MANY of you reading this will have crossed the road last Mardi Gras. I am writing this as one who did not make it.
Since stepping off the kerb that night eight months ago, life has echoed the state of powerlessness I felt while face down in the middle of Oxford St.
I recall it all. I said to the police officer on my back between gasps: “I can’t breath”. His response was: “If you can talk, you can breath”. It was neither the time nor the place for me to explain to him the niceties of the physiology of breathing. As it happened, there would not have been time to finish as the other five police officers began laying into me with boots and fists while I was restrained. I screamed: “the cuffs are too tight!”
That evening I was charged with assaulting police. The next day I had to give up work for three months as I could not use my hands anymore due to the damage of improperly applied handcuffs.
A charge of offensive language levelled at my sister arrived in the mail. She was a witness and upset that no one did anything to stop the police violence. Then another envelope arrived with an additional charge of resist police directed at me.
The sense of powerlessness became accentuated with a long slow burn of gloom as I realised that everyone present knew what happened that night but was intent on having me convicted, and there was nothing I could do about it except await my day in court.
This gloom was punctuated with Kafkaesque moments of hilarity. I reflected on these surreal events to deal with the perpetual anxiety, a sort of self-directed schadenfreude. For instance, I attempted to file a complaint as soon as I was released at Surry Hills police station and was told they do not take complaints, only to see the Assistant Police Commissioner say on TV days later that no complaints had been made.
I think of the time I worked with police officers from three local area commands as part of my social work role supporting LGBTI young people in south-east Sydney. I wondered whether my attempts to advocate for gay and lesbian liaison officers in the region were misguided.
I began to notice every instance of police misconduct in the media.
I watched our legal costs rise and then lost my job as a result of the vexatious charges. I took my employer to the Australian Human Rights Commission and got it back.
The calendar was filled with legal dates and life revolved around the next court mention, the next legal appointment, the next hearing. Henry Fonda’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man sums up the experience succinctly – it was like being put through a meat grinder.
But it would be wrong to portray it all as miserable victimhood porn.
The experience for me was a watershed moment. Like the time I found out there was a profession focused on social justice, excitedly applied for it and got in. Or the times I came out. Or the first demonstration I organised.
It has, in the most trite-sounding of ways, given me a crash course in the machinations of institutional power and at the end of it all I feel more knowledgeable, more empowered and with a stronger sense of where my energies should be exerted in making the world a better place.
It also gave me the opportunity to be quite overcome with the passion and concern my community and the general public showed when the revelations of police violence at Mardi Gras hit the press. The pride that I experienced on seeing people speak against unaccountable power did make me cry, and it also gave me hope. And it still gives me hope as we continue to agitate with redoubled effort for an independent investigative body for police conduct.
What I left behind on the other side of Oxford St that night was a certain naivety. It has been replaced with renewed purpose. As the song goes, “from little things, big things grow”. So when it comes to instances of violence and unaccountable power I think I can say, along with the community – you can expect us.