Over two years ago, four nights of “rioting” took place after the deaths of two young men as a result of a police car chase. The car crashed into a tree where the driver, Jesse Kelly, fled the vehicle at approximately 3am on the February 25, 2005. The riots occurred at the Glennquarie housing estate located in Sydney’s far southwest suburb of Macquarie Fields - a long neglected suburb.
It needs to be clarified that there were two popular explanations for these events which emerged at the time.
The first focused on the riots as a law and order predicament, reminiscent of Stanley Cohen’s “Moral Panic” theory, where politicians and conservative commentators criminalised the youth at Macquarie Fields. The second explanation interpreted the riots as an issue of social disadvantage, where socio-welfare and economic policies had failed the local community. Further, this explanation highlighted the poor relationships between the community and local police, which were deteriorating: the riots were a reaction to the frustration associated with being disadvantaged.
The first explanation was largely influential in interpreting the riots and dominated popular understandings. Consequently, the interests of the Macquarie Fields community were neglected during the “media-hype”.
It needs to be questioned whether such a crusade of interpreting the riots is still pursued almost two years after the events. At the moment an inquest into the car chase is underway to investigate whether the police car chase by an unmarked police vehicle was necessary or whether it violated police guidelines.
In reporting this inquest, the mainstream media have described the car crash as “the event which sparked the riots”. This may well be true, yet such reporting favours the conservative interpretation of the events: issues of social disadvantage are not mentioned and remain “invisible” to the public eye.
The inquest has raised significant issues that have been used to theorise the cause of the public disturbances. On its first day, the council assisting the coroner, Paul Lakatos, opened the inquest and raised the question why the police chase was necessary when police had identified the three youths and had them under surveillance. This question raised an important issue - whether an injustice resulted from the actions of police
On its second day, the inquest shifted the focus away from police towards Jesse Kelly, the driver, and his Aunt Deborah, who was blamed at the time for fuelling the riots. After the car crash, Kelly had rung his aunt and said “they were my best mates and I killed them”. His Aunt’s response was to make a fabricated claim that police had “rammed” the rear of his vehicle causing him to crash. Jesse Kelly later admitted that this was not the case.
Focusing on Deborah Kelly’s response shifts away from the crucial issue of social disadvantage and instead places blame on the community. Further, this focus lacks any empathy, after all anyone in her position might have reacted the same way. If anyone received a phone call from a relative who had been in a crash similar to Kelly’s predicament, the first response would be to try and calm the person down. In Deborah Kelly’s case, it might have been easier to suggest that police had “rammed” the rear of the vehicle rather than suggest that Jesse Kelly was responsible for his friends’ deaths.
Obviously, this is not an easy situation to find oneself in and it is difficult to determine how anyone would behave in such a tragic situation. Therefore, one can understand how Kelly’s aunt put herself in such a position. This does not aim to justify her actions, rather places them in context.
By the same token it needs to be questioned how Kelly’s aunt managed to “fuel the riots”. Such an accusation would need to provide evidence that she actively assembled the approximately 150-200 local youth - evidently proving that this explanation of the riots is not feasible.
On the third day of the Inquest, the focus shifted back to the police, where the possibility of “miscommunication” between senior and junior police officers had contributed to the police chase. Further, the idea of police “understaffing” is rejected by a senior detective. Examining police actions is necessary in highlighting the context of Macquarie Fields, where poor relationships between police and the local youth population was a significant issue.
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