The figure of the resident is privileged in discussions about nightlife governance. But the ‘right to the city’ extends to those who use the city, and popular opposition to the lockout concerns questions of access to public space on the part of those marginalized from these policy equations. Opponents of the Sydney lockout object to qualitative transformations in the cultural atmosphere of the city. This article argues that nightlife is of greater value than governmental measures about the prevention of violence capture. Of particular significance are the constitutive omissions of the category of ‘alcohol-related violence’. A better analysis would investigate the attraction of ‘liminal experience’ that prompts violence on the part of certain participants. It appears that certain gendered identities have not been well equipped to handle difference. At a time of reduced support for sex and gender diversity education, the state must get better at modelling capacities to live with difference.
Keywords: Night-time economies; alcohol-related violence; homophobic violence; licensing laws; urban governance; anti-social behaviour; urban safety; drug policing.
On 21 February 2016 an estimated 15,000 people rallied peacefully in Sydney’s CBD under the banner, ‘Keep Sydney Open’. They were protesting Sydney’s lockout laws and their effect on the city’s nightlife and cultural atmosphere (McMah 2016). On 19 March, thousands danced and marched from the city to Star Casino in a bid to ‘Reclaim the Streets’, protesting the apparent hypocrisy of licensing laws that permit the Casino to remain exempt from restrictions that have shut down nightlife in other parts of the city (Roberts 2016). On 27 April, another protest – ‘Keep Newtown Weird and Safe’ – was held in response to a perceived increase in homophobic and transphobic abuse and violence in Sydney’s inner west. Organisers linked this mobilisation to the displacement effects of the lockout laws, which they claimed were dispersing hetero-masculine crowds, attitudes and violence from Kings Cross to the otherwise queer-friendly inner west (Ford 2016).
Taken together, these actions suggest that a significant number of Sydney-siders have sensed a qualitative transformation in the cultural atmosphere of the city since the introduction of the lockout laws. This perceived transformation is linked to the city’s orientation towards cultural and sexual diversity: hence the popular resonance of slogans such as ‘Keep Sydney Open’.
Nightlife, Difference and the Right to the City
The controversy surrounding the lockout laws is about more than the right to drink alcohol in the city at night, or the impact of licensing laws on jobs in the hospitality industry – though the latter is certainly significant (Cooke 2016). It is about the ‘right to the city’ claimed by youth and minoritized groups (Lefebvre 1968, Berlant & Warner 1998; Harvey 2008). Those opposing the lockout are crucially concerned with the cultural transformations associated with the state government’s clampdown on nightlife; the increasingly bullish policing of youth and social minorities in NSW; and the unprecedented increase in police powers that effectively reduce these groups’ access to public space.
Nightlife can be approached as a pedagogical space in which people learn to appreciate and take pleasure in difference (Young 1990, Jacobs 1961). The value of this space is not captured by governmental measures concerning the prevention of violence. Indeed, cultural opposition to the lockout laws can be taken as an urgent plea on the part of those who use nightlife space for state authorities to diversify their outcome measures.
Nightlife has been an important zone of community-formation for those who have been excluded from family and the cultural mainstream, such as sexual and other minorities (Chauncey 1994, Race 2011). The gradual closure of long-standing queer venues in the inner city represents one casualty of the current approach to nightlife governance: the lockout has effectively eradicated a key space of socialization for these communities, who are often targets – but rarely perpetrators – of nighttime violence
Measures of Violence
The situation is exacerbated by the reductive nature of statistical measures used to diagnose nighttime violence. A key measure has been ‘alcohol-related violence’, but it is unclear whether this category adequately captures the qualitative nature or causes of the violence it enumerates. A significant body of qualitative work in the Drug and Alcohol field questions whether particular effects, such as violence, can be causally attributed to substance use per se (Rhodes 2002; Fraser & Moore 2011; Duff 2012; Fraser, Moore & Keane 2014; Race 2014). This literature demonstrates that the effects of alcohol and drug consumption are contingent on a range of other variables, such as context, cultures of use, affective conditions, and the socio-material arrangements in which consumption takes place, among other factors.
One of the most influential texts for regulatory approaches to night-time economies has been the work of Dick Hobbs and colleagues, which links nighttime violence to the proliferation of markets in alcohol associated with post-industrial urban entrepreneurialism (2000, 2003). With its focus on the economic conditions within which night-time economies are promoted by urban planners, this research privileges market restrictions (licensing laws, business mix and density, policing) as key components of governmental measures to address nighttime disorder and violence. Hobbs et al. can be commended for their ethnographic attention to the socio-material arrangement of alcohol markets, its implication in violence, and the problems this can create for government. But certain elements of their analysis have been neglected in policy responses that are highly pertinent to current controversies in Sydney.
Hobbs et al. (2000, 2003) identify ‘liminality’ as a key appeal of night-time leisure precincts. This anthropological term refers to threshold experiences that involve some suspension of everyday social and sexual norms, and some experience of alterity. Liminal experiences are characterised by time-out from ordinary activities, a sense of play, and a desire for encounters with the novel and the strange. For this reason, they are sometimes characterized by a dynamic of attraction and repulsion; in certain circumstances they may prompt violence in certain subjects’ bid to reassert sovereign identity (Phelan 2001). Gail Mason and Levin Lo have used this category to understand the appeal of cultural events such as the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to heterosexual spectators (2009). For certain participants, the liminality of nightlife may be experienced as a threat to sovereign identity that is at once pleasurable and destabilising. Violence emerges as a way of re-establishing the sovereignty of the perpetrator in the moment he commits it: a way of re-asserting domination.
Qualitatively, little is known about the acts of rage and desire that perpetrators of night-time violence experience. Certainly, night-time economies are likely associated with many forms of differently motivated violence. Alcohol is no-doubt an element in the forms of liminal experience that attract huge crowds to party in the nightlife precincts of inner Sydney. But if some of this violence can be attributed to the dynamics of liminal experience, as I have speculated, then its persistence suggests that certain sorts of identity have not been well equipped to handle difference.
Crude measures such as ‘alcohol-related violence’ are unlikely to gauge the qualitative dimensions of these processes adequately. Nor do they capture the transformation in the affective climates of precincts such as Darlinghurst and Newtown that those who have rallied against the lockout laws complain of. It bears noting that a reduction in foot-traffic – or indeed, incidents of reported violence – in traditional centres of queer social life does not necessarily equate to safety for those most vulnerable to night time violence and abuse on the basis of sex, gender or racial difference (Jacobs 1969).
It is telling that the regulatory measures adopted by the NSW government and NSW police to address public disorder and ‘anti-social behaviour’ tend to take social difference the target, rather than beneficiary, of regulatory intervention. Authoritarian strategies such as the use of drug detection dogs position sexual and racial minorities as suspects rather than citizens deserving of state protection. Police stubbornly defend these strategies despite a wealth of evidence that their detections are inaccurate and disproportionately subject social minorities to invasive intervention (Lancaster, Hughes & Ritter 2016; Race 2014; NSW Ombudsman 2016). But as events such as the illegal policing of Mardi Gras 2013 indicate, police are often complicit in the intimidation, violence and abuse that has come to characterise Sydney’s night-time spaces (Mardi Gras, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Inner City Legal Centre, & ACON, 2013).
The lockout laws can be viewed as the latest episode in the increasing investment in regulatory responses to urban problems on the part of the NSW state. But there is a wealth of cultural creativity among Sydney’s youth and subcultural communities that the state could be drawing on to devise more creative, inclusive, and less authoritarian responses to the problems associated with night-time precincts. Australia’s internationally recognized response to HIV/AIDS demonstrates the value of including the denizens of nightlife in policy responses to social problems that concern them (Sendziuk 2003). It is a policy success story that stands in stark contrast to the state government’s top-down, police-heavy approach to nighttime violence. Certainly, authorities could do much better at modelling practices of handling difference in our urban centres. Authorities ignore the sexuality of the night – and its volatility – at their peril. Sydney’s reputation as an open, diverse, inclusive and dynamic city is endangered in the process.
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