Monday, December 12, 2005

Downtown LA comes to Cronulla Beach

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 amongst 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 waterspot. 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 upto 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 frowned 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 on December 12 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 surprised by the ferocity of the tribalism at Cronulla. But as Paul Sheehan wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald on 12 December, gang violence is nothing new to Cronulla. During the 60’s and 70’s, Cronulla Beach was the scene of gang warfare between “westies” and “surfies”, both Anglo-Australian based “tribes”.

Responses from political leaders varied. As expected, the Prime Minister refused to label the rioters’ actions as racist, instead referring to longstanding “grievances” from the largely Anglo-Australian community. NSW Premier Morris Iemma appeared to contradict the PM’s stance, labelling the “sloganeering” as clearly racist.

But perhaps most concerning was the analysis of the local Member of Parliament Bruce Baird, regarded as a moderate small-“l” Liberal. Mr Baird referred to events of September 11 and the death of 6 locals in one of the Bali terror attacks as setting the foundation for simmering resentment toward anyone deemed Middle Eastern.

Unlike the Prime Minister, Mr Baird did not seek to whitewash the violence. He merely sought to explain its causes, many of which were based on the peculiar parochialism of the local “sufie” culture.

The resentment has only been reinforced by recent comments of some Muslim leaders, including comments concerning Australian model Michelle Leslie’s modelling of swimsuit fashion. Further, the often less-than-convincing condemnation of terrorist attacks by a number of Australian Muslim leaders have been widely reported and condemned even by their own communities.

Those taking on the responsibility of speaking for broader Arab and Muslim opinion in Australia have often failed both the interests they represent and the nation as a whole. With major exceptions in Canberra and Melbourne, the spokesmen (a word I use deliberately since so few are women) for this sector of the community has not shown itself capable of engaging the broader mainstream community.

At the same time, certain media outlets also need to exercise more caution, perhaps following the example of their counterparts across the Tasman who have tended to show far greater sensitivity in reporting on sensitive racial issues. Selective emphasis on the alleged ethnicity of certain perpetrators of violence does not help the situation.

It is now upto local civil, political and other leaders to examine the underlying issues, address grievances and provide real and lasting solutions. I wouldn’t like my relatives to avoid visiting either side of the Tasman thinking it isn’t any different to what they see in downtown LA.

The author is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer at the School of Politics at Macquarie University.

(A version of this article was printed in Online Opinion. Thanks to Eddie & Vivienne Evans of the Country Inn & Suites 121 in Auckland City for allowing me to use their desktop!)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005