There comes a point when it’s probably better to accept that the most well-developed ethical response has been scattered by the unrelenting winds of shit-baggery and there’s not much to do except roll with the visceral disgust as the stench hits our nostrils. That point occurred last week as we were treated to an online promotional video featuring Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton in an American SUV, cruising into a car dealership and shaking hands with the workers – all to a banging DMX soundtrack. The promo introduces Dutton with the tagline, ‘the baddest MP’, and along with the choice of vehicle and music is a trolling attempt to bring him cred as some ‘badass’, gangster politician who does what’s needed to get ‘it’ done.
Sure thing, let’s roll with this, because as much as the bile rose in my throat while watching it, my mind also jumped to the character of Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba) from that highly-vaunted, mid-noughties show about the inner-city, Baltimore drug trade, The Wire. Bell drives a SUV, he wears a suit, he’s not notionally the leader of his gang but holds a lot of discretionary power and makes key decisions. He gives orders that result in violence being perpetrated against others. He recognises that violence as the bedrock of success and at the same time seeks to move out of the short-termism of the drug trade to where the real money is at, in property development.
These are all traits identifiable with Dutton and – while he may not have involvement in the drug trade – his narrative before becoming a politician does involves a backstory of being hardened on the streets as a police officer who finds wealth in property development, with no small degree of aspersions cast around the legitimacy of his dealings there. Now, Stringer Bell also happens to be suave, charismatic and a generally well-liked fictional character, so there are limits to this comparison. However, the most important parallel to take note of is how administering brutality on the one hand, is closely tied to business as usual on the other. The optics of Dutton striding arrogantly around a business that deals in expensive, luxury vehicles at the same time as many people are feeling a burning outrage at the ongoing plight of the Tamil family from Biloela – Priya, Nades and their 2 small children – can only underscore this connection.
While Dutton might be the villain taking centre-stage at this moment, it is important to recognise that the violence being enacted upon Priya, Nades and family isn’t just the machinations of an evil mind, it is built into the existing foundations and daily, political functioning of the colonial state of Australia. When he says that “the threat is very real” (quoted here) in relation to asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, he is reading from an already scripted playbook where the racist positioning of brown/ black hordes trying to infringe on the sanctity of the white nation-state becomes integral to how it perceives its own (illegitimate) sovereignty. This nation-state has built its wealth, and continues to profit, on the basis of violent colonisation and dispossession practised internally, at its borders and externally.
When Dutton speaks about stopping the boats, he is sure to add the necessary clause that such violence at the border is actually based in good intentions as he declares, “I’m determined that we don’t have any death at sea” (quoted here). This is contradictory double-speak, where the reality of a wealthy, nation-state directing militarised resources towards policing people seeking asylum is re-cast as a humanitarian act of saving them from exploitation from the shadowy figure that is the ‘people smuggler’. In truth, the people smuggler in this scenario occupies about the same status to the low-level dealers on Baltimore’s street corners – culpable in further exploiting vulnerable people (the addict or the asylum seeker), but only filling a particular niche within larger systemic violence. There are more powerful interests at higher levels who are responsible for perpetuating the conditions that allow ‘the game’ to continue.
The encompassing nature of such colonial practices circles around to another story that has been in the news recently: Indonesia’s brutal repression of West Papuan independence movements (see here and here). While the actions of Indonesia’s security forces – from murdering protesters to blocking the internet – are deplorable, they are entirely integrated into Australia’s ongoing interest in being a significant political and economic player in the region. The Australian state’s willingness to dole out violence to ensure its material profit is prominent in its relationship with Indonesia. This involves agreements between the two countries around defence, intelligence and policing cooperation, including the expectation that Indonesia assists in stopping asylum seeker boats and targeting the dreaded people smuggler.
In the situation of West Papua, Australia’s relationship with Indonesian security forces becomes a proxy through which the repression of the West Papuan people makes it possible for Australian mining corporations to continue to voraciously extract profits from, and irreparably destroy, the natural resources of the region (see table below of mining companies operating in West Papua). Once again, violence on the one hand is inextricable from business as usual on the other. Recognising this, allows many more options for acting in solidarity with West Papuan independence. Instead of only calling out the brutality of the Indonesian state, we might also turn our attention to Australian governmental and corporate interests there.
Allocating the Stringer Bell archetype to Peter Dutton is in many ways giving him too much credit (and to repeat, the character of Bell is no where near as detestable as the member of parliament). In many ways, Dutton is more cast from the same set as the laddish man-babies that are the Proud Boys, with their incoherent, ‘western chauvinist’ tantrums. Still, it would be an anti-climax to now not draw the obvious conclusion from this exercise. That is, if Peter Dutton is going to be strutting around like he’s motherfucking Stringer Bell, I suppose the rest of us are going to have to be Omar Little, the underdog with the least resources taking it to the bigger players. And fans of The Wire will know how the beef between Omar and Stringer Bell ends.
That said, we can only take Omar as a guide for our action so far. The example of his ethical code – only targeting others that were involved in ‘the game’ (the Baltimore drug trade) while leaving bystanders well alone – can only go so far here. What The Wire depicts on a broader scale is that the game is played well beyond it’s assumed boundaries and passes on through bystanders, communities, businesses and state institutions. While, at times, the strutting arrogance of the right appears as little more than cosplay pantomime, we must understand that there are no bystanders in the game of racist, colonialism. The violence and devastation that it imparts is a thread that connects a single Tamil family in small town Queensland to the gigantic, festering pit mines in the jungles of West Papua.