With the recent upheaval around the Senate hearing on Personal Choice and Community Impacts or the “Nanny-state” initiated by Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm a few things become clear. The ‘left’ have all but vacated the terrain of stemming the overreach of the state. In recent years it’s the whilsteblowers gone public, the Snowdens and Mannings, upon who it has been incumbent to raise the questions of state infringement on freedom.
In Australia, it has taken a libertarian, elected by a combination of good fortune and brand confusion, to ask questions about the overreach of the state. By chance, the formation of the Senate Committee coincided with the releasing of a set of draconian requests by the Parramatta Local Area Command governing the behaviour of Western Sydney Wanderers fans. This added a pronounced class dimension.
It goes without saying that all state power is experienced most overtly by the working class. With Western Sydney’s intersection of demography and geography, it is no surprise that common in the conciousness of many of its residents is a collective experience of over-policing, profiling and brutality.
An anti-police sentiment borne from such experiences is burnt into the DNA of the Westie.
The Wanderers fan group the Red and Black Bloc (RBB) is unique. Emerging immediately at the announcement of the establishment of an A-league franchise in Western Sydney, it grew quickly into a well organised, highly supported group. Yes, they are first and foremost united around active support for a football team, but their engagement in the the building of the Wanderers has ensured that the Westie DNA was embedded into the culture.
For an insight into the class dimension of the Wanderers watch:
Much has been documented about the diversity of the RBB and Wanderers fans more broadly. Their encapsulation of the vibrancy of Western Sydney with its myriad of ethnicities and intertwining of culture is important to acknowledge, yet the analysis must run deeper. If the fans bring their ethnicities in celebration of diversity, they also bring their collective experience of marginalisation, alienation, racism and displacement. They also bring formations of analysis of how and why such experiences exist. An intuitive part of this analysis is an awareness of the role of policing: They have long felt hated and controlled.
Over the last three seasons and as the Wanderers phenomenon bloomed on and off the field, the intuitive analysis shared by many Wanderers fans had become all too real. The police presence at games was, and is, totally disproportionate to similar sized crowds at other sporting events – or even other teams within the same League. The police presence routinely includes horses, public order and riot squad, mobile detention vans, and operations support group units. Supplemented with an overzealous private security firm, home games at Parramatta Stadium have a schizophrenic dimension. On the one hand, families, adolescents, adults and elders share a joy at being led in call and response song by the boisterous RBB. All the while under the gaze of hundreds of posturing police and security. The extremeness of the experience must be observed first hand to be truly appreciated.
Before long, posts on social media and fan forum sites began painting a narrative of extreme harrassment at games, and undercover operatives, including private security firm Hatamoto surveilling of the RBB. As noted by Benjamin Solah in Overland:
Hatamoto ‘have used invasive surveillance techniques that are more suitable to their self-proclaimed field of expertise, counter-terrorism, as opposed to football supporter[s]’
If the feeling of overpolicing wasn’t new, the terrain was now different. The RBB has begun coalescing into a sizeable and coherent group. With a growing number of RBB receiving 5 and 10 year bans from attending any FFA matches without appeal. However, the power of their solidarity and collectivity was displayed in their silent protest on 3rd of March, 2014.
While tensions have been fermenting for as long as the Wanderers have existed, they spilled over on the night of 25th of April, 2015 when police entered the crowd in the RBB section and began fan spraying pepper spray, following a botched attempt at nabbing a suspected flare igniter. A fourteen year old boy was hospitalised and the core of the RBB walked out midway in the match in protest. They regrouped in the carpark where further altercations took place. (Read the RBB statement here)
This marked a turning point for relations. In the off-season, the Parramatta LAC drafted a set of rules to police Wanderers fans’ behaviour. The measures were unprecedented, and attempted to preclude banners, overhead clapping, swaying and importantly the march. The traditional march to the ground has been a crucial pillar in the culture of the club. Commencing from their home pub, the RBB snake a musical procession through the streets of Parramatta, aquiring greater mass as they near the stadium. It is an act of pure human expression, of momentary power. Achieved by the capacity to lead a significant, collective force with a purpose – to have fun. Threats to the march, were threats to the very heart of the RBB.
When the Police demands were broken by the press on the 24th of September, 2015, an immediate, if somewhat disjointed, campaign formed. Letters to politicians and the media were drafted and shared. Debates about strategies and which networks to tap into erupted on forum sites. As the campaign gained ground, high profile football journalists began supporting the cause. In reference to the RBB march, Craig Foster concluded:
Walk. And, if you wish, I’ll walk with you.
Because, football treads its own path.
Through a combination of pressures, the Police were forced to back down. A statement released on 7th of October by Wanderers CEO, John Tsatsimas, following a joint session between Police, fans and the Club stated:
– There is no ban on the pre-match march based on the continued adherence to protocols that apply for any organised public gathering;
– There is no ban on standing, clapping, singing or jumping up and down within the venue;
– All approved concession items including flags and banners will still be allowed in the venue as per the pre-existing venue terms of admission;
– There is no ban on the approved capo stand or the use of loud hailers based on pre-existing terms of admission;
– Overcrowding of bays, standing on seats, blocking aisles, repetitive offensive language will be managed in accordance with established terms and conditions of entry. These policies are in the best interest of public safety and should be adhered to at all times by all spectators. These terms of entry have been in place since our first ever match.
At a snap meeting called by the RBB, on the same night as the backdown and the eve of the season opener, the more than 150 people in attendance voted unanimously to march to Parramatta Stadium ahead of the next day’s match in defiance of Police original wishes. At this same meeting, it was revealed that Police had been handing over details of persons whom they had arrested or simply questioned to the FFA, the governing body of the League. In some instances, Wanderers members received FFA bans for being stopped while jaywalking hours after a match or for lighting a flare at a private event – conduct well outside the realms of the actual events. This is unprecedented in any other Australian sporting context.
At the end of the meeting, the RBB announced they had been invited to give evidence at a Senate hearing related to the “nanny state” inquiry and called for supporters to help collate experiences of harassment and over-policing. There is no doubt this resulted from a coordinated response coming from the people of Western Sydney.
The hearing was held on Tuesday the 4th of November 2015. At the hearing NSW Police assistant commissioner Denis Clifford uttered much hyperbole such as:
“The lighting of flares is the most dangerous activity I’ve seen on the marches and at games,” and
“It’s only a matter of time before someone is killed.”
He went on to claim that the threat posed by the RBB was so great that their actions could lead to another public disorder moment like the Cronulla riots.
In response the RBB representatives outlined the well established experience of police intimidation and harrassment. However its the responses by Senator Leyonhjelm which have prompted a fallout that can only be described as immense. He has said:
Look at my surname, you could say I’m of ‘wog’ extraction,” Mr Leyonhjelm said. “And frankly this is an anti-wog attitude.
“It’s a police attitude coming from the top that Wanderers fans are dodgy, and that only heavy-handed policing will bring that under control.
He later articulated that the ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) tag was one earnt by the Police and the imperative was on the Police to remedy the situation.
His comments were fueled by an astonishment that only a true libertarian can muster. Of course Wanderers fans were far from astonished, they had lived this experience from their first home match (if not their whole lives).
Leyonhjelm’s comments provoked a staggering statement by the Police Association who after calling for the Senator’s removal from the committee, went on to label the fans as ‘grubs’, twice:
Anyone who thinks what has been happening at Western Sydney Wanderers games, and in the hours before them, is not dangerous needs to take a long hard look at themselves. Police are there to protect everyone – even these grubs.
In typical Wanderers fan fashion, the label ‘grub’ – just like those before it of ‘scum’, ‘bogan’, ‘povo’, ‘wog’ and ‘reffo’ – has been immediately appropriated, continuing the subversion that has permeated their identity from the outset.
It is clear that the police see the RBB as a threat. Not because they are deadly, nor because they are violent. They fear them because a bunch of organised Westies can make them feel extremely insecure by carving out a space of their own. The RBB pose the possibility that the state is not ubiquitous.