Of “Middle-Eastern Appearance”

By Omar Bensaidi

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