Standing up and Speaking Out on a Broken System
19 November 2018 at 8:52 am
Anthony Kelly is executive officer of the Police Accountability Project – an initiative run out of the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre – which provides legal aid to the vulnerable, and works to overhaul a broken system of policing. He is this week’s Changemaker.
In Melbourne’s inner western suburbs – home to a large migrant population – police are two and a half times more likely to stop a person of African descent than a white person, even if they are simply walking home with a group of friends.
As a young activist, Kelly was arrested many times for civil disobedience, but quickly came to realise how differently people of colour were handled and treated by police, often accosted for walking in groups, or playing basketball with friends.
From witnessing police brutality overseas, to hearing stories of young men thrown to the ground without warning by police, and abused in custody, Kelly realised there was not only a systemic problem within the police force that allowed such abuses of power to occur, but a racist rhetoric touted by media and politicians, turning migrant communities into scapegoats for all societal problems.
In this week’s Changemaker, Kelly discusses the difficulty of flipping stereotypes, overhauling entire systems and the strength and resistance of Australia’s social movement.
What first sparked your interest in the community legal sector?
As a young activist, I was arrested multiple times at protest events, for civil disobedience. So my first contact with the sector was because I was seeking and organising legal support for activists in various peace, environmental and human rights campaigns I was part of. I worked for a number of years with the Peace Brigades International’s Indonesia Project, and I spent many years training activists in human rights protection in war zones, civil disobedience and strategic nonviolence, so all of these things tied together well for my current role. I’ve had a range of different jobs in community legal centres across Melbourne, which led me to where I am now.
In Indonesia I worked with people who’ve survived torture and been imprisoned for long periods of time and I’ve met many young people who’ve been assaulted by police or stopped and searched because of the colour of their skin. We hear these stories so much from the inner west, but also throughout Melbourne, so there’s no shortage of stories, which made me realise this is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.
Are there any stories that stand out to you?
Daniel Haile-Michael was one of our clients in the last racial discrimination case which we brought to the police. He talked about being hit to the ground, suddenly and without warning when he was arrested in Flemington, and then abused in custody. That was pretty horrific.
How does hearing these experiences compare to your experiences, as a white person, of being arrested?
It really highlighted how police police different communities so contrastingly. The impacts of discriminatory policing creates isolation and exclusion, and undermines a person’s sense of belonging very effectively, because it’s people in a uniform with a badge who are essentially representatives of the Victorian government. If they are telling people to go back to Africa, it’s sending a very clear message, to young people and undermines everything else that the government does to support multiculturalism, and create social cohesion.
The issue of racial profiling in Australia seems to have gotten bigger over the last few years, but do you think it’s always been a problem?
I think there’s a long history of the way the police have handled Indigenous communities. Their role in settlement was quite clear and the policing in those early years had high levels of violence, and killings. There was also a very racially divided justice system, and a lot of that institutional endemic discrimination filtered through into policing in subsequent decades and beyond. We are now seeing this in recent news with African and migrant communities, where police are acting as an internal border force. Many of our clients experience policing that essentially told them to go back to Africa, and some police officers have actually used those words.
How does hearing things like that make people feel about their place in the community?
It definitely undermines their sense of belonging, and has a huge range of social impacts. It also changes the way people move about… young people talk about not being able to walk in groups when going to the CBD at times. We’ve been tracking a rise of racist abuse that people experience and some of that comes from policing. There was a case we heard about where two young men were going to study in the library and it was a day after a school yard brawl in an outer western suburb of Melbourne. These boys had nothing to do with that brawl, but were aggressively removed from the library. They simply opened up their laptops and police pounced on them and asked them to leave. The only association was the colour of their skin.
Has the media coverage added to the problem?
It’s definitely a spectrum of media. It’s very easy for all sorts of media to focus on aspects of newly arrived communities that seemingly create causal explanations. The drivers for any sort of criminal behaviour is across all groups of people, and I don’t believe it has anything to do with ethnicity or race. It’s to do with engagement, and economic status, employment, drugs and alcohol and a whole range of things. But race is increasingly being used as a convenient explanatory or causal tag if you like by journalists and media who should know better.
Some media are definitely developing using race as a way to develop a narrative. Other media falls into that by analysing impacts, and then of course media reporting on what commentators then say about it, or what community representatives say about it. It’s very easy to racialise crime simply by who is selected as spokespeople. So if African community leaders are continually made to explain an instance of crime, that becomes a way of racialising an incident. They might not have any experience in youth crime or policing, but they are called upon to explain situations by media because they are of the same ethnicity which is frustrating.
There’s a push from government leaders at the moment to be tough on crime, is that influencing the way police act?
The rhetoric is placing an enormous amount of pressure on police and on policing. We see that internally, via the police association putting pressure on command but also by the media and politicians. Police have admitted as much, that they need to be seen to be doing something. One of those myths, propagated by the tabloid media that there is no arrest policy, which is a total myth, but they’re using that as part of the pressure to make them do more.
What is the Police Accountability Project main areas of focus at the moment?
As part of our race discrimination and profiling work, we’re calling on police to take responsibility for racial profiling. They need to measure that accurately by recording their stop and search data.This will tell us where and when police interventions are occurring, and then work to reduce it. We are seeing in the UK, because data is being monitored, stops are going down. Also in the US, in New York we’re seeing stop and search going down and the disproportionate rate between different ethnicity groups going down.
The other big thing we are working on is independent investigations of police complaints and critical incidents, and that’s something that we’re getting very close to seeing happen.
What are the problems you see at the moment with police investigations?
The vast majority of police incidents are investigated by other police rather than an independent body like in many other countries. In September, a joint parliamentary committee recommended a well resourced police corruption and misconduct division be established within IBAC [Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission], and we fully support that being developed and that would mean trained investigators would investigate serious complaints against police quickly and effectively, and that leads to quite significant operational changes that are more in line with community expectations.
In America, implicit bias and racial stereotypes mean the public are more likely to report behaviour when it’s a person of colour, is this happening in Australia too?
All of us have a bias, for many people especially in the middle of a racialised crime panic, as we are in now because of various influences, we will be quicker to assume criminality and call the police. I was in a police station in an inner suburb of Melbourne recently, and I was talking to the desk sergeant and a middle aged white man came in and reported there were three black youths walking through a shopping centre. The sergeant asked what they were doing, and the man said they weren’t doing anything yet, but that they looked suspicious, and thought they should send a car around to check it out.
So he had noticed three young black men doing nothing walking through a shopping centre, and felt the need to visit a police station to report it. That’s a lot of effort to go to. The police may or may not be obligated to respond to that, but it gives you an idea of how common it is.
Fixing the police is one thing, but do you feel overwhelmed that you’re battling with racial bias in everyday people too?
For one thing it makes me realise it’s not just law reform, or systemic change or legal outcomes that are important, but cultural changes are also critical. It’s not just cultural change within Victoria Police, but cultural change in a wider sense, within the Australian community that we have to confront racism on so many different levels. Its from the strategic racism of politicians, and the white nationalists to the deeply held stereotypes and bias that are so common, to institutional racism within large organisations such as Victoria Police. It’s on so many different levels… I’m not sure if overwhelming is the right word, but it’s certainly something that we’ve long recognised, and there needs to be systemic and legislative change.
The tough on crime statement at the centre of political platforms going into the Victorian state election, how will this affect migrant communities?
The rhetoric on crime has already led to to criminal justice policies which are incredibly detrimental to everyone. Every investment we put into imprisonment, we’re taking money away from schools, education from community and family support, which are far more effective in the long term. Already the racialised crime panic has distorted not only the public’s view of their own safety, but it’s distorted the policy landscape, and to base policies on perceptions and fears from tabloid media is enormously detrimental. So it means that downstream, we have more prisons, instead of homework clubs or school engagement systems and youth workers and parenting support, mental health programs, drug and alcohol support programs… all of those are lessened and reduced when we build more prisons, to put more people in them.
Every government falls into the trap of punitive law and order responses because they’re electorally enticing, so whichever party is elected in, we’re already heading down the track of high levels of imprisonment and the consequences of that.
Are there any positive stories you come across that make you feel like there is hope for the future?
It’s interesting because Victoria Police command are actually quite good at pushing back against the media narrative. Local commanders were really angry with tabloid photographers and press for escalating issues, generalising and for making it about race. That reflects a high level of awareness from police command about these issues. And also when you say institutional racism, that doesn’t imply that all police are racist, it implies that there are issues within the organisation that need to be responded to, like everywhere.
Over the last few years, there’s been a movement grow and that’s pushing back against this racialised crime narrative, and so many different organisations and agencies and groups are now speaking out really strongly against criminalisation and against the use of fear and division to garner votes. There’s a lot more united and assertive push back than I’ve certainly noticed for a long time.
Do you think putting forward positive migrant stories is a good way to change attitudes?
My issue with this idea is that these stories are often associated with crime reporting. It sets up a “good migrant, bad migrant” dynamic, and that not all immigrants commit crime. In actual fact, newly arrived communities and immigrants are under represented in crime statistics. You shouldn’t have to be a success in order to be a valued member of society. You shouldn’t rely on people from these communities becoming famous football players to not experience racism.
I’d like to focus on the issues mainstream society are presenting. The problem is not with the newly arrived community. The problem is with what us as a larger society and our major institutions are doing who socially excluding or demonising migrants, or anyone in the community who is deemed to be different, and how do we change that. That’s what I’m interested in.
If you could change one thing what would it be?
I guess one thing would be a ban on politicians and political candidates basing their policies on tabloid crime reporting.
Are you proud to be Australian at the moment?
I try to not see things through a nationalist lense… I’m happy with parts of our society, but I don’t know if pride is the right word. I’m proud of the way Australian social movements are always growing and holding a line and if Australia’s acknowledged those people movements more readily. At the moment we have the political elite, who have a certain view of Australia and who it belongs to, and that’s very problematic for a whole range of reasons. I think if the people’s history of Australia – which is Indigenous Australia, and the history of social movements – was embraced more readily, I think we’d have a better society and a better Australia.