When youth violence incurs police rage


'Pepper spray', by Chris JohnstonLate one Friday night, I took a taxi to collect a friend from an inner-suburban nightspot. He had been in a fight and had been 'pepper sprayed' by the police. Upon finding him wet and almost blind, I kissed his cheek in greeting and winced. The fumes from his skin burned my eyes and irritated my skin.

Half an hour prior to my meeting him, my friend, Ibrahim (not his real name), a young Eritrean man, had been waiting for a taxi on a busy street outside of a club, to come and meet me elsewhere. While he waited, four men, unconnected to him, were removed from the same club for fighting inside.

The men attacked Ibrahim and a scuffle ensued. By the time the police had arrived, Ibrahim had been quite severely injured, but continued to fight against his attackers.

On their arrival, the police sprayed Oleorison Capsicum foam in Ibrahim's face.

The foam is derived from chillies, and is about 300 times as hot. Upon being sprayed, Ibrahim's breathing shortened and his chest and stomach muscles contracted, rendering him incapable of standing. His eyes and skin burned intensely, and excessive mucus blocked his passageways.

Ibrahim was blind and incapable, reeling against the pavement, yet a young policeman plied his body flat on his stomach, pinning his neck to the cold footpath with a booted foot.

With his face forced flat to the pavement, he overheard the police laughing about their good fortune that evening. As it turned out, one of Ibrahim's attackers had 17 warrants for his arrest, and only by the chance of Ibrahim's random assault had they found him that evening.

After some casual questioning of the nearby security, they discovered that Ibrahim had been a victim. Their assumption that Friday night violence between five young dark-skinned men was a consensual brawl rather than a random assault was incorrect.

Without apology, Ibrahim was told to 'move on', to buy his own water with which to quell the burning of his skin, and to stagger alone and wet into the cold evening and try to get home.

Oleoresin Capsicum foam is a standard method of riot control. It is considered a humane alternative to more brutal methods of police control, like batons or guns.

I have seen other people sprayed, and their pain is unbearable to watch. They whimper and shout like wounded animals, bent over, trailing around in circles. They cannot pacify their pain, but must wait until its affects lull. The foam is sticky and insoluble, and if the victim does not have the opportunity to bathe the foam from their bodies, it will continue to affect their skin. Victims can remain blind for up to half an hour after the assault.

When I found Ibrahim, I took him to a nearby pub for a beer to try to cheer him up. Afterwards, we stepped out onto the street to catch a taxi home. While hailing a taxi, the young policeman whose boot had earlier caressed my friend's neck, saw us, and scoffed, 'You're keen, aren't ya?'

We got in the taxi, both of us disturbed at how condescending and merciless the man had been to us.

Ibrahim's ribs and arms throbbed from his attack, and his eyes and skin still burned from the pepper spray. His dysfunctional body slumped in the back seat of the taxi. Outraged by what had occurred, I asked, 'What are you going to do?' but I knew how pointless the question was. There had been no obvious police misconduct; nothing illegal had occurred. 'There's nothing to do,' he responded. 'But I need a shower.'

The taxi driver overheard us discussing what had happened, and offered his condolences. 'Coppers are bastards, all of 'em,' he said. But that didn't really help.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer. She is studying Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: ellie savage, bash, police brutality, Oleoresin Capsicum foam



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Existing comments

Makes me feel sick to think about this.
What makes us such an unreasonable and prejudiced nation?

Why are we as we are?

Police only represent the community in general.
Judy | 09 September 2009

A wee bit rich methinks to say, 'Coppers are bastards, all of 'em.' Howsabout , 'many of them...'
DAVID JAY AITCH | 09 September 2009

This article should be forwarded to Simon Townsend asap I am appalled by the account of such cruel injustice
Sr.Mary Luscombe | 09 September 2009

How are police coming up to a fight to know who are the assailants and who is defending himself? They use spray so that everyone stops fighting.

Yes the stuff stinks. I have received a primary spray myself and it is far from pleasant. It took me six hours before I was over it.

But I would prefer that to a baton to the body, or a thug still hitting me because the police have not figured out the good guys from the bad.

The really disturbing part of the story was that the cops did not help the victim once they knew the whole story. But these does not mean that all police are like this.

On the few occasions that I have seen the spray used, the police have been very apologetic and helpful to those who were the victims. They gave them water to wash out their eyes and stayed around to make sure that they were alright. They even did the same for the thugs who were the aggressors.

It may be more accurate to say, "Some coppers are bastards." On average I'd say there were as many bastards in 100 police as any other group.
Patrick James | 09 September 2009


I really thanked God that you had met Ibrahim after this terrible incident. Thank you on behalf of us all! Keep writing, please.
Maryrose Dennehy | 09 September 2009

Memo, Ms Savage, the real bad guys in this story are not the police, but the thugs that beat up Ibrahim.

And Judy, how is this nation prejudiced? It was "dark skinned" youths that beat Ibrahim up, if you read the article closely enough.

I suspect that many are looking at this article and tutt-tutting about our white racist police.

I suppose that you would say it was not the thugs' fault that they attacked Ibrahim. They probably did it because they did not feel accepted into Australian soceity. This desenfranchisement and their deracination from their own culture led them feelings of frustration and anger. In attacking another black they were simply trying to imitate and emulate the values of the racist society that rejected them.

Oh John Howard, you have much to answer for!
Timothy Scully | 09 September 2009

What has happened to society? Back in the nineteen fifties and sixties there was no such thing as capsicum spray.In those days in Victoria many police walked their beat without the need to even carry a fiream.New South Wales was slightly different in the fact that officers there were armed as a matter of tradition although their weapons were rarely drawn.I am not judging this particular incident however.
John Tobin | 12 September 2009

The answer is EDUCATION. The population need to be reminded of their responsibilities as well as their rights; then ... so do the Police. Judy is right they are part of us!
Gavin | 12 September 2009

This story is typical of the experience I myself and my family members have had with the police.

I want to encourage young people and the community in general to stand up and speak out about their experiences with the police.. Situations where they have been assaulted by the police and are rendered powerless to do something about it.

Not all police officers are like this, and it's time those up-standing members of the police force also stood up and took a stand.
I think its time we heard more stories like these, bring this problem out into the light and make a change.
Bandet | 08 March 2010


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