It’s about 9.30 pm when we arrive at the entrance to the Mardi Gras party. The parade is dispersing at Moore Park Road, and punters are wandering up to join the queue. The old Showgrounds, now Fox Studios, has been the venue for this party for almost thirty years.
A dozen police vehicles are parked either side of the entrance, including one that transports drug detection dogs. About sixty uniformed police are standing around. A massive police bus arrives, containing about the same number again.
Opposite the entrance, in the park, is a large temporary enclosure built to process and strip-search people stopped by the dogs. The party entrance itself is clustered with metal barricades forming a sort of holding pen that leads to cattle runs which feed people into the party one by one, a design not unlike airport customs.
I am here with Dr Peta Malins, an RMIT academic who is researching the social and emotional impacts of drug dogs. She has a particular interest in the New South Wales context, where the dogs are much more widely deployed than elsewhere. Unlike Victoria for example, where general drug detection dog use tends to be limited to major festivals and dance parties, in New South Wales – bolstered by a range of powers granted in Part 11, Division 2 of the NSW Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 – the police take them into bars, nightclubs, train stations, city streets, even public swimming pools. And with areas such as Kings Cross, Redfern and Sydney’s queer nightlife zones singled out for special attention, the social impact of their use becomes particularly interesting.
Also at the party entrance are teams of Fair Play volunteers coordinated by Inner City Legal Centre (ICLC). Fair Play have been monitoring police activity at Mardi Gras since the 2013 police bashing of Jamie Jackson at the parade route, caught on a phone camera and still all over the internet. The victim received $40,000 compensation.
The party is due to open at 10 pm, the queue now about 100 people long. Paul Truscott and Kathy Pavlich, queer elders who work for Mardi Gras, pace about the entrance barking into headsets, conferring with security, brows furrowed. Truscott, ex-president of Sydney Leather Pride, in signature leather cap and chaps, red bandana in left pocket, exudes all kinds of dominance. Pavlich’s security company has worked this party for years. It must be a lucrative gig, with at least twenty guards here at the entrance, and many more inside. Finally the signal comes, and the party opens.
The police fan out, forming a gauntlet alongside the queue. The military precision of the manoeuvre belies their unease. Any Sydneysider who has been to a rally in recent years, or lives in a neighbourhood containing marginalised communities, such as Redfern where I do, will attest to how grim the force has become. But this lot crack awkward jokes. They glance around warily. The queue they face off is exactly what you would expect at Mardi Gras – an intergenerational range of folk dressed up or stripped down for all night dancing, rendering the hostility of this gauntlet demeaning, intimidating and ridiculous all at once.
A policeman is bringing a drug dog down the queue, stopping by a punter almost straightaway. Six uniforms form a circle around them as the dog-handler tells the detainee his rights. Two Fair Players immediately assist, one filming, the other offering an ICLC card to the man’s companion.
The police lead the man to the enclosure. I flank with my camera, managing to get inside briefly. It’s a massive space, about 100 metres square, containing tents and a long table in the open where fines are issued and charges laid. The detainee is facing the wall, hands up, while police pat him down, emptying his pockets.
I haven’t been to this party for ten years; even then it was on a free ticket. The 15,000 crowd is too big for my taste and acts such as Danni Minogue and Delta Goodrem of no interest. More to the point, the $150 price tag is beyond my budget. For this, punters get three dance halls, from 500 to 4000 capacity, four live shows, pluto pups and expensive drinks in plastic cups, and constant interaction with police, security, and cleaners. The run time of 10 pm–6 am must now be the biggest drawcard as Sydney’s lockout laws have reduced the operating hours of, or completely closed down, venues across the inner city. Those of us who have maintained vigorous engagement with our local queer culture while eschewing the Mardi Gras party are legion. All over Sydney this weekend, as for decades past, alternative queer events are going off. Yet the symbolism of this party, which follows the parade, remains strong, and it saddens me to see what it has become.
Many punters seem inured. They shuffle through the gate into the holding pen, driver’s licence or passport (student ID will not do) opened to Pavlich’s muscle bound staff. They stumble over another drug dog, past Mardi Gras volunteers valiantly waving little rainbow flags, calling Happy Mardi Gras! Happy Mardi Gras! like fête touts. They arrive at the cattle runs, arms up obediently for a pat down, emptying their bags. Certain items are confiscated, including any sort of fluid, not only bottles of water but eyedrops, even sealed. I flew in from London three days ago and this is a more arduous threshold than the notorious Heathrow Airport.
The Fair Players do a tremendous job. One, a 78er, is so familiar with the operation that she knows the dog handlers individually. They change shifts every half hour and when a new one arrives she darts away, saying, ‘This guy’s fierce, I’ve gotta be onto him.’ There are about twenty Fair Players in all, mostly lawyers, all volunteers, in special t-shirts. ICLC has booked appointments in advance for the anticipated drug offences.
The cost of the operation must be phenomenal. During the three hours we are there, we see five people detained, all but one released after about twenty minutes. This accords with figures to date that show 64 per cent of searches yield no drugs. More saliently, no dog operation in NSW has caught a major drug dealer.
Police numbers outside have reduced, as many are now inside patrolling the party. The fourth officious tier, after police, security, queer sentinels Truscott, Pavlich and co., is cleaning staff. Several have appeared to clean the queue area. Inside they plié their brooms across dancefloors between punters. Not so much Bacchanalia as bureaucratic bastardry.
At one stage, half a dozen police in bulletproof vests pour into the holding pen. It is impossible to see why. An undercover cop sidles over and hands an activist’s ‘Ditch the Dogs’ leaflet to a group of uniformed police, and they all laugh.
It may be the cameras that have been making them uneasy. Punters, especially those detained, do not seem perturbed. To the contrary – once an intrusion, cameras now in the presence of police provide protection of sorts. I’ve noticed a new t-shirt at rallies: FILM THE POLICE.
We need new numberplates here as well. NSW: POLICE STATE.