Ignition

February 2009, somewhere in regional New South Wales, Australia

Two streets back from the rows of neatly trimmed, middle class garden edges, we sit under a tree next to a rusted, wheelless HQ in an overgrown front yard and drink tea while little Mae runs about with the dogs.

The windows of the house have been broken and boarded up so many times that the frames are peppered with empty nail holes in between the flakes of peeling paint. The weatherboard cladding is pock-marked by age and a broken down-pipe hangs loosely from the corroded guttering above.

A scorching nor-wester spins dusty Willy Willies across the melting bitumen: little vortices of malevolent spirit seeking the wayward and unwary.

The boys (Mae’s first cousins) have been staying here for the past few weeks, waiting for things to settle down back home, an hour’s drive north. They were both on parole from juvie and ‘needed to keep their noses clean’ after a recent brawl, according to their old man.

But, trying to keep teenage boys away from trouble without giving them something else to focus their boundless energy on is like carelessly storing hay. Both have the tendency to self-combust as the result of a complex chain of biological events and chemical reactions.

The process, with both hay and teenage boys, goes something like this: exothermic internal reactions preclude thermal runaway (rapid acceleration to high temperatures) and finally, ignition. With hay, spontaneous combustion is the leading cause of haystack fires. Boredom-induced ignition produces similar effects in teenage boys, too often resulting either in time spent in juvie, or in an adult prison. The little marks on a rap sheet build up, like compounding interest, until a magistrate is convinced that the community is better served by one’s absence for a stretch of time.

Being locked up introduces teenagers and young adults to a pecking order based on indefinitely increasing personal capacities for violence and rat cunning. The system establishes a social order of institutionalised relationships that are mediated by what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as social capital – a range of actual or potential resources given value by the network of relationships in which they are embedded.

As teenagers grow up within the criminal justice system, the system itself is reinforced. Michel Foucault saw this recycling of people through the legal systems of Europe and observed that, while prisons punish unlawful activity, ‘delinquency is for the most part produced in and by an incarceration which, ultimately, prison perpetuates in its turn’.

New South Wales imprisons the largest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country, and the state continues to lock up more every year. The social determinants of high imprisonment rates in Aboriginal communities have been well documented in countless government reviews and reports.

One of the key findings of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody (1991) was that ‘the most significant contributing factor is the disadvantaged and unequal position in which Aboriginal people find themselves in society – socially, economically and culturally’.[1] This situation has gotten worse, not better in the two decades following the Royal Commission. Incorporating a justice target in the Closing the Gap framework would appear a no-brainer, yet the current Coalition government continues to drag its heals on policy reform in this area.

There has been a raft of recommendations to governments over the years to keep Aboriginal juveniles and young adults out of the criminal justice system, with improvements mooted for education, health, wellbeing, access to employment and job-readiness. As is the case in most Aboriginal communities I’ve hung out in, Kooris here attach a healthy measure of cynicism as to whether there have been any real-world improvements.

The gaze of the casually interested State, one which levers layers of bureaucracy towards short-term funded programs and projects for short-term political gain, sweeps over regional communities in New South Wales from time to time, but never stays there long.

Kids get involved in petty crime, grog and drugs at a young age. There’s not much else to do, and when the older teenagers (one’s immediate role models) are doing it, it’s as much of a rite of passage to throw a brick through a window, get your head punched in (or punch someone elses’) as it is to get drunk on Fruity Lexia, or pinch Mum’s durries or yarndi.

This is not a race thing. It is socioeconomic and part of history.

It is practical too: the more you get in trouble, the more trouble finds you.

Before he passed away, Old Tom used to say that Willy Willies came into being when the spirits were angry with particular people. ‘The heat builds up in bushfire season, with the wind out of the north. The devils rise up from the dust and spin in the air. They find the bad young fellas and go for them to teach them a lesson. Right up their noses!’

I hear sirens echoing down through the valley – heralding a new brush fire in the escarpments? Smoke haze has been lingering in the hills for days now. Perhaps it was a police car, or an ambulance? Sounds are hard to distinguish in the buffeting wind. Mia and I jump on the roof of the car to look for signs of fire, but can’t see much except for an orange-hued stain across the afternoon sky.

The phone rings and I hear footsteps running inside and voices shrill with alarm. I can make out a few words amid the chaos:

Hospital.

Jai and Aiden.

Blood everywhere.

Exothermic thermal reactions producing thermal runaway and ignition. Little Mae runs inside crying.

Laying low for two weeks in the middle of the February heat (whilst being conspicuous in their absence from the trouble up north), the nephews ran into trouble down the street. A carload of enemy gangbangers had cruised south, blitzed on snow cones of methamphetamine and hydro cannabis.

The boys had seen the car parked at Woolies, heard the subwoofers pounding through the pavement.

Anger. Pride. Testosterone levels peaking. Adrenaline-fuelled thermal runaway. You can smell it in the sweat.

Ignition.

Two teenagers have been admitted to hospital with stab wounds in…{DELETED}…following an altercation in a supermarket car park on Tuesday afternoon. A man from …{DELETED}… has been charged with wounding a person with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, possessing or using a prohibited weapon without a permit, and affray. A second man from …{DELETED}… has been charged with affray.

Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

[1] Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, 1991, Vol.1., p.1.7.1.

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