Talking crime, violence and racism with Footscray
Yesterday The Punch went to Footscray in Melbourne’s West to talk to its people about crime and racism following the stabbing death of a young Indian student in their suburb.
Footscray is not a particularly nice place. That’s not to say it’s a bad place, but there’s a reason the yuppies in the “run rabbit run” Melbourne tourism ads didn’t play hide and seek around Footscray station.
Footscray is the kind of suburb that is pretty typical of outer urban suburbs throughout the world: a working class suburb close enough to the city that becomes a cheap base for brand new arrivals to live and set up shop. The suburb’s density and multicultural population means it often described in terms like “cultural melting pot” by people who see it as a great source of authentic Pho soup.
It’s also the suburb where 21-year-old Nitin Garg was stabbed to death on his way to work at the local Hungry Jacks.
On the train to Footscray the Punch first spoke to Sumi, a 23-year-old Indian from the Punjab who’s been studying community welfare at one of the private colleges catering to mainly Indian students throughout the city.
When asked whether he felt safe heading home through Footscray on his way home to an adjoining suburb he was softly spoken but unequivocal.
“No. There’s not enough security for students like us.
“Six months ago a friend of mine got bashed by five or six guys. We waited a couple of hours for the police and we showed them where the guys live but they didn’t catch them there.”
But Sumi’s story is pretty typical of any new immigrant who doesn’t want to end up involved in a court case because, superficially at least, it’s more trouble than it’s worth when police actually give them the option to proceed with charges.
“Then police said “do you want to make a case of this?” We are students and do not speak really good English. Many of us want to stay here so being in a court can be very hard. Also because it can take us a long time to express our minds in a court.”
Leaning against his bicycle on Footscray’s main shopping strip is 70-year old Ilhio. Migrating from the former Yugoslavia in the sixties to Melbourne he’s been here for 25 years.
“I don’t think it’s racism. Footscray’s always had people from all over the place. Yea there’s a bit of “where you from?” stuff, but the problems aren’t racist it’s crime. There’s a lot of drugs around and people fight over who owns what part of Footscray.
“But no, there are too many people from all over the world for it to be a race thing”.
Sai is a 23-year-old from Bangalore who works in one of Melbourne’s best hotels and has been studying hospitality here for two years. He walks through Footscray on his way to and from work everyday and says he’s never encountered any problems there on anywhere else in the city.
“I always felt pretty safe actually. I mean sometimes at the station you have kids saying “bloody Indians” and stuff, but really that’s just kids having too much energy, same in India.”
Sai then proceeds to go on what is admittedly a pretty humorous tirade against the behaviour of Indians from the Punjab.
“You know a lot of these Indian students are from the Punjab, and over there they’re really friendly, but something happens to them overseas. They become really arrogant and sometimes aggressive. I don’t hang with them too much.”
Ashley, 24, and Catherine, 55, are outside their office building across the road from the mall having a cigarette.
Catherine is a long-time local and a social worker. She works with both victims of crime and the mentally ill in the area:
“Racism is not an issue in Footscray. Drugs are an issue in Footscray. There’s also a lot of public housing,” pointing to the concrete lumps down the road.
“And there are also a lot of mentally ill people in the area, who, if they don’t take their medication, can be pretty violent.
“Talking to victims of crime it’s not racists, it’s an economic thing.”
So why does it seem like more Indians get attacked?
“Well Africans don’t really get attacked cause they travel in groups. Indians spend a lot time walking by themselves at bad hours from work”.
But as a property owner in the area Catherine also pretty harsh in her assessment of Indian students as tenants.
“As a landlord you do not lease anything to Indians . . . because they destroy your property. I mean they’re students and a lot of them cram into one house.”
Ashley is works in admin with a lot of South Asians and says the police have been called to council them all on safety around Footscray.
“I don’t think it’s a racist thing. If somebody wants drugs around here they’ll just go after what’s easy, and if you’re talking on your mobile phone or whatever they’ll just take what’s easiest.
“Footscray’s not racist, just rough.”
But Ashley also admits: “the Indians I work with are a lot more wary”.
Round the corner outside of the shopping area I accost Asaf, a 34-year-old Pakistani from Lahore who studied hair dressing in Melbourne. His response when asked whether he feels safe is immediate.
“No, not at all really especially at the night time and I think there is a racial element to it.
“I mean they’re always calling out for Indians, bloody curries etc, I’m Pakistani but I guess it’s more less the same thing.”
Last month Asaf and a friend were chased through the arcade near the station after a group followed them from the station overpass.
“We just hid in a shop and they went away. Not too serious but they’re calling out “curries” and stuff.”
Looking around at the pretty average surroundings Asaf sympathetically makes one of the most salient points of the afternoon.
“You know I think a lot of the people feel a jealously of the Indians.
“They see them with mobile phones and stuff and say they take our jobs, which isn’t really true, but I look around sometimes and even I think there are too many Indian guys here. Especially for the youth from Footscray there’s not much here.”
Leaving Asaf I head back to the train station and walk past a group of three guys and a girl off their faces on heroin. One of their number has sat down on the bench and is so pinned he can’t pick up his water bottle off the ground.
A bloke who they just farewelled yells back down the road at them in a rough Viet-Aussie accent (drugs are never racist):
“Hey there’s been a BMW driving up this road every five minutes today so watch out guys.”
“Yea”, replies teenager in dirty basketball singlet “we took the plate before, it’s cool”.
Yes Footscray has problems - although racism may be the least of them.
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