A Man Like Ishmail – Police, Relations and Race

By Ellena Savage

By Ellena Savage.

A version of this article previously appeared on the Tharunka website, and was the winner of Tharunka Non-Fiction Writing Competition.

It is May, 2009. A cold, clear night; frost will set over the tips of lawns before dawn. I wait at a bar for my new boyfriend, Ishmail, an attractive Eritrean-Australian I met though high-school friends. He is late. Of course, he is late.

I drink while I wait, and I look at my phone. I text a friend, and bump into my brother who is on a date with someone who bothered to show up. I have a beer with them, and almost forget just how late he is. I try not to get angry. But an hour passes, my brother is leaving, and when for the third time Ishmail doesn’t answer my call, I consider passive-aggressively deleting his number and going home.

I call him one more time. He answers, sobbing, and says he has been attacked. I push my way through the crowd onto the street. Ten minutes later the taxi drops me where he is, by the gutter on this cool night. I squeeze him and kiss his swollen, wet face, which stings my eyes and mouth. He has been pepper-sprayed.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper in his ear. “This would never happen to me.” It’s not the most sensitive observation for the moment, but he agrees. He likes it when I admit my whiteness, my air of a university education, prevents me from being mistreated by police officers on most occasions.

I take Ishmail in my arms and we hobble down the street to a bar where we can talk. He tells me about being attacked by three men: two looked Polynesian, one looked African. All three were on ice, and had just been thrown out of a bar for brawling. The police intervened by indiscriminately pepper-spraying all four, wrestling everyone to the ground. Ishmail says the brutality was due to the officers’ inability to discriminate, based on colour, who the victim was.

Ishmail was ground to the pavement with the boot of an officer, who told him to shut up when he protested. The police ran the men’s identities, and found that one of the attackers had seventeen warrants out for his arrest. The officers laughed, and the one whose boot was pressed on Ishmail’s chest said, “Thanks for helping us find him, mate,” and pushed him away. Security guards from across the road, who had only minutes prior removed the three assailants from their club, corroborated Ishmail’s version of events. The police were not interested.

After one beer, Ishmail is ready for bed. As we walk to the street to hail a cab, one of the police officers approaches us. He is tall, blonde, and ruddy-faced; a gangly 20-year old with a firearm on his belt. “You’re keen, aren’t yer?” he bellows in our direction. We wince and slide into the back seat of a cab. The driver offers us his condolences: “Coppers are bastards, all of ‘em.” Which is kind, but distinctly unhelpful.


Police powers are such that we allow them to exercise force in the public interest, however it is we define that. That night, I came to realise that Ishmail isn’t always included in the public interest; and that it is, in fact, because he’s black.

Simon Overland,Victoria’s former Police Chief Commissioner himself admitted that allegations of police racism had been substantiated during his tenure. Yet no police officer in the state has ever been disciplined for racial discrimination or race-related misconduct.

In November of 2010, sixteen African-Australians and one Afghan-Australian filed a human rights case in the Federal Court of Australia suing seven Victorian police officers and the Chief Commissioner Of Victoria Police for 58 counts of racial discrimination they claim amount to systemic racial discrimination.

The file seeks an acknowledgement that racial profiling and discrimination is a reality in policing, and systemic reform. Specifically, the introduction of paper records being issued to all individuals police “stop-and-search”, outlining the legal reasons for their contact; the introduction of a truly independent investigative body to investigate police misconduct; and the restriction of police contact with minors and ethnic minorities to situations where there is statutory or common law grounds to question a person.

It’s the first case of its kind in the state. The outcome—which still could be years away—is hopeful, according to their attorney.

I knew about the violence before the case came up, and before I met Ishmail. But, I knew about it in the same way that everyone knows about it: in a way that attributes a touch of blame to the victims.


Ishmail and I spend all our time together. A few months into our relationship, to the despair of his parents, he moves into my hovel of a student house, replete with mission-brown gunk-encrusted tiles and exposed grey brick walls. “You don’t have to leave,” Ishmail’s father pleads with him. “We’ll just do an Islamic engagement and she can come and live with us.”

But I want to continue my somewhat high-functioning alcoholic lifestyle, and Ishmail wants to indulge his high-functioning pot habit with impunity. So we go to work and school and parties, and spend the rest of our time in bed growing bellies. I read him Huckleberry Finn out loud, and we argue about whether or not it is racist. We tell each other intimate things: betrayals and guilty jealousies and the menace of the world outside our bubble. He shares his high-level mischief as a child, and the fear instilled in him by the police back then.

He tells me about one of the police officers who used to work at the Carlton police station, in inner northern Melbourne. The officer’s name was Wagner, the story goes, and he was famous for pulling over wherever the boys and young men were sitting or playing to bark racist abuse at them. “Go back to Africa, fucking black cunts.” If anyone dared record such an incident, his phone was confiscated on the grounds that it might be “stolen property”. And in some cases, it was. One of the boys from the neighbourhood swears he saw a swastika tattooed on Wagner’s arm beneath his shirt.

I need to see it to believe it, but I don’t know how to find him, or whether he even exists. I email the police media department a few times to see if I can interview officers when race-related issues transpire, but they never respond. I talk with a journalist who once worked in that department, and he tells me that the community policing projects in the inner-city are “really great.” With the “Sudanese kids.”

Ishmail tells me that community policing afternoons, where the kids and the cops all play soccer together and eat halal sausages are known to be where officers source information from kids about other kids. And that most kids don’t want to be befriended by old white cops in any case.


I read the Statement of Claim, the public document which outlines the specific charges the court case is pursuing, and I feel sick all over. I am at a cafe in inner-city Carlton, in the bourgeois part, which is poetically shadowed by the not-so-bourgeois highrise flats. It is there that some of the alleged abuses occurred.

The charges in the document are horrifying. One applicant alleges a police officer broke his finger during an arbitrary “stop and search” when he was thirteen. “The bone remains broken.”

In another claim, an applicant alleges that during an arbitrary police interrogation in a public space in Broadmeadows in 2006, one police officer said words to the effect of, “Don’t be a smart-arse, we’ll take you back to the police station and you’ll beg for mercy to stop us from fucking you and no one will listen”.

Allegedly, the same boy was then put to the ground by the officers and dragged along it, hearing their taunts, “Fucking black cunt, you fucking animal, you dog, you should never have come here, go back to Africa,” and “We are going to fuck you up the arse, you black cunt.” He says he was then taken in a divisional van to a garage where the officers punched his face and kicked him in many parts of his body; one police officer allegedly hit the applicant’s face with a torch or a can. After he awoke from a period of unconsciousness, the applicant says he was taken to a local park where he was left.

Individually, these instances might be seen as isolated criminal acts, perpetrated by criminals who happen to be police officers. But the trend, and the silence surrounding it, amounts to a culture of systematic rights violations. Individual complaints need to be understood in the context of a generalised atmosphere of racial discrimination and violence by police, who act with the state’s protection.

I spoke with Daniel Haile-Michael about policing a few months before the case went to court. We met in an Ethiopian cafe in Footscray, near his university where he studies Engineering. I asked Daniel why he thought African men were being singled out for interrogation in public spaces by police. He told me that a few years ago, an excuse given by the police to the community was police officers admitted they “can’t differentiate between the way Africans and Arabs look.”

“I think maybe it’s something they gotta look at in their strategy, you know: teach the officers to differentiate between Africans and Arabs?”

In areas where African-Australian residence is dense, Melbourne suburbs like Flemington and Kensington, North Melbourne, and Ascot Vale, over-policing is an issue. These suburbs are home to high-density Housing Commission homes that were erected in the 1960s to eradicate the urban slums.

In the early 2000s, the heroin market embedded itself in these flats, after saturation policing displaced it from the streets of Richmond and Fitzroy. The buildings’ centrality and spatial protection from police (people inside the units can see police officers come and go fairly easily) made the flats an ideal outlet for traffickers, who coerced existing residents—usually addicts themselves, or otherwise vulnerable people—to access their space for business. It was a case of misappropriation of a public resource, a spoiling of the commons. Police numbers remain dense.

An African-Australian friend who lives in such a place, in the Flemington area, told me that on one occasion his ID was checked seven times by police while he was in a public space in a three-hour period. Then he said, “I’ve been called a black cunt and black shit by police officers so many times, I’ve come to expect it.”

Back in the cafe, Daniel said, “If you have police officers who can get away with things like that, it makes you feel like you will never belong in society, that you’re not welcome here, and that you are a second-class citizen no matter what … For any migrant community, police are a reflection of the government and the mainstream community.”

I asked Daniel why he thought middle-class Australia isn’t interested in these cases. “I think middle-class Australia cares more about their dogs and pets than refugees. Seriously. They have their own TV shows. We don’t even have a serious television series that talks about racism and refugees, or even represents any migrant views. So I think middle-class Australia couldn’t care less.”


The months pass, and Ishmail celebrates his first Christmas with my family. We indulge ever-changing traditions; this year it is a European Christmas: turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, roast vegetables, steamed greens, pudding, hard sauce. Towards the end of the meal, Ishmail takes a turkey drumstick for seconds. It is cooked solid. He slips it around the plate with his cutlery, about to sling it into an idle champagne glass.

“You can use your hands, you know,” I implore him. “I would. It’s rock solid.”

After the meal, while my family drunkenly slosh dish-water around and crash plates against one another, Dad pulls me aside.

“I think that a man like Ishmail would really benefit from learning to use cutlery properly,” he says.

“Think of who he might dine with in the future. Maybe you should teach him, just for his own sake.”


Late in 2010, Australia was reviewed by the United Nation’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Emily Howie, the Director of Advocacy and Strategic Litigation at the Human Rights Law Centre in Victoria, spent a morning telling me about it.

The Australian representative, she said, described Australia to the committee as, “The most welcoming and tolerant country in the world,” whose teaching of English to new arrivals is emblematic of an embrace of multiculturalism. The Racial Discrimination Act was, while these words were spoken, suspended in the Northern Territory.

“At an international level,” Emily said, “they think that’s just absurd.”

“One language is not multiculturalism. Allowing people to speak their language, and to encourage the thriving of many languages is.”

The CERD report on Australia listed many concerns with our implementation of racial discrimination, among which included prohibitive obstacles to native title, mandatory detention for asylum seekers, the denial of racial motivations in the attacks of Indian international students, concerns about the impact of anti-terror laws on ethnic minority groups, and the grossly disproportionate incarceration rates and deaths in custody of the indigenous population.

“The difficult thing about racism in Australia is that most people don’t want to admit it at all. And yet, it’s quite naked racism compared to what it would be like in a lot of other countries,” Emily said.


It is a Wednesday night and Ishmail and I eat at his parents place. I feel a duty to eat extensively at their house, to the pleasure of his mum who scoops stuffed capsicums and zucchinis, macaroni, rice, and curry onto my plate. She tells me I am skinny, which is not particularly true. We watch the DVD of his sister’s wedding in Cairo, and sip ginger infused coffee.

On the drive home, a police car tails us. Ishmail points it out. We take a few turns and the car is still behind us.

“Why are they following us?” I frown.

It feels undignified. Ishmail laughs, and explains that when you come from the flats, the police just want to make sure they know who you are and where you’re going. All the time.

The drive home takes over fifteen minutes, and when we are just a few blocks from home, Ishmail turns right as the arrow light clocks over from amber to red. Blue lights flash behind us, and we pull over. The two officers inspect our car with torches, and check Ishmail’s driver’s license. “Do you know why we’re pulling you over?” one of the women asks. Something about a red light. No oncoming traffic. Thought it was still amber.

“Your fine will arrive in the mail soon.”

There is, of course, no fine. Nor a record of the stop.


A Freedom of Information request obtained in 2010 found that Victoria Police paid out $5.5 million—at the state’s expense; the victims’ expense—in civil settlements over a period of three years. Civil litigation between citizens and police that are settled out of court are confidential, and usually don’t result in disciplinary action for the perpetrators.

These payments compensate victims, and privately acknowledge the reality of misconduct. But they guarantee a veil of silence to be drawn around issues of misconduct, and remove the prospect of discipline and systemic reform.

When I spoke with Tamar Hopkins, the solicitor representing the young men in the Federal Court, and the principle solicitor at Flemington Kensington Legal Centre, she said, “You can’t have an individual officer acting with the kind of racism that we’re seeing in the company of other officers who are silent in the face of that and not see this as something far greater than one-offs … Individual officers [are] backed by the silence and complicity of officers who are acting with them.”

“Part of it is what goes on in a day-to-day basis, and I think this is a problem in society at large … It’s experienced as a form of terrorism,” she said.

“Because police have not been disciplined for years … people who are engaged in rights violations move up the hierarchy over time. You start to get a culture of a lack of accountability. This is a recipe for disaster. Failure to deal with those problems from thirty years ago is still having impacts now.


A couple of years pass, and Ishmail and I find that the salad days are over. He thinks my friends are wankers, and I think he’s probably on the money.

I know that he is good, really good, and that he has a lot more to go through than I do in becoming a grown up. He is a black man in a white world, and a world that refuses to even admit that he is treated differently. He doesn’t have the same kind of self-love that I do; things don’t matter as much to him, because it is as though he doesn’t matter as much.

One night, months after our breakup, a friend tells me over drinks that Ishmail and I made a good match because he was from a lower social class than me, so I could tolerate being sexually submissive to him. Unwelcome, and hinging on inaccessible knowledge, the blanks in my friend’s analysis are filled in with fetishist assumptions about race, class, and the assumed sexual appetites of black men.

I reprimand him for longer than he deserves, and go to bed drunk and furious. Nonetheless, I wake up a white woman with prospects, my privilege a form of complicity. And I don’t know who’s more full of shit.