Benedict Brook and Megan Palin, News, March 14, 2016
South central Melbourne became more like South Central Los Angeles on Saturday as rioters swept through the CBD terrifying locals and tourists alike.
Havoc descended on Federation Square with metal chairs from the city’s famous Brunetti’s cafe used as weapons on nearby Swanston St, as gang members fought with both the police and among themselves.
But these weren’t members of Melbourne’s notorious crime families, as depicted inUnderbelly, or even bikie gangs asserting their dominance. But rather young people, some no more than 12 years of age, from hitherto little known gangs living out their dreams of a “Fast and the Furious” lifestyle.
Police say the primary gang had been under surveillance for months, accused of breaking into homes, stealing cars and even the tragic death of a mum-of two late last year.
While a Salvation Army officer with knowledge of the gangs told news.com.au the culprits “don’t care” about the concerns their actions cause, and that a fear of being a labelled racist meant little effort was being done to tackle the gangs whose members predominantly hail from eastern Africa but also the Middle East and the South Pacific.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews has promised authorities will “smash” the youth gangs and warned that sob stories about tough upbringings would not excuse the behaviour.
“I am not interested in poor me stories,” he said.
“Nobody had to behave the way they did on Saturday night.”
New laws may be brought in to deal with the youngsters but Mr Andrews said the priority was equipping police with resources.
Police Commissioner Andrew Crisp confirmed some of the young people had robbed members of the crowd and some youths had punched innocent people in the face before stealing their mobiles.
Police are reviewing CCTV to identify people involved who could face charges including affray and robbery and could face up to 10 years in prison.
Playing action heroes
Apex St in Dandenong North, on Melbourne’s eastern fringe, is a world away from the violence on Swanston St. With its red brick houses lining the tree-dotted footpath, and mini roundabouts ensuring cars keep a steady pace, it could look like any suburban street in Australia’s major cities.
But the street, in an area that is one of the hubs of the city’s African community, is said to be the inspiration for the Apex gang’s name.
A primary group within Apex is young African men among living in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. In recent months, police have arrested more than 30 gang members for crimes including robbery, assault and car theft, as part of Taskforce Tense that was set up in November.
The gang’s penchant is for stealing luxury cars–but not to sell on.
“From what we are seeing, it’s largely teenagers targeting high-end cars they want to drive,” Narre Warren police detective Acting Sergeant Reuben McAllister told the Cranbourne Leader earlier this month.
“When they’ve finished with them, they dump them or burn them. Some of them still have not been found.”
The group call their strategy for stealing “missioning”. It involves sneaking into houses in the dead of night, stealing the car keys and driving off with the vehicle.
Southern Metro Region Assistant Commissioner Robert Hill told reporters on Thursday that a gang–which news.com.au understands to be the Apex gang–of car thieves was behind a recent string of violent aggravated burglaries.
Mr Hill said many of the alleged car thieves were playing out scenarios featured inThe Fast and the Furious films and the video game Grand Theft Auto.
“They are playing out and living as action heroes in our streets,” he said.
‘They just kick the door down’
Late last year, police reported that former rivals from three main gangs had joined forces under the Apex umbrella. Since then the situation has worsened while the gangs have become more brazen.
“They used to sneak in. Now, they’ll just kick the door in,” a police source told the Herald Sun. There has even been reports of carjackings.
At least two home invasions were carried out by the group in Melbourne suburbs last week. The families targeted for their luxury cars were left traumatised by the thugs who were armed with a steel pole and a baseball bat.
A member of the gang also reportedly threatened to walk into a Melbourne police station and shoot a police detective who is investigating the criminal activities of the group. The officer has since been put on stress leave and a notice has been posted on the wall of the police station warning officers about the threats from the under-age gangsters.
Sometimes, incidents linked to gangs, have been far more tragic. In November, mum-of two Amanda Matheson died after her car was ploughed into by a stolen BMW careering down the wrong side of the road. The driver was just 15-years-old with the collision occurring 20 minutes from Dandenong.
Earlier this month, police claimed to have smashed a million-dollar burglary and car theft racket involving the Apex gang, with several of its members charged in relation to no less than 30 break-ins in the city’s southeast over just a two-week period.
A total of 33 gang members have been arrested since Taskforce Tense was set up. Nevertheless, 150 gang members congregated in Melbourne on Saturday chanting “f*** the police” and “it’s a public space, we have a right to be here”.
Build a bridge, not a wall
It was not the first time gang members have made their presence known in the CBD, having previously run amok on New Year’s Eve and last month’s White Night.
Commanding Officer of the Salvation Army in Victoria, Brendan Nottle, told news.com.au that the motives behind Saturday’s rampage were pretty simple. “I think its driven by this deep seated anger. They don’t care what impact they have, they’re saying ‘we don’t care what you think.’”
“It’s no surprise to me this happened,” he said. “The only surprise was it happened at 10pm when people were still around.”
Mr Nottle said African youth, mainly immigrants, had suffered through a deeply tortuous journey to Australia, often spending years in camps in “appalling” conditions.
Once they got to Australia, a country far from home, some found it difficult in school, difficult to get jobs and felt “locked out” of the community. While many did progress well, inevitably some ended up rubbing shoulders with equally aggrieved young people.
But a fear by politicians of being seen to target one community had left action on tackling the problem in limbo. “I think it’s because there’s a nervousness about being labelled a racist but the people that want to do something don’t have racist motives,’’ said Mr Nottle.
“I went public about this and I got labelled as being racist but my comments were the complete opposite. Having met African youth I know they have a deep sense of anger.
“We need to have some very serious conversations, and not point the finger, about why people are so angry.”
One of the most successful campaigns the Salvation Army has run in relation to young African men and teenagers was with a Sudanese outreach worker who was able to talk one-on-one with people, gauge their concerns and act as a link between them and established support services.
Those people prone to being in gangs needed to talk to other young people and, ultimately, come to feel that Australia was their home. “It’s important we don’t drive an even greater wedge with the African community. Rather than building a wall we need to be building a bridge.”
News.com.au has contacted a number of groups representing the African community in Victoria for comment.