Two-way game

JESSE NOAKES is a writer and advocate who’s recently returned to Fremantle to rent a studio in the West End. He says how Freo’s “mean streets” are described in the Herald, at policing forums and on social media, don’t reflect his experiences of the port city.

I WENT along to Fremantle council’s recent ‘Community Safety’ briefing and it was a remarkable experience.

I’ve become mildly obsessed with the debate around ‘antisocial behaviour’ in Freo since moving back a few months ago.

The conversation in the Herald and with councillors, let alone the blaring scroll on the Community Circle Whatsapp groups, is so different to the one I have most days on the streets.

I’ve got a studio on Pakenham Street where I often work after-hours and weekends.

Because I’m lazy and distracted, I spend a lot of time pounding the surrounding streets looking for crew to talk to.

Westgate Mall, Kings Square, High Street Mall, the Roundhouse–I’ve seen some things that make me wince, and more that make me laugh. But not once this year have I felt threatened.

I’ve got a few things in my favour: I’m young, white, and most importantly a man.

The biggest privilege of all is that I’m at ease when I’m engaging with crew; having a yarn or exchanging a glance or just plain old staring.

There’s not a single interaction I’ve had in recent months that couldn’t be transformed, in about the first 20 seconds, into something positive.

If you like her bag, tell the crazy lady.

She’ll probably grin and say thanks.

We can tell, subconsciously and intuitively, if someone feels comfortable with us and when they don’t.

A comment at the council meeting stayed with me all day.

Someone was talking about people with serious “mental health issues”, and how threatening it was when they entered her shop.

“The only way to deal with them is not to look at them. That’s the key–never look at them, never make eye contact.”

Talk about anti-social behaviour. One of the primary determinants of mental health is social inclusion.

We could start, as another local business owner responded, by seeing them as human.

That means seeing people not as a potential threat or a criminal, but as someone with a story that led them here, just like us.

IT’S 5am outside the 7/11, someone asks me for a light, which I don’t have, and a couple of bucks for a drink, which I do.

We have a chat, ask each other what we’re doing out so early.

I came into town to work on an essay and strolled up here to grab some bananas for brekkie.

He was in town looking for the guy who’d ripped off his wallet, phone and backpack; his sole possessions besides the tent he and his partner were staying in down near Bathers Beach.

“No idea what we’ll do for food ’til Monday.”

Overdose

We walk back down that way together and he begins to fill me in.

“Most people don’t want to know this stuff, or they don’t believe it.”

Five weeks ago his father died of an overdose.

Last Sunday, his young daughter, competing in a race over east, was killed by another vehicle.

There’s nothing to say in the darkness of Saturday morning on High Street.

When we get to Kidogo, a girl comes racing over, face drenched with tears.

“Where’ve you been?” she wails. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been so scared, so scared.”

She turns to me and apologises, says it’s nice to meet me.

She’s lovely and sweet and completely terrified, her voice racked with nerves.

Talk about community safety–I can’t remember the last time I saw someone so palpably insecure and vulnerable.

I scrawled down my number and left them to try and get some sleep.

I said I’d meet them on the corner of High Street at 1pm to get some lunch, but they never showed.

God knows what happened in the meantime.

The biggest echo chamber of all is Freo Now’s Whatsapp group for local businesses.

I’ve trawled through the feeds for central Freo and for the markets–they’re is a shopping list of negative labels.

‘Blue tracksuit’, ‘clearly drug-affected’, ‘this one again’. The whole conversation is an alert bulletin that’s guaranteed to make everyone alarmed about incoming threats.

At the meeting, Freo Now presented the results of a survey they sent out–74 out of 500 responded.

A total of 80 per cent of those respondents, local businesses, said they were seriously concerned about anti-social behaviour. But 85 per cent never responded at all.

Obviously, those who did would already feel strongly about the issue, and so it’s their voices that get heard.

I’ve spoken to other retailers and hospitality owners in central Freo who don’t know what the fuss is about. Like me, they haven’t noticed any recent increase in aggression or noise about town–only on social and traditional media.

One lady who runs several shops reckons the ‘Freo Circle’ app is “fear-mongering and brainwashing. It puts people on this aggressive alert. We need to chill a little, and talk to people.”

“I’ve never been targeted, not once. I have good conversations with people who look ‘down and out’–ask them how they are, smile, listen. They’re sweeter and more humble than so many of the entitled shoppers I deal with. It comes down to the way you treat people.”

This is especially the case with people who live on or near the streets–attuning to social cues is a survival instinct.

If you think that people don’t notice heads shaking on the bus, or catch the snatches of conversations when you’re a couple of metres past them, or just feel the distance, guess again.

They’re onto you and unsurprisingly, if you don’t feel good about them, they’re gonna close up in response.

Perhaps this comes across as victim-blaming those on the receiving end of anti-social behaviour. Fair cop–I don’t have a family to support with my business.

I can see what an annoyance frequent petty theft would be, and any threats or violence are a very bad thing.  But my point is more about who the true victims are, and if we listen to them.

I stopped for a chat with another guy I see out there regularly.

Pretty quickly it stacks up. Mother, murdered. Sister, murdered. Son, murdered.

Homeswest evicted him recently for damage he says was done by sick family he was caring for.

He loves to cook, but won’t do it in the shared kitchen of his temporary accommodation because he’s scared someone’ll shank him from behind.

The violence, the theft, the danger–it’s mostly self-contained. We just see it from across the street.

If we zoom out far enough, we’re all living off the proceeds of crime, with some notable exceptions.

We took the country, we take the kids, we leave them to it; and send Whatsapp alerts when we see them coming down the street.

It’s not about black or white–it’s about the system.

Those it looks after and those who are crushed by it. Us and them.

Anti-social behaviour works both ways.

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