Last Thursday, the Herald Sun led page five with a story based on an interview with a policeman about charges being dropped over a “riot”, involving an “out of control mob” at the public housing high rise in Flemington last November.

“Cops ask, was race a factor?” said the headline, with the strong implication being that an excess of political correctness caused the charges to be dropped, given that the accused were black Africans. Then Andrew Bolt swung into action along the same lines.

Now this really pisses me off. I live in Flemington, within ear shot of where this supposed “riot” took place last November.

I know a fair bit about the incident. Together with photographer John Wright, I spent a couple of weeks meeting and interviewing all parties — cops, African youths and other witnesses. The result was this article and photo essay published in Griffith Review last May.

Suffice to say there was no “riot” and no “out of control mob”. Had the charges been pursued, the result would have been, at best, embarrassing for the police.

This is what happened on that night almost a year ago. Somebody threw a rock at a police car. The cops thought they saw the suspects run into the public housing estate, and gave chase. There they saw an African man entering the flats, and they stopped him.

There are conflicting stories about how he responded — who swore at whom — but it is common ground that the police ended up seizing this man, pushing him to the ground and handcuffing him.

The problem was, they had the wrong bloke. He had just arrived home from his job as an apprentice chef, and his boss, who had dropped him off, was still sitting in the car watching all this occur, and was able to vouch for him on the spot.

Meanwhile three boys who had been watching all this from the play equipment nearby had run toward the incident, and had also been jumped on by police. It was a hot night, and people were still awake with their windows open. The noise brought dozens of people — mothers, fathers and children — out of the flats.

The police felt threatened, and issued a distress call. More police rushed to the scene.

Here is how an African woman who witnessed the scene described it me, speaking through an interpreter:

She saw a police car and a boy with a backpack. The police called the boy over — she didn’t hear the words, but he seemed to be protesting. Then there were two police cars, and the police were out of the car and grabbing the boy, who had begun to go up the stairs into the flats. They threw him from the stairs onto the ground, pushed him on to the floor and (she breaks momentarily into English) “stepped on him”. She and her friend began to yell. We were saying “Why are you doing this. What do you want with him?” The police told her to shut up. “My head was spinning. I was screaming and crying.”

Then she makes a gesture — a hand whooshing over her head. She is describing how suddenly there were many police. What she says translates as “they flowed over us”. And three “little boys” who had been on the play equipment were being pushed to the ground and squirted with capsicum spray. A policewoman threatened her and her friend with the spray. She said, ‘go away, you are not helping your people. Go away. Or you will be in trouble’. Her friend’s robes were wet with capsicum spray. And now other people had come down and were yelling and the boys’ mothers were crying. The police were yelling “and we were saying, please talk to us, tell us why you are doing this”.

None of this crowd of worried and frightened parents and onlookers attacked police. Nobody, including the police, claim that they did. They were not a mob and they did not riot.

This woman, and many other respected members of the African community at the flats who witnessed parts of the incident, as well as the boss of the apprentice chef, were prepared to give evidence if the charges against the young men had gone to court.

Policing in Flemington is not a simple matter. The police have done a lot to try and build good relationships on the estate. The African community is working hard at making its way, but everyone agrees that not all the young men are angels.

But on this occasion the simple fact is that the whole incident would not have occurred had the police not accosted the wrong man. There is no doubt in my mind that everybody’s best interests have been served by the dropping of charges.

It hardly helps things in my suburb when respected members of the African community see themselves being repeatedly described as a “mob” that turned on police.

The Herald Sun and Bolt did not take the trouble to contact the young men themselves, or their legal representatives, or any members of the African community on the estate.

The staggering thing is that the African community still manages to hope for fair treatment by the media.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey