The Recent Obsession With “African Gangs” Betrays A Sad Reality About Australian Politics

"African youth gangs" all over the news? It must be an election year.

african gangs

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Footy, kangaroos, meat pies and shameless displays of racist fear mongering in an election year — ah, the quintessential Aussie experience.

Over the past week the Australian media has been losing it over a supposed gang crime wave orchestrated by “African youth”. The Herald Sun has been running front page story after front page story calling on the state Labor government to take stronger action against “out-of-control African teens” and The Age has called for a “whole of government response” to “African gangs”.

While the media has whipped itself, politicians on all sides, and no doubt a decent chunk of the public, up into a frenzy the Victorian Police have actually been begging everyone to stop using the term “gang” because it doesn’t accurately represent the nature of the problem, and could actually make things worse.

To get to the crux of what’s really going on here it’s important to understand two things. Firstly, Victoria is having a state election later this year, and secondly, 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”.

Is There Really An African Youth Gang Problem In Melbourne?

Before we get into the politics of the situation, it’s worth taking a sober look at the crime stats to see if we can figure out what everyone is getting worked up about.

Over in The Guardian, Calla Wahlquist has pointed out that the overall crime rate has dropped in Victoria in the past 12 months, as has the proportion of crimes being committed by people under the age of 25. So on first glance, there’s not much evidence to suggest any kind of youth gang crisis.

Sudanese Australians, who are the cohort the media is generally referring to when they talk about “Africans” in this context, make up about 1.5 percent of Victorian criminal offenders. While that technically means that community is overrepresented in crime figures (they make up 0.1 percent of the population), again the raw numbers don’t seem to align with the intense media and political response to the so-called crisis.

There are a bunch of factors that help explain the overrepresentation of Sudanese Australians in the criminal justice system, including poverty and a lack of job and education opportunities, but the number of offences being committed doesn’t explain all the attention the issue is receiving.

The current flare up is reminiscent of the Apex gang stories throughout 2016 and 2017. According to the media, in particular the Herald Sun, the alleged gang was made up of young Sudanese men and responsible for a raft of brawls, riots and petty crimes across Melbourne.

The Herald Sun continued to report on gang last year even though police said back in April the group was a “non-entity” and was never predominately made up of people with African backgrounds.

So we’ve got a pretty well-established pattern where sections of the media are willing to ignore crime stats as well as the police in order to construct a narrative about alleged migrant crime. All that’s missing are a few politicians willing to escalate racial tension in order to snare a few extra votes. Thankfully, since this is Australia, we didn’t have to wait long.

What’s An Australian Election Without A Hefty Dose Of Racism?

Back in the mid-1990s former Prime Minister John Howard was regularly accused of “dog whistling”. It’s a political metaphor used to describe policies and rhetoric that use coded language to tap into the anxieties and fears of a particular subset of voters. Howard deployed these kinds of tactics regularly, especially on issues of race and immigration.

The thing about dog whistling is that you aren’t supposed to say “I think black people are criminals and we should jail them all”. That kind of gives the game away. Instead you talk about stuff like the need for “strong borders to protect Australia’s integrity”. Sounds more reasonable, but you’re basically saying “Fuck off, we’re full”.

On New Year’s Day the federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, said that “African gang crime” was “out of control” and blamed Premier Daniel Andrews. Now that’s less a dog whistle and like that enormous speaker from Back to the Future Marty blows up at the beginning of the film.

Sure enough, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull followed suit and similarly blamed the apparent rise in gang crime on the Victorian government. The federal government even threw its support behind the Victorian opposition’s plan for tougher sentencing laws, just in case you weren’t clear enough that this extremely obvious intervention was about damaging the state Labor government in an election year.

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. When both sides start talking about getting “tough on crime”, the thinking is that voters will drift towards the Liberals, because they trust them to be “tougher” more than they trust Labor. The trick for Labor is try and avoid fighting on this confected law and order turf in the first place.

Unfortunately, it looks like they’ve fallen into the trap. Labor’s federal deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, accused Hunt and Turnbull of being all talk and no action, and slammed them for cutting funding to the Australian Federal Police.

Victorian Labor MPs have also been anonymously backgrounding the Herald Sun, criticising Andrews for not getting “on top” of the issue earlier.

So far it appears that the Liberal’s gambit has paid off. The biggest debate in the country is about an ‘African gang crime crisis’ that even the police say doesn’t exist, and they’ve managed to get at least some in the Labor party to dance to their tune.

But of course it was going to pay off. It always does. Politicians love using immigrants and Indigenous Australians as punching bags when they’re desperate for votes. Look at Abbott’s embrace of ‘”stop the boats” in 2013, or the NT intervention in 2007. Ripping into minorities to try and win elections is part and parcel of our political DNA.

This Is Not Actually About Stopping Crime

One of the common straw man arguments used by conservatives in this discussion is to accuse people who aren’t buying into the narrative of an African gang crime wave of “burying their heads in the sand”. The left, they argue, is so desperate to be “politically correct” they won’t even condemn crime.

But this isn’t about denying the existence of crime. It’s about injecting reality in the discussion, and questioning whether a particular community deserves to be demonised for base political reasons, just because a small proportion of that group have been found guilty of committing crimes.

If you’re still not convinced this is about race, let’s take a look at the nature of the crimes committed by the so-called gangs.

In the past month young Sudanese Australians have been accused of trashing an AirBnB property, assaulting a police officer and taking part in a street brawl. These incidents are essentially the genesis for the current crop of “gang crisis” stories flooding the news. Questioning whether these incidents deserve the the focus of the national media and federal representatives of both major political parties isn’t the same as saying “no crimes have been committed”, as conservatives try to argue.

Compare the response to these alleged crimes to the way the media covered the huge beach brawl in Sydney on Christmas Day. Three thousand people, predominantly backpackers, gathered on Little Bay beach, broke the law by drinking in an alcohol free zone and scuffled with police who were attempting to break up the party.

Two people were later charged after assaulting police officers and throwing bottles at them. It took the police nearly three hours to clear the area.

The media referred to the largely English backpackers as “Christmas revellers” (if their skin was a different colour I imagine we would have called them “rioters”), no state or federal politicians felt the need to respond, despite the fact thousands of immigrants had broken the law and two police officers had been assaulted, and the story disappeared after one day.

A sustained media and political campaign against the backpackers would have been absurd and ultimately useless, even if the differing reactions point to a hypocrisy in the way Australia talks about crime. But what are the potential consequences of the current campaign against alleged gang crime in Melbourne?

The Victorian opposition, with the support of the federal government, is calling for harsher sentences, stricter bail conditions and more police resources. Hopefully Labor will resist the pressure to take a ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ approach, and acknowledge that investing in education, employment and poverty reduction is a smarter solution to reducing crime than jailing kids.

After all, surely the only thing worse than desperately flicking the switch to “we’re tough on crime” in response to a gang crisis is doing it in response to a gang crisis that doesn’t exist.