Despite campaigns and public discussion about violence against women in the last month, the response to a teenaged girl being slammed to the ground then surrounded and pinned down by a group of grown men at a Melbourne train station has been to paint the men, and not the girls, as the victims.
A Metro ticket inspector who physically overpowered a teenage girl and threw her headfirst to the ground was not charged by police and found by a state government enquiry to have “exercised his functions as an authorised officer reasonably”, The Age has reported. Two girls have been charged with assaulting officers and are due to appear in the Children’s Court.
Metro has defended its handling of the incident, stating “Metro management conducted a full investigation into this incident, which found that all of the Authorised Officers involved acted in accordance with company policy”
Since when did company policy require eight men to surround one teenage girl and use wrestling moves to immobilise her while physically blocking her distressed friends from seeing if she was okay? Commenters on the incident have reveled a gleeful smugness that has become eerily familiar when incidents of violence against women arise in the media – particular teenage girls who have the audacity to fare evade and slap or spit at men with authority. If only they had behaved properly none of this would have happened.
Ah yes. Let this be a lesson to her, and all teenage girls. Rail rats! Skanks! Miscreants! Get off our lawn!
While the girl can be seen striking the officer when he grabs her from behind, CCTV footage clearly shows that when he lifts the girl into the air in a rugby tackle type move, she is already backed into a corner by two authorised officers with at least six others crowding around.
There is nothing reasonable about a group of men closing in on a teenage girl, being fully able to apprehend her without violence and within the purview of their roles, and one of them choosing to immobilise her by physically removing her feet from the ground and slamming her down head first.
This was not a reasonable response to a perceived threat; it was a blatant display of power, one that could have resulted in serious injury.
Video footage taken by passers-by shows the girl being physically pinned down by three officers, two of whom appear to be lying on top of her for around five minutes until police arrive. The officer stated in his incident report form that he was “bitten on left upper thigh when told to loosen hold due to offender saying she couldn’t breathe’’.
The question that needs asking is: why was his upper thigh was close enough to her face that she could bite him in the first place?
The Age has reported that the girl is under the care of Anglicare, an organisation that look after some of the state’s most vulnerable children who cannot live at home due to neglect and abuse. News reports in August, when the bystander footage came to light, stated that the girl screamed while the men were holding her down that she had been abused all her life. Imagine how intensely triggering this situation must have been for her.
The Victorian Minister for Transport Terry Mulder said in November this year “If you’re asked to provide your myki [ticket] then you just need to comply to that and nothing will escalate.”
The boys have a job to do, folks. Just pay your fares and no-one will get hurt.
It’s misleading and dangerous to suggest that thuggish behaviour of officers could be avoided if people just paid their fares. Thuggish behavior could be avoided if officers didn’t behave thuggishly.
The old do-what-you’re-told-and-no-one-will-get-hurt refrain, with its 90s action movie ring, extends the responsibility of the commuter beyond the legal compliance with ticketing purchase, to a responsibility to avoid ‘escalation’ – as though violent man-handling is the inevitable consequence of a $3.50 transgression. We have a fare evader, send in the riot police!
Last month, twenty-year-old student Michael Liu accused Yarra Trams officers of using excessive force in apprehending him for not having a ticket; video footage shows an officer with his knee across the man’s throat, refusing to allow him to get up despite pleas that he was in pain and highly distressed.
In 2010, a report by the Victorian Ombudsman found a number of examples of inappropriate authorised officer conduct and use of excessive force, demonstrating that “authorised officers and their managers are clearly not aware of the limitations on the appropriate use of their powers, or are ignoring them”. As a result, the Ombudsman decided to release the CCTV footage of four such incidents in the public interest.
Is this corporate authoritarianism gone mad? Fines already cost up to $212 for what is a loss in revenue of only a few dollars. Transport companies claim fare evasion costs them millions of dollars each year, but should costs be recouped by revenue protection officers whose tactics include physically assaulting members of the public, many of whom are unable to afford the cost of travel but have no other way of getting around?
There is another disturbing element of the video footage of the incident involving the young girl at Flinders Street station that has so far not emerged in media commentary.
When the girl’s friends ran to her aid, Metro officers physically blocked them shielding her from their view. When they tried to push past they were rebuffed and kept at a distance. For these young girls to be isolated from their friend by the same men they had just witnessed exercise violent dominance over her body must have been extremely distressing.
Seen in this context, the bystander footage of the second girl restrained by a policeman who appears to spit in the face of the Metro officer who had previously kept her away from her friend becomes more understandable, and his reaction – to grab her head and force it down onto the gate gripping her in a headlock – even more reprehensible.
And imagine the terror of the first girl who snuck through an open gate at the train station for the thrill of what is for a fifteen year old a $1.75 transgression – something to which many Australians can surely relate from our teenaged years – now held down and surrounded by the huge bodies of men with authority, waiting for the police to come and take her away.
With White Ribbon Day just gone, there has been some good discussion about men’s role in standing up to violence against women, loudly led by Victoria’s own Police Commissioner Ken Lay who just last week held a forum for men to challenge “a culture that is swollen with vulgar, entitled attitudes towards women. Where women are assaulted five times more than men. The evidence is that violence is overwhelmingly committed by men and that women are disproportionately targeted.”
The change has to begin by listening to women when they describe what it feels like to live in a world where violence is so common and normalised, and moreover, where the structures set up to respond to violence are led by authority figures and decision makers who are overwhelmingly male.
The experience of someone demonstrating physical authority over you and showing reckless disregard for your safety and bodily integrity is terrifying. It’s like being a child and running as fast as you can only to have an adult scoop you up; your legs and arms are still moving but you know that you’re no longer in control of what happens to your body. That feeling of burning humiliation and unjustness and utter powerlessness is compounded by the fear of violence to follow, and so the cycle continues.
Violence of any form is reprehensible. But when victims of violence fall so clearly into demographics who already experience significant disadvantage, the effects of further disenfranchisment cannot be ignored or simplified by repeated the mantra of obedience. It is not disobedience that creates hostile and aggressive law enforcement, it is the culture and practices of enforcement.
The trauma that this girl must have experienced when she was held down by three men is not worth a train fare. It’s not worth $60 million in lost revenue to a corporation. We have systems that create social problems and then punish those who are trapped within them.
The confrontational approach to fare evasion on Victorian public transport is part of this system that needs to change. Ticket inspectors are not the police. They represent corporations which have been officially identified as needing cultural change and further training, and who ultimately must still be accountable to the public. They must find other ways of “protecting revenue” that do not create hostile situations of escalation.
What this case shows is that in addition to further training on the use of reasonable restraint, officers need training on attitudes to violence against women.
It is never appropriate for a group of grown men to surround a teenage girl and isolate her from her friends. It is never okay to demonstrate superiority by lifting someone off the ground. It is never okay to respond to a slap with a body slam, nor spitting by grabbing someone by the head and forcing it down into headlock when she is already being held up against the fence and restrained by a policeman. And it is certainly never okay three men to lie on top of a small girl, one whose thigh area is close to her face, while she lies on the ground screaming in distress.
These were not responses of self defence, they were not necessary to subdue her. They were actions taken when the girls were already surrounded, restrained and outnumbered. They were indignant responses of anger, the entitled retribution of dominance; attitudes that both stem from and perpetuate prolific violence against women.
* A Change.org petition has been started to challenge Metro trains over their officer’s behaviour. Please consider signing.
As a vocal feminist with many intelligent, lovely male friends, I’m often met with indignance when I choose not to engage with them about feminism. Surely if I really cared about changing our culture of discrimination and inequality, I should be trying to educate men? Isn’t that an activist’s job? Shouldn’t feminists be grateful when men want to bounce questions off us, because it shows that they are at least trying to understand?
It’s both exhausting and diversionary being expected to hash out the basics with men who haven’t bothered to think about their own privilege before. Men are not entitled to expect feminists to educate them. Real change will only happen when men accept that the burden of education is on them, not on women.
Recently, I politely declined to debate with one such baffled male friend, who followed up by sending me some well-intentioned advice on how I could be a more effective feminist. Having never thought much about feminism before, he said, he just didn’t find my social media posts appealing. Too shouty and academic. What I needed was to explain things in a way that appealed to men.
Considering himself as the sort of bloke who “could be part of the solution”, he helpfully sent me a link to a twelve-minute TED talk which contained, in his words, “a basic yes/no test” for misogyny together with proposed steps to solve the problem. In an impressive gesture of hubris, he suggested the next time I was asked to educate a man who was genuinely trying to learn about feminism, I forward this snappy sound-byte resource he had just found for me.
It’s astonishing that 50% of the population are so regularly asked to make a sales pitch for liberation from structural disadvantage and systemic violence.
Here’s the thing about being expected to hold the hand of each individual man as he grapples with the possibility that despite his self-perceived good nature and honest intentions, he is a beneficiary of the structural oppression of women. It actually hurts. Patriarchy hurts women on a daily basis. But even though it can be traumatic to discuss rape culture, for example, we live in hope that by showing men how it hurts us they will begin to understand and become our allies. When men appear to take an interest in feminist discourse it tugs at this yearning. While they can play devil’s advocate and toss around hypotheticals that are utterly disconnected from their reality and then opt out at the end, for women these discussions require revelation and vulnerablility; they are a sharing of our actual lived experience.
The most common argument is: If You Won’t Educate Me How Can I Learn. This is how it usually plays out. Self-described Nice Guy interjects discussion with earnest appeals for feminists to engage with his personal opinions. Having pushed past his bristling discomfort at feminists being bitter, resentful and combative (but not before pointing out this sacrifice), Nice Guy is bewildered not to have his theories discussed immediately and in a reasonable, non-angry way. Despite the hundreds of resources on the subject which he could, like the rest of us, go off and read, Nice Guy expects women to stop what they are doing, and instead share their experiences of oppression and answer his questions. In an ironic twist, Nice Guy is unaware that by demanding women divert their energies to immediately gratifying his whims, he reinforces the power dynamics he is supposedly seeking to understand.
It goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with having basic questions about feminism. Unpacking something as complex and insidious as patriarchy, particularly when it requires an examination of your own privilege, isn’t easy. Where it becomes problematic is when you are so confident that your questions are SUPER! IMPORTANT! that you try and co-opt feminist discussions to have them heard.
To borrow the analogy of another woman:
It’s as if you have walked into a postgraduate mathematics seminar, yelling
“Hey, how can you even use imaginary numbers anyway if they’re not real?”
When someone rather distractedly points you to a first-year text-book in the corner, you leaf through the first couple of pages half-heartedly for a few seconds and say
“I don’t agree with some of the definitions in here – and anyway you haven’t answered my question. Doesn’t anyone want to have a discussion with me?!!”
This incredulity is usually delivered with a sound telling-off for being sarcastic, unreasonable, illogical, ungrateful and bitter. Now, as a woman raised under patriarchy I am socialised to respond to men’s praise and approval. Having suffered the consequences of men’s disapproval, conflict is counter-intuitive to me. It’s tempting to give in to the desire to be recognised as a “good” feminist who takes the time to explain things in a polite, fun, sassy way. But here’s the kicker: polite feminism not only doesn’t work, it is actually self-defeating.
Spending time and energy nurturing men through their journey of self-discovery is not only incredibly dull, it actually serves to reinforce existing power dynamics and keeps us from collectivising as women and enacting real change.
My advice to men who genuinely wish to learn about feminism is this: read and listen to the voices of women when they explain what misogyny feels like and how it operates. Never ask women to find resources for you; seriously, get a library card. Or the internet. Don’t interrupt to disagree or derail by using individual examples of women in positions of power or instances of what you see as “reverse sexism” (here’s a hot tip: “misandry” isn’t a real thing.)
To paraphrase Audre Lorde:
When people of colour are expected to educate white people as to their humanity, when women are expected to educate men, lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world, the oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.
If you are in a group that has the structural advantage of wages, safety, health and education – when you’ve basically already won the life lottery just by showing up – it is your responsibility to educate yourself. And really, don’t tell women to be nice. We’re angry. We have every reason to be. Frankly, you should be too.
Mia Freedman yesterday posed a question for white Australia: if we can’t enjoy fun racism without being subjected to “confected outrage” how can we be expected to know when something is really REALLY racist?
The “batshit crazy” reaction Freedman decries in her superciliously titled article The Boy who cried Racist is the rather mildly stated objection to Delta Goodrem’s re-tweeted photograph of Voice fans heading to a costume party, where one white man wore blackface to imitate judge Seal.
“The vitriol was so intense, Delta was forced to delete the tweet and release a statement to insist she is not indeed racist” Freedman said.
I’m not sure when calling out racism became synonymous with vitriol but it seems in Freedman/Goodrem-land, it’s a tough day when you’re “forced” to hit the delete button and release a single-sentence statement.
The tweet was no doubt embarrassing for Goodrem, who only recently came under fire for her impression of “the soul thing” black people apparently do to explain why she felt contestant Steve Clisby and fellow Voice judge Seal were “brothers” in the Derek Zoolander sense.
Goodrem has reportedly distanced herself from accusations of racism (unsurprising, seeing as pretty much no-one self-identifies as a racist) saying she did not intend to cause offence.
Predictably, social media is awash with indignant cries of “playing the race card” with fans claiming Goodrem is the victim of jealous, oversensitive, PC-obsessed killjoys. Hundreds of (mostly white) commenters have rushed to explain that actually the incident isn’t racist or deserving of objection because they have personally decided that it isn’t.
Freedman spurs on these objections: “[T]here is a huge difference between painting your face black to mock an entire race and painting yourself black to respectfully dress up as someone who has black skin.”
I have to wonder what exactly she considers “respectful” here. The attention to detail in recreating Seal’s Lupus scars, perhaps? Freedman doesn’t actually go on to explain what the difference is, just that she, as a white person, feels instinctively like there is one.
It’s astonishing that white Australians still think we get to decide how racist something is. As Melbourne comedian and activist Aamer Rahman, who originally shared the infamous tweet, puts it:
“When we claim that it is petty or unimportant to call out racist celebrity misbehaviour because there is worse racism out there, we fails to understand that normalising the casual mockery of people of colour through accepted mainstream culture – structurally preserving a white majority’s right to have fun at someone else’s expense – is a key building block in maintaining the hierarchy of racism. It’s naive to write off this kind of seemingly banal, pervasive everyday behaviour as if it somehow has no connection to people ultimately experiencing actual systemic violence like the NT Intervention, the War on Terror, our refugee policy, and Australia’s unwillingness to question our role in the dispossession of Aboriginal people.”
Whether Delta Goodrem or the man dressed as Seal meant to evoke racial stereotypes or not is irrelevant. We can all accept some responsibility for the situation in Australian media where a white person feels comfortable projecting a perceived affinity between two black people who happen to be in the same room on live television, then tweets an image of another white person wearing blackface to depict a colleague.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that we don’t seem to have learned anything since the Hey Hey It’s Racism! incident of 2009, after which the ABC’s Q&A thought an appropriate response was to appoint an all-white panel to discuss whether or not blackface is offensive.
In that episode Germaine Greer raised the parallel with men in drag as offensive caricatures of femininity; another idea which, given the lack of analysis in Freedman’s article and elsewhere about the man in the Delta Goodrem costume, clearly hasn’t gained much traction. Indeed just this week a video was released of billionaire Richard Branson dressing as an air stewardess as punishment for a lost bet. Oh the humiliation of dressing as a woman and serving people, something his female employees do every day!
It’s disingenuous to insist that intent can or should be isolated from effect. When Branson minced along the aisle, people sniggered. When the four men in Voice judge costume walked into that party, who do you think got the biggest laugh?
It doesn’t matter if the intent isn’t to be offensive. When a member of a dominant group dresses up as a comical or hyper-sexualised representation of a marginalised group for entertainment or ridicule, it reinforces the power dynamics of colonisation. We cannot divorce these acts from their political context simply because we wish to. Whether we consider ourselves as personally holding oppressive views or not, the fact is that structural inequalities benefit certain groups at the expense of others.
To benefit from privilege does not require intent, it happens by default. So why are we so indignant in the face of criticism about behaviours and attitudes that reinforce inequality? Is it really so hard to accept that the offensiveness of an act is determined by those at whom the mockery is aimed? Why, when those who are show us how it hurts them, do we get defensive about our right to joke about, ridicule or appropriate members of a marginalised group for entertainment? Of all the funny things in the world, why the reticence to let go of humour and entertainment which relies on mocking and degrading others? If it really was ‘just a joke’ or ‘just a costume’ surely we wouldn’t care so much about letting it go. Instead we passionately defend our right to appropriate freely express ourselves in fun and ironic ways.
Here’s the kicker. You don’t have to be a racist in order to participate in or benefit from racism. It’s possible to be a good person and have good intentions and still behave in ways that are pretty ordinary.
Like everyone else in Australia I have been socialised in a community that espouses multiculturalism as a smorgasbord of other cultures for us to ‘enjoy’. I’ve been to Bollywood themed parties. I’ve caught myself gushing about the variety of cuisines available in Melbourne as though frequenting a local ‘ethnic’ eatery is some kind of free-pass to tolerance. Heck, I even graduated from university with a major in Asian philosophy despite not being able to read a word of the original languages.
I don’t pretend to be immune to this kind of cultural thinking. Having been called out myself on things I thought were harmless but have inadvertently caused distress to others, I’m happy to report that it’s ok to put down the boot polish. Our personal freedoms won’t come to an end. The “term” racism won’t be diluted or “rendered meaningless”, much less the real thing and the world is unlikely to go batshit crazy with political correctness.
That blackface is harmless fun to white people is the entire point. Once we move past the instinctive defensiveness and critically examine the politics of power that are represented by caricatures and stereotypes, we can’t fail to see that they actually reinforce the very imbalance they claim to parody. In this context, is it really too much to ask to let them go?
“In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but suddenly she came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers here): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I can.’ And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.” (April 1957 Leningrad)
Litany by Billy Collins
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine…
– Jacques Crickillon
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way you are the pine-scented air.
It is possible you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.
And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blwoing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
And feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.