Introduction: Casing Cronulla:
The media headlines had carried expressions of 'bad blood', 'hate' and 'revenge raids'. The reports testified to incidents of assault, smashed shops, wrecked cars, mobs of young men armed with guns and crowbars, and isolated stabbings. The television images were often those of young male Anglo-Celts seeking to protect their patch in a predominantly white area of Sydney known as 'The Shire'. The SMS messages and the radio shock jocks had declared that this was only 'the start of the war'. It was now time to 'reclaim the beach' at Cronulla from those caricatured as 'Lebs' and 'wogs' from nearby suburbs. (1)
The Australian flag was pictured curled around bare chested bodies adorned with slogans like: 'we crew here; you flew here, Cronulla 2230'.Some T-shirts were altogether more blasphemous: 'love 'nulla; f..k Allah'. Others declared their owners belonged to an 'ethnic cleansing unit'. (2) Here and there were bursts of Waltzing Matilda, the national anthem, and the familiar sports chant, 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi, oi' (3). The megaphones screamed 'Get the Lebs off the beach'. Right wing groups like Australia First, the Patriotic Youth League and a skinhead group, Blood and Honour, appeared in order to grab a soundbyte and solicit new recruits. Convoys of Lebanese youth armed with baseball bats, stones and iron bars headed for Cronulla. The level of police presence was unprecedented. The state government was called back in order to extend police powers to include the locking down of trouble spots, the authority to seize cars, and shut down access to alcohol.
The enveloping rhetoric of the fortnight in question was sufficient to shock the city out of any complacency. How could this turn of events happen in what Jock Collins described as 'one of the great immigrant cities of the world'? (4) The New South Wales state government was reckoned to be stunned. Ken Moroney, the Police Commissioner, declared the riots were 'amongst the worst violence' that he had seen in forty years of service. (5) The recurring themes from commentators were of 'shame' and a 'darker, nastier side' of the self-professed 'Lucky Country' being exposed for a wider world to note. (6) Bernard O'Riordan from The Observer (London) reckoned these events would leave a 'nasty blot on Australia's reputation'. (7) And the tourist operators worried lest overseas visitors cancelled during the high season. Would the beaches now be closed? Would the cafes and restaurants recover lost business? In the midst of this turmoil of anxiety Michael Leunig published a cartoon in The Sydney Morning Herald on Christmas Eve. The setting was an angel visiting shepherds proclaiming that a saviour was to be born; he would be found lying in a manger. The caption read 'he will be of Middle Eastern appearance'. (8)
The Cronulla race riots had their immediate origins in a relatively minor flashpoint. It began with a confrontation between two or three teenage lifeguards and a Lebanese gang on the 4th December. There was a mix of racist taunting, bad language, and serious injury to one of the lifesavers. The actual details of what transpired would subsequently become contested and confused in the bid to assign blame. Within the span of one week the situation had escalated to become the worst such incident in Australian history.
The dilemma this kind of effusion of feeling and practice of violence presents is how should it then be interpreted. It was evidently not like a race riot in the way in which this designation has been applied in the United Kingdom, the United States and France. For Scott Poynting Cronulla 'represented a violent attack by members of a dominant ethnic group against a minority, in order to put them back in their place'. (9) For John Hartley and Joshua Green it was, likewise, not a riot in the more normal manner of being 'directed against establishment institutions or state forces'. It was rather an expression of 'straightforward communal violence', but even then with a variation. The conflict was only marginally indebted to the more common causes of interracial strife--that is, economic competition for land and jobs. For Hartley and Green Cronulla was a 'fight about different ways of being Australian'. (10)
For those caught up in the heat of moment Cronulla was difficult to read. Was Morris Iemma, the state Premier, right in his immediate response saying that the riots had presented the 'ugly face of racism'? (11) Was the Prime Minister, John Howard more plausible in arguing that the issue at stake was 'incredibly bad behaviour fuelled by too much drink' ? (12) Other questions quickly tumbled over one another. Was it unique, a one-off? Or, did Cronulla represent a new form of emerging racism that, in the future, would be marked by 'overt, violent incidents'? Should Cronulla then be seen as a law and order issue? Was its most telling legacy the subsequent report prepared by the retired Assistant Police Commissioner, Norm Hazzard which identified a series of police failings along with a lack of preparedness? (13) Or, should we heed the counsel of Slavoj Zizek and resist the 'hermeneutic temptation' to find some deeper meaning in such outbursts. (14) The Cronulla riots have initiated a considerable industry in seeking to work out what happened, why, and what might be the consequences.
Here and there were allusions to a Christian culture somehow tied to the Australian way of life. It was assumed that this compact was under threat but, surprisingly, the Christian reference point was never addressed in subsequent discussions. The Cronulla riots, nevertheless, are a fertile field for a Christian public theologian to demonstrate what this particular discipline can contribute to the quest for a civil society. Cronulla. One route into the debate is for a public theology to be placed inside the web of other discursive interpretations.
Conflicting 'safety maps'
For Clifton Evers the Cronulla race riots had to do with a conflict of 'safety maps'. (15) This particular term had its origins in his reading of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu mixed with his own research on patterns of masculinities and surf culture. Of seminal significance was Bourdieu's idea of a social space being a field and how our embodied history within that field creates a habitus of repetition and custom. For Evers this idea of a safety map furnished the best lens through which to read a complex set of interactions and discourses which made Cronulla the ugly incident it was. For a surfing culture like Cronulla this theory of fields and a habitus cohered well initially with what is known as localism. The egalitarian claims made on behalf of the beach--that it is 'a space shared by all those who turn up' (16)--are more apparent than real. Over the course of time hierarchies are established; expectations are set about how best to read the waves and the way in which they 'break, rise, warp, peel and mutate'. Experience and expertise determine priority. Evers' newcomer is often unaware of this localism and can violate the existing safety maps. The line between the recognition of a habitus and the need to dominate, protect and police the territory made up here of sand and surf is thin.
In the case of Cronulla Evers argued that the practice of this localism was accentuated. The beach had a history of being a contested space ever since the 1950s. What was different about December 2005 was the way in which differences in class had been compounded with the arrival of ethnicity. Here now was the presence of an alien neighbour whose mode of conduct was at a significant remove from the habitus of Cronulla, 'an exceptionally white area', (17) and deemed to be an 'Anglo-Celtic Christian heartland'. (18) Evers noted that the beach had become demarcated in practice; the sand had been colonized. The locals knew what to expect on their 'turf; the Middle Eastern outsider did not. (19)
The practices of the Cronulla beach did not stand in isolation apart from a wider set of discourses to do with identity. The beach as a generic site was 'already invested with national myths and littered with national icons'. (20) According to Meaghan Mason, the beach has often been the 'stage upon which national dramas, big and small, are played out'. (21) On the basis of her reading of Australian history and culture, Leone Huntsman reckons that Australians have sand in their souls. (22)
The Cronulla riots sat within this wider discourse to do with the beach. The occasional text message made explicit connections between the rally to reclaim the beach and the plight of the Australian digger on the beaches of Gallipoli during the First World War, for instance. (23) What …