The Mask of Curfew in Alice Springs

The three-week-long curfew that was recently enforced in Alice Springs is symptomatic of more than just the town’s ongoing problem with crime. In part, it has brought to light the complicated relationships and conflict that often characterise the town. Details in the media have been vague, but generally the curfew is understood to have been prompted by an episode of violence that erupted following a funeral. Reports describe a group of people, only some of whom were youths, descending on one of the town’s pubs in search of an individual they believed should be held to account. Windows were smashed, doors were broken, weapons were wielded and injuries are likely to have been sustained. Those involved have been said to have been engaged in a pre-existing conflict between ‘rival’ Aboriginal families. Sadly, suppositions around clan violence and the proximity to savagery it may indicate are, have always been and continue to be something of a colonial tradition in Alice Springs, and Australia more broadly. Such depictions do little good to anyone. Conversely, hostilities between families in Central Australia certainly do exist, and at times violence is known to occur as a result of such clashes. The denial that this is the case is likewise without merit.

But the curfew has had its own implications. Logistically, it meant an expanded police presence patrolling the streets of the CBD. The sixty additional officers who were deployed to enforce the curfew added to what is already around twice the national average of police officers. But arguably the implementation of the curfew—an idea which has been brewing for many years, frequently as a focus of election promises and heated community meetings—also set a precedent for further restrictions to be placed on the movements of young people, particularly young Aboriginal people. The Northern Territory’s Chief Minister Eva Lawler has since indicated that that she would happily implement a youth curfew elsewhere in the Territory, should a need arise. Given the history of calls for such restrictions, such remarks are incredibly significant, and unlikely to have been made flippantly.

Throughout the course of my PhD candidacy, I explored the disadvantage, systemic inequality and collective and intergenerational trauma that I believe contribute to the chaotic behaviours of young people in Alice Springs, the attention these behaviours attract, and the historical and racialised dimensions of the situation. I concluded that there are indeed no simple solutions to alleviate the suffering that both contributes to and results from the ongoing presence of young Aboriginal people on the streets of Alice Springs, and the ways in which they seek to disrupt and challenge authority. Rather, the ways in which these young people conduct themselves and the ways that settler-Australians respond to them may best be understood as a manifestation of a host of wider historic, and ongoing, experiences of pain and loss.

The enforcement of a curfew only serves to mask problems that are ongoing. It cannot possibly erase or alleviate food scarcity, inadequate housing or youth homelessness, factors that characterise the poverty that is a feature of life in Alice Springs for many young people. It goes without saying that it cannot address endemic family violence or familial substance misuse either. Rather, the curfew serves to detract from these very real and entrenched issues. While it may be that crime rates momentarily dropped as a result of the curfew, other harms have undoubtedly gone on existing.

The recent execution and looming possibility of a reinstated youth curfew is also unlikely to quell well-established divisions between the town’s Aboriginal and settler-Australian populations—case in point, Alice Springs is famously home to what is sometimes referred to as Australia’s last segregated bar. Such divides characterise the town’s living space, with some residential areas being almost exclusively occupied by settler-Australians and others, known in the Northern Territory as Town Camps, being designated for the Aboriginal population. Such distinctions are enshrined in the town’s history. The movement of Aboriginal people in Alice Springs has always been subject to limitations; the town was formerly deemed a ‘Prohibition Zone’ for all Aboriginal people, who were not permitted to enter the town centre at night without an ‘exemption’. This was lifted in 1950 for those deemed ‘half-caste’ following a series of protests. It would, however, not be rescinded for other Aboriginal people until the mid-60s. This is of course within the living memory of many of the town’s residents, a reality that adds context to much of the tension that is painfully apparent on the pages of Alice Springs’s notoriously racist community social media pages. Increasingly, in these spaces, a number of very vocal settler-Australians have taken to calling for a return to the days of more formal segregation, suggesting that Aboriginal people should require a permit to enter town just as settler-Australians require a permit to enter some parts of Aboriginal land. Such voices speak to a historical and ongoing divide and a lack of empathy, yes, but also to an established sense of anxiety around contested space. Other manifestations of this anxiety are the countless ways in which Aboriginal people have continued to be policed in the CBD since the lifting of prohibition laws. This policing is increasingly taken on by a variety of actors: last year, for instance, Four Corners reported on the increased use of security personnel to maintain law and order on the streets of Darwin, and Alice Springs has likewise increasingly been subject to the appointment of security guards to patrol the CBD, many of whom are armed.

These increases in surveillance, however, do more than play on mutual anxieties and leave social issues unaddressed. There are more immediate lived implications for young people, who, while being understood by many as agents of chaos, are invariably vulnerable. Such restrictions exacerbate pipelines into the youth justice system for many disadvantaged young people, whether they are Aboriginal children or children of any cultural background who are in the care of the care of the state. In Alice Springs, only time will tell if and to what extent these measures have served to further criminalise a group of young people who are already being incarcerated and brought into the criminal justice system at unprecedented rates. The increase in the number of police officers itself is concerning. My own research in Alice Springs suggested that racialised over-policing of Aboriginal communities and of young Aboriginal people in the town centre was likely a contributing factor in the criminalisation of young people in Central Australia. And while anecdotally a culture of racism among local police officers has always been spoken about, more formal recognition of this has been scarce—until the recent testimonies of former police officer and unlikely whistleblower Zachary Rolfe at the inquest of Kumanjayi Walker, the young man he shot and killed in 2019 in Yuendumu, a remote Aboriginal community north of Alice Springs. Rolfe alleged that the Territory’s most elite unit, the Territory Response Group, went so far as to offer up an in-house award to the member who demonstrated the most ‘c**n-like’ behaviours, among other examples of flagrant racism.

Given that the manner in which curfews are enforced, and whether or not charges and infringements result from such approaches, is a matter of discretion, such evidence—along with the possibility of further restrictions being placed on the youth of Alice Springs—is particularly worrisome. Of course, only time will tell what the lived implications of such approaches may be, but I am reserving much of my cynicism in concluding that at best, the curfew has likely done few favours to those it seeks to correct. Like many other governmental approaches in Central Australian history, its probable impact has been to shift the physical evidence of long-term disadvantage out of sight, and subsequently out of mind.

It’s the voice of ‘rural nullius’ on ABC’s Jim Crow Country Hour

Brian Burkett, 18 Apr 2024

Farmers in the south of Israel were granted nearly as much ABC air-time in the four weeks before the Voice vote as all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations across all of Australia.

About the author

Lora Chapman

Lora is a writer and practicing social worker. She holds a PhD in anthropology and is passionate about social issues that impact children and young people.

More articles by Lora Chapman

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.

Leave a Reply