Photo credit: Pat Stevenson

How Sydney is Finally Fighting Back Against Its Club Lockout Laws

We report from the 15,000-strong rally to Keep Sydney Open.

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Feb 23 2016, 3:45am

Photo credit: Pat Stevenson

"I don't want to gamble, I just want to dance," the sign reads, bobbing overhead from amongst the few hundred people that have gathered early in Belmore Park. It's just after midday, a little bit before official proceedings are scheduled to get under way, and Sydney is sweltering under a grey sky. Rihanna's "Diamonds" is pumping out from the speakers in the centre of the crowd, entertaining a few dancers. Most people are scattered, standing in groups or alone, signing the petition that is being handed around by numerous volunteers in white 'Keep Sydney Open' t-shirts.

By 12.30PM there's a steady stream of people entering the park. Every bus that pulls up to Central deposits more people, and the crossings from the train station are overflowing. The ages are wildly diverse: bearded barista-types walk next to middle aged parents pulling along their kids, gym bros stroll beside elderly couples. It's hard to pin an average age from looking around—late 20s to early 30s is probably a reasonable guess. Many are clutching homemade signs and banners. NSW premier Mike Baird's likeness is on everything from a Straight Outta Compton placard, to oversized casino playing cards, to many 'nanny state' puns. As Belmore Park steadily fills, Beyonce's "Love On Top" blasts from the speakers. A few thick raindrops start to fall.

Photo credit: Jules LeFevre

The lockout laws have been in place since February 2014 after a number of fatally violent incidents took place in Sydney over the summer of 2013–2014. The laws involved a lockout of 1.30AM within the zone (Kings Cross, Surry Hills, the CBD), with the cessation of service at 3AM. Its implementation was swift, with almost no community consultation or discussion. "What they see is a dead 24 year old with a cracked skull, bleeding out on the sidewalk," says Gang Of Youths front man David Lau'pepe. At the time, there could be no opposition to such an evocative image or story. Nobody denied the tragedy that was the death of young people, but two years on, the situation surrounding the fallout from the laws is infinitely more complicated.

"This is my first ever rally," a woman tells me, as we stand under a tree towards the back of the park, watching people file in, "I just think it's an attack on our civil rights. It hasn't made the city safer. It's just moving the problem into other areas." The next person I talk to echoes this sentiment: "Just because a handful of people were violent, we shouldn't all be punished for it. And it simply hasn't made the city a safer place."

The rally was organised only just over a week ago, capitalising on the mounting opposition and media attention that had been happening since the laws came under review. "We really want to send a message to the government that the people have a reasonable and sophisticated response to the situation," says Keep Sydney Open campaign manager Tyson Koh, "it's about making the government realise that there is another way. We can have a late night culture and safety at the same time." Before he jumped up on stage at 1PM, he ran me through what they were aiming to achieve: an end to the 1.30AM lockouts, improvements to late night transport, more visible policing, and looking at how we tackle antisocial behaviour.

Photo credit: Jule LeFevre

Just after 1PM, Belmore Park is crammed with an estimated 15,000 people, before Koh directs everyone to begin to march to Hyde Park. The shoulder-to-shoulder shuffling begins, and there's a particular banner that looms large just ahead of me: "Star Shitty." The exemption of the Star City casino from the lockout zone has incensed Sydneysiders; the casino is the most violent venue in NSW, hence its exclusion from the zone flies in the face of everything the government apparently seeks to achieve—not to mention being blatantly unfair to other venues that are statistically much safer. Standing on the stage at the final march destination of Hyde Park, respected journalist Bernard Keane points out that the casino has—oddly enough—funnelled over $600,000 into the Liberal and Labor parties as political donations. "But it's not like the NSW government has a history of corruption or anything," Keane says wryly, to an angry chorus from the crowd. Or as one attendee tells me more bluntly, "It's fucking bullshit."

We've been seeing the area become less hospitable and welcoming to a lot of people, particularly communities like the LGBTI community, who've traditionally been a really wonderful and vibrant part of Newtown's nightlife.

Before Keane's speech, Sydney DJ-producer Nina Las Vegas listed some of the venues that have closed since the lockout laws began, including beloved establishments such as Hugo's, Flinders, Backroom, Trademark, Soho, Goodgod, and most recently Bar Century (home of the $3 beer). Disappearing along with these venues are countless jobs, live events, and gigs that crucially sustain the historically strong electronic scene in Sydney. "As a DJ I could play three or four gigs a night." Nina says, "It was the same for Alison Wonderland, Flume, Anna Lunoe, Flight Facilities, Yolanda Be Cool, and so many others that worked weekly in venues that are now closed...venues are competing to get the same crowds, and the same acts, because they all have to do it before 1.30AM."

"Can you imagine if it was any other industry losing this many jobs and businesses?" Larry Heath, founder of The AU Review, tells THUMP, "At the heart of the destruction of nightlife are people losing their jobs, their livelihoods... venues that operated for decades have closed in a matter of months and the government's response to this? "Tough shit"." As Lau'pepe adds: "They just don't give a shit about us. They probably laugh in the cabinet room when they're not deep-dicking each other to the smooth, smooth sounds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer."

Art Vs Science are on stage, twisting the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight For You Right" into their hit "Parlez-Vous Francais". I speak to a guy, David, who was assaulted recently while walking home in Newtown. "I went out for years in Kings Cross and nothing ever happened to me," he says, "now Kings Cross is a ghost town, and Newtown has completely changed." Newtown (not included in the lockout zone...yet) is repeatedly brought up. Many people I spoke to are residents of the popular inner-west suburb, as am I, and every one of them attested to its changing vibe. "What we're seeing now is the arrival of a huge amount of people from across Sydney who've been displaced by the CBD lockouts, and that means the character of the area is being changed," Secret Garden Festival booker Adam Lewis says, "anecdotally we've been seeing the area become less hospitable and welcoming to a lot of people, particularly communities like the LGBTI community, who've traditionally been a really wonderful and vibrant part of Newtown's nightlife."

It's not just anecdotally: the Bureau of Crime & Statistics reported that since the lockouts were introduced, assaults in licensed venues in Newtown have increased by a staggering 80 percent. Every single area of assault that can be recorded (alcohol related, assault on licensed premises, assault at night, disorderly conduct) all hit their highest levels ever. The highest profile incident came when transgender woman Stephanie McCarthy was brutally assaulted by five men outside the Town Hall Hotel in June. The outcry from social media and the LGBTQI community was loud, but the politicians remained steadfast and silent.

Read: Everything You Need To Know About Sydney's Club Lockout Laws

It's an interesting comparison to what has been happening in Sydney for the last few decades. "In the City of Sydney, between 2007 and 2014," says Keane, "assaults on the streets fell over 20 percent." The only two categories of violence that have risen in that time are domestic violence and sexual assault. "Where is the media campaign for that?" Keane asks, to an unbelievable roar from the crowd. "And I wonder why there were no campaigns for those crimes? It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that most of the victims were women?"

So for years the city was statistically becoming safer, but since the lockouts some areas have actually become incredibly more dangerous. The government is currently looking to extend the lockouts to Newtown, Marrickville, Glebe and other areas (the casino will, of course, still be exempt). But looking at what has happened in the previous two years, all this will do is push the violence to other areas or back to people's homes—where the government can happily continue to ignore it.

The sun has finally broken through overhead, and the rally is winding up; Koh jumps back up for a final plea: "To the doctors and nurses of St Vincent's Hospital: we stand with you. Anybody who says that we don't care about safety is mischaracterising us." He's right: this rally was not about being able to stay out and get fucked up and glass someone on a Saturday night. It was about being able to stay out dancing until dawn, to see the sunrise after a four hour DJ set, and to be able to do that safely. It was about how to stop more people losing their jobs, how to prevent the music scene from crumbling, and how to keep Sydney's heart beating.

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