Alienated Neighbours: Interpreting the Cronulla Race Riots for Christ's Sake

Article excerpt

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)

Interpreting Cronulla

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'. …