New York used to be a hell of a town. Is Sydney becoming one?
On a hot summer night almost fifteen years ago, a car in a Hasidic Jewish funeral procession veered out of control on a street in the Brooklyn suburb of Crown Heights, killing a black child, Gavin Cato, and severely injuring his cousin. What followed were several days of riots during which the police held back and let the criminals vent their anger by destroying property and attacking Jews, including Yankel Rosenbaum, a visiting scholar from Melbourne who was stabbed to death.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago: again, a fatal suburban car crash sparks several days of rioting, and again, the cops hang back and let the bad guys do their thing – after all, their commanders wouldn’t want them to do anything that would “make the situation worse”, i.e. arrest people.
Of course, there are crucial differences in these two scenarios: the first took place in New York; the second in outer Sydney. In the first case, a truly innocent life was snatched (not that that is an excuse for rioting by any means). In the second, the dead were a pair of budding career criminals who were hooning around in a car they knew was stolen and crashed after being chased by police. And unlike today’s Sydney, the New York of the early-1990s in the bad old days before Rudy Giuliani was in fact a pretty lawless place where the cops were ineffectual at best and politicians could only promise to slow the slide into anarchy. This is the environment Tom Wolfe so brilliantly captured in his classic, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
But just because New York’s bad old days seem so far removed does not mean there are not serious lessons that Sydney’s leaders need to learn – not the least of which is that if a place is perceived as being lawless, then it will quickly become so. The Macquarie Fields riots came just a few months after riots in the inner-city suburb of Redfern, where the death of an aboriginal teen – supposedly after a police pursuit – led to several nights of violence that, again, police were reluctant to clamp down upon.
And while the sort of kids who fling petrol bombs at cop cars and laugh when policewomen are knocked over are certainly not the sharpest knives in the drawer, even they are quick enough to pick up the lesson that when confronted with a mob, overwhelmed cops are powerless and under orders to withdraw and negotiate. Which is why just a few nights after the Macquarie Fields riots which took so long to quell, 150 youths started flinging bottles and abuse at cops in Darling Harbour. And, thanks to the principle of “safety in numbers”, only a handful of miscreants were arrested.
By worrying too much about appearances and not enough about law and order, NSW’s leaders are sending a powerful message that will only come back and bite them and the voters who keep electing them. And Premier Bob Carr’s increasingly politically-correct stance on the riots is not helping. (He started out sensibly in the immediate aftermath of the riots by blaming the criminals involved, only to backpeddle and cast responsibility first on poor social factors, then on bad parenting – things which feature in the lives of plenty of people who still manage not to go ape and destroy their street every time they think the authorities have done wrong by the friendly neighbourhood car thief).
What it comes down to is the complicated set of phenomena that happens when, collectively, a society changes because its perceptions of itself change. In New York, for example, the fact that most people believed the streets and subways were unsafe and ungovernable meant people stayed off of them as much as possible – leaving a vacuum for criminals to fill and solidify the impression.
Similarly, in Sydney, happily-underemployed and undereducated youth are getting the message that their lawlessness will be tolerated and sympathetic newspaper articles will be written about them, so long as they make sure to bring plenty of mates and come from a suitably unfashionable suburb.
To counter this, Bob Carr should tell NSW Police that the next time violence of the sort that flared up in early March happens again, they are to do whatever it takes to restore order and make arrests, as quickly as possible.
Not only that, he should indicate that he will back them not just during the inevitable media firestorm, but also through the legal battles that will surely come from community activists and lawyers who think that there’s no reason that friends can’t come together occasionally over a few Molotov cocktails, and who think nothing of tying up a working-class cop’s career for years in the name of “social justice”.
Finally, he should press prosecutors to hold rioters accountable to the full extent of the law, and urge magistrates to set high bails and sentences for those arrested and found guilty. Even if it doesn’t deter other no-hopers, at least it detains those who are arrested on one night long enough that they can’t go out and start another round of mayhem the next.
The lessons of New York’s bad old days are not complicated: give cops the tools and backing they need to do their jobs. Prosecute minor infractions before they become major ones. And make honest people feel that it is they, and not the criminals, who have control over the streets. Unfortunately, these are lessons that cities like London – where burglars operate with such impunity that they actually prefer to target their victims when they are at home – have ignored in recent years. The growing number of riots throughout Sydney’s suburbs suggests that her leaders are going to have to learn these lessons themselves, the hard way.