Earlier this morning, I found myself standing at Sydney Airport waiting for the Immigration Office to open. I was with some relatives visiting from Los Angeles, and we were preparing to fly out to New Zealand for a much-deserved holiday. I noticed a crowd of people standing around a TV screen watching like stunned mullets. They were mainly police, customs and security staff. They were from all different backgrounds. Their faces all expressed shock and disbelief.
What we saw were scenes of violence, thuggish behaviour and lawlessness at the otherwise fashionable Cronulla Beach located at the southern tip of Sydney. What made the violence even more tragic was that most of it was draped with Australian flags and perpetrated in the name of Australian nationalism.
Over the weekend, an estimated 5,000 people descended on North Cronulla Beach chanting racist slogans and attacking anyone deemed of Middle Eastern origin. The violence spilled over into other parts of Sydney, with car windows being smashed at other waterfront locations across southern Sydney.
Cronulla and its neighbouring suburb of Kurnell are among the earliest places where English settlers landed. The significance of these areas to both Indigenous and Anglo-Australians is enormous. Apart from its historical and cultural significance, Cronulla is a popular weekend spot for families from across south-western Sydney.
These include young families from a variety of backgrounds for whom Cronulla is the most accessible coastal water. It is also the only Sydney beach to have its own railway station, and has a legendary status as the heartland of Australian surf culture.
What appears to have sparked the riots was an unprovoked attack on two surf lifesavers at Cronulla Beach by a group of young men reportedly of Middle Eastern appearance. Police have already arrested one man in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown, which has a large community of Middle Eastern Australians.
A number of tabloid newspapers seemed to encourage the tribal nature of the violence. In the days leading up to the violence, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph repeatedly made reference to locals planning to take on “Middle Eastern thugs”. More responsible broadsheets (including The Australian, owned by the same group that publishes the Telegraph) were more restrained. Police and mainstream politicians (including local government leaders from the Cronulla area) also refused to buy into the racial overtones underpinning much of the reporting.
Once the violence was captured by television crews, it was obvious who would cop most of the blame. And it certainly wasn’t Aussies presumed Middle Eastern. Nor was it the Australian women of Muslim background who had their headscarves ripped off by drunken and stoned rioters.
TV crews showed images of young locals attacking innocent bystanders with beer bottles and bare fists. Many carried Australian flags. During attacks on anyone deemed Middle Eastern, the drunken crowd often drowned out the victims’ screams by singing “Waltzing Matilda” and “Advance Australia Fair”.
Reporter Damien Murphy, reporting from the scene of the riots for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote yesterday of “200-odd ringleaders, many clutching bottles or cans of beer and smoking marijuana, led assaults on individuals and small groups of Lebanese Australians who risked an appearance during the six-hour protest”.
Police also reported the presence of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups having a strong representation at the riots. Deputy Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione acknowledged that police had received reliable information of the involvement of groups such as the “Patriotic Youth League”.
Many have been taken by surprise by the ferocity of the tribalism at Cronulla. But as Paul Sheehan wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald, also yesterday, gang violence is nothing new to Cronulla. During the 1960s and 1970s, Cronulla Beach was the scene of gang warfare between “westies” and “surfies”, both Anglo-Australian based “tribes”.
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