Bloody Sunday: Why the Sydney riots are more than
The Sunday Times, Australia
December 18, 2005
Understanding the vitriol and violence of what has happened in Sydney this week
is understanding two different cultures and communities. Andrew Cornwell looks
at where it all spiralled out of control and if it can be stopped.
Last Sunday's display of racial hate and violence has put the Sydney beachside
suburb of Cronulla squarely on a global map of notoriety.
It has also divided a community – people who delighted in the description of
their environment as "God's own country".
Thousands of visitors flock to Cronulla every summer because of its idyllic
beach, relaxed culture, chic restaurants and family atmosphere.
In some ways Cronulla is similar to Perth's Leighton Beach – it doesn't have the
fame of Bondi, but is a magnet for families and has a strong, passionate local
It is also easy to access, with a train line and roads right to the sand.
But as last Sunday's violence demonstrated, Cronulla has a less salubrious side.
"The Insular Peninsula" is a tag commonly applied to Cronulla and, in general,
the Sutherland Shire.
But rather than be offended, many residents appear to thrive on it, largely
because the word insular is traditionally linked with such proud words as
patriotism and parochialism.
But search for insular in a thesaurus, and words such as bigoted, prejudiced and
global can also apply.
The latter word, global, is exactly where Sunday's riots at the sleepy seaside
suburb ended, putting Cronulla and its surrounds smack on the map of racial hot
spots, alongside Paris, Los Angeles and Brixton.
It was anything but insular.
In the south London suburb of Brixton, on November 25, 1981, Britain experienced
its worst racial violence with more than 300 people injured and damage estimated
at $7.5 million.
Last month, Paris was hit by rioting that left hundreds of vehicles torched and
buildings burnt out.
Los Angeles was hit in 1991-92 after the beating of black motorist Rodney King
and the acquittal of four white police officers.
Last Sunday began as a show of solidarity, with thousands of locals draping
themselves in Australian flags and calling for peace in their beachside suburb.
A warning of the events to come was the appearance of dozens of flags, including
the Eureka flag, leading into Cronulla.
By noon the beachfront concourse at North Cronulla resembled a summer cricket
crowd with thousands of bare-chested locals chanting and drinking. A group of
mates ran a sausage sizzle from the back of their ute, [a "ute" is a pickup
truck] blasting out Aussie favourites by AC/DC and Cold Chisel.
As the beer flowed the day began to turn ugly. Cries of "f--- off Leb" goaded
the crowd. ["Leb" is short for the Muslim, Arab Lebanese immigrants] Surfers, bikies, white supremacists and even families with young
children joined in the chants.
Up to 150 police, including the dog squad and a helicopter, were positioned to
cope with the 5000-strong crowd.
As more beer flowed the huge crowd became violent, roaming the streets in search
of a target for their anger.
Threats had been made since two volunteer lifesavers were bashed eight days
earlier – and the mob was looking to get square.
Few youths of Middle Eastern appearance came to Cronulla, but those who did
became victims of mob justice.
"I'm an Australian, I was born here," one of them told locals who had taunted
him with chants of "Kill Lebs".
Minutes later, he was left covered in blood, punched to the ground and kicked,
before being led to safety by police. Two girls of Middle Eastern appearance
were also pushed to the ground and pelted with beer bottles as police tried to
"What the Lebs did last week was low and it's time we showed a bit of pride
towards where we live," said Luke O'Brien, a volunteer lifesaver.
Another local, Peter, said the huge show of force had been "coming for five or
six years". He said: "Our girls can't get from the water to their towels without
being threatened by these maggots."
According to some residents, Cronulla will not be remembered solely for the
uprising of Sunday, December 11. It is the show of racial hatred that will
continue to plague the suburb.
For Jade, 32, a resident of 18 years, the riot brought to the surface years of
racial misunderstanding. "It sickens me, it makes me so sad. It was so ugly and
it's not what the Shire is about," she said.
I know how some people feel when they say they feel intimidated and hassled by
these ethnic groups, but I think it goes a lot deeper than that.
"I think there is an underlying culture of covert racism."
Beauty therapist Beck Dwyer, 30, said: "People are going to hate Cronulla now.
It has given us a bad name. This is only the beginning."
Chris Wallace, whose sister Jodi was one of six local women killed in the 2002
Bali bombings, was a long-time resident of Cronulla before moving to Coffs
Sunday's violence was the end result of years of simmering tension in the area,
he said, but he ruled out a connection between it and the terror attack that
claimed his sister's life.
"This violence, while I understand it without condoning it, shows that there is
racism on both sides," he said.
Lifetime resident Danny Hanley, who lost his two daughters in the Bali blast,
said the violence stemmed from many "crimes against ordinary Australians".
"It wasn't just about what's been happening down at Cronulla Beach, it is a
culmination of so many things over so many years," Mr Hanley said.
He said the gang rapes by Lebanese Muslims in Sydney in 2000, along with the
Bali bombs, had affected his view of certain sections of society.
"Because of Bali and the rapes, I'm not sympathetic towards Muslims and I don't
think many people are," he said.
Federal Liberal backbencher Bruce Baird, whose Cook electorate takes in Cronulla,
also linked the violence with Bali.
He believes tensions have been simmering in the primarily Anglo-Saxon community
against people of Middle-Eastern descent for some time.
Asked if the riots were revenge for Bali and September 11, Mr Baird said: "I