Inside Story

Looking for trouble

Four months after the summer troubles, a reporter heads to Melbourne’s western fringe in search of “African gangs”

Margaret Simons 18 May 2018 6491 words

On the frontier: detail from an aerial panorama looking west over Tarneit Central shopping centre. Bob H./Wikimedia

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Tarneit, twenty-five kilometres west of central Melbourne. The streets are mostly empty, the parks full of parents with pushers. The houses are closed up, cars parked in the driveways, residents appearing occasionally and driving away. The feeling is not fear but containment. There are no kids kicking balls in the street, no neighbours hanging over the fence.

A few hundred metres away at McDonald’s, two large central tables are occupied by a group of teenagers whose recent origins lie in Africa. Only one of them is a girl, and the boys are jockeying for her attention. Their bantu knots make their heads seem knobbly. They touch each other’s heads and punch each other’s arms. The girl shows off her tight braids. The boys are in tracksuit pants and hoodies, and they are very tall and very dark.

They swarm outside, and take turns to ride a hoverboard around the carpark. Customers coming and going from the restaurant have to navigate around them. Snatches of conversation float by: it’s fuck this and fuck that. Someone messages them from Werribee station and suggests they catch the bus over there. Suddenly one of the boys starts chasing the girl around the table inside, everyone laughing. A bag of chips and a thickshake go skittering across the floor.

It’s here on the westernmost edge of Melbourne, according to last summer’s headlines, that Australia fractured. The Australian described it as a “summer of hate.” The reporting of this supposed crisis took in Tarneit and other suburbs across Melbourne, roping together terrifying home invasions in a number of suburbs, a party out of control in the southwestern suburb of Werribee, and violence thirty-three kilometres east on St Kilda beach. What each incident had in common were “African youths.”

Writing in the Herald Sun in December, Andrew Bolt used offences ranging from a central-city mugging to an attempted murder to argue that “integration” has clear limits “when the intake is of poorly educated people from a tribal and warlike culture.” It was Tarneit, according to the Herald Sun, that best symbolised the state’s “youth gang crisis.” Nine’s A Current Affair screened shocking CCTV footage of young black men beating up one of their number in a local street. Locals, said the two outlets, were living in fear of violent, rampaging African gangs.

At the dawn of the new year, home affairs minister Peter Dutton weighed in with a blast for the state’s Labor government, which faces an election later this year. He claimed that people in Melbourne were scared to dine out at night because they were followed home by gangs. Prison sentences were a joke, he said, and the police were acting on “politically correct” instructions from the state government. Gang violence was out of control and growing.

Premier Daniel Andrews and the Victoria Police denied there was a crisis but responded as if there were. Andrews said crime was under control but then went on television to condemn thuggery and promise firm action. The police rejected the idea of “gangs” but set up a taskforce of African community leaders.

People in the inner suburbs protested on social media at Dutton’s apparent racism and lampooned any suggestion that they were afraid to go out at night. They loved going to restaurants. They even went to African restaurants. But, for once, the inner suburbs — those safe Labor seats populated by the knowledge class — were completely irrelevant to this furore.

Police speak to young locals outside the Ecoville Community Park in Tarneit on 1 January this year. David White Photography/Newspix

It was a long silly season last summer: no catastrophic bushfires, no floods, and the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race passed without mishap. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the media discerned another kind of newsworthy trouble and made the journey west to Tarneit.

Four months later, after the summer of hate had disappeared from the headlines, I went to Tarneit and spent many hours there at all times of the day and night. I was looking for trouble.

To get to Tarneit from the city you drive west on a highway that runs swift and wide between concrete sound barriers. Along the broad, walled-off river of traffic, trucks have left strips of shredded tyres like hard black lizard skins. Turn off after twenty-five kilometres and the first buildings you see are supersized warehouses and factories that dwarf the people who work in them.

Massive billboards rise out of abandoned farming land, offering three-bedroom house-and-land packages from $435,000 (or, as the local council’s website puts it, 27,800 smashed avocadoes). Earthmovers perch dinosaur-like over the skeletons of houses under construction, pine frames awaiting plasterboard, cladding and render. There’s a mosque, and a new grammar school. A plain brick house serves as an evangelical church; a pub-and-pokies palace offers a bland rendered wall to passing traffic.

This is the City of Wyndham, the fastest-growing local government area in Victoria, and one of the fastest-growing in the country. Thirteen babies are born each day in this sprawling municipality, and more than 13,000 extra people move here each year. In just five years, the population has grown by 37 per cent. It is Australia under construction, and Tarneit is its newest product.

From the new Tarneit Central shopping centre, opened just six months ago, the skyscrapers of the city are visible across the ancient lava plain. They are the distant point against which everything — housing prices, commuting times, job opportunities, visibility and power — is calibrated. Opposite the shopping centre, the Tarneit railway station looks like a spaceship landed in the paddocks. Here you can catch a fast regional train to the city for the same price as a suburban fare. On the opposite corner is the new Julia Gillard Library, and just down the way the promisingly named Prosperity Street travels past warehouses and piles of earth before ending at a farm gate.

The new suburb spreads out on the other three sides of the shopping centre. Each spanking new house has a little portico relieving its box-like features. The gardens are newly planted, and some of the neatest lawns, on closer inspection, are astroturf. There hasn’t been time to put down roots, not only because of migration but also because of stretched lives.

This is not a particularly poor suburb. On indices of social disadvantage it is in line with the rest of Melbourne, and it is ahead of Wyndham as a whole and several of its surrounding areas. The unemployment rate is slightly higher than Melbourne as a whole, but so too is the workforce participation — those in work or looking for work. Almost all families have two incomes and most people over the age of fifteen are employed full time, most commonly in healthcare, social assistance, transport, warehousing and retailing. These are the shift workers who service the city and look after the ageing. The cars start early in the morning and late at night as people travel to work, dropping their children at childcare centres at all hours.

If you’re on the street in the evening or the early morning you can be startled by garage doors opening suddenly, triggered by remote. A car appears and drives in, the door closes, the house lights up and the blinds are drawn. The street is empty again.

On Poplar Boulevard, a few hundred metres away from the shopping centre, a house has been vandalised or has met with some other misadventure. The portico has been stove in and the render is lying in sheets, the structure revealed. The walls are made of foam blocks held together by render and welded rods. One knock, and half the house is collapsing.

Half a century ago, the folk singer and activist Pete Seeger sang a song about the development of suburbia.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes, all the same…

But that was a song sung by a white middle-class man about the white middle class — a satire about conformity. This is different. Apart from the ticky-tacky of rampant property development, and behind it the cold, hard calculations of cost, price, profit and compromised building standards, it could hardly be more different.

More than half of the residents here were born overseas, and they come from 162 different countries. Combine that with the fact that it has the youngest population in Victoria — a median age of just thirty — and it means almost all the adults and most of the youth are new Australians. Fewer than half of the residents here speak English at home. The dominant ethnic group is not Africans or Sudanese, but Indians, who make up about 23 per cent of the population. After Australians and British migrants, Filipinos come next, at 4 per cent of the population, closely followed by Chinese. From there the ethnicities are more or less even in proportions — Italians, Irish, Maori, Maltese, Punjabi. Sudanese are the biggest African group and well down the list of population groups, at just under 2 per cent, or about 500 people at the last census.

In January, in the midst of the “summer of hate,” a scuffle at the Tarneit shopping centre appeared on the Daily Mail’s website as “the latest gang flare up” involving African teenagers. “EXCLUSIVE: Police SPAT ON and Abused as Officers Arrest African Teenagers Outside a Shopping Centre in Melbourne’s West in Broad Daylight — in Latest Gang Flare Up” read the headline. Pictures showed black youths being restrained by police.

Two days after the article was published, the Victoria Police executive director of media and corporate communications, Merita Tabain, wrote a confidential email to the editors of Melbourne’s main media outlets expressing concern that aggressive behaviour by journalists might “exacerbate the current tensions.” She used the incident at the Tarneit shopping centre as an example.

The incident, she said, had been provoked by the photographer’s decision to “move in to take close-up photos of a group of African teenagers socialising.” The teenagers, she went on, “had been doing nothing of public interest prior to the photographer’s decision to move in and take the photos and [the group] reacted to the photographer and what he was doing. This led to police being called in and a scuffle ensued in which police were spat on and arrests were made.” The photographer had apologised for provoking the incident, Tabain reported, but the published article makes no reference to this.

Today, on a warm weekend in April, the most noticeable people gathering outside Tarneit Central shopping centre are men in immaculate suits and gleaming shoes. They are real estate agents. On any weekend, they are among the most prominent people in Tarneit, erecting open-for-inspection signs in seconds and ferrying young families — women in headscarves, men in turbans, all kinds — around the quiet streets.

Inside, the centre is gleaming. The signs in the shops speak of lean meats and fresh vegetables. Anglo faces are in the minority. Many women wear headscarves. It seems as though every shopper has a toddler at foot or in a pusher, and as though every second woman is pregnant. If this is Australia under construction, then it is possible to feel proud. It is busy, diverse, moderately prosperous and harmonious.

If it differs from older shopping centres in established suburbs, it is in the degree of sociability. Dutton worried about people going to restaurants, but the truth is there aren’t many restaurants in Tarneit, other than the fast-food chains. There are cafes in this shopping centre, and they are almost empty. People come here, do their shopping, and leave.

Two cops stroll through in high-vis vests, with truncheons, pepper spray and all the other accoutrements of the modern police officer on the beat. They are looking at their mobile phones as they walk. If this place was not flat, bright and neat, they would surely trip over. They could hardly be more relaxed.

What do people here think about the media attention their suburb received over summer? Is this a safe place to live?

A couple living on the improbably named Camelot Drive, about a kilometre from the shopping centre, arrived from the Philippines five years ago. She works in aged care. He drives a truck. Their children are cared for by an enormous new childcare centre a suburb away. In the mornings they wake early to juggle shifts and responsibilities. Their evenings are spent inside, sleeping, watching television or Skyping with relatives in the Philippines.

Australians, they say, don’t know how lucky they are. Here there are no shootings in the street, no armed war on drugs, no homes lacking toilets or running water. The gangs? There were some teenagers who got out of control. It’s quiet now.

Mr and Mrs Fletcher are doing their shopping at Tarneit Gardens. They have lived in Wyndham all their lives, and they don’t like the way it is changing. Chief among their complaints is traffic congestion, the amount of time it takes to reach the highway from home. But they are also concerned by all the different groups, and the feeling that the newcomers don’t socialise. They are living adjacent to, rather than with, these new Australians. And the African youths — yes, they are frightening.

A short walk away, in Rippleside Terrace, estate agent Rajesh Kumar has a seven-year-old townhouse for sale, a “stunning” residence “enjoying a lakeside view” over what the maps call Sayers Drain, an agricultural drainage channel now made the centre of a big, grassy park. The townhouse is one of the oldest residential buildings in Tarneit and is part of a high-density, two-storey cluster. The sign says it’s “perfect for executives, busy families or investors.”

The sellers are a Chinese family with young children looking to move to something larger. Is there ever any trouble in the park over the road, I ask? Kumar tells me that the park is fine. Tarneit is fine. Then, unprompted, he mentions Ecoville Community Park. The trouble, he says, was over there. Perhaps I read about it in the papers. The African teenagers wrecked it. “But now there are police there all the time. I live in Tarneit. Tarneit is fine.”

All human stories take place in a landscape. All are partly about land — how we use it, usurp it, mould and are moulded by it.

The focus of media attention in Tarneit over summer was on one piece of land, Ecoville Community Park: the “heart of darkness,” as one media report described it, the “symbol of the state’s youth gang crisis” according to the Herald Sun. This very local story made it into the Australian’s national affairs section: “A gang of youths have vandalised the community centre and park at a new Victorian estate, terrorising families with nightly crime sprees… The youths, mostly of African appearance, have trashed the Ecoville Park in Tarneit…” And on it went, linking the vandalism in this park with the out-of-control party in St Kilda, and an assault of a police officer at another western-suburban shopping centre.

Responding to the incident, premier Daniel Andrews vowed that those responsible for the damage would feel “the full force of the law.” The Australian’s editorial writers weren’t reassured. “It should be abundantly clear by now that a zero tolerance approach that puts the public interest first is sorely needed to bring order back to Melbourne’s suburbs,” said the paper. “Yes, most of the offenders are young. But they are old enough to accost shopkeepers with knives and shotguns, and commit armed robberies and indecent assaults, cause serious injuries and endanger lives, and kick police officers in the face…”

The paper’s coverage was illustrated with pictures of the Ecoville community centre showing broken windows, bashed-in walls, torn-apart furniture and walls scrawled with graffiti. “Like many other incidents in Victoria,” the paper concluded, “the young Africans’ recent rampages are the work of a small percentage of immigrants from less civilised societies, where violence is routine. But their backgrounds are no reason for authorities to turn a blind eye to their criminality.”

The park has its own story, which began back when the Ecoville housing estate was first conceived by the Resimax Group. The company’s website still carries the advertisement for housing sales, in which the park’s “community pavilion” features prominently beneath an impossibly blue sky. Soaring white sails shelter a sparkling building:

The architecture of this community pavilion creates a strong statement about the progressive nature of the municipality it belongs to. The designers have embraced the ideals of eco-sustainability with a contemporary approach to outdoor establishments. The design is intended to create a landmark feature and to become a beacon for future property developments in Australia.

Today, driving past the little boxes to the community centre, the white sails soar over the houses, but they are grubby and scrawled with graffiti. The skatepark, the tennis court and the basketball court are strewn with rubbish. The grass is unmown. The community centre is boarded up. But young people are clearly still gathering in what the developers grandly described as an “amphitheatre” — a neglected sunken area in front of the community centre.

What went wrong? The story emerges from the minutes of the Wyndham City Council. Once the suburb was built and the houses sold, the park was abandoned by the developer. Officially it belonged to the owners’ corporation, to which all the recently arrived owners of the surrounding houses belonged. It was private space, which meant council had no power or responsibility for its upkeep. But the owners are owners only in law, not as a lived reality. They do not gather, they do not associate. The owners’ corporation is run by a group that specialises in such things, based far away in Port Melbourne. When council ordered clean-ups, the owners’ corporation complied. But now the owners’ corporation has asked council to take over the park. Council has refused.

The park was a modern-day folly, a developer’s marketing device. It has no part in council’s open-space plans. It is too small to be a “district park” and not modest enough to be cheap to maintain. It was in even worse condition back in summer, says Wyndham councillor Kim McAliney, who holds council’s portfolio for community safety. When the “African gangs” crisis hit the headlines in summer, she took it personally. She visited Ecoville Park and was “not happy.” An abandoned car body was sitting in the middle, rubbish was everywhere and the community centre was wrecked. It might still look dreadful, she acknowledges, but it is better than it was.

Some of those who hung around the park and caused the trashing were certainly Sudanese youth, she says, but the problem was longstanding. The vandalism had been happening for at least eighteen months. Of course young people gathered, says McAliney. There were toilets, water, electricity and free wi-fi. And, of course, the Sudanese stuck out. “They are tall. They are thin. Shopkeepers worry when they hang around in a way they wouldn’t worry if they were Italians, for example.”

After the attention given the park by the national media, police began to patrol it constantly. Council cleaned it and boarded it up. More importantly, council organised for the owners’ corporation to turn off the services and free wi-fi that had encouraged young people to gather. In the wake of council’s refusal to take over, a case to wind up the owners’ corporation and sell the park is before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. It will probably be sold to another developer and used for more housing.

McAliney is concerned about law and order in Wyndham. She has been campaigning for a long time for a new police station at Point Cook — an initiative that was funded in the recent state budget. But the main safety issue in this suburb, she says, is not gangs but family violence. “And in that we are not alone.”

And the attutude of the police themselves? Until the day I interviewed him, Russell Barrett was commander of Victoria Police’s northwestern region, which includes the City of Wyndham. For months before the Herald Sun discovered Ecoville Park, he says, police had been talking to council and the owners’ corporation about “the way we are using that space, the way suburbs like this get constructed, and what the developers leave.” Police had brought the parties together to try to resolve the issues it was causing.

Then the Herald Sun discovered it. Barrett is reluctant to criticise the media. The offences they reported across Melbourne did occur, and some of them were serious. “Victoria Police has never shied away from the fact that serious crime was happening. I think that when they highlighted areas like Tarneit and Ecoville it placed pressure on the totality of the community, and made them feel, I suppose, a little bit more vulnerable and on edge. That then really challenges the strength and fabric of community.” He doesn’t say this, but part of the problem is surely that there is not much fabric there.

The police began to get a new kind of phone call from people in Tarneit. One night there was a call at eleven o’clock complaining that there was a group of “African” youths playing basketball in the school grounds at Tarneit — just a stone’s throw from Ecoville Park. The police attended. The young men were not doing anything wrong. The court was well lit, and it is understood that students can use it after hours. The police spoke to them, and that was that.

It is possible, thinking of this incident, to feel sympathy for everyone involved. Imagine the schoolyard at Tarneit on that hot summer night. Like the whole suburb, it is new. Take a wrong turn around here and you end up in farming land still in the process of being subdivided. At night, the sound of crickets is so loud that you need to raise your voice to be heard. You can see foxes on the streets. The suburb has yet to entirely obliterate its rural origins.

The young Sudanese men gather to play basketball. It is hard to imagine anything less antisocial for them to do in this suburb of deserted after-dark streets. But the neighbourhood is frightened. It has been told it is in crisis. And the crisis is just over there, it seems, just a street away…

A call is made. Then, out of the blue, the police are there. They talk to the young men but make no arrests. Perhaps they suggest that 11pm is not the best time to be playing basketball.

The neighbours have rung the police because they are scared. The police have responded because that is their job. The young people have done nothing wrong. Yet all it takes is a few incidents of this kind and the police will be accused of racial prejudice and racial profiling. But who is racially profiling? The police, or the neighbourhood?

Stories like this abound in Tarneit. I spoke to three brothers who caught the train at Tarneit station. They are tall young men — tall enough to have to duck as they enter the carriage. When they got on board, three families moved to another carriage. Or there are the two young men, sitting in a car in a driveway, not doing anything wrong, just talking. The police pulled up. Someone had rung saying that there was an African gang outside.

On the day I interview Barrett, he was promoted to assistant commissioner for police complaints. The post had fallen vacant after it was revealed that his predecessor, Brett Guerin, had been making social media posts, under a pseudonym, laced with sexually explicit comments. It was the end of a month in which the media had also carried reports of brutality by police — a disabled pensioner pepper sprayed, an African man beaten and kicked while lying handcuffed on the floor.

Barrett doesn’t want to talk about the challenges of his new post. When I ask him for his response to allegations that the police racially profile, he replies smoothly. The police focus on the offence, he says, not the race of the offender. “You know, in terms of policing, if offending is taking place in a geographical area, and the intelligence points to a cohort of young people, then we will talk to those young people. Not all of them will be committing offences.”

Barrett doesn’t believe there is a crisis among Africans. Many of them are already doing very well, he says, and in twenty years they will be an accepted part of the community, just like the Indochinese and the Greeks and Italians before them.

Meanwhile, they have shallow roots. Barrett thinks about how his own children found their first jobs, their first footholds in society. It was through family friendships and connections, something the Sudanese, so recently arrived, clearly lack. Not surprisingly, some young people become alienated and go astray.

Over the past few decades, Victoria has moved away from the idea of a police force and towards a police service — community policing. Police are community workers, bringing in social services to try to change the circumstances that lead to crime. But can that possibly work when at the same time police must do the gritty, frontline tasks of finding and arresting offenders? Barrett acknowledges a tension. The “interface,” he says, is “challenging.”

He tells his people to do their jobs — arrest the offenders and begin the processes of criminal justice. But after that, he says “They should be looking for the causal factors for this crime. What are the vulnerabilities within their family network? And start to link that person with other support agencies who actually provide the necessary services.” A large part of his job is interacting with state and federal government policy, to try to talk about what is needed in the way of such support.

But for police to be able to do this on-the-ground community work, he says, they must have the trust of the community they are dealing with. That is difficult when it is also their job to prosecute offenders. “Ultimately we can do a lot but if the young person isn’t willing then we’re not going to be effective.” And in that difficult relationship, incidents like the young men playing basketball and being spoken to by police don’t help.

Nyadol Nyuon is an example of what Barrett describes as a Sudanese young person doing incredibly well. She came to Australia as a teenager straight from a Kenyan refugee camp. She graduated from Victoria University and then Melbourne University, and now works for the law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler in the heart of the city’s legal district. She is a community leader. She has appeared on the ABC’s Q&A. She hears all the time about racial profiling by police. It is hard, she says, to be constantly called on to express gratitude to Australia — to be conspicuously thankful — while facing implicit racism.

Nyuon lives in the southeastern suburbs, far from Tarneit. But has she, with her professional qualifications and her confident manner, been subjected to racial profiling, here where she works in the centre of the city? It is hard to know. In the past year, she tells me, she has been stopped three times by police and charged with jaywalking. This could be because she is black. And it’s true, she was jaywalking. “I was in the wrong. I was doing the wrong thing. It’s hard to know.”

So are there African gangs, or is the whole thing a media invention? The coarse net of crime statistics is not, by itself, very helpful. The figures have been used by both those who want to create a sense of crisis and those who want to quieten the fears.

Those who say there is no problem point to the fact that overall crime fell in Victoria over the last year — the period in which some media outlets would have had us believe Victoria was in a crisis of violence and fear. Crime dropped by 6 per cent, the biggest drop in twelve years. The crimes that so many people fear — home invasions and burglaries — were also down, by 15 per cent to 46,311.

But this decline followed a long period of a slightly upward trend, meaning that the state is now back to roughly where it was in 2014. For crimes against the person — assaults and other violence — though, the picture is slightly different. Numbers had been relatively steady for years, but rose last year by 1.5 per cent, driven by an increase in sexual offences, and with domestic violence a key factor.

On one reading of the statistics, Sudanese-born people are over-represented — and this is how the numbers have been reported. Sudanese make up just 0.1 per cent of the state’s population, or about 6000 people, but the data shows that they are responsible for more than 1 per cent of all crime in Victoria and are particularly over-represented in several categories. In the year to September 2017, among alleged offenders aged between ten and eighteen, Sudanese-born Victorians were involved in 3 per cent of serious assaults, 2 per cent of non-aggravated burglaries, 5 per cent of motor vehicle thefts and 8.6 per cent of aggravated burglaries.

But statistics can lie. First, they record only country of birth, not ancestry. Those of Sudanese background who were born in Australia show up as Australian offenders. If Sudanese ethnicity is a problem, the statistics probably under-represent it. On the other hand, the statistics reflect arrests and charges, not convictions. Some of those caught in the mesh may not have been guilty of the offences with which they were charged.

Finally, and most significantly, there is the age of the Sudanese population. The deputy director of the Centre of Social and Population Research at Monash University, Rebecca Wickes, describes as a “brute fact” a concept criminologists call the age crime curve. It represents what every parent knows — that people are most likely to get into trouble with the police between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Combine this with another fact — that the Sudanese are the youngest ethnic community in Australia — and their apparent over-representation in the crime statistics becomes not so much a brute fact as a questionable one.

Surprisingly, nobody has done the detailed modelling that would tell whether Sudanese — or any other ethnic group — are offending at greater rates than other populations of similar age distribution. “It’s a complex thing to do,” says Wickes. “You’d have to age standardise and you’d have to do a whole bunch of funky statistical tricks.” But without this work, she says, it is simply not possible to say with confidence that Sudanese youth are more likely to break the law than other young people. The apparent over-representation in the statistics would certainly be reduced and might even disappear if age distribution was factored in.

Meanwhile, the total number of offences in which Sudanese youth are involved is numerically small. “There is nothing in the statistics to support the idea that we have a crisis of African gang activity such as what’s been reported in the media,” says Wickes. “There’s just simply no evidence base for that whatsoever.”

Police and criminologists agree that a small number of young men of African appearance are responsible for repeated violent offences. “It’s a drop in the offender bucket,” says Wickes. “It’s serious, though, and it has consequences. If anybody has ever been held up at night or invaded in their home [they know] it’s terrifying and dangerous. It’s particularly terrifying in a country like Australia, where serious violence is not the norm.”

Russell Barrett agrees that the serious problem is not vandalism at Ecoville but “a very small cohort of young people from African-Australian backgrounds who we are seeing continually, and they are committing really high-harm crime.”

How big is this cohort? Wickes says the data doesn’t allow an accurate figure to be discerned, but her experience and contacts in law enforcement lead her to the conclusion that it is a few dozen — perhaps around forty. Her impression is that the police are pursuing these groups hard. “They want to see them locked up and off the streets.” Barrett declines to confirm that figure of forty explicitly, but says, “I wouldn’t argue with it.”

It is this group, overwhelmingly, that is committing the serious home invasions and assaults. Added to this are parties that get out of control, the minor crimes like vandalism, and the fact that some of them involve young men of African appearance. “We see parties that get out of hand in policing all the time,” says Barrett. The use of Airbnb properties for parties has made the problem worse. This is a Melbourne-wide problem, but he has observed that such incidents usually make the media only if African youths are involved.

Are the serious offenders of African origin forming gangs? Wickes and Barrett say that it depends partly on definition. There is no hierarchy or organisation within the groups, as there usually is in “gangs.” They don’t wear distinctive colours or move as a unit. A lot of the crimes are opportunistic, sparked by an unlocked house, for example.

Barrett prefers the term “networked youth offending.” In other words, “young people who communicate with each other by social media and come together for a purpose, which might be entertainment or sporting events or crime. They’re all using the same methodology.”

When the groups commit crime, he finds that the young people involved had often not met each other before. “They’ve communicated somehow. They’ve come together through a loose social connection for a short period of time and they’ve gone out and committed a crime together and it could be a really serious high-harm crime. But they don’t actually know each other. They might not have met each other till half an hour beforehand, but they’ve had a connection through social media.”

Early last summer there was a spike in the number of assaults and home invasions committed by such groups. This was the nugget of truth in media reports of crisis. Barrett says there is no discernible reason for that spike, which has now subsided. Summer school holidays are often a period of trouble, with young people on the streets. But the recent Easter school holidays passed without any increase in crime. As for the rest of the media’s talk of crisis, it was mostly breathless reporting of routine incidents such as out-of-control parties and vandalism.

But what about the fear in a place like Tarneit, with its shallow roots and its lack of places in which the people might come together to form a common understanding of the nature of their suburb? Rebecca Wickes says that international research on perceptions of safety consistently finds that people’s fear of crime and perception of personal safety has little to do with the actual crime levels. The research has used every plausible measurement, including researchers driving slowly around a neighbourhood recording incidents. Overwhelmingly, the research shows that the most powerful driver of people’s perception of risk is the level of poverty and ethnic diversity in a neighbourhood. “So I think we have a very strong ‘worried well’ population in Victoria. I think this is absolutely a crisis of perception,” says Wickes.

And Tarneit in particular? The state’s Crime Statistics Agency provided me with crime and country-of-birth figures, both for the City of Wyndham as a whole and for Tarneit specifically. (For privacy reasons, given the small number of offences, the agency would not provide a detailed breakdown of offences by country of birth for an area as small as Tarneit, but it provided that data for Wyndham as a whole.)

In 2017, the period that includes the “summer of hate,” people of Sudanese birth committed ninety-two crimes against the person and sixty-nine property and deception offences in the City of Wyndham. In Tarneit, the Sudanese-born were responsible for 7.2 per cent of all offences, which sounds bad — but the total number of offences was just fifty-one over the year, and it was down on the previous year.

On the other hand, the long-term trend shows sharply increasing percentages of offences committed by the Sudanese-born. At first sight it is alarming — until you match it with the Australian Bureau of Statistics census data. In 2011 there were just eighty-four Sudanese-born people living in Tarneit, and 112 who described their ancestry as Sudanese. By the 2016 census, it was 345 born in Sudan and 621 with Sudanese ancestry. Match this with the crime statistics, and a rough analysis suggests that the apparent leap in Sudanese crime in Tarneit is exactly in line with the increase in the Sudanese population.

It was easy, watching the group at McDonald’s that weekend, to imagine how their boisterousness, their egging each other on and their domination of space could get out of hand. It was easy to imagine them gathering at Ecoville Park before the constant police patrols began and the wi-fi was cut off. It is easy to imagine Ecoville getting trashed.

But in the two hours I watched and stalked these teenagers, they might have been a nuisance, but they did nothing illegal. Apart from their colour, there was nothing to mark them out from any other group of teenagers with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon. This was the closest thing to trouble I found in Tarneit during three weeks of visits.

I stayed in Tarneit until late that night. Peter Dutton had said that people in suburbs like this are scared to go to restaurants. There aren’t any restaurants in Tarneit other than fast-food outlets, but they were doing a good trade. The kebab shop at the shopping centre had a United Nations of ethnicities queuing up to be served.

As midnight approached, Ecoville Park was in darkness, but something was going on. Voices echoed from the “amphitheatre.” A laugh, a string of swearing, the sound of broken glass being kicked.

It was a warm night. It took a while, but finally two figures emerged into the street light — teenagers, a girl and a boy.

It was clear what they were here for. They were flirting and snogging and feeling each other up, out of sight of parents. Who knows what happened on this night, what memories and futures they created in this liminal space, this social hole in this brand-new suburb?

The boy was very tall. He was of African appearance. The girl was white. ●


Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.