A SAD SIGN OF THE TIMES
The recent by-play between some members of the western and south western Sydney Muslim community and the NSW Police Force in the midst of the current COVID-19 lockdown is disappointing to say the least.
It would be easy for me as a “responsible Muslim” and a “community leader” to roll my eyes and lay the blame squarely at the feet of our own and yes, much of what I’ve seen on TV and social media lately has been embarrassing and even cringeworthy.
I am the first to admit that the police have a tough job to do as the first line of defence in protecting the public against crime and other dangers – and in the main, they do a fantastic job.
However, in what I can only describe as these extraordinary times, several sayings come to mind which I believe to be appropriate right now…..
“It takes two to tango”, “two wrongs don’t make a right” and “why throw more fuel on the fire?” are just a few of them.
Okay, so let’s put all this into context.
As you all know, Sydney has been in the midst of a major lockdown since the middle of June, the second of its kind since COVID-19 first reached Australian shores in February 2020.
With case numbers growing, residents of three Local Government Areas (LGAs) – namely Liverpool, Fairfield and Canterbury-Bankstown – were last month given even tougher restrictions, including not being permitted to leave their own LGA to go to work (this number of hotspot LGAs has since risen to eight).
Three weeks ago, Premier Gladys Berejyklian announced the shutdown of the building game – an industry which had powered on regardless for the first 18 months of COVID with minimum disruption and which had pretty much been the lifeblood of the Australian economy.
I believe that it is fair to say that over the first few weeks of this lockdown, confrontation between Muslims and the police had been minimal.
Yes, there were some signs of potential flare ups in Bankstown but nothing too over the top.
But in my view, the landscape definitely changed for the worse as a result of the anti-lockdown rally/protest in the CBD on Saturday July 24.
This was the day when thousands of Sydneysiders defied numerous public health orders to march through the city, sparking some ugly scenes where protesters clashed violently with police.
Make no mistake, this rally should never have gone ahead in the midst of a Greater Sydney-wide lockdown.
It defied every COVID-related health order you can think of – thousands of people leaving their home areas during a lockdown, many not wearing masks nor social distancing.
Much of the video footage I have seen of the march is disgraceful and those who assaulted police should be ashamed of themselves.
However, it is important to point out a few things.
This was not a Muslim protest. Far from it.
Yes, there were Muslims present, and I don’t think it was any coincidence that some brothers decided to attend in the wake of the ‘closure’ of the building industry and out of sheer frustration at the further tightening of restrictions in Canterbury-Bankstown, Fairfield and Liverpool.
After all, the three LGAs mentioned all have a high percentage of Muslim residents, while thousands of Muslim brothers in Sydney are builders and contractors by trade.
But as well as Muslims, the march comprised many other different demographics from university students, to tourists, to other workers, to fourth generation Aussie grandmas….and even included schoolkids!
The media was quick to circulate footage of outspoken social media spruiker Romeo Georges (69,000 Facebook followers) who took part in the rally and who is not a Muslim, making outlandish statements like: “(The Premier) thinks she can lock out the west….we run Sydney….she doesn’t know what it means to be a wog!”
(Comments Mr Georges has since backed away from.)
But as mentioned previously, the past two weeks since the rally have definitely seen the police ‘upping the ante’ and ‘flexing their muscles’ more and more….and I’m sorry, but to me, their actions have not always been justified.
Yes, they were unfairly targeted at the rally.
Yes, they did a great job extinguishing any chance of a second illegal rally last Saturday.
Yes, their visible presence at public transport hubs has done a good job in ensuring that people remain within their own LGAs when they don’t have a legitimate reason to travel elsewhere.
And yes, most of the measures they are taking are important as this lockdown will never end unless the current infection numbers plummet.
But I also think the inconsistencies and heavy-handedness of some police officers when dealing with members of the public comes into question. For example:
The obvious one. Seemingly letting beachgoers at places like Bondi and Manly do as they please. Fine for the locals to exercise on these beaches but why allow all the socialising and the selling and drinking of alcohol? And since when was sunbaking exercise?
The aggression shown in some of the videos where police have entered people’s homes in western Sydney to ensure there are no visitors. Yes, the video footage is sometimes grainy, yes there are two sides to every story, and yes, in some instances our brothers have been the aggressors. But I always thought it was the job of the police to try and de-escalate the situation! This destroying of the aluminium fence by a police officer in one video….what gives there?
The helicopters. I don’t have a problem with helicopters when it comes to bushfires. I don’t have a problem with helicopters when the police are trying to shut down a major operation (like a drug raid, a high speed car chase or an illegal rally). But these helicopters flying low overhead with officers on loud-hailers ordering people back to their homes when they were simply out exercising is intimidatory and certainly not a de-escalation tactic. The last time I checked, we were not in a war zone.
It just makes me wonder who is issuing the instructions to these officers or are some of them styling themselves on the infamous ‘Raptor 13’ Andrew Murphy (see my Story on this website from late 2019 headed Andrew Murphy: Time Is Up).
Please don’t get me wrong.
If people are blatantly disregarding the law and health orders, and have ignored clear and direct instructions from the police, throw the book at them!
But are compassion and dare I say even a touch of leniency no longer permitted in these tough times when:
Our masjids have been closed;
We are unable to visit elderly relatives;
Many of us are unable to work and/or have businesses losing thousands of dollars a week;
Our kids are stuck at home so are missing their school friends and their weekend sport. But yay, they can go to the local park for exercise (enter the helicopters!)
Is the government not concerned that depression amongst our kids has hit record levels since lockdown?
Is the government proud of the fact that since (supposedly) ‘reopening’ the building industry, that most tradies still cannot work because they either live in one of the hotspot LGAs or are hamstrung by the ludicrous new restrictions which accompanied the reopening?
Is the Police Minister David Elliott proud of the police officer (who obviously thinks he’s a comedian) flippantly making out in a video which has since been removed from social media that there are no longer any legitimate reasons for members of the public to leave their homes?
Is the Premier proud of her Health Minister Brad Hazzard for his condescending remarks about the people of western Sydney being slow to respond to government directions because they were accustomed to ignoring the governments in their homelands?
I am not defending the actions of those at the rally.
Nor am I defending any member of our community – or any member of the public for that matter – for being confrontational towards the police.
But as I said earlier, it takes two to tango and to me, some of the strongarm tactics I’ve seen in recent days definitely seem over the top.
The above events sadden me more than you can imagine.
Over recent years, I have spent countless hours working with the youth in our community, encouraging them to respect the police.
I have had great support from the police, their community liaison people and others at these workshops, school assemblies and other gatherings.
I can tell you that there have been occasions when younger brothers have been on the verge of protests which almost certainly would have led to violent conflict with police – and arrests – but respectful discussion with the police has seen these potential confrontations de-escalated.
We actually thought we were getting somewhere but after the events of the past fortnight or so, where do we go from here?
In this regard, I have nothing but respect for Jihad Dib, our outstanding Member for Lakemba, who earlier this week contacted the Police Minister pointing out that while the “unbelievable majority” of police do a great job, that this great work is being undermined by a small number of officers who inflame situations, rather than de-escalating them.
This is what we need – more communication and less confrontation – and I call on our other community leaders, be they religious, political, business, media or sporting – to follow Jihad Dib’s lead
After all, it is COVID that is the enemy – not one another.
FOOTNOTE: While there were instances of violence at the recent CBD rally, it would be unfair of me to describe it as “a violent rally” overall.
During what was a very long march, tempers really began to fray later in the day, and while I’m not excusing the inexcusable, it may to a degree explain these violent outbursts.
Let’s not forget that this rally was originally billed “World Freedom Day”, a noble cause for a march if ever there was one.
In a great country like Australia, “World Freedom Day” is an occasion that we would normally ALL celebrate.
But in the midst of a long, frustrating, stressful and costly lockdown, unfortunately common sense gave way to emotions and an event which should have been either postponed or held online, went ahead – much to the regret of the entire community.