“Hey mate hey mate hey maaaaaaaate.” The kid wanted attention. I was coming out of the concrete wall outside St Albans station in the early afternoon.

“Hey maaaaate.” He was anglo, obese, and dressed in Dimmey’s finest. His hoodie was hanging down on his back. Perhaps he couldn’t get it over his neck.

“What do you want kid?”

“Are you a p-dophile?”

“Fuck off.”

“Cos you got a beard.” The three other kids leaning against the wall dissolved in laughter. I was a few metres further on before the kid yelled, more plaintively “got a cigarette?”

This was about two weeks ago. I’d gone to St Albans on Melbourne’s west to get into trouble. Not trouble, really. Just to see how long it took to get bailed up, challenged, by the simple expedient of jumping off at every station on the line.

The west has become a focus of obsession, with spikes, or perceived spikes, in assaults, robberies and general intimidation — as part of the wider flourishing of street violence in Melbourne, something that Victoria’s top cop Simon Overland is blaming on “generation Brat”, whose parents “couldn’t say no to them”. Now, at least Grand Theft Auto isn’t being blamed for violence — the Christmas XBox you play it on is.

As I showed yesterday, Overland’s assertion bears no relation to the facts. Violent crime in the West rose from the mid-60s to the mid-90s, after which it more or less levelled off. But there doesn’t seem much doubt that the streets of Melbourne have got “heavier”, both in the CBD, and around the inner west. Asking why is not the first question. The first question is whether this “violence” is even the one thing.

There’s clearly different things going on.

  1. Intentional intimate violence — i.e. people in the CBD getting pissed and slugging it out with people they’re hanging around with.
  2. Anonymous occasional violence — people getting p-ssed and slugging a stranger for the hell of it, or because they couldn’t get laid, etc.
  3. Escalated violence — something that would otherwise be a fistfight turning into something more, i.e. a stabbing.
  4. Mugging, for purely financial gain.
  5. Racially motivated attacks.
  6. Mugging, with a racial component.
  7. “Gang” crimes with a non-financial motive.

The first three of these are focused in the CBD, the latter four in the inner west, and, to a lesser extent, the outer east.

But they obviously have nothing in common, except that they’re violence.

The more casual violence of the CBD is a lot of things. Partly, it’s the old violence that used to be less visible out around suburban beer barns — many of which are now closing, as the CBD and other inner areas become the place to go. Partly it’s sheer levels of drunkenness, as spirits replace beer as the tipple of choice. Melbourne’s high levels of amphetamine use — and high levels of amphetamine in what is ostensibly ecstasy — fuel aggression. The culture of the crawl, rather than staying at one pub, increases circulation, and so on.

But there is also a deeper cultural process going on, and one that covers both the more random CBD violence and what goes on further out — a culture of challenge and “respect”, which has developed in recent years. The one thing you notice on a Saturday night in Melbourne is that people can’t leave it alone — a bump in the street, harsh words, etc escalate in a way that has 19-year-olds who live with their mums acting like they were big gangstas. “You dissin me,” etc etc

The de-inhibiting effect of alcohol and drugs has an effect, but chemicals of themselves can’t achieve this effect, unless a cultural script is already in place. In Finland, to give one example, people drink in one evening an amount that would have your average Aussie in an ICU, yet they either slink off to weep, fall in a lake or occasionally stab their partners (the French kill their livers, the Finns kill their lovers). What they don’t do is attack strangers.

The “respect” culture, the exhausting aggressiveness is an assertion of atomised individualism, a getting the first punch in against an indifferent world. The same thing underlies opportunistic violence in the West. What’s noticeable about the kids hanging round these stations is that they’re not in gangs, so much as small packs of individuals, whose personal style — bad gangsta rapper gestures, the hoodie all the way over — is not an expression of confidence, but a perpetually threatened and hostile resentment, a desperate desire for impact.

Far from being a generation that has it all, the kids at the station look like they don’t have much of anything. In a region stripped of manufacturing jobs, locked out of further education, effectively left to rot by a Labor government, the violence directed against Indian students is both racial and non-racial, directed against people from an international class who are going places that they’re not — trying to make a division between opportunistic and racial crimes is a false dichotomy. Often, attacking an Indian kid is simply a bonus for someone who was going to attack someone anyway.

Respec respec respec — that is the demand beneath most of the violence that’s suddenly become more visible, mobile, and common. If the government really wants to tackle violence, it will have to look at the deeper causes in the profound social changes of the last quarter century, rather than simple moralising that makes tabloid readers feel better about themselves. The kids on the concrete wall want something they think can be got by sledging and stabbing, and the fact that there’s less of a distinction between the two than there used to be is telling indeed.