Tuesday night I helped de-escalate an altercation between police and a volunteer delivering food to people caught inside a Melbourne public housing estate. The African volunteer at one point cried out “I can’t breathe” while police held him down at the locked-down Flemington estate.
By identifying myself as a mental health worker, the officers on the scene did not respond to me with violence. Though that was helpful in the moment, a lack of heavy-handedness and empathy shouldn’t be a privilege afforded to me due to my occupation. This situation shouldn’t have occurred, but it did, leaving volunteers and Black and Brown onlookers exposed to unnecessary trauma.
Saturday’s order to detain 3,000 residents in nine public housing towers because of reported COVID-19 cases in the buildings came under the guise of “public health”, but with little consideration for the physical and mental wellbeing of those that have been essentially locked up. Residential areas in the same postcode are also in this coronavirus “hot spot,” but the non-public housing neighbours are allowed to leave their homes at any time for essential reasons.
The government of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has criminalised these people for the simple fact that they live in public housing.
The message to residents of the towers was “the quicker you get tested, the quicker we will release you”.
On the ground, however, police grossly outnumber volunteers, medical professionals and departmental workers. But these officers represent the largest threat to our mental health and wellbeing.
Many residents had been refugees or asylum seekers, and the use of detainment can retraumatise them, shaking their wellbeing and sense of safety. The government has failed to consider the trauma that this detainment causes and has failed to ensure the cultural safety and mental health of these residents.
Flemington and North Melbourne have a history of racial profiling and over-policing. We are triggered when we see police. We are reminded that our treatment is often discriminatory and disproportionate.
Many volunteers who have been working to get urgent medical care and culturally appropriate food to residents in the towers this week are members of the African Australian community. They are not immune to the effects of trauma.
Whether it’s race, class, religion or a history of institutional abuse, there is a significant overlap between the residents in detainment and the community volunteers on the ground. We are unable to separate ourselves from their trauma. The tenants of the towers are literally our family members and our friends. Volunteers are filling gaps because they are hearing directly from residents of the epic failures of government. Volunteers are willingly exposing themselves to police brutality and jeopardising their own health and physical safety to get supplies to residents.
How can it be so hard for volunteers to get food and vital supplies to our friends and family on the inside? We were told Tuesday morning that our supplies would get into the Flemington estate after 7pm once COVID-19 testing was done.
All day, volunteers made packs and got all our special orders organised for the four towers. However, we received mixed messages later in the afternoon from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that we may not be able to get the deliveries into the towers. Instead, it might be sitting there until Wednesday or even later.
We attempted delivery at 7pm but were told that State Emergency Service (SES) workers who were scheduled to make the deliveries into the buildings were done for the day and had gone home. By 9pm, after pleas from our volunteers, we got DHHS approval to make an emergency drop-off.
After shoving all the packs into the vans and running to the designated entrance, we encountered a shambolic situation. It took nearly 30 minutes for the police to confirm we should be there. After we drove in and parked the cars, everything erupted. Shouting and anger turned into a show of official force, and volunteers who had come to help were met with police brutality that led to the volunteer’s violent arrest. All the while, residents who were being kept inside the building were looking down.
It was by far the scariest thing I’ve seen.
As a volunteer, one of my greatest concerns is the toll on long-term mental health. The stress of responding to residents in distress, exposure to police, frustrations of logistical and governmental failures can be debilitating.
In the past month, there has been a local and international reckoning with race-based state violence. We’ve seen tens of thousands march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement to demand institutional change.
The emotional and mental burden in responding to institutional failures can create cracks in the foundations of our wellbeing. If institutions fail to have our best interest at heart at the most difficult of times, who will respond to the overwhelming sense of despair and the deterioration of our community when the dust settles?
Tigist Kebede is a counsellor living in Naarm (Melbourne) and has a work history in complex trauma specialising in family/domestic violence and sexual assault. She employs intersectional practice and is a strong advocate for anti-racism work.