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.