Police Brutality at the 2013 Sydney Mardi Gras

The video is deeply confronting.

Even before your intelligence begins to make sense of it, there’s something instinctive that is repulsed by what you see: gross violence by one human against another. For me, as it went on, shockwaves rippled through my mind…this is not only upsetting, it’s disturbing. The footage challenges how we think of Australia as a safe, tolerant country, where powers are held in check. The moment when the police officer throws the handcuffed man into the ground, you almost have to pause and give yourself a second to take it all in. This is Australia. These are officers of the law. And police brutality shouldn’t happen here.

In a way the range of reactions are predictable: some decry it as an abuse of power and ask for a public investigation; others defend the actions of the police in the midst of a chaotic situation. In following days more footage comes to light, showing the man – 18-year-old Jamie Jackson – manically struggling against police prior to the events of the initial video.

What does it mean?

When I first watched the video, it struck me how bad the situation was for all involved. From the first frame the situation is unstable. The police are in the middle of a large, hostile crowd, albeit restrained. It’s dark, there is yelling, screaming, abuse. It’s a very stressful situation, certainly for Jackson, certainly too for the horrified spectators, certainly too for the police officers.

Around the 1:00 mark, something snaps in one of the officers. There’s a sickening thud. Jackson is hurled into the ground, a police boot pushed between his shoulder blades. “Stay on the ground” orders the officer. The look in the officer’s face is a bit dazed. He probably knows he crossed the line. In the hurly-burly of abuse, screams, and disarray, he momentarily acted out of anger and disgraced both himself and his profession. He probably regrets it now. He probably wishes too that people had more empathy for his situation, for what pushed him to that point.
the face of the officer alleged to commit police brutality at the sydney mardi gras 2013
The parade was March 2nd. The video went onto YouTube on the 4th. Between the 5th and the 6th it received 1,000,000 views. On the 6th, GetUp emails a petition to its members. It’s on the radio, it’s on the news feeds. The shit has truly hit the fan.

In the rush to claim ideological ground, to identify and stand with either the oppressor or the oppressed, salient points easily get lost. Fortunately, most of those standing with Jackson seem to have a fairly straight and reasonable message:

  • The use of force shown in the video wasn’t reasonable and constitutes police brutality. This is true regardless of what Jackson might have done to warrant his arrest.
  • The police force has a long way to go in terms of how it works with minority groups. This includes the LGBTIQ community, as well as Aborigines, young people, and those with a mental illness.
  • The oversight systems within the police force – internal investigations etc. – are inadequate. They are seen as injust, and this undermines the integrity of the police force as a whole.

We can add to this a message that most agree on and that Jackson’s ostensible opponents insist is relevant: that all police offers have an incredibly demanding job and that the vast majority of them do it very well. As GetUp made clear in their 6 March email:[quote]The overwhelming majority of police officers in NSW do a commendable job; we respect their dedication and patience in one of the hardest jobs in our community. In the 35 years since the original Mardi Gras police have gone from shutting it down to marching in the parade as part of the community. For the most part, this Mardi Gras showed off the best in our community, and our police.[/quote]a picture of police wearing riot gear, not practicing police brutalityClearly we need a better system for investigating complaints against police. Too often police are investigating their own colleagues and, as David Shoebridge catalogues, letting them off with barely a slap on the wrist. The best way of exonerating honest police officers, and holding accountable brutal ones, is to provide an independent framework that is trusted by the public.

While police may currently complain of “trial by social media”, the sad reality is that the public isn’t likely to see a trial by other means. That’s why things have to change. And that’s why the repercussions of this incident are yet to be felt: it’s not until we see the pathetic results of whatever internal police investigation that we will see the true extent of this injustice, and the dire need for a different system.

Many will be scarred by the incidents of the Sydney Mardi Gras 2013. Jamie Jackson may never see a police officer without an experience of reflexive fear. The onlookers have doubtless lost faith in the police; relationships between the LGBTIQ community and the police force probably might need a little more work. Sadly, there’s no way of absolutely preventing these sorts of things. Even the best police force couldn’t weed out every bad apple, and even good apples can – in extreme circumstances – act rotten.

What can be prevented is impunity. It can be ensured that police officers who are accused of breaking the law face appropriate investigation and the potential for punishment. Until then, “trial by social media”, imperfect, partial, and based on hearsay, is one of the few options we have.

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