Melbourne: a city on the knife edge

July 23, 2006, the Age:

Melbourne has been shocked by a spate of stabbings. Boys run for their lives as machete-wielding foes bear down on them. Worried youth workers set up a knife buy-back scheme. What's going on? ...

'At about 1.30 in the morning, I get a call from a client. He's been to a party and now he's being chased down the street by a bunch of fellows with machetes. He wants me to come to the rescue.

We arranged (where to meet) and I told him as soon as I pulled up to jump in so we could make a quick getaway. And that's what we did. We shot off because there they were, coming down the other street, these 16 to 19-year-old boys, waving their machetes. Not an ethnic group, not at all: they were white boys. And this . . . was in Hampton East. People don't believe it happens in the nicer suburbs, but it does."
- Carmel Barber, Open Family youth worker.

Last Sunday, Les Twentyman and Bob Falconer staged knife buy-back events at Footscray and Sunshine railway stations ... "We said back then it was a big problem. And that it was only going to get worse," says Falconer.

... following a spate of stabbings earlier this year, Police Commissioner Christine Nixon pointed to statistics showing that violent crime was down, and that these particular incidents were "statistical blips".

Falconer's answer is twofold. Firstly, he points to 2003 figures showing that from a total of 8500 robberies, 4500 people were robbed at knifepoint.

"That's 49 per cent of armed robberies, which tells us there's a lot of people out there getting around with knives," he says.

Secondly, Falconer says anecdotal evidence suggests there is an even larger and more complex knife culture that exists outside the official statistics. Namely, that an increasing number of schoolchildren are carrying weapons to protect themselves. It's a claim supported somewhat by a report last month in The Sunday Age about weapons confiscated from schoolchildren visiting State Parliament.

... we were able to report to the anti-weapon campaigners that their buy-back scheme was being compromised by a 15-year-old weapons dealer named Dean. We met the boy at the Sunshine bus depot.

Dean says he buys machetes cheap - $6 - and sells them for twice as much to whoever knows how to find him. "I do all the business before school starts. I don't want to get busted carrying them around," he says.

And given that it's Asians, Turks, Lebanese and Africans who get the bad press for carrying weapons, it feels important to mention that Dean is a white boy ...

Psychologist Andrew Fuller, who works in schools and has done research on resilience in children, says they are engaging in an arms race that mirrors the mad brinkmanship of the Cold War.

"It goes in a wave," says Fuller. "Certain stories go around and kids start carrying to protect themselves. They'll hear about a couple of kids who are bringing weapons to school or carrying them around the railway station. These stories become legendary to the kids themselves. Partly it's a bravado thing.

"It becomes like an arms race. It can grow as rapidly as it did between the USA and Russia unless you stomp on it."

Is anybody stomping on it? "I've heard that kids are being frisked at some schools. You would never get the school to admit to it ...

Among his clinical clients are "kids coming for counselling because someone has threatened to get them . . . and they're carrying weapons to protect themselves.

"What do you advise the young person who comes to you because he feels threatened and is frightened? For some of these people, the logical thing to do is look for time away from the local area . . . it's better than being sliced by a knife."

Regarding his clients, Fuller says: "There's enough of them to be of concern." ...

Les Twentyman is sitting in the cafe across the street from the Sunshine bus depot. He says, "Things are tense." There has just been a fight outside, right in front of the window where he's been drinking tea out of a mug.

A boy was kicked in the testicles. Soon after, over at the toilets, two girls go at it, with a large crowd spilling out the door.

Later, the local arms dealer shows us footage of the fight on his mobile phone.

Meanwhile, Twentyman tells the story from last November of three girls on a train being "harassed" by a bunch of 13-year-old boys. One of the girls made a phone call from North Melbourne. By the time the train pulled into Sunshine there were 40 kids waiting with machetes and knives. Three African boys were stabbed, one of them nearly died.

"Just Wednesday last week," he says, "a policeman was putting up posters for the buy-back when he saw heaps of kids running along . . . He found 20 boys with baseball bats beating into one kid." ...

Five minutes later we meet Luke with the curved fish knife. And then we meet his brother Dean, the machete salesman. He talks about going at it with other boys.

He says he got suspended from school following one of these fights. He keeps a machete in a school locker.

There's a crowd of boys and girls solemnly listening in. One of the girls, 14, begins telling how she carries a pocket knife for protection, when all of a sudden a very small boy named Jaden pushes his way through. He wants to be heard.

"I have to carry a knife because I'm short, says Jaden, 14.

The girls look at him like he's a puppy and say, "Awww. Sweeeet."

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