It’s just after 6.30pm at the Ross Reserve in Noble Park in Melbourne’s outer south-eastern suburbs, and players from the Sandown Lions Football Club are arriving for training.
They train three times a week, even during the off season. Each arrival is greeted with a round of handshakes and a wary glance at our camera.
During a week in which prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was “very concerned at the growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria”; federal health minister Greg Hunt said “African gang crime in some areas … is clearly out of control”; and home affairs minister Peter Dutton said people in Melbourne were “scared to go out to restaurants” because of “African gang violence”, the team is understandably cautious about media attention.
It won the state league division five south premiership in 2017 and boasts some of the most talented players in the league, but that’s not the reason journalists like us come to visit. We’re here because the club – from its 40 members to its executive board – is of South Sudanese heritage.
And, according to Victoria police deputy commissioner Shane Patton, so are the “young thugs” who make up the “street gangs” that have dominated media coverage in Melbourne over the traditionally quiet Christmas and New Year period.
It has been a frustrating week, says club secretary Maji Maji.
“We don’t have to prove that we are good people,” he says. “We are just a soccer club.”
Media reports about crimes committed by “African gangs” have led to increased scrutiny of the community. Ever since the brawl at the Moomba festival in March 2016, the club leadership says, they have been stopped more frequently by police and accused by people of being gang members.
Even the team has been profiled, facing racial taunts on and off the field. One player received a five-year ban and a $5,000 fine during a previous season for kicking a bin as he walked off the field during half-time after players from the opposing team made racist remarks. There have also been times when they have received up to $10,000 in fines for similar low-level infractions. With no government funding or corporate sponsorship, the club is one big penalty away from folding.
Yet it is providing exactly the kind of activity that police and the Victorian government say is needed to keep young men of Sudanese background off the streets and engaged in the community.
“They’re here three or four times a week, they go home, they’re too tired to act out,” Latjor Reath, one of the club’s managers, says. “They [the government] should be supporting us, not trying to start new programs from scratch.”
Criminals by association
People born in Sudan and South Sudan account for just 0.14% of Victoria’s population. Many of the teenagers linked to the now defunct Apex gang, which was blamed for the Moomba brawl, and its successor Menace to Society (MTS), were born in Melbourne and are Australian citizens.
National media coverage of crime in Melbourne, elevated over three high-profile events in December, created the perception that gang violence was rampant and growing. Neither of those assertions are true, Victoria police say. While there is a real problem with young people of African appearance committing crimes in the city, there has been no discernible increase in the level of criminal activity and people of the African diaspora are responsible only for a fraction of the crime in the state.
But by identifying groups such as MTS as a gang, a category Patton reluctantly agreed to on Tuesday when he said a small group of “young thugs” were on certain occasions “behaving like street gangs”, the problem seems bigger and all-inclusive.
Richard Deng, a spokesman from the Sudanese community in Melbourne’s western suburbs, says there’s a tendency to assume that any group of people of Sudanese appearance is a gang.
“These are teenagers, they’re 14, 13, who are just going about in a number,” he told Guardian Australia. “Sitting in a park, completely with nothing, we call them a gang. That is not right.”
He gestures to our group of three, sitting on a couch in the foyer of the office block where he works as a federal government bureaucrat.
“Are we a gang?” he says. “We’re not a gang. But if we were seeing three young Africans walking together, automatically we would say they are a gang … we should not be defining a group of young people going together on a school holiday as gangs, that is too much.”
Buomkuoth Bol, an emerging hip-hop artist under the name BK Lawd, who has converted one room of the Noble Park home he shares with his brothers into a recording studio, says media reports of violence involving people of African descent often assume a relationship between people who just happen to be in the same place.
“I go to St Kilda beach and when I go there, I don’t know every African person that I see,” he says. “So we’re not a gang. We just say ‘hi’ to them and shake their hand because that’s our culture … if I see a group of white people sitting together, I don’t assume they all know each other. I don’t assume that’s a gang.”
He and Jeremiah Chuol, a volunteer youth mentor who coached for the Black Rhinos basketball program in Dandenong, say they are frequently targeted by police.
It was worse about 10 years ago, they said, before the police lost a racial profiling case against two African-Australian men and developed cultural awareness policies and training to interact with the Sudanese people.
They recall a party in Springvale in 2010 when “hundreds” of police, including riot police and the dog squad, arrived after a few revellers got into a fight.
“All you could see is dogs coming through the smoke [from police flares],” Chuol said. “I was thinking: these dogs are not on leashes, who are they here for, who are they here to arrest? Everyone was just running, girls were pepper sprayed, it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
Compare that, he said, with the response to an out-of-control house party thrown in 2008 by then 16-year-old Australian teenager Corey Worthington, who went on to become a media sensation, appeared in season eight of Big Brother, and is said to be returning to reality TV in the coming season of Australian Ninja Warrior.
The party that made Worthington famous happened just down the street from Chuol in Narre Warren. He says the idea that a similar out-of-control party at his house would be embraced as an example of Australian larrikinism is laughable.
Victoria police commander Russell Barrett said the police were working hard to build relationships with the South Sudanese and cultural awareness among officers, and were holding regular forums to meet with community leaders.
In a statement to Guardian Australia, Barrett said the police understood that some groups had been affected by the recent media coverage about youth crime, and acknowledged the work done by African community leaders to “tackle the drivers of offending.”
“The vast majority of the African community, irrespective of their ages, are respectable and law-abiding people,” he said. “A small number are operating as street gangs. We acknowledge that the African-Australian community is just as shocked as the broader community in relation to the incidents we’ve seen recently.”
Victoria Police has 10 multicultural and emerging community liaison officers who work with the Sudanese people and others, and had a “zero tolerance policy towards racial profiling”.
Some South Sudanese, such as Nelly Yoa, say the “politically correct” approach taken by the police is not working.
Yoa says police and the Andrews government have “hidden” from the issue of gang violence, and “the issue would have been solved” if a more hardline approach had been taken earlier.
Yoa wrote an opinion piece for Fairfax Media on Tuesday, criticising the police for their reluctance to call groups such as MTS a “gang” (it has subsequently been claimed that parts of the piece were plagiarised, which Yoa denies).
“We have a problem,” he told Guardian Australia. “We have to solve it, and we have to solve it without falling into political correctness. At the end of a day, a spade is a spade and we need to call it as it is. We need to be honest for the good of the South Sudanese community.”
But despite assurances from the police, Yoa says being racially profiled by them has become “the norm” even for law-abiding people of South Sudanese descent.
Officials and players at Sandown Lions say they have learned not to react when they feel they are being unfairly targeted by police, or when white workmates comment on their new car by saying, “did you steal it?”.
“You are black, you are violent, you are a thief,” one player says.
“When we are doing something good, we are Australian,” Reath adds. “When we are doing something bad, we are Sudanese.”
‘Send them home’
Reath has been in Australia for 10 years. Many of the young men at the soccer club, who range from 16 to 30 years of age, were born in Australia. He considers himself Australian – or would, if people didn’t keep telling him he was Sudanese.
“How long do we have to be here to be considered Australian?” he says. “30 years? 40? If our kids are born here, are they still Sudanese?”
Nyadol Nyuon arrived in Australia as an 18-year-old in 2005 and works as a commercial litigation lawyer at Melbourne law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler.
Her children and her sister’s children consider themselves Australian, she says, because they are. They have not known anywhere else.
“They see themselves only as Australians; they happen to be black,” she says.
She says the conflation of people of South Sudanese descent with gang crime is hurtful because it not only associates people who look like her and her children with criminality, but also draws a line between them and the rest of Australian society.
“It isolates community members and makes them think they are not part of the society, and actually that they can never become part of the society, because somehow their citizenship or their stay in Australia is constantly up for negotiation,” she says. “You are an Australian until a South Sudanese person commits an offence and then you are a South Sudanese-Australian, who is likely to be a potential criminal.”
Deng says labelling children born in Australia as Sudanese or South Sudanese is “not helpful”.
“They are Australian,” he says. “Their mothers are here, their families are here. They don’t know much about Africa, but we call them African.”
Nyuon and Deng have received racial abuse after speaking up in support of their people. Deng has had calls to his office, telling him that as a public servant he should not criticise comments made by senior federal ministers.
After appearing on ABC panel show The Drum on Tuesday, Nyuon stayed up until 2am “just blocking people who were saying really very racist comments”.
“The online racism – it’s so bad it’s overwhelming,” she says.
Each new report of apparent African gang crime brings forth a wave of social media commentary calling for suspected gang members and their families to be deported, dealt with by vigilante groups, or even lynched.
“Anytime that I choose to speak, every time that I want to say something publicly, I have to decide whether I am ready to deal with the bigoted and the racist backlash,” Nyuon says. “It is stifling.”
Back at Ross Reserve, the players are packing up. They made it through the 2017 season without a red card and are aiming to hit the same target in 2018.
“We have said to them, if a rival player threatens you, we would rather you were replaced by another player than respond and do something,” club president Dech Top says. “It doesn’t matter who starts it, it will always be blamed on the Sudanese player. It’s not worth it.”
- This story was amended on 8 January 2018 to remove material relating to Nelly Yoa that could not be independently verified, and to note the allegation that his opinion piece contained plagiarism.