Until "Bing Crosby-gate" hit the Sydney press recently, the plight of being young in the 90s hadn’t crossed the minds of many. Suddenly the animosity between Shopping centres and groups of young people threatened to envelop us all in the ugly crossfire. Malls, with public squares and railway stations to follow, were experimenting with blaring out Bing Crosby tunes in an effort to drive away flocks of young people congregating in doorways. Next to be introduced was lighting that highlighted pimples and other facial blemishes.
Could they be serious? It’s bad enough shopping these days with the furnace style heaters on full blast and those mirrors which accentuate every roll of fat (it’s the mirrors, its gotta be the mirrors). Now my ears were to be assaulted with daggy tunes and my every rogue pimple thrust upon the unsuspecting shoppers. As I quickly investigated home shopping options on the web a quasi-altruistic thought hit me. Wasn’t my adolescence a time when I liked nothing better than to hang with my friends in malls, the presence of my braces and acne afflicted peers, easing the pain of the standard teenage body image crisis?
The inherent comic possibilities and downright silliness of the Bing Crosby issue, quickly exploited by comedians and the local media, in fact disguised some sinister and disturbing truths. The Crosby experiment was described by TV news programs and newspapers as a "crime fighting proposal". But what crime were these "young undesirables" supposed to be committing?
On Good News Week Paul McDermott joked the proposal could risk increasing crime when sound systems were vandalised by horrified hipsters. The joke makes a serious point. The community spurred on by the retail sector, laments vandalism and shop lifting and decries the lack of social responsibility of our youth. What hypocrisy! Can we really be surprised if this responsibility doesn’t take shape when society declares war on the crime of being young using the nastiest of underhand warfare tactics – public physical humiliation and bad taste?
To say being young and being in company is a crime in NSW is no longer an exaggeration. In fact it is an offence which can be severely punished. As a volunteer lawyer for a legal centre working with young disadvantaged and homeless people in inner Sydney I have long been aware of the difficulty experienced by young people when they indulge in the harmless pursuit of spending time in public areas. I also was aware of suggestions that since the introduction of the Police and Public Safety Amendment Act, generally known as the "knife laws", numerous young people had complained of being stopped and searched, often strip searched, for no reason or simply told to "move on".
I was not prepared, however, for what I would discover when I began researching a submission to the Ombudsman’s office on the "knife laws". The whole issue turned out to be a real Pandora's box, which was under a rock with lots of beasties crawling around, to mix a few metaphors.
I started with files that I had worked on at the Centre. I was particularly keen to tell the tale of "Danny" a homeless Aboriginal boy of around 17 who had been arrested under the knife laws for carrying the fold-up picnic set he used to eat food. He’s homeless you see, doesn’t have any family silverware in a mahogany sideboard. Then there was the other charge under the "knife laws" for carrying a laser pointer.
I suspected that one was just an exercise in frustration. The police had found nothing incriminating on Danny (after calling in the Dog Squad to look for him) when he ran away from an attempted personal search. The grounds for the search were that he was found in an area that had a high level of juvenile crime. He wasn’t doing anything you see but needed to be searched because he was young and young people commit crime.
Then there was Michael who had his car searched and his baseball bat confiscated (he pointed out it came with a baseball so that was confiscated too).
Probably the nastiest case we had was Gary. Gary lives in Woolloomooloo and in Woolloomooloo the police search young people for drugs by asking them to drop their daks and then peering into their underpants (I’m serious). When Gary hid his private parts against the police truck he was charged with offensive conduct –pretending to root the truck (again I’m serious).
Gary ended up face down on a hot metal plate in the middle of summer, screaming to be let off as he was burning. He was held on the plate for minutes while people who tried to help were pushed away and threatened with arrest. After Gary was taken to the station, burns visible on his shoulders, some residents broke an egg on the plate. It fried in less than a minute.
You might think that with so many witnesses a complaint against the police would be easy. This is rarely the case. Take our case study of Chris. Chris was beaten by a police officer and the officer and his partner then lied about it in court. Fortunately a woman witnessed the incident and was prepared to testify in court and directly contradict the doctored version of events presented by the police. Yet even with an impressive witness the internal police inquiry found that they were unable to determine the truth. Charges of perjury (not assault) against the officers were never brought to court.
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