The media, ‘Apex Gang’ and coded racism
Executive Officer Anthony Kelly explores how the media portrayal of ethnicity & crime is being used politically.
Since the Moomba long weekend in March last year, ‘Apex Gang’ has become a code word. A unifying term used by journalists, commentators and politicians to link a series of criminal acts into a particular narrative that has been driving community fear, vigilante responses, racial profiling, criminal justice and damaging law and order policies that will have far reaching impacts upon our criminal justice system.
So why is this happening?
The crimes described in media articles are indeed horrific and they should be reported on and the subject of commentary. Home invasions and car-jackings are shocking forms of violence. The serious nature of these crimes is not in question by anyone. But the context in which these crimes are being reported – and the way in which the ‘Apex Gang’ label has been utlised is deeply disturbing.
Despite clear police exhortations that the criminal activity is not centred around any particular ethnicity, the term ‘Apex Gang’ has been racialised, by persistent association with African and sometimes Islander young people and with descriptors such as “predominantly of South Sudanese descent”, ‘predators’, and ‘thugs’ and ‘terrorising’ or “sweeping Melbourne”.
In this way ‘Apex Gang’ was made into a substitute word. ‘Apex Gang’ now allows journalists, commentators, and politicians, to use the term instead of “African”, Ethnic, “Black” or “Immigrant” but still provide the same message. This is but one reason why the term has obtained such extraordinary currency.
Race crime and punishment
Media coverage of crime in general distorts the public’s perception of crime. Intense coverage of particularly violent crimes, although rare in real life, appear ubiquitous. Saturation coverage of violent crime generates fear and a distorted sense of actual safety. This in turn alters public behaviours, generates public demand for security paraphernalia, and drives security responses from local councils, government and calls for more police.
The depiction of racial minorities in crime reporting tends to expand and heighten the fear and impact of the media coverage beyond normal tabloid crime reporting. It does this by tapping into existing racist ‘scripts.’
Studies conducted by The Sentencing Project in the United States found that journalists had the tendency to gravitate towards crime stories where Caucasians were the victims and cases where the assailant was African American. Studies drew the conclusion that newsworthiness is not a product of how representative or novel a crime is, but rather how well it can be “scripted using stereotypes grounded in racism.”
Research on stereotyping in the United States reveals persistent racial prejudice among white people, particularly regarding the characterization of African Americans as violent and aggressive.
African American crime suspects are presented in more threatening contexts than Caucasians; African American suspects were more often left unnamed and were more likely to be shown as threatening by being depicted in physical custody of the police.
Media coverage, such as we have seen in Victoria since 2005 reinforces the public’s perception about crime by presenting Africans or other people of colour differently from whites. These perceptions manifest in a heightened fear of victimization at the hands of racial minorities, specifically young, Black males. In their extensive content analysis of US television news, Travis Dixon and Daniel Linz found that media exposure contributes to the construction and perpetuation of these perceptions by disproportionately depicting racial/ethnic minorities as criminal suspects and Whites as victims. It creates and reinforces strong associations of crime with racial minorities. In turn, skewed racial perceptions of crime have bolstered harsh and biased criminal justice policies.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project and author of ‘Race and Punishment: Racial perceptions of crime and support for punitive policies’ (2014) found that “White Americans who associate crime with blacks and Latinos are more likely to support punitive policies – including capital punishment and mandatory minimum sentencing – than whites with weaker racial associations of crime.”
In Victoria, ‘Apex Gang’ crime coverage has led to calls for deportations under character test grounds in the Migration Act, a form of punishment unthinkable even a few years ago, being introduced into mainstream media commentary. Media coverage, both online and offline, has also bolstered anti-immigration sentiment and has fed, in no small part, the active rise of fringe far-right anti-Muslim and anti-immigration networks and groups.
Gang labels are routinely misrepresented and misconstrued by police and media. The ‘Broady Boys’ tag has been used as a self-descriptor by each subsequent generation of young 14-17 year old boys growing up in the suburb of Broadmeadows for many decades now. Young men in Flemington have reported how the term ‘Flem Boys’ was applied to them by local police despite them not using it or relating to it. The term Apex Gang now has a mainstream media profile that has minimal, if any, similarity with its original conception.
It also has little correlation to the image of New York street gangs of the 70’s and 80’s Hollywood. Since the Moomba brawl incident, Victoria Police have been trying to hose down these stereotypical gang perceptions, insisting the gangs aren’t based on ethnicity but rather their desire to commit criminal acts. Assistant Commissioner Robert Hill has stated “They don’t have a club house, they don’t have colours. These are a group of young people committing these offenses, engaged in thrill-seeking behavior” (9 News April 28, 2016)
Assistant Commissioner Hill has said the focus on Apex had led to other criminals latching onto the term, saying that media coverage has been “providing this group with oxygen.” Hill goes on to say that “We are promoting this criminal enterprise for no particular reason…A lot of [reported crime] is attributed to the Apex gang and I don’t think it’s warranted.” (ABC news)
David Kemp in his article ‘Media response to ‘Apex gang’ tells its own story’, (Focus, April 2016) writes “This all amounts to a toxic, dangerous and deeply irresponsible environment…In the worst case scenario it could become a self fulfilling prophecy, where the negative sentiment leads to increased widespread feelings of alienation.”
The framing of the ethnic-youth-gang-conflict problem in Victoria has existed for many years, long before the term ‘Apex Gang’ was ever used.
Racism is Functional
Racism is not an individual aberration or an historical leftover, but a currently active cultural and political practice that is applied deliberately to serve certain functions.
This idea asserts that racism is not an individual defect or failure. It serves a psychological, cultural, economic or political purpose. Decades of human rights and anti-racism advocacy and protection mechanisms have limited and curtailed many overt expressions of institutional and legal racism but it continues in a myriad of forms. Australia’s off-shore detention system is an political and legal proscribed expression of racist policies that serves domestic political purposes.
Portrayal of ethnicity & crime has been and will continue to be used be used politically. Politicians or political candidates since the 1980’s have exploited public fear of crime to spruik law and order or ‘tough on crime’ agendas to carve out an electoral advantage; a well documented political dynamic that leads inexorably to bad public policies, and an expansion of the extraordinarily costly prison–industrial complex.
Victorian Opposition leader Matthew Guy used the term Apex Gang to make not-so-subtle political point at the appointment of MP Lisa Neville as Police Minister when he stated “The Apex Gang will hardly be quivering in their boots about the appointment.” (23 May 2016 AAP). Politicians and commentators who would ordinarily find it unpalatable to write “African” or “Ethnic Gang” can use ‘Apex Gang’ with few qualms and therefore speaking directly to appease sections of the community who have also been taken in by the saturation coverage.
When asked about asked about the “recent gang activity in Victoria involving youths of African – in particular, Sudanese – background” , Immigration Minister Peter Dutton deftly attributed much of the blame to the state Labour government, whom he labelled “weak” on law and order ” mirroring what his state Liberal party counterparts have been claiming. That politicians deliberately use fear of crime to score political points is as despicable as it is predicable. (Herald Sun, Nov, 17, 2016). The launch of the above mentioned Federal Migration inquiry is an attempt to shift some of the political mileage to the federal sphere.
Converting fear of crime into votes has been developed into an electoral strategy in the West since it was pioneered by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980’s. Whilst racially biased media coverage of crime may start with personal and cultural biases, this functional/political application of fear forms the primary driver for such saturation coverage. Whenever a politician or candidate brings up crime, particularly ethnic crime, you can be certain they will be fishing for support from a community already attuned to racist frames and messaging.
Challenging racial profiling and racialised media coverage
The work of the Police Accountability Project, run by the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre in Melbourne’s inner West, has focused on addressing systemic racial profiling by Victoria Police since at least 2005. A significant aspect of this work has necessarily involved challenging the ‘Black-crime association’ as a primary bias within both the mainstream community, the media and the police. (Fridell, 2008).
The ‘black–crime association’, the erroneous set of beliefs that a person of colour is more likely to commit a crime, or more likely to be threatening or violent than a white person is very old racist stereotype and has its roots in biological racism and social Darwinism of the 19th century. Whilst media and modern culture are not the only contributing factor to discriminatory law enforcement, it is a significant one.
These beliefs were mainstream at the time when our modern criminal justice system and policing institutions were being formed. It should come as no surprise that endemic levels of racial bias are expressed consciously or unconsciously (implicitly) by the justice system today. We see this bias in disproportionate police stop rates, use of force, sentencing and imprisonment. But racist associations and implicit biases are not just limited to policing.
Joel Windle, in his excellent 2008 study, ‘The racialisation of African Youth in Australia’, argues that the intense media portrayal of African youth in the 2006-07 period “reveals the adaptation of pre-existing institutional racism and racialising narrative frames [such as those focused upon Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers and Muslim, Arabic/Lebanese] to a new target.”
Racial bias is shaped & replicated by media / culture
The ‘narrative frames’ to which Windle refers are derived from Framing and media-influence (or agenda-setting) theory which posits that the media is not neutral but has biases and is shaped by and shapes public opinion, and that media has framing, priming, and agenda-setting roles.
In analyzing the intense media coverage of crime in Melbourne around 2007, Windle argues that media effectively defined African youth and their communities as a ‘problem group’. He highlights the density and frequency of the racial, collective and migration status descriptors of African youth used in every news article of the period, their tendency to be negative and to set up the narrative ethnic-youth-gang-conflict frame of invasion by outsiders and that the group, collectively, poses a problem for society.
Where you locate the cause of the problem generally determines what sort of solutions come to mind. Whether it was crime or unemployment or lack of ‘integration’, the media firmly located the ‘problem’ within newly arrived communities rather than in mainstream Australian culture or institutions.
This ‘problemitising’ was expressed most famously by then Minister of Immigration Kevin Andrews, who suspended humanitarian migration intake from African countries after the murder of Liep Gony in Noble Park declaring that “some groups don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian life as quickly as we would hope”.
The ‘frame’ being reinforced here is chillingly familiar; that the existing dominant society is rational, virtuous and mature, and that the non-white, newly arrived ‘problem group’ are ‘warlike’, ‘less civilized,’ ‘hunting in packs’, and prone to violence. It’s a frame that has accompanied and excused centuries of colonialism.
This has now been mirrored 10 years later by the current Federal Government’s inquiry into Australia’s migrant “settlement issues”. The inquiry is almost solely prompted by 2016’s biased media coverage and will inform Federal government migration policy including deportation. It will examine “whether visas can be revoked if migrants become involved in gangs” and the ability to cancel visas of migrants who have served time in prison. Extrajudicial deportation is the final expression of this racial perception of crime.
Problematising has often been inadvertent and well-meaning as espoused by community leaders, youth workers, agencies, or government officials looking for or proposing ‘solutions’ for kids from war-torn backgrounds”, that “had to survive in refugee camps”, suffered from a “lack of education”, “parenting” or “cultural differences”. Anecdotes endlessly repeated quickly become stereotypes.
But locating problems only in the migrant community lets mainstream society off the hook. It allows mainstream Australia to say its not ‘our fault’. It allows media, government and even progressive organisations to maintain the self-image of a wonderful tolerant and harmonious country, and that the problems are all about ‘them’. The effect of this is to leave newly arrived young people and their communities to face Australia’s cultural and institutional racism largely by themselves.
The problematising by media has exacerbated the racialised and discriminatory nature of policing. Back in 2007 Victoria Police spokespeople were quick to highlight what amounted to folk theories of a ‘culture of violence’ amoungst African youth. These statements were dutifully reported and became a key part of the public’s perceptions.
Kot Monoah, who was then an Ethnic Liaison officer with Victoria Police in 2010 when he attended a police cross-cultural training seminar in Dandenong that described young Sudanese as having a strong ‘warrior ethic’ and aggressive attitudes to police due to their refugee and tribal backgrounds. Monoah described the seminar as “gross professional negligence” and “not cultural awareness, but… misinformation and ridicule”, which only depicted stereotypical images. This training seminar was delivered to over a thousand members of Victoria Police between 2007 and 2010.
By 2007 it was becoming apparent that the media coverage of African youth and related crime stories was affecting and intensifying policing in particular suburbs of Melbourne. In turn, the over-policing of ethnic and indigenous communities was generating even more heightened media portrayals as journalists looked to police commentators to define incidents.
The Police Accountability Project has attempted to disrupt this nexus over the past decade by focusing on the practice and nature of policing itself. It sought to draw research, and critical media attention to policing itself as a key but under-recognized problem and hereby ‘changing the frame’.
Changing the Frame
The media advocacy work of Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre began in response to journalist requests to provide a view on incidents involving police and African young people. In early 2007, after an incident described by one media outlet as a ‘riot’ between African residents of Flemington and police, solicitor Tamar Hopkins instead named police prejudice as ‘the problem’ and pointed out that local youth “are heavily targeted and under constant police surveillance.” Hopkins describes that time as like being “caught up in a 24/7 nightmare.”
The estates became a wire-less detention centre….police made it quite clear that Africans were not welcome here. “Get back to Africa” was a frequent phrase quoted by young people in making their complaints.
As analysis and media advocacy became more focused, the Police Accountability Project began developing a set of assumptions that guided our messaging and communications.
Changing the story.
Whilst the Project’s aim is to win regulatory and legislative reforms that will prohibit discriminatory policing, winning fundamental reforms inevitably requires provoking cultural shifts: challenging conventional wisdom and expanding the limits of what is considered politically realistic. The understanding of narrative strategy and the idea of re-framing using widely shared values provide tools to analyze the narrative components of the systems we are working to change.
The story-based strategy framework was developed to provide tools for campaigners to change the way an issue is perceived and interpreted by the public. The approach is grounded in a narrative power analysis—the recognition that every issue already has a web of existing stories and cultural assumptions that frame public understanding.
Story-based strategy provided a process to understand the current story around racial profiling and identify opportunities to change the story with the right framing, messages, messengers and creative interventions. We had to develop ways with which we battle the dominant ethnic-crime-youth-gang-storyline by developing and inserting our own. We started to use the media strategically and assertively, and supporting young people impacted by racial profiling to speak directly to journalists. Tamar Hopkins, then principal solicitor at the Legal Centre, had by 2010 filed twenty-three formal police complaints on behalf of African youths and was increasingly seen as an expert and critical voice by journalists.
Published in March 2010 by the Springvale Monash Community Legal Service the Boys Want to Give Us Some Action report was somewhat of a watershed. It was treated likely a bombshell by the media in part because it provided journalists with a new angle on an ongoing story which already had a great deal of currency. It received front page treatment by The Age when then Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Simon Overland admitted publically on breakfast radio that “some police are racist.”
Victoria’s police chief admits there is racism in the force after an explosive report accused his officers of taunting and bashing African youth…
Police officers are accused of labelling young African men “monkey” and “black c***”, taking photographs of them gathered on the streets for intelligence purposes and, in one case, taking off their uniforms to bash black men in a public park. (AAP, 16 March 2010.)
Essentially the Boys Want to Give Us Some Action report told a different story to that portrayed in the media up to that point. It told a story of a police force targeting, abusing, terrorizing, harassing and over-policing. It was powerful because it recorded the words of marginalized young African men and put them in a research context with studied commentary. The controversy it generated was a signal that that dominate narrative was being challenged by a new story of how communities were being policed.
Boys want to give us some action was followed by a series of reports by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and other community agencies and each generated associated media stories. Research that asked and gathered evidence from vulnerable and hard to reach young people told a very different story to the one told by mainstream media.
Coverage of each of these reports forced the media attention onto what police were doing, rather than what was ‘wrong’ with newly arrived communities. Collectively they provided a persistent counter-narrative to the dominant “back-crime association.”
The impact of the Race Discrimination Case
The Haile-Michael v Konstantinidis Race Discrimination case was settled in the Federal Court on Monday 18th February 2013 with a landmark agreement for Victoria Police to publicly review its training and field contact practices.
Media coverage of the case and its immediate outcomes was substantial for a number of reasons. The settlement was seen as a win for the six young men who brought the case and somewhat of a vindication. Coverage of the case brought a cumulative audience of 2,773,726 within Australia. Editorials in both the Age and Herald Sun noted the significance of the case and called for real change. The Herald Sun declared, “the rights of ethnic minorities must be upheld by an unbiased police force.”
In the photos accompanying articles about the case it was notable that the imagery had changed. Photos of the two lead applicants Daniel Haile-Michael and Maki Issa, who were later jointly awarded the Australian Youth Human Rights Medal in 2014 for their work against racial profiling, were often taken from below, expressing pride and confidence. They were depicted as heroes rather than victims or offenders even by the traditionally hostile elements of the media.
It appears that the combined reach of these counter-narrative stories in the media over many years was enough to shift the approaches of other ‘influencers’ such as those in police command, parliament and media outlets. Important reforms such as stop and search receipting are now underway and Victoria Police have an anti-racial profiling policy and anti bias training.
In the three years since this race discrimination case the media coverage of African and other newly arrived communities and the language and descriptors used in articles noticeably improved
That is, until March 2016, when the Moomba Brawl broke into the headlines.
Ironically the Race Discrimination case and ensuring reforms were quickly blamed for the rise of the ‘Apex Gang’. Editorials of both major papers blamed ‘political correctness’ and the ‘fear of being labeled racist’ for police not acting fast enough. “Call a spade a spade” shrilled Neil Mitchell on 3AW, “There is a racial element to it”. No Neil. Race has nothing to do with it.
So how DO we talk about ethnicity and crime?
Despite the Neil Mitchells of the world, raising ethnicity of alleged offenders in the media without any crime detection purpose is fraught and almost always unhelpful.
Misguided and inaccurate public associations between ethnicity and crime can lead directly to increasing forms of discrimination, including employment discrimination and has well-established psychological harms and social exclusion impacts upon the community itself.
To their credit, Victoria Police have generally been careful, especially in recent years, in not publicly highlighting the ethnicity of offenders when it is not required for identification or investigative purposes.
The basic rule of thumb is this: When there is no need to highlight ethnicity – it does not need to be highlighted.
Journalists in particular should be aware that there is absolutely no causal link between ethnicity and criminal behavior. This question has been studied by the Australian Institute of Criminology and similar institutes around the world. Consistently researchers find that a person’s ethnicity or race has no determination on their likelihood of being involved in crime.
Race is not discussed in the media coverage of New Year’s brawls on Phillip Island or schoolies week on the Gold Coast. Knowing that these young people are predominately fair-skinned or Caucasian does not help the police or the community understand or respond to these incidents.
When seeking prevent or reduce criminal behaviour most police and justice agencies now recognise, at least formally, that socio-economic factors, gender, age or situational related factors are what needs to be focused upon.
Journalists can expand their sources beyond criminal justice professionals when covering crime and contextualise crime within broader social problems. Being aware of personal cognitive biases is an important aptitude for ethical and effective journalism. Media professionals can also undertake training around implicit bias like that expected of magistrates, lawyers and police.
Accusations of ‘political correctness’ are often leveled at people who point out the impacts of irresponsible reporting of crime and ethnicity. In reality however, nothing prohibits police or agencies to focus upon ethnic or cultural specific groups to problem-solve the socio-economic and age related risk behaviours.
Journalists, police, agency workers and writers can and do raise issues of ethnicity in considered, well-researched and appropriate ways. Independent journalist Michael Green, Fairfax writers Denise Ryan and others have written extensively about the multiple issues effecting newly arrived African communities in Victoria. Journalist Ralph Johnstone received a Victorian African Community Award for his article ‘Across the African Divide’ (Inside Story 2012) which explored these complex intersecting issues directly and intelligently.
The onus is also upon service agencies, government policy makers and NGO media spokespeople not to buy into the racialised media framing. Agencies should support community leaders and clients who are deeply sick of the toxic stereotyping and feel that they have to accept blame for the actions of a relative few young people. The stress upon immigrant and refugee families and their community leaders is immense.
Those to whom the media turn to for alternative viewpoints have a responsibility to question where they themselves ‘locate the problem’ and to challenge racist assumptions and generalisations. We should not be afraid to call out racism whether it be from a journalist, a commentator, a politician or a Federal inquiry.
More intelligent, nuanced, reflective, and ethical media coverage and public commentary around these issues will go some way towards reducing the ‘black crime association’ in mainstream Australian society.
As for our work to stop racial profiling, it is evident we will not be able to reduce discriminatory policing practices unless we are able to challenge racial perceptions of crime across media and society.
Anthony is the Executive Officer of the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre and an advocacy officer for the Police Accountability Project.
This article is based upon a presentation given at the Media, Migration and Integration/Social Cohesion Conference in June 2016 and a abridged version was published in the Spring 2016 edition of The Ethnic Broadcaster, the journal of the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council.
“journalists had the tendency to gravitate towards crime stories where Caucasians were the victims and cases where the assailant was African American.” – The Sentencing Project
“Research on stereotyping in the United States reveals persistent racial prejudice among white people, particularly regarding the characterization of African Americans as violent and aggressive.”
“The framing of the ethnic-youth-gang-conflict problem in Victoria has existed for many years, long before the term ‘Apex Gang’ was ever used.”
“Portrayal of ethnicity & crime has been and will continue to be used be used politically.”
“But locating problems only in the migrant community lets mainstream society off the hook. It allows mainstream Australia to say its not ‘our fault’.”