The Guardian • Issue #1970

When East beats West:

How the “red rooster line” affects COVID-19 police response

Often referred to light-heartedly, the “Red Rooster line” highlights the class border separating two parts of the city – east and west Sydney – where the fast-food chain is typically found only in working-class areas. However, recently this border has real, targeted consequences.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s heavy-handed approach to the recent lockdown restrictions has exposed the ugly underbelly of Australia’s class divide: workers in Western Sydney are disproportionately targeted for police harassment, hefty fines, and intimidation.

After two weeks of an ineffective lockdown with multiple exceptions, open retail stores, and “business as usual,” more intensive measures were implemented. On the 9th of July, NSW police announced that they would conduct sweeps of major roads and public places in hot-spot areas for anyone who breaks COVID restrictions or who may not be performing an “essential” task – the definition of which is extremely subjective and vague.

Despite two weeks of countless patrons flocking to major department stores across the eastern suburbs and attending the beaches in droves at Bondi, police have decided that since Sydney’s southwest has taken the crown of “hot spot king,” it is time to get serious. Over 100 extra officers were dispatched to patrol the Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Fairfield, Liverpool, and Canterbury-Bankstown.

Immediately, multiple videos and images of police intimidation and aggressive behaviour were uploaded on social media. Famously, over a dozen police were deployed to the head office of restaurant chain Rashays in western Sydney over an “anonymous” tip that their workers weren’t wearing masks. A lone policeman arrived initially, issuing fines to two women working over two metres apart at the reception desk who were not wearing masks, even though they were eating lunch – their food still open and half-eaten in front of them.

The situation escalated when the business owner voiced his opposition, upon which over a dozen police officers were dispatched in several vehicles and engaged in highly intimidatory behaviour, consequently crowding the office with personnel, social distancing rules be damned. This resulted in distressed workers, necessitating an ambulance having to be called for one who suffered difficulty breathing and became faint.

Other posts on social media include police approaching shoppers outside a Woolworths in Mount Annan Marketplace, checking their shopping bags for anything which might be “non-essential.”

Fines are particularly aggressive, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on what the offence is and who is the perpetrator. However, as widespread and well-staffed this “crackdown” was, there have been no arrests and only eight people were fined as of writing.

Western Sydney is differentiated from the east by being mostly working-class families of recent ethnic migration. Many of these families do not speak English as their first language. The 2016 census revealed that 65.9 per cent of residents in Canterbury-Bankstown and 75 per cent of residents in Fairfield spoke a language other than English at home.

The NSW government’s guidelines for what residents can and cannot do are haphazard and nonsensical at best for proficient English speakers, and what is considered “essential” and “non-essential” is not clearly defined, giving the ultimate deciding power to the police officer and the mood they are in when they confront you. To say that the messaging is mixed is an understatement.

Given these circumstances, how are non-English speaking working families expected to clearly understand what is or is not allowed?

To make matters even more racially charged, Berejiklian singled ethnic minorities out by stating that many communities in western Sydney have “a similar background to me” and warned them by stating that “don’t think it’s okay to visit your cousins or have sleepovers.” The assumption being created here is that ethnic minorities and their presumably large families are the only ones who want to mingle with family members, and it is them who are at fault for the lockdown being extended.

If racial distinctions must be made, it should be with the intention of understanding communication barriers so that they can be overcome. One of the very vague restrictions placed by the NSW government is not permitting visitors unless for medical care or “compassionate” reasons.

At present, there is no extensive definition of what “compassionate” or “medical care” entails. Due to the highly privatised and predatory aged care industry, most elderly residents from ethnic communities in Sydney’s west are much more dependent on their extended family for medical care at home. However, according to Berejiklian’s advice, it is not clear if this is acceptable, meaning that without adequate, cheap, and accessible government support, these highly dependent older residents may have to fend for themselves as families must decide between risking a hefty fine and not caring for their loved ones.

And yet, the media is all too eager to lean into this demonisation of western Sydney, focusing on revealing as much as legally possible about the identities of those who breached the rules, exposing them as sacrificial lambs for other workers to focus their outrage on. Early in the lockdown, an example was made of a nurse who worked at both Fairfield and the Royal North Shore hospitals. Although vaccinated, she unknowingly carried the virus before a subsequent test revealed she had spread it to countless people.

Never once in the media’s coverage are we drawn to ask how this worker was expected to know she was infected, nor is the fact raised that as a health worker, she is expected to work at both locations, regardless of a lockdown.

But this is a distraction. At no point during this lockdown has any prominent figure asked why small businesses and those who work for them are forced for economic reasons to remain open. Or, why the government has not sprung into action with an adequate and immediate emergency financial support plan to allow these business owners, and their workers, to stay home without worrying that they can afford to feed their families.

Neither has anybody asked why the definition of who can and can’t work from home rest solely on the employer, and not the government – or why the construction industry, already hugely profitable thanks to numerous government subsidies, is permitted to continue business as usual, forcing up to dozens of workers onto a single construction site to meet corporate deadlines.

It stands to reason that these questions are not being raised because the government’s corporate donors are not to be disappointed. Profits must keep rolling in so long as the government maintains the appearance that something is being done about the pandemic.

If corporate profits were not a priority, any government of action would swiftly close these industries, implement vast, adequate financial support plans for workers and small businesses, and therefore thousands more people would then be able to stay at home. This would have an immediate, positive impact on the reduction of cases.

Intimidating and financially punishing the working class of Sydney, which is concentrated primarily in these LGAs, is precisely the result we expect to see as this contradiction between having to maintain profits for the corporate sector and the semblance of public responsibility plays out.

By leading us to direct our outrage on specific cases where people bend the rules, the media successfully distracts us from the fact that many times more workers would be able to stay at home if there was adequate government support. What is happening is far from simple political incompetence; it is a capitalist government doing what capitalist governments always do best – govern for the interests of capital.

Instead of mixed messaging and inconsistent rules, a people’s government of action would provide real, concrete support to workers so as many could stay at home as possible. It would provide huge amounts of funding to the health sector so that medical professionals in full personal protective clothing could provide door-to-door testing and vaccinations as part of a real public health service and wellbeing campaign.

The workers of western Sydney deserve better. We deserve certainty and stability. We need to stop focusing our outrage on a handful of people who are skirting these already ridiculous, inconsistent lockdown rules and direct it upwards at our political leaders and their corporate donors who are doing the real damage and preventing thousands of more people from being able to stay at home so that this pandemic can end sooner rather than later.

The lack of a shared land border with any other country already places us in a fortunate position. By ending this severe limitation that catering to corporate interests poses to our public health and wellbeing, there is nothing stopping us from completely eliminating this pandemic on our continent.

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