Rarely used laws? Depends who you ask

This student reporter’s privilege is showing:

When I arrived back at the scene about 7pm, 23 armed police stood in a sinister line-up along the main boulevard, all eyes on the occupiers. At least 20 more were gathered further back. Police were filming using hand-held cameras and demanded that large banners obscuring their shot be removed. Protesters did not comply. A little later someone was arrested for using the word f—.

So this is what it has come to: the NSW police prepared, perhaps ordered, to employ rarely-used laws against swearing or loitering in order to shut down a political protest.

So here’s the thing. Those laws are not “rarely-used”. They are, in fact, used quite a bit. A bit too much, in fact. Against certain members of the population. To wit:

4.5 Indigenous people are twice as likely as non-Indigenous people to be arrested in circumstances where assault occasioning no harm is the most serious offence. They are three times more likely to be imprisoned for such an offence. This indicates that provocative policing is continuing through the use of the trifecta (offensive language, resist arrest and assault occasioning no harm).

[my emphasis]

My guess is that the laws are used against other marginalised populations, too.

The use of the trifecta is a really serious problem. Basically, what happens is the police come up to a group of people who, belonging to a marginalised and over-policed group, are somewhat suspicious of the motives of the police approaching them. The interaction is impolite.

One of the members of the groups swears.

The police say “right, we’re arresting you for offensive language, we’ll take you down for the station”.

The person says something like “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me, you can’t arrest me for that I’m not going anywhere”, or perhaps shrugs off the hand of a police officer.

The police say “right, count two, now we’re charging you with resisting arrest, too”. The police grab the person.

The person struggles, and perhaps elbows one of the police officers in the process.

The police say “right, count three, now we’re charging you with assault” (or, perhaps, assault police officer, which is more serious).

So the person ends up before the Local Court (or equivalent in other states) with three charges, two of which look relatively serious (resist arrest and assault). A custodial sentence is not unlikely, especially if the person has prior convictions and can’t pay a fine.

The trifecta does not always arise out of an initially trivial interaction, but it often does. An interaction which may not have happened were it not for the greater amount of interest police take in certain groups.

And so, a trivial interaction between the police and a group of people who were likely minding their own business may well result in a custodial sentence. Can anyone say “disproportionate”?

So, to say these laws are “rarely-used” is to overlook all of this. To overlook a serious problem, a type of interaction which, quite frankly, should not be happening at all.

I’m not surprised to hear the police are using the trifecta, or something similar, against the Occupy protestors (and had heard before that they were), and the slight outrage this student reporter felt is, in my view, justified. It would just be nice if he recognised that “rarely-used” is not synonymous with “rarely-used against me and people like me”.

* Thumbnail image: Lego police officer from Yoshi2000’s Flickr photostream.

Categories: indigenous, law & order, social justice

Tags: ,

6 replies

  1. Thanks for the perspective, Jo. I hazily knew about the trifecta’s use against indigenous people, of course (and not just here in Oz), but I hadn’t made the connection with how the same tactics are being used in the police response to various #occupy protests.
    It is the very definition of privilege, isn’t it? To live such a life where this level of bastardry comes as a surprise?

  2. Great post, thank you.

  3. Absolutely fantastic post, well observed. This is one of the hardest areas for privileged groups to grasp, that laws, even apparently good hearted sensible ones apply differently to different groups, and what can appear quite benign to us in the white middle class becomes an inescapable trapdoor for those outside.

  4. Great post! You might like to know that good order offenses account for a third of all charges laid against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders. That is a total of 6000 charges a year and rising. The “trifecta” is a part of life if you are black in this country.

  5. The charge for public swearing got used on my best friend once. He was speaking at a queer rights rally in Adelaide, and was being jeered by some passers by (who were swearing at him and calling him names). He told them to fuck off, and he was arrested. When a few others tried to stop him getting arrested, they were arrested too.

    Nothing happened to the jeerers, of course.

  6. So true that “privilege shows” in outrage about ‘rarely used laws’…. I think this is part of the labour of solidarity and of successful alliances and is felt so keenly in confrontations with the police. Those of us who have never had any reason to see the police as a threat have very similar characteristics!
    US feminist academic Diane Nelson proposes a ‘fluidarity’ – in which solidarity “would be defined as consciousness-raising about power asymmetries” more than as “a solid notion of ‘the people’.” (in her book ‘A Finger in the Wound’).
    How can the privilege of having access to documentation, of belief in yourself as a political agent deserving of a political voice, be used to support others across the oppressions you identify? It seems to me that Occupy has invoked these questions from the get-go (e.g. working on its co-invocation with Indigenous sovereignty and homelessness in various ways).
    And I hope that reporter reads this post!

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