It wasn’t much as far as cars went. I have forgotten exactly what make and model it was. Not new enough that it ran reliably, but not old enough to be a beloved restoration classic. I later found out that Alice had called the station a couple of times and even after the car was listed as stolen she still insisted on speaking to me.
She could only afford to keep it fuelled and repaired. Her father, some other relatives and even she herself used to fix the car when it broke down, as it often did, with parts that were begged, borrowed or scavenged. It wasn’t much and wasn’t insured but it was hers. She needed that car. It was one of the fingers that kept the tenuous grasp she had on the bottom rung of the ladder of aspiration.
This memoir appears in October’s Quadrant.
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That grasp was mainly for her kids, who Alice wanted to get educated so they could have some sort of future and some sort of job, even if menial. She had a boy with a learning disability who was never going to do well at school. But she did what she could so that he would have something to offer and somewhere to fit in. She got the fact that it wasn’t just actual knowledge—the structure that facts and figures and their understanding gave—but the simple discipline of getting up every day, pulling on your socks and shoes, turning up and doing your incompetent best. She was doing what she could to inch herself up too. She was on a single mother’s social security payment. She used to do a little bit of cash-in-hand waitressing work to supplement the payments. The restaurant wasn’t good and as a consequence the work wasn’t steady, but the extra dollars helped. Despite the overpriced food and second-rate service she gave—she was enthusiastic but had never been trained on even the most rudimentary basics of service—she would get occasional tips, usually from overseas tourists or men hoping for dates.
Alice is a beautiful woman, but men only wanted to visit her at night. They weren’t so keen on being around during the day because she would insist that they contributed and if they didn’t she would chase them off. There is nothing worse than the scorn of a woman, especially if you thought she would do everything, effectively being a mother as well as a lover. The loving bit was pretty good too, if the stories told by her ex-boyfriends over cans and cannabis were true. The men who slept with and impregnated her, those supposed to be closest to her, were the ones who used her most. There were some white men in there, one white man being a baby daddy. That relationship ended with acrimony, domestic-violence orders including one naming her as the respondent (she had a temper) and a baby girl. The girl had her mother’s beauty and temper but a part-time father with a new relationship. That didn’t bode well. Before that, there were also a couple of abortions, but the subsequent guilt weighed heavily on her and she decided that even if she was left vulnerable and had to cope by herself, she would no longer kill her own offspring. This was despite the fact that the fathers pressured her to do so, preferring someone else’s death over personal responsibility.
That first girl wasn’t the last baby, of course. The next baby daddy was an Aboriginal boy from a family who were inclined to be a bit militant and open in their condescension towards whites but at least they were aspirational. Of course, that relationship didn’t last either. Alice had a number of kids at this stage and while the fathers shared custody, they were not with her to assist, provide comfort, share the burden, ameliorate some of her vulnerability and generally take responsibility. So that beaten-up old car was the thing that got her kids to school, where she helped out at the tuckshop, got the shopping done, and got her to the Department of Social Security and the restaurant. She needed the car in the sense that it was the one thing that was keeping her nose just above the water line.
Of course, her public-supplied housing was in a predominantly indigenous area. Many people would think she would find this reassuring, but she didn’t. She liked living around Asians as a first preference and working whites second because they were good neighbours. No drunken parties, no screams of domestic violence from next door, not so many sirens at night and the early hours. If you accidentally left your door unlocked it wouldn’t necessarily be catastrophic. When her car was stolen, the offenders broke in and took her keys, which were lying near her purse.
That’s why Alice insisted on speaking to me. I was the policeman she knew best. She had helped me in the past, mostly on Thursday Island where she hailed from. When she was younger and before she had the kids, her life circumstances were such that she knew all the dirtbags who were committing offences on the island. Some of them, thinking she would be impressed, sought her out to tell her. She would give me names of the halfwits who were bragging about offences they had committed, what they had done and even occasionally how they did it. I did well out of this, quickly racking up a high rate of clear-ups. Remembering I owed her and that I wasn’t bad at my job, she hoped I would be able to sort this out.
I got her call in the late afternoon, a couple of hours before knock-off. I spent an hour finishing the domestic-violence order for an idiot I had in custody and then got into it. As Alice didn’t get me the first time she called, the report had been completed by someone else. The report was routine and like the hundreds of others we got for stolen cars in that predominantly indigenous and therefore high-crime area. No suspects. The vehicle hadn’t been located yet, but that was sort of reassuring. At least they hadn’t burnt it. By the time I did some reading and looked at the other linked reports—unfortunately hers was one of many—it was after the end of my shift.
But I owed her. I wouldn’t get overtime but I knew the oncoming shift was such that, unusually, there was a spare car. We’re not supposed to do single-officer stuff, for safety and evidence-gathering reasons, but no one else would work this with me, so I signed the car out and left.
The thing to do with these jobs is go out and talk to people. Talk to crooks you know who may owe you a favour, or offer them something—a break, or money. Even simple things work, like turning up to court with them. They are surrounded by people, but people like themselves, selfish, bitter and cynical. Therefore most of them even in the midst of a crowd of like-minded people feel friendless and lonely. So even gestures which are largely symbolic and cost only time can have the desired effect. If that isn’t effective then leaning on them a bit gets the desired results.
It took a good three hours driving around and talking before I even got a name to follow up, but the information was good. The suspect had talked and told someone I knew about this car he had stolen with some mates. Besides a name, I had some idea of what had happened. You sometimes need that because even the dumbest crim will shut up if they don’t actually want to get caught and know you’re just fishing. It may sound strange to say, but not every crim wants to avoid arrest. I’ll come back to that. By the time I got back to the station, signed the car and my gear in, it was after eight and I was supposed to finish at four. There was no way I’d get overtime, but I felt I’d have something to give Alice and that made it worthwhile.
The next day I came in early, went out and, as luck would have it, was able to locate the person of interest. Crime, despite what many people say, isn’t a political act. The offenders are not trying to strike a blow against oppressors. Most of them have enough to live on. It’s excitement, challenge, meaning and point they crave and they get this through offending behaviour and the subsequent involvement with police. Indigenous offenders kind of expect to get caught and are mildly surprised, even disappointed when they are not. They want to tell their friends cool stories of what they got up to last night. The stories that young indigenous offenders tell each other are exactly like police stories, except that the good guy is the offender and he wins by outsmarting the dumb cops.
While I was out and about, the car was found by another crew. I didn’t go looking for it because it could have been anywhere, and from a clear-up point of view it’s not as big a priority as getting the crooks. It’s true that they are stupid enough to leave all sorts of evidence in cars that aren’t burnt out. Once in the glovebox of a recovered stolen car I found charge sheets and court release documents of someone who had been released literally hours before. That was better than fingerprints.
I got the first, and he talked and gave me four other names. He and all the offenders were indigenous, male and juveniles. They all lived within a few blocks of Alice and if they didn’t know her personally, would know who she was. I still had to go to all the normal calls, so I was chasing the crooks in between jobs. I looked but only managed to locate one of the others. Two before the end of shift was pretty good. The names were on the report now so it was only a matter of time before the others got picked up by me or someone else.
With indigenous juveniles, diversion from the justice system requires us to not send them to court unless there is literally no other option. Even then, the court wouldn’t care much about a beaten-up old car worth less than a solicitor’s weekly pre-tax wage. They see it as an insurance issue and many in the justice system even say that property crime is a form of wealth redistribution, something that should be tolerated as the dividends of a wealthy society, just as a fit person can sustain regular blood donations. This is understandable if you see society as the victim. Society may be able to sustain these hits, but individuals may not. This is especially true for a poor Torres Strait Islander single mother with a son who has a learning disability, who makes ends meet with a combination of social security and illegal cash-in-hand work. Society as a collective can sustain this small loss of wealth and productivity. But it’s different when you think of the victims as individuals.
Most young crooks like telling the story of their exciting crime and the two I spoke two were no different. They had had a great time. They did what most car thieves did. They got into the house through an open window, took the keys and then took the car for a drive past the police, who they know aren’t allowed to chase them, and gave them the finger. They raced some friends in another stolen car, then crashed their car and left it bleeding oil, a dented, steaming wreck. They walked away from it feeling the excitement one feels after a victorious sporting match, when the adrenaline has flowed and one has the satisfaction of a job well done.
They said they were sorry, as they knew they had to. But it was easy to tell that they saw the destruction of that car, therefore the structure of Alice’s life and her aspirational dreams, as an unfortunate necessity, like the injuries your sporting opponent sustains in the course of a match. Her suffering was something required for them to live their lives a little more fully, to have some excitement, meaning and point for that short time. It was nothing personal. One of them was in fact related to her through one of the babies’ fathers. Yes, they were willing to engage in community conferencing where offenders meet victims and talk it through, so I would have to explore that with her.
I was looking forward to talking with Alice and telling her of all the work I had done, much of it for no pay. That my talking to people—with a combination of pleading, appealing to right and wrong and sometimes having to engage in more coercive communication techniques—had worked. So it was with mental images of myself in shining armour and with her as a no-longer-distressed damsel brimming with effusive thanks that I rang and said a cheery “Hello” and told her how I had cracked the case and that another crew had located the car. Unfortunately it was a write-off, but I had caught two crooks. Oh, and was she keen on engaging in community conferencing?
The silence at the end of the line after I finished was disconcerting but the suppressed anger and downright disappointment in her voice when she spoke really hit home. These aren’t her exact words, but this is what she said.
“I thought that if there was anyone I didn’t need to explain this to, it was you. But clearly you don’t get it. First, I want my car back. I need my car. It’s been two days. I had to call in favours to get the kids to school yesterday and today and missed work last night because I don’t have a car. I can’t rely on favours for the rest of this week, let alone forever. They’ll let me miss one shift, but if I miss three, they will stop calling me and I’m not going to get another cash-in-hand job. I can’t get a paid job, I’ll lose my pension. I can only work part-time and that won’t be enough. Not only that, I’ll lose all my health and other benefits. My son, the one with learning disabilities, needs them, you know that. He’s got issues that I can’t fix. I need that car. It’s not insured. Who’s going to get me another one? You? The government? Not those useless idiots who stole it. All they can do is steal stuff, get pissed, get stoned, get in fights and get in bed with girls. They have no money. I don’t want community conferencing or cautions. I don’t want to see those thieving idiots. Of course I want them held to account so they know it’s wrong and they are so scared they won’t do it again, but I need my life back more. Clearly you and the system won’t do that, and ironically it’s because they, like me, are black. How is it that a system that says it cares about indigenous people treats me like this? They get everything. They get state-funded lawyers. They get support and even counselling. Counselling! Like they are the ones who are victims. They get opportunities to do courses. I get a phone call from a cop. How is it that the crims get this and I get nothing? Any time I try and get ahead, it’s like they purposely drag me back. I’m not even a tall poppy. I’m like a weed trying to get its leaves above the soil. Seriously, I don’t even know why I try. Why should I when what little I have is taken and those who have so much just don’t care?”
Alice raised so many valid points. She, like me, wanted a colour-blind system. She had always told me that she believed in modern times indigenous people were disadvantaged more by excuses than by racism. But in this surreal situation she was disadvantaged by both. Excuses had been systemised and therefore she was being crushed by a system that discriminated, in an avowedly positive manner, on the grounds of race. Clearly the system isn’t colour-blind. It seems that even if she tried and didn’t play the race card herself and opted out of identity politics it still affected her day-to-day life. The system demeaned her because it was making excuses for a racial category that she was part of. She was constantly told that the system makes allowances for indigenous people. So why was she disadvantaged by the system? Because she owned just a little bit of property? For being aspirational? Being a single mother? Being an indigenous, aspirational, single mother who owned property?
It seemed that everyone, including other indigenous people, was comfortable with Alice being helpless and dependent but had a problem when she started digging herself out. There was a lot for those at the bottom who were happy to go nowhere, but there were real barriers preventing her from raising herself out of complete dependence on the state and not all of them were systematic. Some of them were the new indigenous culture of dependence, excuse making, irresponsibility, hopelessness and despair.
From where she stood, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of her. Men, black and white, wanted her for sex but didn’t want to take responsibility and uphold their part of the bargain. Her largely dysfunctional family wanted her to cook, clean, contribute and work so they could reap the benefits and continue their lifestyles. These lifestyles involved crime and were therefore counterproductive when measuring their broader contribution to society. They were careless, talked and got caught, so their offending did not contribute to their own wellbeing. The police wanted co-operation and information from her, which put her personal safety at risk if the crooks found out, but we couldn’t stop her car from being stolen or get it back to her in a usable state. The courts were obsessed about indigenous offenders but demeaned indigenous victims, thereby failing to administer justice. The wider indigenous community core identity statements discouraged even taking part in, let alone succeeding in broader society. Those appeals to her identity were targeted at her very mind and soul. That was confronting on another level. Well-intentioned white people, unsure what to do, enabled and sometimes even encouraged the nay-sayers and haters.
All I could do was stand there and listen. While she vented a lot very quickly, and I’m sure I’ve missed a bit, most things she said made sense. The thing that stung most was that she shouldn’t have had to explain it all to me. I had known her long enough, lived in enough indigenous communities and knew enough indigenous people to understand. I too was a letdown—wilfully blind, turning my back and adding to the crushing disadvantage. Part of the problem, not the solution.
Alice lost her job and put her name down for housing in a place where she could walk or bus the kids to school. She got it after a while, someone got evicted from a place and she was among Maori and other Pacific Islanders—not as good as Asians or whites, she told me, but it was an improvement. Over the years, another baby and another baby daddy came, but he didn’t hang around either. Her mum died and her dad got sick to the point where he came to stay and couldn’t contribute either. Even if there had been a car to fix, the illness would have prevented him from contributing.
It’s true that she did make a couple of choices that didn’t help. The cannabis smoking aggravated her already bad temper so she really lost it when the exes called to sponge, as they often did. Her drug smoking was never was so out of control that she missed work, school runs or occasional school volunteering. She made sure the kids never saw her stoned; but the real root cause isn’t of her creation. She has a need that is not being fulfilled.
She doesn’t need or care about apologies, recognition statements, policy objectives or statements from hearts. She’s too busy. She’s got a life and it’s pretty chaotic. Government, even the bloated indigenous bureaucracy, can’t or won’t help her.
What Alice really needs is three things. First, she needs a culture that recognises individual agency, a culture that values, encourages and rewards hard work and aspiration rather than a culture of excuses, low expectation and dependency. Second, government and institutions that are colour-blind would also help. Being treated differently, even if it is avowedly positive discrimination, doesn’t help her.
But more practically and urgently, Alice needs a decent man in her life—someone to give her love, guidance and stability, to look after her material, physical, emotional and psychological needs. A rock, a partnership she can build her life on. She needs a husband and her children need a father. The state has taken that role. This has enabled her men, her much-celebrated culture and her community to refuse to shoulder responsibility. She is now married to the state and it’s as much a parent to her children as her baby daddies, perhaps even more so. It’s the state that provides in sickness and health. For better policy or worse outcomes, it’s the state that will be the centre of her life until death do part her from it.
Martin Lynch is a policeman in Queensland