A potent mix of alcohol, crime and stereotyping

A year ago at Katherine in the Northern Territory I went into a liquor store, which won't surprise you, and said hello as I walked around the copper standing in front of the aisles. Maybe there'd been trouble, I thought, as I collected a six-pack, and while paying I saw him checking the ID of an Aboriginal fellow.

A day or two later in the same bottleshop I stepped around a queue of Aboriginal people standing before another copper, and as I paid I asked the store's staff member what was with the copper and the queue. Everyone, he explained, had to show ID before they could buy alcohol, and he shrugged when I said that I hadn't.

So, the third time in the bottle shop (I was there for a week!) I stood in line and when I reached the police officer, a woman this time, I asked why we had to show ID. She was friendly and said it was part of a program to reduce violence and crime in Aboriginal communities, and yes, she replied when I asked, it did work.

What was she looking for when she checked ID? That the person was not banned from buying alcohol, as some people were because they'd been involved in alcohol-fuelled crime, and that they had a permanent abode nearby to drink the alcohol. When I pointed out that I didn't have a permanent abode nearby, she smiled and said police could exercise discretion.

When I pointed out that I didn't have a permanent abode nearby, she smiled and said police could exercise discretion.

I had been stereotyped.

This week on the ABC I heard a white Northern Territory woman say she had never been stopped by police in a bottle shop and her partner, an Aboriginal man, say that he had never not been stopped.

Both were stereotyped.

Were we stereotyped fairly or unfairly?

Fairly, I say, because the problem that warrants this direct police intervention is in Aboriginal communities, and in Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and other Territory towns it is serious and tragic problem. Being checked by police in liquor stores is a burden the ABC's Aboriginal man, a high school teacher, will know is a burden he carries for the well-being of his people.

But at the beginning of this month the checking system changed, which was the reason for the ABC report. Now all Territorians and all visitors, in all parts of the Northern Territory, will have to show photo ID as they seek to buy take-away alcohol and those on the Banned Drinker Register will be sent packing. A person on the register may have been referred by such as a GP, family support agencies or family members, and the checking will be throughout the Territory, not just in certain areas, and it will apply to everyone, even to apparently respectable thimble drinkers like my sanctimonious self.

It is, of course, a stereotyping of the people of the Northern Territory, and just as white people now share the stereotyping burden of Aboriginal people in the Territory, why shouldn't all Australians in every liquor store share the burden carried by every Territorian!

I'd be happy to show ID whenever I bought booze to take away, unless I was on the banned list of course. We would be reinforcing the world's stereotyping of Australians as drunkard louts, and given the behaviour of many Australian travellers overseas we deserve every bit of that. Stereotyping is inevitable and necessary.

You may recall that in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre calamity opposition to stereotyping became the rage, an outcry against airport security measures directed mainly at Muslims and people with a Middle Eastern background. That outcry has subsided in recent years and I wonder if it is that Muslims and people with a Middle Eastern background who are boarding a plane are relieved to see stereotyping in practice.

I see the PC rejection of stereotyping in action whenever my wife and I are preparing to board a plane at an Australian international airport. She has an artificial knee that sends the detectors into alarm mode and the staff into mock alarm mode, mock because they know that the problem is my wife's metal knee. And while they're swarming over her they're not directing that time and energy towards a person who more closely fits the stereotype of a terrorist than a 1.5m-high 60-something woman who the intelligence on the screen should tell them has never been in a mosque or threatened anyone other than her husband.

We all see this nod to the rejection of stereotyping in the random check for explosives traces as we head through an Australian airport. Random! Every sixth person through the gate! If checking every sixth airline passenger for traces of explosives makes us safer, not checking the other five must put us at risk.

I'm happy to show ID when buying alcohol and to be checked for explosives at airports, but unless we check everyone we must surely rely on stereotypes.

I sure hope there's a great deal of stereotyping behind the scenes at airports.

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