‘It’s racial profiling’: Aboriginal families fear social media is driving vigilante attacks on young people in Perth

Experts believe the crime rhetoric in some WA community Facebook groups may be leading people to take the law into their own hands

Aboriginal families in Perth say their children have been chased in cars and attacked in the street with knives, bats and metal bars by vigilantes whose hostility is fuelled by racist comments on social media, particularly in Facebook community groups.

Last month the killing of Noongar-Yamatji schoolboy Cassius Turvey made news across the globe and led to a national outpouring of grief and anger. A 21-year-old man has been charged with murder, assault and stealing. He has not yet entered a plea.

The court has yet to hear the evidence in that case, but the death of 15-year-old Cassius has focused attention on the experiences of young Indigenous people in Western Australia.

Noongar parents say tension on the streets of Perth is a longstanding problem, but attacks have now become so common that children and young people are “desensitised” to incidents.

Marianne McKay is a mother of seven children, including a 15-year-old son. The family lives on the outskirts of Perth in Kwinana, a rapidly growing community popular with young families and those looking for affordable homes.

McKay says her son and his friends have been targeted in playgrounds, in the streets and while walking to friends’ and families’ homes, by people assuming they are “troublemakers”.

“They’ve hidden in bushes [and] been run off the road, and they’ve had incidents at the skate park, where bigger boys have targeted the younger boys,” McKay says. “And so our boys have gone over to like, get rid of them, and then they’ve gone and gotten their parents to come and chase them with bats and poles and knives. And it’s escalated to the point where kids have been hurt.”

She says she is so frightened of violence that she orders taxis or rideshares if she is unable to pick them up from a friend’s house.

“I don’t want these boys travelling around on public transport or walking around at night,” she says. “Because I know that there’s going to be some idiot out there that’s going to try and target them or chase them because they think that it’s fun.”

McKay believes social media has a large role to play in encouraging vigilante attacks.

“I’m sick of the words ‘mistaken identity’,” she says. “It’s racial profiling straight out, that’s what we need to call it.”

“Our boys have been chased because of things that have been put on Facebook, and people taking justice into their own hands thinking that they’re chasing boys who have committed a crime, rather than going to the police.”

The posts below were made in a WA community Facebook group over the past year, some in recent weeks. A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook, said it would investigate the group after it was alerted to the posts. They said the company did “not allow people to post credible threats of violence on Facebook and we work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm”. It said it would “take swift action if we identify any violation of our policies”.

A screenshot from a conversation on a WA community Facebook group. One person says ‘unfortunately yes. We need a vigilante group to beat the crap out of them.’ The other replies say: ‘just try not to bury them in the dog park’; ‘why no the dogs would have a fat time munching their bones’; and ‘evidence evidence’

WA police says it has “no information to suggest” there is a rise in people taking the law into their own hands.

“Anyone who believes they are a victim of a crime is encouraged to report the respective matter to police,” a police spokesperson said.

A screenshot from a conversation on a WA community Facebook group which says ‘baseball bat or large bolt cutters have more than one use’

McKay says the Noongar community does not come forward because they don’t trust the police will act on their reports.

“If concerned parents are coming to the police station to report things, they need to know that they’re going to be taken seriously and that it is not a waste of time,” she says.

A screenshot from a conversation on a WA community Facebook group which says ‘were they blacks?’

“The police need to be working more with the Aboriginal community and establishing relationships so that we can learn to trust the police that they’re going to do the right thing if something happens.

“And there needs to be more done for social media. Because a threat is a threat, and it should be taken seriously.”

A screenshot from a conversation on a WA community Facebook group which says ‘find em and start cutting hands off’

Vigilantism often ‘racially driven’

Last month 22-year-old Noongar man Lehon Sutton Pickett was attacked on the street and suffered cuts and bruises. CCTV footage showed Sutton being hit and kicked by a larger man, who Sutton says yelled racial slurs and claimed Sutton had tried to break into his house. A 34-year-old man from Roleystone has since been charged with one count of assault occasioning bodily harm and is due in court later this month.

In August, two teenage boys who allegedly stole a motorbike outside a suburban Perth home were critically injured in a fiery crash, after a woman chased them in a 4WD. The 49-year-old woman pleaded guilty to several charges including aggravated dangerous driving and aggravated grievous bodily harm. The driver and teenagers were badly injured, with 18-year-old Ronaldo Penny left in a critical condition. Both teenagers face multiple chargers and have not entered pleas.

Penny’s aunt, Joanne Ugle, says the teenager was left with severe injuries.“This young man was in ICU for five weeks fighting for his life, with multiple damages – bleeding to the brain as well as a fractured skull, shattered bones in his legs,” she says.

Ugle works with incarcerated people to break the cycle of offending in family violence prevention.

“A bike you can replace; a life you can’t,” she says. “That’s what causes barriers and divides us in this community, in this country.”

A screenshot from a conversation on a WA community Facebook group which says ‘Speaking of vigilante justice, I created a Gofundme for the lady who attempted to get her stolen bikes back - the fundraiser is rather vague as gofundme will remove any fundraisers associated with court cases and vigilante justice, so I’ve worded it so it’s to cover the cost of the damaged vehicles’ with a link to a website

At least one other recent case involving alleged vigilante behaviour is before the courts.

Hannah McGlade, a lawyer and human rights advocate, says vigilantism is often “racially driven”.

“We all know that you should never take the law into your own hands,” the Noongar woman says. “To be a vigilante is against the law. And yet we see a strong pattern of whites who are feeling entitled to violent behaviours to Aboriginal youth.

“It doesn’t matter if an Aboriginal child has offended and committed a property crime … to hate on them in a racist manner, and put their lives at risk or even kill them, the full force of the law needs to come down.

Joanne Ugle, who works with incarcerated people to break the cycle of offending in family violence prevention.
Joanne Ugle, who works with incarcerated people to break the cycle of offending in family violence prevention. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

Criminologist Chris Cunneen has been researching the connection between social media, crime and vigilantism since the death of 14-year-old Elijah Doughty in Kalgoorlie in 2016.

Elijah was run over by a man who suspected the teen had stolen a dirt bike. The man was cleared of manslaughter but found guilty of dangerous driving causing death, for which he was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released after 19 months.

Cunneen says vigilantism has “grown significantly over the last decade” with the development of social media.

“There are a number of problems,” Cunneen says. “Clearly one is the question of regulation of social media, like Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. But specifically in relation to vigilantism, the issue in terms of Aboriginal communities is a significant problem of racial vilification.

“There’s also the question about the actual identification of individuals, some of whom are children, by name, by street where they live, with photos sometimes, also with reference to the schools they might be attending if they’re young people. This has a great potential, I think, to increase the levels of actual racist violence.”

Vigilante activity is not limited to WA, Cunneen says. His research has found examples in New South Wales and Queensland.

“Some of the ones that we documented in Dubbo were saying ‘catch and kill’,” he says. “In Kalgoorlie it was, ‘sharpen your star pickets’. In Townsville: ‘this is why people should have guns. If it looks like they’re going to get away, shoot them, just shoot them. It doesn’t matter.’ ‘Run over the bastards’ was another one.

“These are direct calls for violence. It’s beyond racial vilification, which is bad enough, to actual calls to engage in violence against Aboriginal people and primarily young people.”

Cunneen says it’s difficult to draw a causal relationship between an individual act of violence and a social media page on which there have been calls to violence, but that “certainly it provides a framework, legitimises racist views of Aboriginal people.”

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Social media crime rhetoric doesn’t match data

WA police use Facebook to call for the public’s help in identifying criminal activity, and regularly post CCTV stills and photographs of people they think can assist with their inquiries.

Posts often feature comic hashtags, such as #windowshopping on a post about the theft of a wallet from a car, or #InaLattetrouble on a post about two men caught on camera allegedly stealing a coffee machine.

Cunneen says posts like these may inadvertently contribute to the assumptions driving vigilante activity.

“It’s a collective representation of Aboriginal young people and adults as criminals and as therefore legitimate targets,” he says, even though those pictured aren’t guilty of any offences.

A WA police spokesperson said the force used Facebook and other forms of social media “to appeal for information from the community on all manner of crimes, including major crimes such as homicides”.

“Social media is also a valuable tool in alerting the public in relation to community safety issues,” they said.

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WA police publishes real-time crime statistics for every Perth suburb. Since 2015, the data indicates that the incidence of property crime has declined.

Cunneen says there is a “mismatch” between the data and social media-driven rhetoric about property crime, burglary and theft.

A screenshot from conversation on a WA community Facebook group. One person says ‘I’m in’ and other replies ‘That makes three, any more takers? It will be a bit of a group stroll. We have to show them, we are not afraid!’

“So I think it just creates this broader context where violence is seen as legitimate,” he says. “Private violence against individuals and particularly Aboriginal people is seen as a legitimate response to an issue which, if we look at the data, is becoming far less an actual issue in terms of crime rates.”

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Lorena Allam and Sarah Collard

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