Nick Clarke – victim of crime
Published in The Age: February 10, 2013.
IN February 2009, I got gang-bashed. I’m writing this because the system of victim compensation is profoundly inadequate and needs addressing, but for the purpose of context, here’s what happened.
It was a muggy summer’s night, I was 22 and had been out with friends at a renowned Melbourne nightclub. Not long after midnight, I elected to walk the two blocks to my CBD apartment alone.
As I neared the end of the first block through an unusually quiet Chinatown, I stopped sharply and my heart skipped a beat, as a beer bottle shattered just in front of my feet. Sensing that it had come from the other end of the street, I addressed four young men who had been walking about 10 metres in front of me.
”Where did that come from?” I said as I craned my neck to the left and motioned to the far end of the street, assuming that they, too, had been surprised by the sudden appearance of the projectile.
All four men turned on their heels, and a ginger-haired man with a rat’s-tail haircut and a cocky swagger led the group in my direction. With him were a heavier-set man of Pacific Islander appearance and two Caucasian men of medium build who both gave off the air of unthinking followers.
With his chin stuck up in the air and his chest expanded like a puffer fish, the leader snarled, ”What the f— did you say, c—?”
”Huh? I thought somebody had thrown a bottle at us? What … What do you mean?”
He grabbed me by my collar and shoved me back and forth at arm’s length. I raised my arms in protest and implored the three henchmen to pull their friend off me. The bovines glared back.
”You faggot c—,” the ringleader continued. Rational argument would not defuse the situation, and there was nobody within earshot to whom I could call out for help.
From behind the group of men, a white delivery van pulled into a side street no more than 30 metres away. I saw a middle-aged Asian man at the wheel. I knew that if I could attract his attention he might step in, or at the very least serve as a witness if it came to that.
Now I too straightened my arms, and set about physically manoeuvring the scuffle 180 degrees, so I could reverse towards the van and have all the men in front of me.
”I don’t want to fight,” I kept repeating, knowing the words were futile, but hoping they would buy me some more time.
After successfully drawing the scuffle to within a few metres of the van, I sensed no movement from behind. ”Come on – beep your horn, call the cops or rev your engine … anything,” I remember thinking, exasperated.
It was not to be. The first blow hit just below my right eye, the second caught my left, and my vision glitched like a worn VHS tape.
The male of Islander appearance, who had now become increasingly vocal, then stepped up and struck me with full force in the mouth. I had never been in a fight but it was just like Raging Bull – a surreal, disorienting subversion of reality that unfurls at half-speed, punctuated by flashes of light and primordial surges of adrenalin.
My teeth loosened and my head rocked back, but my life did not flash before my eyes. Instead, I revisited the tragedy that had befallen a school friend, who was assaulted in an eerily similar way several years ago. His head hit the pavement, and he never recovered – his brain was so severely damaged that he has remained in care ever since.
With this harrowing incident at the forefront of my mind, I purposefully hit the deck and covered my head.
Shins and feet soon dug into my back, and while the yelling continued, I could no longer decipher any of the messages.
Then my legs were in the air, hands rummaged about in my pockets, my phone was snatched and the chief assailant screamed frenziedly, ”Give me all your f—— money!”
Now I was getting mugged, and I was aware that my late father’s ring and necklace were likely to be targets. I reached into my back pocket and flicked open my wallet so they could see the contents. I had just visited the ATM in preparation for a music festival the following day, and hoped that the sight of a couple of $50 notes would prompt them to grab the money and run.
My face numb and covered in blood, my clothes all torn and my back kicked in, I hauled myself off the ground and limped over to the van. The man still sat inside, avoiding eye contact. I pounded on the window to get his attention. ”Thanks a lot, mate. I’ve got no money, no phone, my face looks like a car crash and you just sat there.”
”I’m just reversing my van,” he mumbled back sheepishly.
Before long I was in the back of an ambulance, off to emergency.
I reconciled myself to the violence of the incident pretty quickly. No reasonable person condones street violence, but any reasonable person appreciates that in every civilisation, in every continent, since the beginning of time, there have been angry, unevolved degenerates who want to beat people up for no particular reason.
That said, I did return to the same nightclub, at the same time on the same night for a few consecutive weeks by myself. I would scan around the rooms, looking for the four faces, quizzing people about their whereabouts on the date in question.
Had I spotted them I’d planned to call the bouncers over, have them contain the men and call the police; but it was much more about feeling some semblance of control in a situation where I really had none.
In terms of psychological damage, though, the wanton violence of this bashing does pale into insignificance when compared with the farcical fight for justice I have been forced to wage, for four years, in its aftermath. The following parties (whose individual identities have been hidden here) have, in every step of the process, been incompetent, verging on negligent.
The hospital: When I was attended at the hospital, a nurse felt around my face, mopped up the blood and handed me an ice pack. No scans. Perhaps she thought I was just another lout, out at night shooting his mouth off? When the swelling went down several weeks later, I sought out a 3D facial imaging scan for my clearly rearranged face, which confirmed I had a heavily fractured cheekbone. Given the time that had passed, it would now need to be rebroken and operated on to deal with its depression into my skull.
The police: Two young women came forward. It was incredible. They had been chatting to my assailants, who had been boasting about assaulting me. They visited their local police station, left their details, and waited to be contacted. Unfortunately, the relevant officers at this station either forgot, or never bothered, to pass this information on to anyone.
The lawyers: I sought financial compensation from the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT), a government-run organisation that provides financial compensation and assistance to victims of crimes committed in Victoria.
A string of lawyers advised me to go elsewhere (I wondered: ”Do they not like taking these cases on?”) until I wound up with a lawyer who explained to me that in Victoria (unlike other states in Australia), there is no lump-sum compensation from the state in VOCAT claims; no recognition that the incident should not have happened. I could expect to receive a reimbursement to cover the stolen money, the damaged clothes, and any relevant medical bills.
She was completely wrong about the lump-sum claim; I was eligible for $10,000, plus reimbursements. She also lost all my medical papers and only ever responded to my inquiries (whereupon she would chastise the slowness of the VOCAT system) after months of my leaving messages with her secretary. I was clearly not a priority.
Two years in, I got a sheepish call from a lawyer at the same firm, saying he would now take care of the case. He started the process virtually from scratch, and tenaciously got my claim approved in its entirety, including a year’s worth of self-defence classes and some psychological treatment.
The courts: Late last year a cheque arrived in the mail. I’m a video producer and presenter who works on contract, and at first glance I suspected I had invoiced for a job and was being paid by this dated, unorthodox means. The cheque, I noticed, was attached to a form stating it was from VOCAT, but there was no covering letter or explanation of how the figure they arrived at had been calculated, and no indication of the aforementioned classes and treatment I was now entitled to receive.
The psychologists: The free psychological treatment is supposed to be part of my compensation, but the psychologist I have recently approached is apprehensive about treating me because she does not want to get involved in the bureaucratic nightmare.
”Look, I know how much you’ve been through, and I hate to do this to you,” she said last week, ”but I’m also a small business, and every hour I spend on the phone trying to deal with these people is an hour I’m not making money. VOCAT are also asking me to prove my credentials – I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and now I’m asking for approval from these people? I understand now why so many of my colleagues avoid VOCAT cases like the plague. I think you’re going to have to see if you can get anywhere with them and get back to me.”
I made the calls to VOCAT and all relevant forms were submitted in November last year. ”It usually takes a couple of weeks,” VOCAT said. ”You always say ‘it usually takes a couple of weeks’ – it’s been 3½ years,” I retorted. I have heard nothing since.
Far from feeling like a victim of crime, I have essentially been on trial. I have been consistently forced to prove myself, to hustle and fight for attention, let alone compensation.
I have spent countless hours driving to meetings, photocopying, resubmitting, calling, emailing and, ultimately, reliving this experience every day for four years, while the perpetrators of the crime left it all behind long ago.
Perhaps a dozen times since the incident, I could have elected to forget about receiving any form of compensation – just given up – and I suspect nobody would have contacted me about it, ever again. Nobody.
Last week, as I stood in the middle of a circle of eight males screaming abuse at me at a self-defence class, preparing to simulate a kick to the groin when prompted by the instructor, I was struck by a figurative one-two; the hopelessness of both my current predicament and my subsequent world view.
The hope you maintain as an angst-ridden, excruciatingly self-aware teenager, that adulthood will be a more agreeable undertaking, is quickly extinguished when you become an adult.
You realise that adults (even the ones you grew up wanting to be like – trusted people in positions of power) can behave in sad, imprudent and absurd ways. If I wasn’t sure of it before, I certainly know now that the only people you can really trust are your close friends and your family.
As far as the assailants are concerned, the two young women returned to the station to find out why they hadn’t been contacted.
Their persistence led to two of the assailants receiving probation, while the other two received a good behaviour bond and a fine respectively. I only learnt this late last year when I called the detective to gather information for the purpose of this article.