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Social Gangrene: The Clockwork Orange Aspects of Today's Race Relations in Armidale, NSW, Australia

By Dan Byrnes

Author's Note: Everyone in the world who has just been smacked in the kisser for no reason at all and lost two valued front teeth is perfectly welcome to criticise this article as much as they like. And no one else is. That's why my email or other address does not appear here. I've had enough sympathy, thanks.

This article appears on the Net not because I am still feeling sorry for myself about a certain incident. But because the town in which I live is entering a dangerous phase in its social history. And if something constructive is not done about obvious and glaring problems of race relations in Armidale, things will only get worse. The summer of 2004-2005 in Armidale could get quite ugly. As you will find if you read on... and find it more and more unpleasant. (Who said the Net is not a useful vehicle for real communication? You are now reading Instalments 1 and 2 of a projected four instalments, and more if I can get some people in Armidale to speak out on these matters.)

Part 1 - Visiting Armidale for a bit of social history...

I've lived in Armidale since early 1994, originally moving here awhile to finish various studies at University of New England. I happened to stay here. For a writer, the university library is invaluable. Though if I can say anything brief about Armidale, the town, quite apart from the university, it is this. In Armidale there is far too little to admire, about anything, really, except the food supply, which somehow is perpetually of very good quality - on an all-seasons basis.

At times the town seems just a bog-and-fog of apathy, complacency, cold winters; much-talk-about-much and no-action-about-anything. This is merely an educated-Australian version of that mindless old Australian attitude, "she be right, mate". But in Armidale it manages to pass for local pride.

In Federal politics, Armidale was held by the National (Country) Party for more than eighty years. This surely must be an unbeatable record for lack of imagination in Australian country town life! Truly unbelievable but true!

Populated as it is with an elaborate set of high schools, public and private, plus a university no less, Armidale has become merely an education town with not enough to think about - and no admirable urge to grapple with the future. I find Armidale's lack-lustre attitude to the future quite appalling, and have said so very often since around 1996 to anyone who will listen. Which is very few. But I did say, apathy, complacency.

During winters, Armidale in "The New England" hibernates from life as though it has never heard of Northern Hemisphere winters as in Scandinavia, Canada, or even Old England. Armidale goes into itself. It is inward-looking and introspective. It buries itself in its past and then refuses to acknowledge what it sees there - which is why so much of Armidale's Twentieth Century history remains unwritten. But in late 2004, legacies of its past are walking its night-streets. And whatever their reasons, these legacies are very, very angry.

In late 2004, Armidale should be telephoning Houston to report, "Houston, we have a problem." So far, it isn't.

Because of Armidale's indigenous population, who managed to survive the town's pioneering past, there is of course an ongoing "race relations situation" which creates and forms a continual undercurrent of conversation for all social circles. In an "academic town", and a rather churchy town, some of this conversation becomes very well-meaning indeed.

Opinions vary widely on situations, as one might expect. I listen to everybody and think my own thoughts. That is not the point of this article. The point here is to be as clear as possible about a worsening situation, which, if I were an Aboriginal person in Armidale, I would find very worrying indeed. Certainly, being a white, I know, and know of, a number of white people who are becoming increasingly worried.

Worsening? If you have ever seen the movie, A Clockwork Orange, you'll know about the Droogs, about young Alex and his friends and their fondness for ultra-violence, mayhem, creating reasons for shock-horror, and mostly avoiding capture. Well, A ClockWork Orange is now being shown for real in Armidale, night after night, and I recently became an extra, painfully, very unexpectedly.

Part 1 - What is the point? Managing race relations or bad behaviour?

I refer to the night of 10 November, 2004. A little explanation. Since I love music and try to support community radio, public broadcasting, I am a volunteer with Armidale's station. I've developed a routine of going often to the station around 10pm or midnight, mostly to switch from broadcast of some pre-recorded material to reception and re-transmission of satellite transmission. This takes only a few minutes and I am home within 15 minutes.

It's a job that relieves many others in Armidale of an inconvenient task. It's no bother to me. I'm a night owl by temperament, a writer who lives alone, and near our FM station; and a late-night stroll into the CBD helpfully breaks me away from my computer and let's me think afresh about my latest computer tasks - or writing. Since I am single, this makes me a lone white male who may seem to be wandering the streets at midnight for unknown reasons. In fact, my mission is perfectly innocuous and helps our radio station provide broadcasting continuity, 24x7.

(Oh, and I don't keep a guard dog. I now predict that guard dogs are going to become more popular in Armidale.)

Given that by 2004, and given that I am observant, this weekly routine has been current for years already. My feeling is that since mid-winter 2003, there has been a regularly increasing potential for night-street-violence anywhere in the Armidale CBD. From mid-2003, since I intimately know all the CBD laneways by now, I have taken care, while walking to and from the station, to pre-plan any escape routes it might become convenient to use. If necessary?

Routinely walking around the Armidale CBD around midnights, one can see many odd things, and unfortunately, many such oddities are populated by people of "Aboriginal appearance". If you don't believe me, just ask Armidale's taxi drivers! Or the police!

Or did I start thinking about taking such precautions the Thursday night a while back now, when another public broadcaster and I came out of our station around 9.30pm and walked down past the bus-stop closest to the police station? This bus-stop, near the courthouse, has a much-used set of public toilets. And lying on the footpath we found a grey-haired old Aboriginal man partly-covered in blood, maybe with a loosened tooth or two. He was drunk, incoherent, and had no way to explain himself, even to himself. We heaved him to his feet and carried him down to the police station. We thought, it was impossible to tell if he'd been beaten-up, or simply taken a very bad drunken fall. The police knew him anyway. I suppose they took him home. He was in a piteous condition.

Part 1 - The midnight joker in the balaclava

So I've been feeling that Armidale has some problems increasing in severity - with risks of violence. As follows... Going to the radio station, some Wednesday or Friday night previous to 10-11-2004, (I didn't put it in my diary, as it happened), at 11.50pm, I'd been just near a certain hotel of the East Mall, quite a well-lit area, going to the station as usual, when I encountered two male part-Aboriginals, one tallish and slim who stayed right out of the situation that ensued, and one flabby and pudgy, about 28. Neither of them was drunk at the time, and nor was I.

The pudgy one on a whim decided to refuse to let me pass on the footpath, and demanded cigarettes. I told him I had none on me, though I did. He then demanded $50, which I did not have on me, as by policy I don't carry my wallet on such short night excursions. This pudgy guy then drew his beanie down over his face in balaclava style, adopted a menacing boxer-pose, and continued to demand $50. (I smoke, and it's all-too-common in Armidale to find Aboriginal people on the streets, or in the Mall, begging cigarettes. If only they ever wondered what a bad advertisement they are for their people! If only... If only...)

Somehow, this beanie-hiding guy maintained the air of a joker. He was not entirely serious, and he knew it, and so did I. I was not amused, however. I simply danced out of his way and on up the street, safely. But I was pretty annoyed to hear him giggling to his mate, ha ha, he'd frightened a wh