Unpacking Dunedin's Culture of Violence

Unpacking Dunedin’s Culture of Violence

An empty Jim Beam bottle smashed against the footpath in Dundas Street. Someone hurled it from the backseat of a car, concealed by a tinted window. Glass splinters sprayed across my feet.

“Yeah, fucking good on ya!” my boyfriend yelled, causing the car to slow to a speed that could make your heart fall out of your arse. Stopped in our tracks, a lump formed at the tip of my esophagus.

Figures piled out one by one. A fiery ring leader emerged from the darkness, making his way towards us. Our adrenaline was in sync, the single difference being that mine was fuelled by fear while his stemmed from pure rage. As our soon-to-be attackers got closer, I stepped in front of my boyfriend. It was an attempt to protect, despite my fragility within this arena of testosterone.

If I blinked I would’ve missed the sea of punches. But I witnessed it: a helpless observer using the only power I had to scream for help, my voice drowned out by the plummeting rain. Straddled in a headlock, my partner took a few heavy punches to the temple and a crack echoed throughout the rapidly flooding streets as his head met with the road. Falling to my knees in the gutter, I begged him back to consciousness, his eyes in strobe-like fits leaving nothing but their whites.

I seriously considered the possibility that it was our last moment together, until the slamming of doors pulled me up from the gutter. I charged for the car and heaved my fist at the window. Vibration followed the numbing knock, a fail to shatter the seal. The smell of rubber permeated, accompanied by a skidding that pierced my ears. Unable to differentiate between the sky’s tears and my own, the car sped off into the night, unaware that it would be leaving behind scars more damaging than those remaining from broken bones.

While my boyfriend was incredibly lucky to make it out alive, he was definitely not left unscathed. He had a broken collarbone and wrist, which resulted in double slings and heavy medication for months. Aside from the physical repercussions, the emotional scarring was utterly crippling.

Unfortunately, this story of violence is just one of many in New Zealand’s University town of Dunedin. With a population dominated by students, Dunedin has a long history of being the hardest place to test your ability to balance work with play. Drinking and drugs are rampant and some of the older generation would go as far as to describe it as a cesspit of wild animals who pretend to study. It’s fair to say that a fair few of these students appear to struggle with the city’s freedom. For students, the world suddenly becomes their oyster: an oyster full of darts, Diesels and drugs.

With everyone letting loose and getting loose in Dunners, you can find a strong culture of violence that tends to rear its ugly head when mixed with binge drinking and substance abuse. While it’s not fair to paint all of Dunedin’s students with the same brush, there are a number of characters that seem to ruin the reputations of the many. Dunedin locals are consistently up in arms about the level of abuse filling the city’s streets. On top of the excessive amount of physical violence, racial slurs, harassment and assault of women, transphobia and homophobia join the list of recurring themes.

However, the students can’t carry all of that blame: in some cases, the locals are the perpetrators. On the same night that my boyfriend was jumped by a gang of Dunedin residents, a 35-year-old male fell victim to a fatal assault in the Octagon’s Craft Bar when he was knocked unconscious and killed in a bathroom by three men, an attack that was in no way associated with students. More recently, a 39-year-old Clinton man was arrested after threatening to stab someone after a fight. A few months earlier, three women were attacked when a man entered their flat and sexually assaulted them. That same night, a young woman was raped in the student quarter.

Students are usually portrayed by the media as the scum of the earth. Being a past Otago University student myself, it definitely gets tedious when the media are constantly turning to Dunedin’s streets in desperation to find a juicy story, detailing the carnage of the aftermath by commenting on the piles of vomit left scattered in the streets after a Thursday night on the piss. Especially when the hours spent in the library working your arse off are completely disregarded and students as a whole are painted as rabid dogs with no sense of morality.

Nevertheless, you can’t turn a blind eye to the rate and nature of the violence that exists. Like most issues, there’s no quick fix, no solution to eradicating the violence altogether. But systems are being put in place to try and at least minimise the risks that are causing harm to students and locals alike.

The historically famous Hyde Street Party is a success story for Dunedin’s culture. Once run by street inhabitants and feasted on by unimaginative journos, it is now sanctioned by the University itself so that emergency services are on standby and unless you have a ticket, you’ll be forced to drink your shitty beers at home till the show’s over.

The next step is to start thinking of ways to educate people in a way that solidifies what they should already know: that violence is never the answer. Because trust me, the consequences are worse than you can imagine when you’re 10 bevvies deep.

Cover via Otago Daily Times