For some, it was ironic for a representative of the NSW Police Force to advise police at the recent Mardi Gras briefing to be vigilant of “violent extremism” during this year’s celebrations.
Although the tensions that flared up in the aftermath of the 2013 parade have largely subsided, the memory of Jamie Jackson Reed and Bry Hutchinson’s brutal arrests that year have left many questioning policing practices at the iconic event.
Last year, LQBTIQ legal groups reported receiving “significantly more” complaints than usual about police conduct during the parade, including their heavy presence outside the Moore Park after party.
More than 800 extra police were on duty at last year’s parade, as part of Operation Northcote. According to Dan Stubbs, director of the Inner City Legal Centre, the number of additional police was unnecessary and disproportionate to the event.
“People do find it intimidating and it’s not a dangerous event. In fact, it’s the safest event in the city all year… especially when you compare it to Future Music or Stereo,” he said.
The last few years have seen police introduce a swathe of new measures targeting Mardi Gras patrons; including a ‘decency inspection team’ to police the suitability of outfits.
“Drug detection dog operations teach people not to trust police”
Although there has been a general increase in sniffer dog operations in Sydney, their relationship with the LQBTIQ community is particularly chequered. According to Will Tregoning, founder of the UnHarm drug decriminalisation campaign group,
“In the early days of the drug detection dog program they were used to target specific communities. We’re talking from the beginning in 2001, when the NSW Police used drug dogs for early operations. The gay clubs on Oxford Street were regularly targeted… What had been a place owned by the community, increasingly felt like a controlled space, and was a factor that lead to the downfall of that area”.
Mr Tregoning expressed his concerns to Sydney Criminal Lawyers® that the presence of sniffer dogs in the marshalling section of this year’s parade will lead to dangerous behaviour, such as ‘loading up’ on drugs. He feels police are creating distrust, and undoing the work undertaken over many years to build bridges between police and the LQBTIQ community.
“What the drug detection dog operations do is teach people not to trust police, they create antagony and mistrust within communities, including the gay and lesbian community… Police are there to take care of people, and yet the drug detection operations are doing the opposite. They’re taking away the opportunity for collaboration between community and the police,” he said.
“You need to cover them up or we’re taking the float down”
Decency Inspectors will again be present in the marshalling area of this year’s Mardi Gras, who have the job of deciding what event goers can and can’t wear. NSW Police corporate spokesperson for LQBTIQ people, Tony Crandell, admits that the decisions of these officers can be arbitrary.
“We are often asked what’s okay and what’s not, which is sometimes difficult to describe – when you see something offensive, you just know.”
In 2013, the Decency Inspection Team came under fire for demanding that members of the Leather Pride float, a staple of Mardi Gras, cover their backsides before being allowed to march in the parade.
“They said ‘we’ve got five of your boys in jocks and chaps,’” says the Sydney Leather Pride Association’s John-Bernard Tyndall. “And I went ‘it’s never been a problem before’. They turned around and said well it is a problem, it’s indecent, you need to cover them up or we’re taking the float down.”
Mr Tyndall told ABC News:
“I pointed out a couple of other floats that were going past which had less covered women on them, women with exposed breasts et cetera. And they basically said, well they’re women you’re men we have to draw a line somewhere.”
Mr Tyndall believes these inspectors are an example of over-policing, and that their decisions are arbitrary and gender biased.
“Two four six eight, gay is just as good as straight!”
It has been almost four decades since Sydney’s first Mardi Gras parade. On 24 June, 1978, a number of gay men, lesbians and transgender people met at Taylor Square to march down Oxford Street to protest against the government’s anti-homosexuality laws.
After a scuffle with police at Hyde Park, the group retreated to Kings Cross, where 53 people were arrested near Kings Cross Police Station. A week later, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper published the names and addresses of those arrested, causing many of them to lose their jobs and be evicted from their rental properties.
Thankfully, four decades later, Australia has become a more tolerant society when it comes to LQBTIQ people – and police no longer share the same hostile attitudes they once did. Years of work and cooperation have built bridges between the groups, but there is still work to do.
Last year, the City of Sydney Council voted unanimously to ask the NSW Parliament, NSW Police Force and Sydney Morning Herald to apologise to the victims of the first Mardi Gras. With the motion going before Parliament later this year, it is hoped that this long-overdue apology will finally become a reality.
Co-chair of the 78’ers, Steve Warren, told the Star Observer: “An apology from the NSW Government, and from Fairfax news, is something that many 78ers and the wider community have been calling for some time.”
To those attending this year’s Mardi Gras, stay safe, look after your mates and have a blast!