“I’d have thought that the Aboriginals would have been pretty happy with the apology” a white Australian taxi driver said to me. He was driving me through Redfern, the symbolic home of Sydney’s Aboriginal community. The apology he referred to was that issued by Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal people on 13th February 2008.
In his apology speech, Rudd had declared that “the mood of the nation is for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians”. Earlier that day, I had met with Sol Bellear, the Chair of the Redfern-based Aboriginal Medical Service. He told me that “a lot of non-Aboriginal people seem to think that now the apology’s been made, it’s the end of disadvantage and poverty for Aboriginal people. It’s not.”
On 16th February 2004, the Sydney suburb of Redfern was the scene of the worst race riot in the city’s history. The cause was the strange death of an Aboriginal teenager following an apparent police intervention, and the subsequent reaction of the local Aboriginal community. Five years elapsed between the riot and my conversation with the taxi driver. During that time, there had been a change of government when in November 2007, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) led by Kevin Rudd ousted John Howard’s centre-right Liberal Party administration. A few months into his new government, Rudd addressed Australia’s Federal Parliament to propose a resolution entitled ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous People’. The apology garnered substantial international coverage, as had the Redfern riots a few years earlier.
Redfern is located on the edge of Sydney’s central business district (CBD). The dilapidated Victorian terraces and Aboriginal murals, characteristic of the suburb, seem oddly incongruous with the gleaming Manhattan-style skyscrapers that overlook it. I showed a colleague some photographs of the area. “It’s more like the back streets of Cuba!” she exclaimed. Her experience of Sydney had involved expensive hotels, sandy beaches and fine dining. Shortly after the Redfern riot, an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald described the suburb as an ‘Aboriginal ghetto’.
Heidi Norman, an academic based at University of Technology Sydney, has written extensively about Redfern’s Aboriginal community. “Many Aboriginal people who grew up in institutions found their way back to their families through Redfern” she says. Aboriginal migration into the suburb had an economic and a cultural basis. Local industry provided abundant employment opportunities to Aboriginal people, who were recognised to be good workers. Equally important was the social hub underpinned by kinship connections located in the suburb. According to Norman, the Stolen Generation became identified with Redfern.
Other historical accounts of Aboriginal migration into Redfern convey a sense of exclusion pervasive among the local community. Redfern’s social problems were afforded tabloid coverage as soon as the Aboriginal community gained critical mass in the late 1940s. During a 1954 visit to Australia by Queen Elizabeth II, massive Hessian screens were erected to conceal Redfern from Royal view.
The bulk of Redfern’s Aboriginal population is concentrated in a series of streets known as ‘the Block’, situated on the suburb’s western border. At the centre of the Block, which occupies less than 8000 square feet, is a new architecturally-designed community centre. Cumbling terraces and patches of wasteland surround it. The Block is owned by the Aboriginal Housing Company. They acquired ownership from the Federal government in 1972 following pressure from a burgeoning activist community. At the time, the Block represented something of an innovation as an Aboriginal-run housing project.
Over time, the Block has acquired a reputation for being a ‘no go’ area for outsiders. Personally, I find local people approachable and forthcoming when I visit the Redfern Community Centre early one afternoon with my photographer, Ruth. However, statistics reveal that Redfern’s crime rate is twice or three times that of the New South Wales (NSW) state average in a number of areas. In 2004, the year of the riot, incidents of robbery without a weapon were some twenty-five times the state average.
Since the 1990s, the public image of the Block has been particularly tarnished by the heroin trade that has proliferated within it, particularly among young Aboriginal people. One local resident describes this heroin trade as “unbelievable”. She told me: “You would probably have trouble buying heroin in most parts of Sydney, but it’s dealt pretty openly here”.
Beyond the Block, much of Redfern had been subject to varying degrees of gentrification. According to Sydney City Councillor Meredith Burgmann, “Redfern is, in a way, a bit more symbolic than it is actual.” Increasingly expensive housing has prompted substantial Aboriginal migration out of Redfern to Sydney’s western suburbs. Redfern’s proximity to the CBD makes it an extremely attractive prospect to real estate developers. However, their willingness to accommodate the Aboriginal community still resident is questionable.
Proposals to bulldoze the Block and extend the CBD into Redfern are said to have created something of a siege mentality among local Aboriginal people. Chris Cuneen, a criminologist who wrote about the Redfern riot, describes the local Aboriginal community as “much more highly politicised than a lot of other communities”. This politicisation might be antagonistic. Cuneen identifies Redfern’s particular history of tensions between police and the suburb’s Aboriginal residents as a major factor. This has periodically culminated in anti-police riots.
The Redfern riot of 2004 is perhaps one of the most notorious expressions of anti-police sentiment by the local Aboriginal community. On 16th February 2004, a night of ‘unparalleled’ rioting began at 7.30pm following the death of local Aboriginal teenager TJ Hickey. Police were attacked with bricks, bottles and petrol bombs. The local railway station was set alight. It seems that the police were overwhelmed by this demonstration of grief and antagonism.
On the evening before the riot, seventeen year-old TJ Hickey had cycled from his home in the nearby suburb of Waterloo, where he lived with his aunt. He was going to visit his mother who lived in the Block. TJ, described by friends as popular and “happy-go-lucky”, was a ‘person of interest to the police’ with whom he had some history. By visiting his mother who lived in a street from which he was banned, TJ was breaching bail conditions that some consider to have been unrealistic. According to his aunt, Bowie Hickey, TJ had been participating in a juvenile justice programme.
Along the way, TJ lost control of his bike and crashed into a railway fence where he was impaled on spikes. A police vehicle was in the vicinity at the time. The subsequent coroner’s inquiry found that his chances of surviving his injuries were negligible. Many in Redfern’s Aboriginal people held the police responsible for TJ’s death. Some believed that TJ had been knocked off his bike by pursuing police. A more common view was that the Aboriginal teenager crashed after being panicked by the sight of a police vehicle.
The issue of whether TJ had been pursued by police was central to the coroner’s inquiry. For their part, the police officers involved denied chasing the youth, describing his death as a ‘freak accident’. They claimed that they had simply passed him along a walkway while low on petrol. One community elder told me that he believed that TJ had been the victim of racial profiling.
On the day after TJ’s death, a gathering of Aboriginal mourners congregated along Lawson Street, a throughway in the Block. Some allege that the crowd were subjected to taunting and provocation by police thus sparking the riot. This version of events was reiterated to me by a local resident who had been present. According to Shane Phillips, a community spokesman, the youths involved in the riot were motivated by a sense of injustice and indignation. Given their grief and fury, community elders made no effort to contain them. “Many of us just stood around that time” says Phillips. “Normally, we would have pulled it up and stopped it. We just let it go that time because we thought what is going on?”
Ray Minniecon, a pastor in the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship and veteran Redfern activist, offers me his own analysis of events. He attributes the disturbance to a build-up of frustration and anger on the part of young Aboriginal people as a result of continual police harassment. He tells me: “My own kids have asked “Dad, why do the police pick on me? They don’t pick on the Asians. They don’t pick on the white fellas.” You can understand the anger they feel at not being allowed to be who they are and enjoy the same freedoms as other young people in Sydney”.
Academic research indicates that Aboriginal youths are stopped and searched more frequently than their white peers. Certainly, locals have been known to complain of heavy-handed policing in Redfern, and to claim that young Aboriginal men are unfairly targeted. Chris Cuneen agrees that policing in the suburb has been antagonistic. “There is an expectation, particularly in Redfern, that if you’re young and Aboriginal, you’re going to get a hard time of the police”. He attributes this to “historical baggage on both sides”. This encompasses Aboriginal youths’ expectations of police, and police officers’ perceptions of Aboriginal people.
After the riot, many politicians and media pundits were quick to offer altogether different explanations for the disturbance. A lead article in the Sydney Morning Herald stated that the sense of alienation among the Aboriginal youths involved in the riot had been exacerbated by ‘well-meaning but paternalistic’ social policy. When I speak to Shayne Mallard, a Liberal Party City Councillor, he tells me that major causes of the riot were rife drug-dealing and crime “building up like a pressure cooker”. Many have attributed the riot to a ‘softly, softly’ approach to policing in the Block.
However, such explanations have been rebuffed by others. Chris Cuneen dismisses the notion that a ‘softly, softly’ approach to policing was a cause of the disturbance. He describes such claims as a “way of justifying more heavy-handed policing and deflecting criticism that this might have been a cause”. Shane Phillips is even more scathing, describing these explanations as “crap” and politically motivated. Both acknowledge that the heroin trade is a criminal justice issue in the Block. Statistics indicate that some NSW postcode areas have a higher number of resident convicted offenders than Redfern. Interestingly, these other areas have not been afflicted by riots.