Street drinkers, many of them Indigenous, congregate outside the entrance to Safeway and on the nearby corners of Smith St and Moor St, Fitzroy and Smith St and Stanley St, Collingwood. Street drinking and the public disturbances that regularly result from it is a complex issue played out every day on Smith St. I’m sick of political correctness and middle class self censorship, particularly about this issue; I’m going to say what I believe.
The drinkers are sometimes quiet and subdued, and sometimes loud, intimidating, obnoxious, frightening and violent. There’s no point denying the reality of the lived experience of many local residents. Being constantly harassed for money is extremely unpleasant. Having violent and unpredictable drunks grab at your shirt to try to stop you or corner you is unacceptable. No one has the right to verbally or physically intimidate others on public streets.
The issue not primarily about race, and defining people who complain about street drinkers as racists is inaccurate and intellectually lazy. The issue of street drinking is a cultural problem, not a racial problem. This distinction is helpful because the culture of street drinking on Smith St is not limited to any specific racial or ethnic group. Drunk white middle class Gen Ys can be equally obnoxious.
I have no issue with the historical reasons why the area continues to be a meeting place for Aboriginal people, or with the various ways ethnic and cultural groups use public space. I think everyone has the right to use public space for almost anything, including naked cycling, as long as they respect the rights of everyone else who is sharing public space.
No one has the right to be violent, threatening and intimidating or to create a public nuisance by littering, using public space as a toilet or being so unpleasant as to force other people to cross to the other side of the road. Excusing unacceptable public behaviour because of its supposed cultural foundations is weak and cowardly on the part of local and state government authorities.
The role of local businesses is also a problem. One of the reasons why the drinkers gather outside Safeway is because that is one of the places where they buy alcohol. Safeway’s choice to serve these customers is a central issue. If Safeway refused to serve them, the drinkers may move elsewhere. I’m not concerned with solving their problems; I’m focusing here on the right of all local residents to feel safe in public space.
I wonder if Safeway understands how many customers it loses by encouraging violent drunks to gather by its front door. I know many Fitzroy residents who prefer the walk to the Carlton Safeway to do their shopping because the area feels far safer, especially at night. Women in particular tell me that Smith St is simply a no go zone after dark if they are alone.
Have Safeway’s evil number crunchers done the same kind of sums with alcohol sales that lead them to use deceptive labelling of butter to make more profit? Have they calculated that the money they earn from drunks buying alcohol all day is more than what they lose from scared middle class shoppers who go elsewhere for their groceries?
With two new supermarkets opening in Fitzroy in 2008 (Coles on Johnston St and IGA on Brunswick St), Safeway now faces greater competition. I am sure that this competition has motivated its current renovations. Who does Safeway want as its customers, and what is it willing to do to keep them?
Beyond the financial considerations, what responsibility does Safeway have to the general public? To what extent can it be held accountable for these problems? And what about other local liquor retailers?
I’d like to hear about your experiences buying alcohol around Smith St. I hope to uncover more about the social impact of the current tolerance of street drinking. What are the consequences of the current policies?
Have you seen drunks being served, or being refused service, in bottle shops? What professional or ethical standards do you expect from the businesses you engage with? Do you avoid Safeway and other businesses on Smith St because you feel unsafe there? Do you boycott Safeway on principle because it continues to sell alcohol to street drinkers?