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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Ben Smee and Andrew Messenger

Stabbed in front of her granddaughter, Vyleen White’s death sparks racial tension in Queensland

Queensland police at a memorial site to Vyleen White in Redbank Plains, Ipswich
Queensland police at a memorial to Vyleen White, 70, at the Town Square shopping centre in Redbank Plains, Ipswich. She was fatally stabbed in a carpark and a 16-year-old boy has been charged with murder. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

One way out of Redbank Plains is via the prisons. There are six of them built side-by side along the motorway back to Brisbane. The two youth detention centres rarely have spare beds.

On Thursday at the African village centre at Redbank Plains, one by one, women from the local community approach Beny Bol and ask to speak to him privately. They are weeping.

“They said: ‘God bless you, we want … to sit down with you to express our feelings about our children that we brought here hoping they will have a better future,’” says Bol, a South Sudanese refugee and the president of the Queensland African Communities Council.

“They said: ‘They’re finishing somewhere between prison and death. We do not have light any more.’”

A few hundred metres down the road, at the new Town Square shopping centre, is a growing memorial to Vyleen White, 70, who was stabbed and killed in the underground carpark last Saturday, in front of her six-year-old granddaughter.

Police have charged five teenage boys from the area in relation to the incident, including a 16-year-old who is accused of White’s murder. Officers allege the motive was to steal White’s car, a light blue 2009 Hyundai Getz.

The killing has exposed familiar sores in Queensland, where youth crime has become a key election issue.

Some commentary has sought to draw attention to the African background of the accused boys. The police union president and some rightwing politicians have called for serious young offenders who aren’t Australian citizens to be deported. Bol says the African community has been “under siege” in recent days, including reports of physical attacks and abuse.

Detention centres filled

“Mum always said: ‘If I died, no one would care,’” says Cindy Micallef, the eldest daughter of Vyleen White.

“Sorry Mum, you’re sort of in a bit of a spotlight now.”

Debate about youth crime in Queensland has tended to escalate sharply following high-profile incidents; many recent situations involving young offenders have prompted punitive shifts from the Labor state government, which last year twice introduced new laws that required an override of protections in the Human Rights Act.

Combined with aggressive policing tactics – which have involved arrest-focused high-visibility operations, particularly in regional areas – the response has filled youth detention centres, where long lockdowns and solitary confinement have been common. Children are routinely kept in police watch houses – in troubling conditions – waiting weeks for a detention bed.

It is no wonder, youth advocates say, they overwhelmingly reoffend.

And yet each policy shift – designed, the government says, to meet “community expectations” for consequences and punishment – has brought that system under further strain.

Beny Bol and Cindy Micallef at a media
Beny Bol and Cindy Micallef at a media conference in Brisbane on Thursday. Photograph: Seven News

The state opposition leader, David Crisafulli, is seeking to remove the international law principle of “detention as a last resort” from the Youth Justice Act. The premier, Steven Miles, rebuffed such calls this week but sources within the government say they are concerned it could be placed on the table in an attempt to alleviate political pressure ahead of an election in October.

At the Town Square, opinions are going cheap. Sandy, a shopkeeper, says she keeps a stick behind the counter. Several people spoke about general concerns about young school students.

“I obviously want more police presence up there,” says Tayla Jefferson, who is campaigning for a permanent police beat.

“Everything I’m looking at is kind of as a preventative measure. I know nothing’s ever going to eradicate the crime.”

Some say things would be better if children faced tougher consequences. One couple, who Guardian Australia has chosen not to name, says the problem is immigrants with “no respect for the police or authority” who have failed to assimilate.

Bol, who has worked with young people here for more than a decade, sees the problem differently. He says the young people from his community involved in criminal activity are almost invariably those raised predominantly in Australia. He has previously described those issues as “a failure within this country”.

“The young people who are contributing to this, they only know Australia,” he says.

“If you look at people who are doing well and contributing positively to Australia, these are people who came here when they were relatively older.

“They know why they came, what happened. They appreciate the opportunity and the past. They work so hard to make sure they are contributing to this country.”

The South Sudanese Community Association posted a “letter of condemnation” on Facebook about the attack, offering condolences to White’s family. The comments in response include death threats and calls for violence against the community.

Prof Rob White, a criminologist at the University of Tasmania, says the trend is towards fewer crimes being committed by migrant and refugee communities.

He says moral panics – especially those targeting visible minorities – can expose people to racist attacks and also generate “resentment and resistance on the part of those targeted”.

“This is especially the case with young people, who may develop a chip on the shoulder and ‘push back’ accordingly,” Prof White says.

“Rather than reaching for the holster, we need to consider how best to bolster. In other words, punitive policies and rhetoric directed against communities does great harm now and into the future, whereas community development and detached youth work go a long way to identifying underlying issues and providing potential immediate and longer-term solutions.”

‘No one is listening’

On Thursday, Micallef and Bol held a joint press conference to call for calm, which they say has already had made a considerable difference.

The idea, which they discussed jointly, was to speak about issues in a way that deliberately excluded politicians and police: to put a focus on the real needs of the community in a way that couldn’t be co-opted.

Micallef says her father, who is blind, was visited by Miles this week. She says the premier offered his condolences, but what the family really wanted was solutions. Miles is “a seat warmer”, she says.

Bol’s frustrations are longstanding. He spent more than a decade working with young people for the charity Youth Off the Streets and says many community services and government programs were not designed or run to meet the needs of community members. Many people “did not trust” those services and risked becoming isolated from support.

“When I was talking about these issues 10 years ago, young people who are now repeat offenders were clean. For many years I’ve been submitting proposal after proposal, model after model. I get so, so frustrated and disappointed that we as a community have taken responsibility … and no one is listening.

“Then when an incident like this happens, then we’re on the front page.”

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