Lockout laws: NightWatch chaplain Lance Mergard and others work miracles in Fortitude Valley

Lockout laws: NightWatch chaplain Lance Mergard and others work miracles in Fortitude Valley

From: The Australian, Trent Dalton

Date: February 13, 2016

A half-moon night and a half-cut woman walks south on Wickham Street howling sexual obscenities to three friends walking north.

Earth spins and neon blurs and a boy vomits a sprawling Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles with Carrot, on the bitumen canvas of ­McLachlan Street. Someone’s son gropes someone’s daughter; someone’s doorway problem insists he’s only had 12 bourbons. A high wind on Brunswick Street pushes used serviettes and $2 tacos off tables. Thrills and spills and split powder pills. A deep bass beat and a lick, sip, suck and a two-for-one unhappy hour. Every man has muscles here and a sleeveless hoodie to prove it. Big veiny right arms pushing and shoving in snaking nightclub queues. “Yeah, c..t.” Push. “Yeeaaaaaah, c..t.” Push. Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth. Stagger left, stagger right, deep breath, collapse. Mum and Dad can’t break your fall tonight but the gutter will, the only steady thing in this Friday night frenzy, that endless and loyal concrete gutter interlocking the four main streets of Brisbane’s Fortitude ­Valley bar precinct, centre of the known universe for four more hours until 3am lockout. And the half-moon night is dangerously young.

“Let’s pray,” says Lance Mergard, 64-year-old founding member of the NightWatch Chaplains, a group of volunteers who have walked the Fortitude Valley bar precinct every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night since 2001, watching over and responding to people in crisis; the longest-running mobile “intentional intervention” street chaplain service in the world. “We pray you put us in the right place tonight,” Lance says, head down, a purple polo beneath a high-vis yellow vest. “We want to know what is the right place at the right time. Watch over us and bless us. In the name of Lord Jesus, Amen.”

Beside Lance, 25-year-old NightWatch ­Senior Team Leader Chris Owens makes a sign of the cross. Right place. Right time. The NightWatch HQ is an office space just off ­Chinatown Mall at the heart of the Valley. ­Outside their office is a well-lit, open mall of smooth grey sandstone flanked by square manicured gardens and bench seats. At 3.30am on January 3, an 18-year-old man named Cole Miller was walking through here to a taxi rank with his friend, Nick Pace.

Lance Mergard believes, heart and soul, that each of the 20,000 revellers here on any given Friday or Saturday night has a God-given destiny. Miller’s destiny on January 3 was momentarily entwined with the destinies of two other young men, Daniel Maxwell and Armstrong Renata, out celebrating Maxwell’s 21st birthday.

“Do you want to see something funny?” Maxwell allegedly asked his friend, before ­challenging Miller and Pace to a fight. Police claim the pair ignored the challenge and pressed on through the Chinatown Mall to a taxi rank on Ann Street before Maxwell swung punches at them. Police allege Cole Miller received a punch to the side of his face from Renata that left him “immediately unconscious”, landing face-first on the mall sandstone. He never woke; the elite water polo player’s destiny ended a day later on an emergency hospital bed beside his family and friends.

NightWatch’s Chris Owens was on the scene within 30 seconds. Right place. About one minute short of the right time. “We were pulling into Chinatown Mall to hop out and go for a walk down Brunswick Street Mall to see what was happening,” he says. “That’s when we saw Cole on the ground.” He saw the human, the deeply loved son of Steven and Mary-Leigh Miller, the kid they called “Punky” who dreamt of representing Australia at the Olympics just like his older brother, Billy.

Owens’ greatest fear, as he walks through drunken revellers for five hours a night, four nights a week, is this: “The dehumanisation of individuals. Women become objects. Men become objects. Other people not in your circle of friends become nothing. The idea of right and wrong has been removed for them. What they believe in is what is only valid to them. They are free-floating compasses. There are no anchors for them and suddenly you have a place where this kind of thing happens.”

Eight green stretchers are laid out in the NightWatch HQ. Each stretcher has a sick bucket. There’s a sheet on the wall depicting the Glasgow Coma Scale that the chaplains use to assess Valley punters on a point basis from three (deep unconsciousness) to 15 (fully awake). One volunteer will man a video monitoring and communications hub tonight while another, Sarah “Saz” Bennett, will watch over punters who’ve dropped in to seek first aid, emergency assistance or one of those sick buckets. “Saz is really good at shoving things down people’s throats so they can breathe,” Chris says.

Four permanent part-time NightWatch members and the office rent are funded through the state government. Six members of tonight’s patrol team are volunteers, from a revolving pool of 24 working up to seven nights a month and trained in advanced first aid. Patrols cars, safety equipment, communications equipment and countless other items have been donated or paid for by Lance after 15 years of around-the-clock fundraising.

There’ll be two vehicle patrol teams tonight and one foot patrol team. They’ll be working at the coalface of a political debate over lockout laws, over whether a 2am last-drinks limit should be placed on suburban pubs and clubs and a 3am last-drinks limit for declared entertainment ­precincts such as the Valley, combined with a revised 1am lockout. Over whether shots should be banned after midnight.

The same political debate swirled around ­central Sydney when 1.30am lockout laws were imposed in 2014. A year after the laws were introduced, Darlinghurst’s eternally overworked St Vincent’s Hospital reported a 25 per cent decrease in critically injured patients. Local bar owners, meanwhile, bellowed about foot traffic being down as much as 85 per cent.

The political firestorm in Queensland spread further when a CCTV video went viral showing the alleged assault of 19-year-old Brisbane university student Bailey Merz at the hands of two young men less than 24 hours after a thousand mourners in Brisbane’s St Stephen’s Catholic Church heard Cole Miller’s father Steven plead through a breaking voice, “Please, please love, and please love in truth and action”. The Merz attack came four days after video spread of a female Mt Isa club manager being allegedly assaulted by a man she refused entry.

The NightWatch team stands in a loose circle. Chris Owens shares a final thought. “Yeah, there’s alcohol-fuelled violence out there,” he says. “But, here’s the thing, if I get a jerry can of petrol and throw it on the ground, what happens? Nothing. Because there’s no fire. It may be alcohol-fuelled but if we didn’t have that undertone already there, if we didn’t have something in these people’s lives that says they can go out and punch people, then the fuel would do nothing. It’s the intent we have to address, not the fuel.”

He points to the Brunswick Street Mall and his team listens in. “Mostly, there’s a lot of ­alcohol-fuelled dancing happening out there,” he says. “There’s only a tiny group of people with violence on their mind tonight. The rest of them are dancing.” His fellow chaplains nod.

“All right,” he says. “Let’s hit the streets.”

Lance Mergard has never been drunk. He took a vow of abstinence at the age of 13 at a Col Joye and Little Pattie concert sponsored by a ­dedicated 1960s branch of the temperance movement. He can’t fully understand the particular internal combustion of intoxicant, blood and impulse that encourages the attractive young woman sitting in the gutter outside The Met nightclub on Wickham Street to stand and silently, amorously wrap her arms around his shoulders in a mock scene of intense bedroom passion. “Listen, it’s important you don’t sit in the gutter here,” Lance says, guiding her across the pavement. “A car could pull in here anytime.” He’s seen it happen countless times. Recently he sat with a girl in agony after her feet were crushed by a taxi. She removed her favourite going-out boots to reveal five broken toes.

Lance’s eyes lock onto a scene up the street outside the Prohibition nightclub where a queue chokes the pavement and swells past the neighbouring NightOwl convenience store. Maybe 100 people squeezed into the space of a small bus. “More people, more problems,” Lance says. Two young men up close to each other, slinging curse words. Two king cobras raised to strike, fangs out and hissing. Lance calls them his night eyes, the eyes that can ­differentiate between friends bumping shoulders and mock-fighting and strangers facing off in a powder keg. The night eyes catch cues, the way people stand when they’re in love, the way people stand when they’re scared, the things young men do with their hands when they’re about to swing a single deadly punch.

A swelling huddle forms around the cobras as other young men and women shout obscenities, frustrated by the fact this brief stand-off is blocking their path. This is the escalation phase. The two young men now have an audience and an audience brings embarrassment and, in turn, intensity, and, in turn, action.

After 15 years of putting out fires on these night-time Valley streets, Lance is certain there is only one way to insert oneself into a melee. “Boldly,” he says. And in he goes, the nightwatchman driven by God, protected by nothing but a faith that a good majority of those around him have abandoned. It takes him three seconds to identify the root cause of the conflict. There’s an A-frame NightOwl sign in the centre of the bulging queue that is causing punters to spill into the gutter. “Look, fellers, let me just move this sign away,” Lance says, stepping directly between the cobras and their friends. He’s a face-saving circuit-breaker. He’s common ground from which the aggressors can step back. Lance moves the sign to the side and the swelling queue thins and relaxes, moves back away from the gutter.

Lance slips into his NightWatch vehicle and makes laps of the Valley. “They’re all 18 and they’ve earned their freedom badge and they don’t understand freedom completely,” he says. “The guys are the peacocks doing all the posing before the female. Once they start peacocking all it takes is for someone to not read that well and it explodes.” The peacock is so highly charged and hotly wired, Lance says, that his whole being becomes one mobile raw nerve ending, sensitive to a single accidental bump, a misread comment, an innocent look that lasts a second too long. “They bring all of that out here with them. Then they discard the normal restraints that most of us have in the general public. You come out here and it’s crazy and it’s crazy because it’s not the real world.” A fantasy world where young men can punch other young men in the face and young men bounce back like inflatable bop bags from king hits to the temple.

Lance points to the glass front of the old St Vincent De Paul’s thrift store on Brunswick Street where the NightWatch concept was born. “I spent 10 years in Kings Cross running the second-largest drug rehab in Australia,” he says. “I was pretty world-wise. I dealt with drug pushers and hookers and addicts, everything you can imagine in Kings Cross, but I never saw much violence. Most of the guys on heroin were on the nod. I’d seen dead bodies because of heroin overdoses, but I had never seen a truly violent fight.”

In 2000 he began a modest outreach service in Brisbane, walking through Fortitude Valley on Friday and Saturday nights. On September 11, 2001, about four hours before events at the World Trade Centre changed the world, a brutal street fight erupted in Brunswick Street between three men that ended with one man being pushed through the thrift store’s plate glass window. “As he fell he stripped his arm down to the bone, right up to his armpit,” he says. “He’d lost a third of his blood in 30 seconds.” Lance administered life-saving first aid to the severed artery, earning a police commendation for his efforts.

“I didn’t have a clue about the violence that was out there,” he says. “It changed me.”

We pass the traffic lights at the top of the Brunswick Street Mall where Bailey Merz was attacked. “You saw the video?” Lance says. “That was Wednesday night at 2am.” The video shows Merz being held in a headlock by a larger man as a smaller man rains punches on him. Merz is released and takes one groggy step before the larger man, almost as an afterthought, drives a sickening right hook into his head. Both men have been charged.

A call comes through from base: “Guys, the police are on the lookout for three African males with American accents wearing white shirts and black trousers, wanted for serious offences.” Lance talks into a CB radio: “NightSafe, Mobile 2, copy.” He leans to his patrol partner, Ben, an IT professional by day and NightWatch volunteer by night. “Ben, just note that,” Lance says. Ben nods. “We’re not police officers, we’re problem-solvers,” he says.

They’ll assist police on the fringes. They’ll be called in to clean up pools of blood when the police are too preoccupied. They’ll be called in by police to help calm scenes in times when a police badge is too confrontational. “We’re non-authoritarian and non-confrontational,” Lance says. “We’re good at giving people exit strategies.”

Lance continues patrolling along Ann Street, eyes darting left and right. “I get distressed by that term, ‘alcohol-fuelled violence’,” he says. “By putting those words together you’ve actually created a syndrome. It suggests if we can get rid of the alcohol we’ll get rid of the violence. They bring in stricter laws, regulations against venues and lockouts because they’re trying to deal with it as though it’s a syndrome or something that can be contained like bird flu.

“But people who are violent here will be violent anywhere. They need to respond to alcohol and they need to respond to violence equally. We could shut everything down and go back to the six o-clock swill but we’ll miss the point.”

On a small side street, a young woman pushes a man away as she drifts and stumbles dizzily along. “Is she resisting him?” Lance asks. Ben looks closer at the scene from the passenger side window. “She’s resisting him,” he says. Lance pulls the car over. “There are a lot of predators around this precinct,” he says.

Lance has intervened countless times in ­situations he is convinced would have escalated to ­sexual assaults. He approaches the woman as she palms the man next to her away again.

“Right,” Lance says, standing in front of the swaying woman. “I need to ask a couple of ­questions.” He points to the man next to her. “And I don’t need you arcing up.” The man nods.

“Do you know this guy?” Lance asks directly.

“Yes,” she slurs. “He’s my boyfriend’s friend.” He is helping her walk back to his car.

“Fine,” says Lance. “Are you happy for him to help you?”

“Yes,” the young woman slurs.

“Well, I’ve watched you and you’ve been pushing him away and resisting him,” Lance says. “It looks as though he’s trying to help you so will you settle down and let him help you?”

The girl nods, her head continuing to bob beyond her will.

“Go home, go to bed, and wake up and enjoy your hangover,” Lance says.

At the bottom of Brunswick Street a young man stumbles into oncoming traffic, only narrowly missing a car because his friend yanks him by the collar back onto the footpath. Remarkably, the man reacts by pushing his friend and­ saviour hard in the chest, furious. Moments. Reactions. Choices. “Fifty per cent of fights in here are mate-on-mate,” Lance says. “That applies to males and females.”

At the exact time Cole Miller was set upon in Chinatown Mall, Lance was two blocks down in Warner Street attending to a brawl between 10 young women, all friends. “They were throwing clenched fists, ripping into each other, true MMA [mixed martial arts] punches, throwing the feet in as well,” he says. Again, Lance inserted himself boldly into the melee. He doesn’t know exactly what it is that calms people in such situations, the peaceful timbre of his voice, the calming purple colour of his shirt, or the fact a 64-year-old ordained minister is politely asking them to take it easy, take it easy.

Earth turns and neon blurs and 20,000 young men and women drink and dance and stagger on past 3am. In his patrol car Chris Owens receives a request to attend a scene outside the Pig ‘N’ Whistle pub on Eagle Street. “We’re in lockout now,” he says. “Nobody can enter a venue now. If you’re already out that means you’re heading home. Between now and 5am you’ll have people filtering out. Smokers go out for a cigarette and they can’t come back in so they go home.”

Police are interviewing a man outside the Pig ‘N’ Whistle. The man tries to prove how sober he is by walking in a straight line but he walks in a crooked kind of drunken gorilla stomp with his right arm dangling by his shins like he’s carrying an invisible bag of cement. Metres from this scene, a taxi rank supervisor’s right toe has been trod on by a drunken reveller. Chris inspects the toe, swollen and bleeding. He takes a first aid kit from his vest pocket, disinfects the toe, straps it up. “Thanks,” the taxi supervisor says.

There hasn’t been much of that at all tonight. Simple gratitude. The chaplains are invisible. Their efforts combined, the NightWatch chaplains probably affected around 60 small or large adjustments to situations across the precinct tonight. A sign moved, a girl ferried to hospital, a fight calmed, a stretcher prepared, a sick bucket rushed to a mouth in the nick of time. They’ve been here for four nights a week for 15 years making minor adjustments, pre-empting disasters, preventing tragedies. And for every adjustment made there’s an alternative story of how things might have ended.

Chris pulls in to the Chinatown Mall. It’s 4am, end of shift. He hops out of his car and looks at the empty mall space where he found Cole Miller lying unconscious. He thinks about intertwining destinies, that of Cole’s parents and siblings, that of the two young men charged with attacking him. “You’ve got to understand how many times we’ve stopped that situation,” he says. “You’ve got to think about the other thousand times we’ve saved it. But we couldn’t make it there for Cole. We couldn’t be in the right place at the right time.”

Chris rubs his eyes and walks back into the NightWatch HQ. His destiny is a bed in suburban Brisbane when the half-moon swaps with a full sun. His destiny is six hours’ sleep and then a five-hour patrol of Fortitude Valley where a security guard will be assaulted, a police officer will be spat on and elbowed in the face as a 100-strong crowd gathers around a violent man trying to storm into the Fortitude Valley police station looking for his mate who’s been arrested. His destiny is Saturday night.