The Banality of Police Racism

By Mohamad Tabbaa | 30 Aug 13

By Mohamad Tabbaa

We often hear – and especially from police – that police abuse is an issue of “bad apples”, or individual members doing the wrong thing; one-off bad incidents, we are often told. However, for those of us on the receiving end, we know that the problem of police racism and profiling is endemic. It is a problem of police culture, and not individual attitudes. It is a problem of systems and structures, not a few bad apples.

For this reason I would like to focus on the banality of police racism and profiling. The ordinariness, the everydayness of this relationship; the way it comes to be not only normalised, but also justified and rationalised, even by its victims. The overt and implicit forms of police profiling work with other forms of racism in society to come to define the life of many youth in this state and country.

So where do I begin? I can’t recall my first instance of police racism, though my memory is filled with scattered incidents in no discernable order. I could begin by telling you of the time me and some friends were pepper-sprayed by police on a beach in Rye, after they had seen two groups fighting and falsely assumed that the group consisting of Arabs must by default have been in the wrong. I could tell you how a friend of mine that day was arrested, and while sitting silently on his knees, hands cuffed behind his back, was brutally assaulted from behind by an officer for no apparent reason, having his head wedged between the ground and the officer’s knee.

I could tell you how that same group of officers recorded all of our details, and when we asked for their details, as is our right, they told us to piss off, as they hid their police badges in their front pockets. I could tell you that we had footage of this, which we took to the media minutes later, only to be told that they were not interested. I could tell you of my friend’s pain as he was taken to the police station and consistently beaten until he finally agreed to wipe his own blood from the cell floor. He was then thrown out onto the streets with no way home, but with 12 charges for which he later served jail time.

Only a few weeks ago I was stopped five times in twenty minutes, by different officers at Melbourne Airport, for the crime of travelling while Muslim.

I could tell you of the endless number of instances where us young teenagers would be rounded up and thrown into the back of the police divvy-vans and beaten up with yellow pages, with police making no record of the interaction. Or how we would be subjected to regular and intrusive searches and questioning, where the only suspicion was that we were young Arabs sitting in a group. And of course, no permission was ever sought for such searches. I could tell you of numerous instances where police would find small amounts of drugs on some of us, put it straight into their pockets, and tell us to “fuck off”. I could tell you how, at the tender age of around 12, the mere sight of a police car would make us all simultaneously run. When one of us came to his senses and asked why we were running when we hadn’t committed any crime, the others instantly brought him back to his actual senses, reminding him that we didn’t need to commit any crime to be in trouble with the police.

I could tell you how by age fifteen, police harassment was so common, that most officers knew us by name, despite none of us having a criminal record.

And that is only the early teens. I could tell you how only a couple of years ago an officer threw a barrage of profanities at me when I declined to voluntarily give him a friend’s phone number. Or that only a few weeks ago I was stopped five times in twenty minutes, by different officers at Melbourne Airport, for the crime of travelling while Muslim.

My intention is not to narrate a list of incidents for their own sake. Instead, I would like to run you through one very simple incident, in order to draw out the many implications of police racism on the lives of certain youth.

The incident occurred somewhere between the years 1997-2000. Myself and two friends, all young teens, were sitting on a train heading from Coburg into the city. Two police officers boarded the train, and headed straight towards us. They spoke to us in an intimidating and derogatory manner, demanding to see our tickets. We all obediently produced valid tickets and concession cards. One of the two officers then loudly accused us of belonging to a violent criminal gang, demanding that we admit to our involvement and provide certain other details. None of us had ever seen the officers before this day.

Two of us lived in Coburg, and so were quite used to this sort of treatment, for barely a train ride passed without being approached – exclusively – by either police officers or train inspectors and harassed. We therefore subdued ourselves and played what we had come to understand as our role; our main purpose being to avoid eye contact in the fear of provoking the officer further. The third of us however, was not from the area, and so was not aware of his predetermined role in this relationship. Despite our best efforts at silencing him, he argued back, questioning why we were being treated in this unfair manner.

The moment he opened his mouth, the two us knew that we were in for some trouble (the fact that we had not committed any sort of crime never actually entered our thought process). And we had assumed correctly. The officer became very angry, arguing with the “troublemaker”, and began writing out infringement notices for not having valid tickets.

While we accepted this as part of our daily reality, our friend again protested: “why are we getting fines when we have proper tickets?” he asked. The officer answered, unequivocally, in front of a bunch of passengers: “because you’re a fucking lebo!”

As mentioned above, this is but one of a litany of incidents of mistreatment at the hands of police, and one of the less-violent ones, which can only be put down to racism and profiling. But this is an explicit example, and clearly one of a “bad apple”. What is more interesting – and damaging – in this scenario is not the incident itself, but the ramifications that flow from such incidents.

The immediate impacts are obvious. We felt a mixture of humiliation, anger, resentment, hopelessness and inferiority. Here were a small bunch of kids minding their own business, only to be publicly humiliated by uniformed officers, given a fine for no reason, and with none of the many witnesses on the carriage coming to our aid. Above everything, we felt abandoned. It obviously ruined our day, and contributed to the way we viewed authority in general, and police in particular.

And these are only some of the immediate effects. Being a keen legal studies student and an optimistic youngster, I told my friends not to worry because I could appeal the unfair fines. I sent a letter to the appropriate authorities outlining the incident, providing evidence of our tickets and concession cards, and asking for an internal review. I received a letter back a short while later, simply stating that the appeal was unsuccessful, and that if I wanted to take the matter further, I would have to go to court.

Eager to contest the matter, I investigated further. I quickly learnt that 1) the court costs would be higher than the fine itself, and 2) that Legal Aid cannot offer assistance in such scenarios. We were stuck. Our only option was to pay the unjust fines. However, this task was not only undesirable, but also impossible. We didn’t have jobs. I had sent in a strong resume to Safeway when they advertised a position for a Trolley Boy. I never heard back, but a few days later saw a young white kid with freckles pushing trolleys at the Safeway car park. We literally had no options.

So, we left them; we simply ignored the fines in the hope that they would go away. But of course, fines don’t simply disappear if ignored. Instead, they accumulate. So every few months we would receive a letter stating that our fines had increased by x amount, and this continued for a long period of time.

In the meantime, life went on. Police harassment continued, as did the on-the-spot fines. Some were on the trains, again despite valid tickets. For those of us driving, we commonly received fines ranging from unroadworthy vehicles, to seatbelt offences, to speeding fines and numerous others. Some of these were warranted and real, many were not, and we quickly realised after comparing with our white friends, that we were obviously being targeted.

We reached the obvious conclusion: that there was no point wasting what little money we had on train tickets when we would likely be fined anyway, and that likewise there was little point ensuring our cars were in roadworthy condition, when this mattered very little to the police who stopped us. (As one example of many, a friend was constantly fined on the claim that his car was unroadworthy, until he made sure to keep a current roadworthy certificate in his car at all times. This did not stop the fines, and after an extended period his only option was to sell his car.) So we stopped buying train tickets, and didn’t care an awful lot for road rules – we thought, if we’re going to receive a fine either way, we may as well enjoy ourselves and save some money.

The results of this were as obvious as they were cyclical: the more fines we received, the more we broke the law, the more fines we received. And it kept going on like this for many, many years.

The reason I use this example – and I could have used numerous others – is to draw out the impacts of such seemingly isolated incidents. When looked at in a broader context, they are not so insignificant.

In this case, there were both psychological and material aspects to this experience. On a psychological level, knowing that all these fines are accumulating in the background induces great anxiety and insecurity. Receiving constant letters and phone calls from the Sherriff’s Office threatening to seize your assets to pay for your fines was never a good feeling – it was quite crippling. It made it hard to motivate oneself to work or study; what was the point of putting in all this effort if most of my money was going to the Sherriff’s Office anyhow? It was not difficult to adopt a defeatist mentality after that point, as life seemed to be conspiring against you.

It was also stigmatising; one never knew who might discover their wretched history and judge them as a result, even years later. I remember living in a constant fear when I first got married, scared that my wife might find out about both my past and my fines, and worried about how she might view me as a result. This fear I believe is part of the reason why many youth fear speaking out.

The impacts on their mental and physical health, and on their life prospects, are often irreversible. And this is to say nothing of the impacts on their families, including their children.

The material aspect was no less severe. After multiple fines and years of accumulation, we are talking about serious money. For my own part, as I write this today, with no criminal record, having never been charged, let alone convicted of any crime, I still have a debt of about $10,000 in fines, which has followed me around constantly for over a decade. If it was not bad enough that my studies and work were delayed significantly by the realities of life, now that I have managed to get my life together, it will still be some years before I might actually free myself from the injustices of my younger years.

And I’m one of the luckier ones. Other friends reached debts upwards of $50,000, after which their cars were repossessed, and they were sent to jail for lengthy periods. Many are never able to leave the jail-cycle after that first experience, and don’t make it out of jail except that they find themselves back in a short while later. Needless to say, the impacts on their mental and physical health, and on their life prospects, are often irreversible. And this is to say nothing of the impacts on their families, including their children.

In fact, from the many people I knew growing up, I am one of the only ones to have come out relatively unscathed, which is the only reason why I can sit here today, as an educated family man, living a comparably comfortable life, and address you in a language you might understand. Most of my friends from my childhood and early adolescent days have ended up in jail, on the streets, on drugs, dead or simply unmotivated. I learnt only a few months ago that a close friend of mine hung himself in one of Victoria’s jail cells.

This is the banality of police racism. It kills.

Mohamad Tabbaa is currently completing his PhD in Criminology & Law at the University of Melbourne, and is an Executive Director at the Islamic Council of Victoria.

A version of this article was presented at the People’s Hearing into Racism and Policing.