How the panic about Melbourne’s so-called African gangs haunts this Victorian election

<span>Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

As the Victorian state election looms, talk about our health system and its under-resourced hospitals, energy prices, public transport and the cost of living is rife. For some, though, the election is a reminder of how – just four years ago – whole communities were made to feel as though they didn’t belong in the place they had grown up, in the place they were raising their children.

The panic about Melbourne’s so-called “African gangs” in the lead-up to the 2018 election left whole communities reeling with fear and suspicion.

Young African Australians told researchers that the media-driven “crisis” encouraged their neighbours to view them as a threat. Some residents would cross the street or put away their phones if a Black youth approached. As one young man explained: “Nobody thinks you are innocent.”

Related: It’s time for our voice to be heard beyond the #AfricanGangs campaign | Maker Mayek

The presumed threat of youth gangs penetrated beyond the streets into schoolyards, where new rules at some schools prevented pupils from gathering in groups of more than three. African Australian mothers protested that their children gathered in groups, not gangs, and feared that they would be harmed or picked up by police when they left home without supervision.

Having fled war and conflict, many parents felt that their hopes for a secure future had been shattered. As one South Sudanese woman said: “When we come here we think we belong here. We are citizens here, not just come and go back. But not any more because of the crisis created by the media and government.”

Four years later, the impact of that “law-and-order” electioneering continues to haunt the present. Young African Australians feel ostracised by what they say are attempts to keep them “in check”.

The 2018 crisis also created discord within African Australian families

After the election young people, especially South Sudanese, have reported mental health problems, with several deaths by suicide leaving loved ones to wonder if there was a connection between self-harm and the “African gangs” panic.

Young African Australians, particularly South Sudanese, report being targeted by police, especially in public spaces. In 2019 57 young African Australians were arrested in Operation Liege, which targeted youth offenders. The majority were later released without charge or the charges against them were dropped. The operation was big news but the lack of convictions and release without charges disappeared quietly.

While it’s true that some young people are facing the criminal justice system as a result of their own actions, others have been collateral damage – victims of post-election over-policing.

The 2018 crisis also created discord within African Australian families. Parents blame their children for inviting unfair treatment, for going to places where they shouldn’t go. Bol Machar, the chair of the Dinka Community Union of Victoria, said it “created division between young people, their parents and community members due to blame games”. It’s troubling that young people are now expected to stay away from certain public spaces. It means they become rebellious and detached from their families, finding solace in their peers.

And older community members have not been spared in the fallout, with some reporting being denied housing in the rental market.

For African Australians in Victoria, the sensationalist “African gangs” reporting has created enduring and lasting harm. There is still much to learn from the crisis.

  • Maker Mayek is a lawyer and adjunct professor at Canberra Law School. Leanne Weber is a professor of criminology at Canberra Law School. Dr Diana Johns is discipline chair in criminology at the University of Melbourne’s school of social and political sciences