Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Riot, Resistance and Moral Panic: Demonising the Colonial Other – Chris Cunneen

The concept of ‘moral economy’ as a way of analysing crowd behaviour derives from the work of the historian E.P. Thompson. Thompson was interested in understanding how riots were seen as legitimate action by the participants and their communities, originally in eighteenth century England. As Emsley (2006: 250) has noted, ‘[Thompson] concluded that the men and women in the crowds were motivated by beliefs that they were defending customs or traditional rights.’
Others have broadened the concept to consider how riots can be understood as a form of community politics (Emsley 2006). The important point here is that riots are seen as a rational response to perceived injustices.

...Indigenous riots are invariably associated with the aftermath of perceived injustices by criminal justice agencies – almost always the police. If we look at Indigenous demonstrations, uprisings or riots they usually occur after some heavy handed police operation and/or a death in custody. By way of contrast the ‘moral panic’ depiction of the riot invariably combines narratives of unbridled criminality with victims of disadvantage.

...In the months following the riot there was a strong emphasis on increasing police capabilities in Redfern. The building of a new $6 million seven story police station was announced. Police numbers in Redfern were increased by one third from 170 to 226, and a new permanent 46 member fulltime riot squad (the Operational Support Group) was formed. In relation to social policy, the Redfern Waterloo Partnership Project was further strengthened and funded. This project had been established in 2002 to provide whole of government responses to various issues affecting the area.

Virtually no attention was paid in these official explanations to the long history of volatile conflict between Aboriginal people and the police in Redfern. The death of TJ Hickey sparked a riot, but did so in the context of constant complaints of police harassment, particularly of Aboriginal youth. Part of this harassment derived from a renewed focus on ‘zero tolerance’ style police operations and the use of public order legislation that clearly targets young people. The fact that TJ was classified as a ‘High Risk Offender’ by police meant that he was subject to constant scrutiny. His bail requirement not to visit a particular housing area where his mother resided almost certainly imposed a condition that he would constantly breach. Indeed on the morning of his death he had been to visit his mother and was subsequently followed by police (although it turned out that this was in relation to a different matter not involving young TJ).

Professor Chris Cunneen
New South Global Chair in Criminology
Faculty of Law
The University of New South Wales

Read it here.

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