Of “Middle-Eastern Appearance”

By Omar Bensaidi
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In one of my first encounters with the NSW police force, I was stopped on suspicion of committing a crime. Apparently, I had fit the description of the criminal: white jumper, black pants and white shoes – quite a generic sketch it would seem. “That’s it, officer? A hundred people in this area fit that description – why me?” I challenged.

“Listen mate, I may be generalising, but I suspect you of the crime, do you got a problem with that?” he replied.

“I think you’re being a bit racist, don’t you think?”

When I said this his eyes lit up and the veins on his forehead pulsated. “I may be stereotyping, or being racist, but I don’t give a fuck. A crime has been committed and you’re the suspect.” And then it hit me. Maybe for him being labelled a racist wasn’t derogatory as we currently imagine it to be. Maybe within the force it was a medal proudly worn alongside the police badge.

Two weeks ago I was threatened with being shot in the back for committing the indictable crime of “jaywalking”. My friends and I had driven 15 minutes to the Eastern suburbs for dinner at a restaurant we frequently visited. But this meal would be different. As we crossed the road, an undercover police car skidded around the corner, cutting us off, attempting to move us off the road. What followed was an intense questioning: it was apparent that jaywalking wasn’t our only crime that night. “What are you guys doing here?,” the officer shouted from within the car. “You guys seem to be a far way from home.” Without accusing us of a crime, the police officer continued questioning our reason for visiting his area, as if our presence had tainted the sanctity of his neighbourhood. I realised then that maybe my Australian citizenship was restricted to Western Sydney.

“You may as well have shot us, instead of trying to run us over with your car,” I said sarcastically. The officer was having none of it. If my mere presence wasn’t enough, here I was spoiling the air with my words. He looked at me dead in the eye: “Why don’t you turn around, run off, and maybe I will.” Immediately visions of Walter Scott gunned down as he ran away from an officer in South Carolina rushed through my mind. I had no intention of testing his resolve. Being suspected of no crime, nor under arrest, I decided to turn around and slowly walk away in the hope of ending the encounter. His voice followed after me, demanding I continue the engagement. I turned around to see the officer clutching at his pistol strapped into his waist belt. He tilted his head towards the gun, “I’m not done with you yet.” He was eager to keep true to his threat, it seemed.

I was humiliated and frightened. Still, I could not claim to be entirely surprised. I understood where this was coming from. Facing police racism was not an unusual occurrence, and was by no means exceptional. In fact, interactions with police authorities had ceased being exceptional long ago, and now merely reinforced my powerlessness in the face of such a racist behemoth. It reminded me – in case I foolishly forgot – of my true place in this society. This particular interaction was simply the latest in a long line to be neatly filed away in the archive of a common history. Painful images of the past resurfaced, and I was forced to relive my many engagements with the police.

As a 17-year-old student, in a backstreet after school, an undercover police officer pinned my body down on the ground, his knee driven deep into my back, and his elbow repeatedly dug into the side of my head, grinding my face into the pavement. “What did I do?,” I pleaded. “This is what you get for being a smartass,” the officer laughed. The greater embarrassment would come a day later when I went to make a complaint at the officer’s police station. Approaching the front desk with a cautious confidence at having the appropriate details, I provided the name of the officer who had assaulted me. Both officers at the desk turned towards each other, smirked, and while laughing one of them told me, “Never heard of him”. Powerlessness set in. Standing in the middle of that police station, I felt tiny. Emotions of anger, frustration and weakness brewed inside me. Nothing could be done, and clearly nothing would.

Two years earlier, while I was on my way home from school, police officers charged into the upper deck of the train I was on, past a carriage full of passengers, and straight towards me. “Train ticket,” they demanded. I had accidentally left my student ticket at home on that day, but no amount of reasoning or justification would deter them from issuing me a $200 fine. A 15-year-old, unemployed school student, I was forced to pay a fine which I had no means of paying. A middle-aged white man in a suit turned to me after the police had left, chuckled and said, “Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw, I don’t have my ticket on me either.”

Encounters with police racism and brutality are no strangers within my community. If it’s not you on the receiving end, it’s always someone’s brother, cousin, uncle or a local business man being harassed by police. Indeed, recounting all police abuse would fill pages upon pages. But the majority of these cases are never brought to light. There is an implicit defeatism within my community, and it is somewhat understandable. After so many racially-driven encounters, we’ve learnt to play the position handed to us, to submit.

The police encounter is haunting. You sense the ominous aura cast over the street when a police van slowly drives through, scanning the area for potential “suspects”. Everybody around instinctively shudders. Tensions rise. Hearts palpitate as people lower their heads under the weight of suspicion. Crimes we have never committed.

You see we suffer from a chronic condition, all of us. A crime so grand, it is best viewed as a deadly disease or an eternal curse. A pre-emptive crime; one that convicts us before we even act. A crime so grave, it justifies having your shoulders dislocated, your head smashed against the curb or your face showered with pepper spray.

We are criminals, it’s true. Guilty of Middle-Eastern appearance.

Omar Bensaidi is a 20-year-old student at the University of Western Sydney.

Feature image: Highway Patrol Images/Flickr

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  • Nathan

    With all due respects Omar, firstly I don’t wish to imply that the confrontations between yourself (and others within your community) and the police are not factual or correct accounts.
    Unfortunately that is something that no one else can proof unless they were thier during these encounters or if their was video or audio records from confrontation.
    This article is from your perspective and also your recollection which by all fairness can be deemed somewhat bias, which I can hope you can understand ofcourse.

    I find it hard to believe that police officers of Australia would act in this manner with yourself and others of the Middle Eastern appearance, in every and all encounters between these two parties, I do believe that there are a few minority that do act unprofessional and conduct themselves in racial and discrimintory manner.
    These personal should not be within this job plain and simple, as you can and should agree.

    However there are some within your community also the minority who conduct themselves in way that feeds the tensions between both parties.
    My examle of this is the ‘Carnita Matthews’ case, as it is well documented case. Ms Matthews (a women of muslim faith/ in muslim attire) was pulled over for random breath test which the officer had been conducting along that road for a period of time, Ms Matthews abused the officer, calling him racist, he had delibrately choose her for her attire, officer acted calm and professional.
    The next day Ms Matthews made a complaint against the police and went to media with her story. Inflating the anger and hatred towards police from a community which already has a mistrust/ dislike for because they are the ‘abusers’ of that community.
    Upon video/audio evidence given society as a whole were able to see the truth.

    Therefore I don’t believe that all men and women of Middle eastern appearances are criminals same as I dont believe all police/law men are corrupt, I do believe there are a minority in both that do your side’s injustices.

    Personally I prefer to hear bothsides of story, and see/hear any evidence that supports claims so I can make my mind up in regards to what happened like most Aussies and yourself I take ofcourse.

    Please don’t label me as a racist or an islamiphobia because of my views/ response, These terms are used often to put down a view that is different to others in this case your’s (your article). These words also prevent any real and open discussion.

    I did enjoy reading your article as well,
    Thank You

  • Julian

    Wow. A rather well written article. However nothing more than a one sided perspective from just another person crying victim. Regardless of race, ethnicity or prejudice I highly doubt these encounters took place as described. One second your speaking sarcastically, arrogantly, to the officer saying he may as well have shot you, then all of a sudden your humiliated and frightened. I highly doubt it. Speak the truth and there is some value. A creative recount, with a visible agenda means nothing.

  • Editor

    This comment has been removed by the editor because it does not meet Right Now’s community standards. For more information on our comments policy, see: http://rightnow.org.au/contribute/

  • Sienna

    Wow, the ‘liberal’ racists come out to play in the comments section, how surprising. Just because your white privilege blinds you to others’ experiences does not mean they don’t occur unless there is ‘audio or video recording’. Jesus christ, isn’t the USA a well-documented enough example that this stuff occurs daily, even on our own doorsteps? We dehumanise refugees with PTSD with some idiotic misnomer about their assumed means of travel that the media and politicians use – news flash, AUSTRALIANS ARE RACIST AS HELL. Want a homegrown example that is documented, what about Aboriginal deaths in custody? We have higher rates here than America does. Of course if you are threatened with a gun after making a harmless comment your mood would change drastically, how is that not obvious… Commenters, why is it so hard for you to believe someone else’s experience? Are you distrusting because you are not only ignorant but also untrustworthy?

  • calum

    Australian police Aren’t racist towards middle eastern people they are prejudice against anyone of lower socioeconomic class. Im white and live in a less prevliged area i have had many encounters with police in my areas some when i was on my own some when i was with white freinds some with islanders and some with my middle eastern freinds the amount of animosity towards us was generally the same when with all the different groups the main factor that influenced the police’ attitude towards us were the clothes we were wearing and the location we were in the race of the people didnt seem to have much influence. You can call me racist or ignorant but i have had a gun pulled on me by police and jamed in my face while i walked through a park late at night with 3 other white males because i fit the appearance of a suspect who had broken into a school around the corner from the park i was belittled and abused by the white police for my attire the fact that me and my freinds (plus half the country) were wearing black jumpers tracksuit pants and trainers the same as the suspect despite the fact that there were four of us and the police report said that there was only one male entering the school was enough evidence for us to have a fire arm pulled on us and a full search of our body with a complete investigation into our movement for the night…. Im not saying cops arent corrupt and yes in america they seem to be completely racist but australian cops arent racist they just hate everyone who is poor or less educated myself included.

  • John Atridge

    Thanks Sienna.

  • Mo

    To all the people critisising his “one sided account” – it must be nice to be white eh?

    As a person of ‘middle eastern appearance’ growing up on the very white northern beaches, my experience is very similar to the authors. On several occasions. I used to think that “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to be afraid of” but that has been repeatedly proven to be untrue in mine and the author’s case. I am unfailingly polite to police and NEVER speak rudely to them however I have been “searched for a knife” at the age of 16 which was an opportunity for the officer to grab my privates and have been accused of driving a stolen car (that was clearly registered to my father, same surname, same address) and I can only guess these incidents were done specifically to get me to react. Which i did not.

  • Jayden

    Lol at all the insulated little white men who have never had to deal with police racism (or racism in generaly/any discrimination of any kind) their whole lives, and thus whose response is simply “I can’t believe that these things would happen, therefore they didn’t”.
    This article presents just one person’s experience, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of other experiences (+investigations/reports/academic work) out there documenting the systematic problem if you actually care to step out of your own sheltered bubble and listen.

  • Doctor Hibbert

    My best advice to you on dealing with police, as another person of South-West Asian appearance (please don’t use the Eurocentric “Middle Eastern”), is to put on your poshest, most refined accent, most nonchalant attitude, and change your name to something Anglo. You’ll still encounter racism (I sure as shit do) but you’ll experience less of it, and the police will be intimidated by you. If your name is “Heath Wilson” the police will think twice about shooting you. “Maybe he’s got a white parent”, they’ll think, “and I won’t be able to get away with killing him, because society will value the voice of his white parent speaking out in outrage over my illegal killing of him”.

    Most importantly, the police don’t want to deal with people who are obviously smarter than them, because it makes them feel little, and they’ll try to minimise their interactions with you to minimise their internal feelings of shame at being such idiots (most police have below-average IQs, so this works with nearly all of them). Use big words, give the appearance of wealth. Your interactions with most police will go from feelings of intimidation to feeling that they’re merely a minor nuisance, and you’re in control of them.

  • Scott

    No racism. Pigs hate everyone the same. Training to be oppressive plays havoc with their manipulated brains and leaves them with a ‘ better than thou’ conditioning.
    It’s plain as day, and those in charge know exactly what they’re doing.

  • Adrian

    Nathan & Julian, if either of you “Highly doubt” any of Omar’s accounts then you need to get out more

    I think Sienna pegged you both right as ‘liberal’ and blinded by the ignorance of your white privilege.

    How absolutely condescending and bigoted yourself there Julian to suggest on throne hand that it’s “Highly doubtful this ever happened” while on the other suggesting “well, there’s some really bad Middle Easterner’s out there you know”

    Seriously dude, pick a side and stick with it – either you doubt that it happened because you’re utterly clueless about the reality of policing in a City like Sydney (what Omar encountered is a matter of daily life in Parramatta & Mount Druitt for people who’ve done nothing wrong)

    OR

    Wake up to the fact that your own words justifying such behaviour from the police towards someone doing no wrong makes you no better than the inbred mouth breathers who believe anything they hear on 2GB or read in one of Rupert Murdoch’s Redneck rags.

    The police are trained paid and sworn to uphold the law (not break it by harassing innocent civilians) and protect the rights of all law abiding citizens – not just the pleasant clean cut white ones who look like they just came from a Young Liberals Function.

    This country is as racist as hell – We torture brown people so a shameless bigot can falsely claim he’s stopped the boats, we don’t question racist arseclowns from spewing hatred on the radio or in a Newslimited paper (but hey, we’ll raid a Mosque with hundreds of cops if we even suspect a Muslim guy said something bad) and we now have inbreds running around claiming Vegemite supports ISIL via halal certification….

    Pull your heads out of your white privelige ignorance (and casually racist arrogance) and face up to the fact that you have yet another report of what most people accept is the ugly reality of 2015 Australia.

    We’re governed by a party that cynically & deliberately exploits racism, in partnership with a media that spews it and – surprise surprise – we have idiots in positions of authority over others – from Transfield/Serco guards to the Police (particularly in Sydney) who are racially abusive to people who are seemingly powerless against them.

    There should be nothing but outrage that any Australian citizen, regardless of ethnicity, is harassed and abused by the Police when doing no wrong AND that there is a culture within the Police force of both racism and covering up for colleagues when a complaint is made.

    It is as unacceptable to have racist abusive thugs in our Police forces as it is to have cops taking bribes. Period. It’s these scum giving the good cops a bad name – not their victims, like Omar.

  • Lily

    This article is very interesting – and even more so the responses. I find it appalling that some responses would justify the actions of police by saying that minority members of certain demographics don’t behave well. If that is true, police brutality is justified for all of the population based on this rationale. Let me be clear. I have worked in two jurisdictions in Australia in relation to police integrity, and what the author has experienced is VERY common. Not just for Australians with a Middle Eastern appearance, but for Indigenous Australians in particular. There is ongoing evidence of a culture in Australian policing communities of a violent and superioristic attitude in many police. I certainly don’t think that all police are so – in fact, I have worked with many wonderful police who care deeply about this type of abuse of the community and public trust. But let’s be honest – it is part of the culture in a significant amount of police stations – and you can’t address culture through centralised policy and procedure. For the brave and ethical police to stand up against their peers if they are have minority views in that group is impossible. They need support, and they need leaders – which are there, but you also have an incredibly strong union also afflicted with the same values that are causing these issues. The public need to support policing leaders actively and vocally, to implement such change rather than blaming victims and being apathetic.

  • eleni aus

    When officers / State Rail etc usually go through a train carriage they generally ask EVERYONE re their ticket … including little grey haired ladies … having had this happen twice in the last two years (and I rarely travel by train) … We now have ‘Opal’ card so most people now have the auto ticket system thingie… so even though UWS student Bensaidi wrote this very recently, part of the content is strangely already out of date… In the old days it was ‘of Southern European appearance’ (code for Italian/Greek in post war Australia?) how about ‘Mediterranean appearance’ – covers ‘Southern European’ ‘AND Middle Eastern appearance! and a large part of the population (including a number of Indigenous!)

  • Nathan

    Adrian, I grew up in Sydney in the Marcather reign. I lived in housing commission and I went to public school’s. I know how the police treat people and I also know how those people treat the police.
    I am no white privilaged, spoil brat from Northern beaches, I aint ignorant or blind either. I see peoples reaction when they see police, you notice the slight change in the person’s body language and behaviour. The reason people distrust and dislike in the police is that they have little or no respect for the law and the people that represent the law. It’s simple you don’t like cops and the way they treat yourself, join the police, conduct yourself in the manner with the australian community as you want police to act/ treat you. Omar and yourself should not blame the police (play victim card) but be leaders and join the force to alter the ‘culture of discrimination’ if thats the issue. Or engage with community and police groups to work toward positive relationship.

    Sienna, firstly your comment about PTSD/ refugees. Ok I didn’t hear you mention the PTSD of the personal within the Australian Defence Force? The PTSD within the Police, Ambulance or Firefighting service? The PTSD of personal who suffer life altering accidents/ injuries? or do they not matter?
    Yes the refugees may be upset, they may be depressed they may even be traumatised from things they saw/ experiened. Yet you feel nothing for those who have to risk their life saving them, it must be another day at office to remove the corpses out of water/ boat by customs/military and police personal. Stopping the boats is the safest option if you and australian community value life. They are in refugee centres/ detention centres because theirs a process that must be undertaken for asylum, how would it look globally if Australia allowed people to enter country both through the refugee process and also through people smuggling operations? We would look corrupt and that we support illegal actives that risk nation and it people (diseases, security, crime, drugs etc).
    Australia is not a racist country and majority of the people aren’t. You said australia has higher deaths of Aboriginals in custody, I will take your word on that. And yes Aboriginals were abused/mistreated by early english settlers and introduction of alcohol, disease, drugs, etc and slowly the nation is trying to make amends to that. Some abuse still occurs, statistically a lot from within own communities as well these days. I’d also like to point out that history of the world has many cases where new settlers killed/destroyed previous society (not just in australia eg germania, america, middle east (Persia) the baulkans etc).
    The original australian pygmies were wiped out by aboriginals and european settlers claimed australia because they viewed the aboriginals as undeveloped (one of the only cultures/people to not create the wheel/ other common things). Australias size properly detered the polyonesians from claiming this land like they did with other islands. (Maori’s ate the new zealand pygmies when they claimed it) Now Im off track.
    Police have throughout history been hated, seen as the abusers and violent monsters of society, the thing is as humans we honest hate authority no matter the type, and over time any respect for law or authority appears to be gone. The public need to support policing leaders actively and vocally, to implement such change. Not just say australia and police are racist.