Wednesday, June 10, 2009

#129: Gangs in the Street

I had a recent discussion with a colleague about the thorny issue of African Gangs. We’d get complaints about African Gangs on a weekly basis, especially in large flat groups. We’d have people from all works of life whinging about the Gangs, from little old ladies through to young males, and all demanding that something be done. When nothing was done, for good reason, the complaints would escalate into Ministerial complaints, for all the good it’d do. We’d advise that the complainants contact the police, again, for all the good it’d do, because the police knew exactly what we did and would deal with the complainants appropriately. So what did we all know?

African Gangs, in this state, simply do not exist and now that I've made that statement I'm going to explain why. The reality is that there are not enough Africans in the state, certainly not enough in the city central and suburbs to be that organised. The perception is that gangs do exist and that those gangs are organised and running rampant over everyone, including bikie gangs, which, as we’re told, the Africans are clearly basing themselves on. I doubt it highly.

First off there’s no such thing as real organised crime in the truest sense of the word. I used to know a guy in Melbourne who clearly knew these things. I always remember once, as he was being arrested for being part of an organised crime gang, he turned to the arresting officer and stated, “Mate, what drugs are you on? There’s not been any organised crime since Al Capone and Squizzy Taylor died.” Part of me knew he was wrong, but part of me also knew he was right. The concept of organised crime means that there’s a central person who controls all the crime that happens in the city or area in question. Capone was able to effectively shut down Chicago by using such weapons as fear and intimidation, along with more subtle methods as bribery and blackmail. Nothing happened in that city during his reign without his knowledge, even criminals such as Dillinger had to clear his presence with Capone and his offsider, and eventual replacement, Frank Nitti or be forced to leave. Such was the power. Capone had his enemies, but none lived that long or they merely shifted base and controlled their own areas. I doubt very highly that there’s any such ‘Mr Big’ running this city, or any other city these days. There’d be plenty of ‘Little Mr Big’ or ‘Mr Not So Large In Stature’, but those are very small fry indeed. Once you’re caught and named your power erodes a lot. Notoriety does not always equate power, and anyone who says otherwise just hasn’t got a clear idea on how the hierarchy of crime works. There’s more guppies in the ocean than there are sharks in the swimming pool. The real ‘Mr Bigs’ are generally in control of the corporate sector more than living like a pimp and buying large houses and luxury cars whilst having no visible source of income. The more you spend and the less you earn will always mean the more attention you draw to yourself. Low profiles are the key.

So why are there no African Gangs? For all the reasons I’ve outlined and more. The Africans in the state are generally benign at the best of time. Most are the friendliest and wittiest people you’d ever want to meet. But there is an element, as there is in any racial group that causes problems. The main problem is that an African youth killing another in the streets is more newsworthy than an Italian youth stabbing a companion at a bus stop. If you don’t believe me then read the newspapers of last year. The criminal element in the African community draws more attention to themselves by nature of their background and origin. Nothing more, nothing less. There are bad ones, but then go to any prison and see how many bad people are there, and see what the percentages of skin colour and country of origin are represented.

Another problem that surrounds the Africans in this state are where they live. Most are refugees to this country, a status that the last government managed to make a symbol of fear and mistrust. Most come here with very little, if any at all, literacy skills and more than a few cannot speak the language. They’re strangers in a strange land, and I’ve always said, you go and see how you’d live in the Sudan. Good luck. They generally live in their own communities and by virtue of nature, and necessity, they congregate together, as you’d expect. But because they’re a minority, people see these gatherings as gang related activity. To use the punch line of my favourite joke, I’m afraid not.

So why the general perception that there are gangs? To use the simplest analogy, and do forgive me here, to most people Africans all look alike. Guess what? It works both ways. I can recall sitting down having a good laugh with some tenants and I had to ask, “So, do we all look alike to you guys?” They stopped, looked at each other and burst into riotous laughter. “You bet you do man, all you whites look the same.” I couldn’t help but join in the laughter. It was here that I was told one of the secrets as to why some of the African youth act like they do. One is an issue with discipline. From what I’ve been told if a youth carries on and does the wrong thing, or is disrespectful to an elder, then they’ll be beaten with a stick. The bulk of the African bad boys here know full well that they can act like they do and they’ll not face any serious retribution. Capitol punishment, which to me is never an answer, is off the table here so what’s the worst thing that can happen? Jail. And that does happen more often than not, sadly enough. There’s too many people with great potential banged up at the moment who, with the right mentorship and guidance, could easily be a force for good in the community at large. Most of the refugees are fleeing environments that we simply can’t imagine. You may see a movie like Hotel Rawanda, but the reality is that nothing Hollywood has to offer comes close to the horrors that occur in these countries. Here they go to jail where they’re clothed, fed and housed. Compare that with facing a future of torture, beatings, starvation and death and you’ll see that our jails hold no fear at all and rightly so. Compared to the death camps in Zimbabwe, our jails are more like rest homes. Do something wrong here and what? They might take your television away. You might get punched out by another prisoner, not that that happens as much as the TV tells you. Do something wrong in the death camps and you’ll soon discover why they’re called death camps.

Isolation and separation from families also play a large part. Africans come to the country with the view of settling down and hopefully bringing out what remains of their family. Most are poorly educated – there’s an expression that goes like this; “Educate an African woman and you educate the world.” That expression comes from an African friend of mine; by the way, it’s not one of my own. Once they’re transplanted here most are left on their own. They can join communities but if their religion or, even worse, affiliations are extreme then the community will find it hard to accept them. Then they’re on their own. Isolation can easily result in a lower self-esteem and that can just as easily lead to crime or falling in with the wrong crowd with the hopes of being accepted. There’s not a lot that a person can do about isolation, but acceptance and understanding is always a good place to start.

The final part of this deals with racism. This is a nation that prides itself on tolerance but really is based, in part, on being racist. Again I blame, to an extent, the former federal government for a lot of this; after all they managed to win a federal election based upon ‘boat people’ and a hatred towards different religions. Witness what happened at Bondi a few years back. Witness what’s happened in placed like Redfern, indeed in places all over the country. The truth is that we are a nation of racists. That’s not to say that everyone is a racist, but, if we’re being honest, there is a racist element buried within us all, no matter what our background and heritage is. In one flat group that we manage virtually all the Africans have been moved on, either evicted or they’ve left on their own. The reasons why are varied, but it didn’t help when a group of illiterate morons decided to go around and place racist signs in the shared lobbies. I say illiterate because, as I explained to one of them, the word they were using actually has two ‘g’s in it. One word is a crude description of the people they were attacking; the word they used might be where those people originally came from. Through threats, intimidation and harassment the small band of racists managed to ruin at least one tenant’s life for good and move on a good number of others. Surrounded by such intolerance I can’t say I’m overly surprised with the actions that went on. People were physically threatened, verbal abuse happened on a daily basis and the general atmosphere was wrong. Mind you the people who complained the most about these things were the same ones who’d been posting messages of hate and racism on a sustained level for months. Typical of all passive-aggressive bullies, they kept baiting and baiting and when the attacks came they were the first to whinge about being hit. There was nothing I could do, or suggest, other than to advise people to stay clear of certain people and just ignore them. Easier said than done. Fear also plays a large part in this. To most Australians the Africans are large, tall and statuesque. They are mysterious; speak an exotic language and look different, thus they have to be feared. Frankly it’s a two ways street – most Africans are just as worried about offending non-Africans as non-Africans are towards them. Communication and cultural understanding will eventually go a long way to eliminating the fear factor.

So, are there any African Gangs here? Unless you count the entire African community as being a gang, a community that includes a lot of professional people who are held in high regard, the short answer is no. There are no African Gangs. There’s simply not enough people out there to make a gang. And if we apply the generally accepted definitions of what makes a gang to African youth, that being young people who spend time in groups of three or more, a group who spends a lot of time in public places, a group that has existed for three months or more, a group that has engaged in criminal or delinquent behaviour in the last 12 months or a group that has a name, an area, a leader, or set of rules makes a gang, then it’s easy to see that if we are to label African youth as being part of a gang, then a simple Friday night gathering at the pub is also a gang, especially if someone has been pulled over for DUI more than once in the past year. So until someone goes and arrests the gang of little old ladies who gather in groups the we should leave any such gathering well alone. After all, you can call yourself NWA or CWA, it’s all the same – a gathering of people all with similar interests, goals and causes.