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September 4, 2006 | by  | in Opinion |
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Shady Lane

With the murder of a 17-year old kid in the back of a police van, another stomach rotting moral panic has hit the streets. It’s a tired old card to play, but I’m going to dish it out anyway. The Liam Ashley story will not go away, based on the fact that there is no easier image for the media to play off than a dead, white, seventeen year old. Especially when, if the wind is blowing the right way, a faint smell of government incompetence can be detected.

His white baby-face is plastered all over the papers, and was almost life size when last weeks Sunday Star-Times was unfolded. This story would have taken a whole new tone if he was Polynesian. See, when Polynesians with criminal records that involve burglary, drugs and theft die at the hands at other criminals in police care the ‘system murdered this kid’ card isn’t doled out in such a verocious fashion.

To me, it’s a tragedy. Murder is a disgusting act and it’s effect ripples through people’s lives. But I don’t believe this is being thought through. The murder took place in a police van. And the murder is undoubtedly worse than any possible worst-case scenarios any prisoner transportation manual would be able to provide guidance for. “The only real solution to this is single cages for everyone,” Corrections Association president Beven Hanlon told the media. And he’s right, where possible, youths are to be transported alone, but the current rules state that this is to happen whenever it is “applicable”. And when van drivers suspect that something is going wrong in the back of their vans, drivers will lose their jobs if they stop the van and open up. They are instructed to head for the nearest police station or jail. So the rules as they are, are probably to blame for the fact that this kid is dead. We could get angry and then place the blame on the privatization of government services, but how different would things have been if that was not the case?

But why do we have to place blame? Make sure that this doesn’t happen again, for sure. We should provide safeguards to prevent a repeat. But do we need to go around and hand out manslaughter convictions to those involved in handling the boy? No. This case shocked people’s sensibilities and there is a pissed off family that can drive it all along. The sad thing to me is that the mother refused Liam Ashley bail. She wanted him to be shocked into behaving by having some time in jail, a peek at his future if he didn’t straighten out. It was a cruel twist of fate, but people are injured in the hands of the justice system the whole time. A simple fact. No one could know what would happen, but I never knew that being in the presence of other criminals was the “safest place” for a young person to be. But then maybe I’ve seen too many prison movies.

And what is up with the vaguely conspiratorial way that we all point the fingers at this overarching dirty “system”? The “system” wronged us, blah, blah, blah. Every time a murder like this takes place we like to talk about this “system” and how screwed up we all are. It’s about as believable as young kid playing dress ups. And about as effective as an aging hippy rebelling against the “man”.

My condolences to the Ashley’s. It just seems like there is a calmer and more rational way to do this. Hysteria never solved anything.

Sunday’s bad news was all a few days away for everyone at Victoria who came to check out the Study at Vic bonanza (segue!). Walking through a stunningly bright and sunny Quad, ducking between the crowds and stealing sausages and cans of Mountain Dew from VUWSA, I realised that I had forgotten what it was like to walk through a full quad. For one day at least, it seemed like the University had a pulse. Odessa played, and 17-year old boys and girls danced around the quad. It was nice for once to feel a part of a greater community at this university, rather than treading through the same old empty space.

Does anyone remember their own Study at Vic experience? I can still remember how huge this university appeared. I never thought I’d ever, ever know my way around such a vast space. The idea of university seemed a lot more magnificent then. It was just a nice moment, to sit around, eat some cheap meat and be reminded that no matter how cynical five years around this place can make you (especially when you sit around up here writing pensive editorials and complaining about university conspiracy), there are a crop of seventeen year olds out there who will always still be excited, who the veil of wonder of university hasn’t been melted for. Because before you get all pissed off, disenfranchised and political at the University system, the thought of branching out on its own is pretty cool.

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About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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