A short documentary history of the Block in Redfern
Material from the Gary Foley Collection

Battle-scarred Redfern on a knife edge

Date: February 17 2004

By Sharon Labi

The inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern remained on edge yesterday following a race riot that left 40 police injured and sparked three separate investigations. Police were pelted with bottles, rocks and petrol bombs as officers in riot gear using high-pressure hoses struggled to contain the violent mob. At the height of the riots, a police officer was knocked unconscious by a brick to the head and had to be dragged from the front line, while others suffered broken limbs. There were no figures available of the number of residents injured. Redfern railway station was torched, its windows smashed and cars were firebombed. Petrol bombs were thrown and police reinforcements were called in from across Sydney.

The violence, sparked by the death of 17-year-old Thomas Hickey, known as TJ, has sunk relations between the local Aboriginal community and police. The teenager died in hospital on Sunday after being impaled on a fence while riding his bicycle on Saturday. His family say he was being chased by police, but the officers have said he was not. NSW Premier Bob Carr said yesterday that the coroner would investigate how the teenager died and what involvement, if any, the police had in his death. The police critical incident team would also conduct an inquiry into any police involvement in the incident, which would in turn be overseen by the Ombudsman.

Five people were arrested in Sunday night's violence and police expect to make more arrests after studying security footage. The slogans "Police killed TJ" and "Police murder, don't trust them" were scrawled in huge chalk letters on the pavement yesterday around the public-housing units known as The Block in neighbouring Waterloo. Thomas's mother, Gail Hickey, said her son had been terrified of police after being chased in Redfern and set on by five officers. There was a warrant out for his arrest over an apprehended violence order in the north-western NSW town of Walgett, for which he had failed to attend court.

Ms Hickey blamed police for her son's death. "I felt like running into the police station and smashing the coppers and that, but I said no, I'll do it the right way," she said. "It's got to stop, the way they treat our kids. They treat our kids like dogs . . . they manhandle them." Thomas, the eldest of seven children, had been due to celebrate his 18th birthday next month with a party. He moved to Sydney two years ago and his mother travelled between Walgett and Sydney to keep an eye on him.

Local residents fuming at what they described as continuing police brutality and harassment said the violence was their way of venting frustration. "We've got to let our frustrations out, and that's the only way we see fit to," said Tammie, who declined to give her full name. "They're lucky they haven't got a guerilla war happening. Aboriginal people are peaceful people but (if) they push our buttons, mate, we will go to the point where if they're going to shed blood, so will we."

Mr Carr has praised the police action, saying there were some ringleaders in the community who were determined to aggravate the situation. "I've got full confidence in the way police tackled this incident," he said. "We have full confidence in the police and they have our full backing." Police yesterday kept a close watch as the local community gathered around The Block, notorious for heroin dealing and other crime, as a minute's silence was observed for Thomas. Successive speakers blamed the rise in tensions on the continuing harassment of Aboriginal youths by local police. They said children were strip-searched for no reason and treated like dogs.

Police Minister John Watkins said the riot was an aberration in the normally good relations between police and the Redfern Aboriginal community. But community leader Lyle Munro warned that Redfern could become the next Brixton, the scene of violent race riots in London in 1981. "If Palestinian kids can fight war tanks with slingshots, our kids can do the same," he said. NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden called those behind the violence thugs and said the area of Redfern should be bull-dozed. "The fact that 40 or 50 police were injured whilst they stood there and copped it from young Aboriginal thugs and others is an unacceptable position going forward," he said. "I'd bring the bulldozers in."