deal with what they are calling an immigrant crime crisis and are hoping to create a kind of neighbourhood watch. These vigilante groups do not call themselves conservatives or the far-right activist rather refer to themselves as the ‘patriots’. But there is no gang to protect the “average Australian” from as the one of the Sudanese Community Leader, Richard Deng says “…there are no gangs in Victoria”, insisting that these are “just a group of young kids who are going together in a group and they are terrorising people because they are going in a group.” Though clearly stating that they do not support youths who are not law abiding citizens.
This shows that regardless the state police and the Victorian government insisting that these crimes are not gang related, the government officials are bent on tracing a very different narrative. A narrative that portrays the Sudanese-Australian as the enemy of the Australian way of life. Because of this bold statements and narrative traced by top government officials, conservative media who portray these youths as gang feel confident to make these claims as their articles and are supported by government. So the government and conservative media are in a mutually beneficial relationship with regards to issues concerning these minority communities. Far-right group made up of exclusively white Australians calling themselves patriots then see these individuals as unable to assimilate into the “Australian lifestyle” and feel the need to protect “their” way of life.
This is the same white domineering narrative that has been heard time and time again. As the scholar, Ghassan Hage will say, “so long as” or “in as much as” the Sudanese-Australian way of life do not interfere with the Aussies, it is okay to call them Australian citizens and the moment they do anything otherwise, there is huge backlash telling them they are not Australians but in this case Africans/African gangs. One can draw parallels with the narrative drawn around the Arabs especially the Lebanese community in the early 2000s in Bankstown. Where groups of Lebanese youth were referred to as the “Leb gangs” and crimes committed by a very small group of these Lebanese youths was used to demonise the whole community.
It seems the average Australian is pushing on to the Sudanese-Australian community to become like their own model of a minority society, one which rises from its ashes to success. But forget that there are more complex stories surrounding every immigrant neighbourhood and such expectations cannot be placed on any community. This expectations define a boundary around which a successful immigrant, in this case will a Sudanese-Australian, is perceive and requires them to obey and follow their expectation in other to be considered Australian.
One consequences of these narratives in the media and propagated by the nation’s top politicians is an increase in racial tension between the Sudanese-Australian Community and other Australians in Melbourne. We might have Cronulla riots repeat itself again but this time in Melbourne. Also, with the increase pressure on the Premier of Victoria to direct the police to “deter” these African gangs, the state police might result to using force on these youths. Which might lead up to the police brutality like the case of the US. And from the US example, we have seen the outcry at an international level and it has proven difficult for the US police force to retrace it steps back to a more productive relationship with the African American community. Every well meaning citizen of Australia should definitely hope that is not what results from this.
So it is evident that it’s a really small section of the Sudanese-Australian community who are causing the nuisance in Melbourne which has been overblown by both the media and the federal government. What has lead to this very small group creating a name for themselves? Ghassan Hage theorised with the idea that these minority youths, who are usually second generation who refer to themselves as Australians, feel like Australians and do not know any other national identity when denied that identity end up being frustrated. Like being told they were Africans or Sudanese or any other culture they do not identify with. This frustration might lead them lashing out especially when there are models to look up to or any figure to guide them. This might be the case with these small section of the Sudanese-Australian community who have committed these that the whole Sudanese-Australians have to be called out for.
One thing I believe should be done by both these politicians carving out this narrative is to visit the Sudanese-Australian neighbourhood in Melbourne and engage with them. Listen to their story and this I believe will give faces to this community being referred to in the abstract as made of ” African gangs’ by the media and the politicians. This cycle of demonising minority communities in Australia should be approached with a different perspective by the federal government, unless it is the narrative they want to be in circulation.
So does Victoria have a problem with African gangs? No. But if the current narrative in the media and the voice of the country’s government officials doesn’t change, it will be a in a matter of time.