News emerged from Alice Springs this week of new by-laws being floated by the local Town Council, aimed at tackling anti-social behaviour.

My personal favourite is the one that allows council rangers to dispose of stuff they find around the town. Stuff which they reasonably believe to be abandoned. Stuff like … blankets used by homeless people.

In Alice today, it’s standard practice for the homeless (also known as “Aboriginal people”) to store their blankets somewhere in public (in some bushes, for example) during the day, and then collect them again in the evening, in preparation for a cold Alice night where temperatures can drop well below zero in winter.

As it stands, it’s already routine for local rangers to seize the blankets — they wander about in the morning and collect them from bushes and wherever else the homeless have stashed them. But by law, the rangers are not allowed to dispose of the blankets, so instead they’re dropped off at Tangentyere Council. Inevitably, the blankets are collected again later that day and re-utilized by the homeless that night.

It’s a merry game the local council plays. The practice is meant to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Aboriginal people (as though sleeping in the freezing outdoors weren’t already uncomfortable enough). But under the proposed new by-laws, rangers would be able to throw the blankets away. Nice.

The proposed new powers don’t stop there. The council is also aiming to stop camping on the Todd River, where a lot of homeless Aboriginal people congregate. They presumably share the council’s desire that they do otherwise. Most people don’t sleep in a freezing river bed by choice. They do so because they have nowhere else to go.

Then there’s the proposed law to fine people for begging. Basically you can be fined if you’re caught “soliciting” from someone in the Alice Springs town limits.

Why do people beg? Because they have no money. And how do we stop it? By issuing them a fine for $130. And can they pay it? Of course not, at least not without begging a bit more. And then we fine them again. And eventually, they go to jail for non-payment of fines. No need to beg in prison, where in the Northern Territory, the population is already 83% black. It’s pretty unlikely that outlawing begging among a dirt poor population is going to help reduce it.

Russell Goldflam, Principal Legal officer for the Alice Springs office of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission has written a submission to council about the proposed laws. He notes that the Alice Springs Council is seeking to give itself powers that far exceed even those of the Northern Territory police.

For example, Goldflam notes the council wants to empower its rangers to demand identification from local residents. NT police are allowed, in certain circumstances, to demand a person’s name and address, but not date of birth. Council rangers will be able to demand the whole kit and kaboodle. Council is also proposing to extend its powers to make only certain types of identification acceptable. Again, a power NT police do not enjoy.

Under the proposed by-laws, the Council is seeking to make it illegal to stage a protest without council permission. The laws go so far as to make it illegal for “a group or even [an] individual” to behave in a way “apparently intended to publicise that person’s view about anything” Goldflam notes.

It gets worse. Under the heading, “Other Activities”, Goldflam says the Council is seeking to empower itself to “declare that any activity whatsoever ‘within, on, under or over a public place’ requires a Council permit”.

Many of the by-laws also replicate existing laws, such as by-law 53, which proposes to make it illegal to urinate and defecate in public, as though it isn’t already.

But why would anyone defecate in public in Alice Springs? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the two major shopping centres in town — the Alice Plaza and the Yeperenye Shopping Centre — have introduced pay toilets; a measure designed to stop poor blackfellas coming in to use them.

And just in case, both centres have also placed a ban on people entering without shoes. That was introduced to stop poor blackfellas coming in. Period.

What I’m wondering is why anyone is even surprised by all this.

It is, after all, the same part of the world that in March 2008 saw a group of Aboriginal people asked to leave an Alice Springs hostel because tourists had complained about their “scary appearance”. The blackfellas were young leaders, hand-picked by their community of Yuendumu to attend a Royal Life Saving Society course, prior to the opening of their local pool. It’s the same Territory where black males are jailed at a rate almost five times greater than that practised by South Africa during the Apartheid era.

It’s the same Territory where, earlier this year, a video emerged of a drunk Aboriginal man — Chappy — who was made to dance by a police officer and sing By the rivers of Babylon, before he was arrested for public drunkenness. Chappy is based in Katherine, somewhat north of Alice. The policemen captured it all on his videophone, and then posted it on YouTube. It complete is easily one of the most degrading videos I’ve ever seen.

I think, therefore, it’s official. Alice Springs — and the Northern Territory generally — has every right to be seen as a racist backwater.

And where is all this heading, you might ask? Well, over the weekend, a four-wheel drive containing a group of about four or five white males drove through two of the itinerant camps on the dry Todd River bed which the council is seeking to close down.

Later that morning, the body of a black male was discovered. He had reportedly been walking alone on a nearby street. Police are seeking any information on the occupants of the vehicle, but are remaining tight-lipped about the motive, fearing an escalation of violence.

That certainly won’t do anything to enhance the reputation of Alice Springs, and nor will the by-laws, as noted by Russell Goldflam. He described the proposed anti-begging laws as liable to “promote the reputation of Alice Springs as an uncaring and inhumane community”.

With the greatest of respect, I’d suggest the horse has already bolted on that front.

Peter Fray

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