Liberal candidate for Brighton James Newbury

If Liberal candidate for Brighton James Newbury were to succeed in establishing a database of information on those stopped and questioned by Victoria Police, then my suspiciously Muslim profile would be on it. Late last year, I was surprised to leave the Arab grocery store near my home to find a police car parked on the street outside and a couple of officers standing as sentinels outside the door. I combed my memory for any suspicious activity they might have been investigating, only to discover that the suspicious individual in question was me. As the officers reminded me, I had jaywalked across the street on my way to the grocery store.

According to Newbury, this type of encounter between the police and a brown-skinned Muslim woman like me is the exactly kind of information that should be recorded and published in order to help my fellow Victorians sleep safely in their beds at night. Newbury is not advocating the collection of data for those who are charged (which is already undertaken), but for those who are stopped and questioned or interviewed by police. As he wrote in his op-ed for The Age, “people are increasingly incensed that a small minority of immigrants are committing some of the worst crimes. Victorians have big hearts, but they will not tolerate people who have no respect for the community that has welcomed them”.

If Victorians are indeed intolerant of immigrant criminals, the Liberal National parties are increasingly tolerant of the type of dog-whistling-through-a-megaphone that Newbury has just exemplified. With opinion polls indicating that support for One Nation is on the rise and the global far right exultant in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory in the United States, why bother to conceal Australian racism below a veneer of feelgood nationalism-that-dare-not-speak-its-name marketing, a la Meat and Livestock Australia’s latest Australia-Day-advertisement-that-isn’t-an-Australia-Day-advertisement?

[Razer: I am racist and so are you]

Racial profiling has been prohibited by Victoria Police since 2015, in response to a protracted legal battle in which a group of young men from Flemington alleged that they had been repeatedly stopped and racially abused by police for no legitimate reason. While the case was settled in 2013, the policing of racialised communities remains an extremely sensitive issue in Victoria, particularly when combined with media coverage which spotlights “African” crimes committed by the Apex gang while regarding similar transgressions by white offenders to be boringly routine.

In fact, as Lauren Caulfield points out in a follow-up article in The Age, there is a good case for the type of data-collection that Newbury advocates, but in order to monitor the behaviour of police rather than suspects. Tamar Hopkins from the Police Stop Data Network told the ABC last year that racial data collection would help to establish whether or not police were continuing to resort to racial profiling, despite its official prohibition. The same data, then, can lead to very different conclusions. While James Newbury would consider that a large number of police interactions with members of racial minorities to be proof of their criminal tendencies, analysts like Hopkins would justifiably consider it to be evidence of continued racial profiling and unconscious bias on the part of the police.

[Now we know, racists may well represent the ‘silent majority’]

Legal cases establishing the history of racial profiling and anecdotal evidence of its continued (mal)practice make people of colour question the legitimacy of any encounters we have with the police, even when (as in the case of my jaywalking transgression), we freely admit to having broken the law. Friends and family members have warned me against jaywalking (given my use of an elbow-crutch, I’m not really nimble enough to do so safely), so the wake-up call from the police could be seen as a blessing in disguise — had I not been left wondering whether they would have stood waiting for a protracted period of time outside a “mainstream” hipster grocery outlet in a “white” neighbourhood rather than an Arab grocery store in a fast-gentrifying but still visibly “ethnic” corner of the Brunswick-Coburg borderland.

This lack of trust in the police becomes more fraught when seeking to support female friends experiencing violence at the hands of family members. Reporting such violence to the police is always a difficult enterprise, but becomes challenging to the point of near-impossibility for those who have more commonly experienced the police as adversaries rather than allies. Fear-mongering such as that stirred up by Newbury, then, does not just malign members of racial communities as law-breakers and violent offenders who should be subjected to additional police scrutiny. It makes it more difficult for them to seek help from the police when they themselves are victims of crime.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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