The first time I was stopped by police I was drunk and alone, walking through the backstreets of Darlinghurst early Saturday morning. They suspected that I was trying to buy drugs. I suppose that walking through the backstreets of Darlinghurst, drunk and alone at 2 a.m. is plausibly the behaviour of someone trying to buy drugs. But it is also plausibly the behaviour of me, walking home, drunk and alone through the backstreets of Darlinghurst early on a Saturday morning. It was this troubling ambiguity that the Officers were keen to resolve.
They told me the time. They noted the location. They asked me if I was intoxicated. They asked me if I was by myself. I nodded at them and they nodded at each other. Although our nodding implied that we had now reached a common understanding of our situation, I was then asked to repeat these answers several times. They asked and I answered, and we shared in an optimistic conspiracy that repetition might spontaneously transform facts into interpretation. We were like fact alchemists.
A new tack was taken: they asked me why I here, now, drunk and alone. It is always difficult to give a considered account of the choices we mundanely make to be in particular places, at particular times, doing particular things but it is obviously most difficult when its late, and you’re drunk, and lost and tired and alone.
I was told to stand up straight, to stand against a wall, to walk in a straight line, to answer clearly, to not answer back, to look them in the eyes, to not roll my eyes. Eventually, I must have struck the right balance of indignation and compliance. All five of the officers escorted me to get a cab on Oxford St, like my personal security detail.
It lasted about twenty minutes. No arrest, no charge. Since then, I have been stopped on other occasions in similar circumstances. Since then, I have been in similar circumstances and I have not been stopped. I still can’t discern when I’m moving through the city suspiciously.
Of course, the police are interested in maintaining public safety. I’m a gay man so perhaps it was stupid for me to be walking around deserted streets by myself. Arguably, the police were protecting me. But I didn’t feel protected. I consider my first mugging to be a more personal encounter. After a brief negotiation, the mugger let me keep my cards and phone. I noted that my wallet was vegan leather, he laughed. He apologised.
In both cases I was targeted because I was alone and drunk in the city at night but only in one case was that treated like it was perverse. And this isn’t police misconduct; it is the conduct of modern policing. Whether it’s a music festival or Mardi Gras, or just a Saturday night in Sydney, police officers remind young people to enjoy themselves unsuspiciously. We get searched, sniffed by dogs, and asked to count our drinks. Stopped, questioned, and moved along.
For some of us, myself included, these awkward, humiliating interactions will stop when we get older. For less privileged communities, over-policing will always be a part of their lives. A redistribution occurs: some people are made to feel less safe so that others can feel more safe. In order to prevent graffiti on shop windows, young people are interrogated for merely having cans of spray paint in their backpacks.
Obviously, there is a value to some police presence but it is important to compare it to the collected minor indignities it causes. ‘More police’ can’t be the easy, lazy answer to any risk, to every risk. From my perspective, that is more threatening than any pill I could have bought from the non-existent drug dealer I wasn’t going to meet.