December 2010 - January 2011


Cronulla five years on

By Malcolm Knox
Raising the flag at Cronulla beach, 2005. © Cameron Spence / Getty Images

Ever since Willemering put a spear through Arthur Phillip’s shoulder at Manly Cove in 1790, Sydney’s beaches have had a reputation for hostility to new arrivals. The precious beauty of the coast lends itself to lines literally drawn in the sand.

One such line was drawn in the infamous early summer of 2005, when Sydney seemed to fracture into racial violence. From Cronulla to Lakemba, two self-declared tribes took it upon themselves to settle their differences by violent means. An alarmed city, and country, watched and wondered what it meant.

Cronulla, in the Sutherland Shire, the land of Puberty Blues, is geographically and culturally unique in the city’s imagination. Paradoxically, while it is Sydney’s only beach connected to the rail network, Cronulla is cordoned off as a peculiar sui generis place. When the events of December 2005 died down, they were easily quarantined as a ‘Shire thing’.

John Howard’s response also quarantined Cronulla, and showed his artful occupation of the space between condemning the acts and forgiving the sentiments. Howard criticised the “extreme elements” who rioted, and he funded some ameliorative efforts (though this funding was short-lived). Simultaneously, he stopped short of linking the riots to any underlying racism in middle Australia, much less upbraiding his radio announcer friend Alan Jones for egging them on. Howard’s tactic then, as ever, was to disown the aggressors but not the attitudes that produced them.

Could it happen again? On the northern beaches where I live, where our federal MPs are Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop, localism, to say nothing of naked racism, thrives among the few thousand who are all it would take to stage another Cronulla. Further, the government-led initiatives that followed Cronulla, aimed at creating peace on the beaches, have withered. Green shoots of tolerance did not spread from the Shire up the seaboard. The legacy of Cronulla has not been racial harmony at the beach so much as an uneasy truce.

Dr Amanda Wise, whose academic writing on Cronulla stands out for its percipience, grew up in the Shire. She left, she says, partly because “it was such an oppressive place for women. Sexual harassment was part of daily life.”

When, at the beginning of December 2005, she heard the situation was tense due to the anger of Anglo Cronulla boys about the way Lebanese boys were speaking to the local girls, “I guess my first response was to laugh. I mean, boys, it’s not as if you have a great track record.”

A week later, her bemusement turned to horror. On Sunday, 4 December, after fielding complaints about Middle Eastern boys insulting some girls on the beach, two volunteer surf lifesavers were assaulted. On Wednesday, 7 December, men were bashed in the North Cronulla beach car park by a group of “young men of Middle Eastern appearance”. The media in Sydney, particularly Alan Jones on radio 2GB and the Daily Telegraph, reported angrily on the assaults; Jones connected them with the rape convictions of Middle Eastern Australian men in Western Sydney. His comments, infamously calling on bikie gangs, Islanders and others to participate in “a community show of force”, earned him a fine for violating racial vilification codes.

Little media incitement was needed. An SMS quickly circulated: “This Sunday every Fucking Aussie in the Shire, get down to North Cronulla to help support Leb and wog bashing day … Bring your mates down and let’s show them this is our beach and they’re never welcome back.”

On Sunday, 11 December, some 5000 people rallied in the North Cronulla car park. They chased a dark-skinned man off the beach. He tried to take refuge in Northies pub, but was dragged out and assaulted. Two Bangladeshi men escaped in a car, doubtlessly putting their own wry interpretation on the chants: “Fuck off Lebs”, “Fuck off wogs”. At the train station, two men were assaulted. By the end of the day, at least 20 people were being treated for injuries and 16 were arrested and charged. A man named Marcus Kapitza wore a singlet with the words “Mohammed was a camel-raping faggot”.

Then, reprisals. A convoy, estimated at 40–100 cars, headed from Punchbowl in Sydney’s south-west to the seaside that night. Cars were damaged at Woolooware, near Cronulla. Yahya Jamal Serhan was among those who stabbed a 26-year-old mechanic at 10.25 pm. A Tongan Christian church in Auburn was set on fire. The Bra Boys of Maroubra got involved, allegedly threatening to storm Lakemba Mosque before engineering a photo opportunity for reconciliation.

Eventually, police laid 285 charges against 104 people. The score was neatly even: 51 were charged over the initial rally, and 53 over the retaliation.

Then it went quiet.

Dr Wise contests the “particularity” explanation for Cronulla, saying: “The fact there was no repeat of the riots does not mean the underlying issues have gone away. One of the more worrying trends in the [ensuing] 12 months [was] a desire by Sydneysiders to collectively disown the racism expressed [that] December. Those outside the area were at pains to point out that the riots were a curiously ‘Shire’ thing: parochial, uneducated people who don’t represent cosmopolitan Sydneysiders. Representatives of the area, meanwhile, pointed out that many of the Anglos arrested during the riot were from outside the area. Racism exists in the Shire, but it is by no means just a Shire phenomenon, nor is it just the domain of the ‘uneducated’.”

She ascribes the key underlying tension to “inter-ethnic habitus”, or different ways of behaving at the beach. Beach customs were established in Australia in the mid-twentieth century, she says, when British influence on this country’s manners was unquestioned. On the beaches, this meant small friendship groups of mixed gender; specific beachwear, such as swimsuits and, later, board shorts; preservation of zones of personal space; quiet sunbaking on the sand and more vigorous activity in the water. By contrast, the typical “habitus” of “young Middle Eastern men” was to gather in larger, male-only groups, to wear football shorts, and to play vigorous ball games on the sand. “They are enjoying themselves,” Dr Wise says, “but their number and boisterousness could easily be irritating if they enter the sunbakers’ zone.”

Different ways of carrying one’s body, different ways of enjoying oneself in a place that seems specifically demarcated for hedonism: this was the tinder laid down in Cronulla, as it is elsewhere.

The University of Melbourne anthropologist and social theorist Ghassan Hage takes the idea one step further, proposing that what the provocative groups of Lebanese Australian boys were doing at Cronulla was not asserting their difference but rather embracing Australian culture enthusiastically. Hage says the behaviour of the Lebanese boys at the beach was a product of ten years of the Howard government’s encouragement of white mono-culturalism; these boys were mimicking what they perceived to be Australian traditions. “They were at ease on the beach being sexist, being macho, being vulgar and being aggressive,” Hage wrote after the riot. “They were really very much at home … And this is where the whole political hypocrisy of assimilationism emerges, for beneath the complaint that the boys were not well-assimilated and well-integrated was really the fear that the boys acted as if they were completely assimilated and integrated despite their cultural difference.”

In other words, the Anglo reaction was not to scream, “We don’t expect you to act like this on the beach,” but rather, “Can’t you be a bit shy, for God’s sake?”

Dr Jamal Rifi, a medical practitioner and president of the Lakemba Sports & Recreation Club, won a Human Rights Medal for his work after Cronulla. He remembers the night of 11 December clearly. His phone rang during a family dinner, and he spent the evening planning action with Ken Moroney, then the NSW Police commissioner. “We were extremely concerned and frightened. Unless people of goodwill prevailed, the forces separating our communities would win. That night, I thought I was at a turning point of the history of Australia.”

Over the next few days, as news of more assaults and vandalism emerged, Dr Rifi developed an idea with police and members of the NSW government. “Three months before,” he says, “we had taken 22 boys and girls from the Lakemba Sports Club down to Cronulla to train with the pool guards at council-owned pools. So we asked, ‘why don’t we get them to train with the Cronulla surf lifesavers?’”

Dr Rifi put the idea to Bruce Baird, then the local federal MP, who got a pledge of $400,000 from John Howard to fund what would be Surf Life Saving Australia’s (SLSA) On the Same Wave program.

While surf lifesavers were not involved in the riot, they were the victims of the initial incident. Sean O’Connell, from SLSA, says the call to train Middle Eastern Australians as lifesavers dovetailed with work the SLSA was already doing. “Five years earlier, we’d commissioned research to ask about our image in culturally diverse communities,” he says. “It was no great shock to find that we weren’t seen as very relevant.” The SLSA had approached the problem in an “ad hoc” way, says O’Connell, but after Cronulla “we leapt at the opportunity to formulate a proper program.”

On the Same Wave was a public relations triumph: dark-complexioned boys in yellow and red caps, smiling young women in burqinis. Among the several dozen Middle Eastern Australians who joined the On the Same Wave program was Suheil Damouny, who had been a reporter for the Bankstown-Canterbury Torch newspaper. He trained at the North Cronulla surf club, gained a bronze and then a silver medallion, and participated in rescue training. Expected to patrol on the beach once per month, Damouny turned up nearly every weekend “and I always felt welcomed by the locals”. When he saw, in a television documentary about On the Same Wave, an Anglo woman saying Middle Eastern lifesavers shouldn’t be encouraged, Damouny says, “I was surprised … not because of what she said but because she was the only person out of thousands who ever said anything like that.”

Suheil Damouny is no longer patrolling North Cronulla beach. “Life,” he says, “got in the way.” Life got in the way for the other Middle Eastern Australians in the program, and they have left the beach. On the Same Wave, which had a finite funding period of two years, folded once those funds stopped. The cameras have moved on and Cronulla seems to have returned to square one.

O’Connell candidly admits: “On the Same Wave was a great PR exercise, but really we’re still grappling with issues of inclusiveness. It’s going to take a long time … I think anyone who cares about the movement is sensitive to the fact that [surf clubs] all have big signs saying ‘Members Only’.”

The end of On the Same Wave, says Dr Wise, indicates a problem with government responses to social issues generally. Commissioned by the federal government to write a report on strategies to improve relations between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians, Dr Wise concluded that “by and large, local councils in Australia are doing relatively little to build bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians”. She found that “Councils tended only to engage in activities of this kind when in receipt of a specified grant … Participation and interest tended to drop off after the funding lapsed.”

It is a depressing narrative: riot sparks government response; photos are taken of Lebanese girls in red and yellow burqinis; Lakemba kids get lifesaving certificates; but three years later, the participants have moved on and nothing has meaningfully changed.

But there’s hope. Suheil Damouny’s father, Hythem, has been setting up convenience store franchises around Sydney for the past decade. In mid 2009, after visiting Cronulla a few times to see Suheil patrolling, Hythem decided to establish a new store in North Cronulla, under the Rydges Hotel, right opposite Northies.

Hythem Damouny is happy to give examples of redneck localism, not because he sees it often but because it’s so rare. “On New Year’s Eve a young guy came in and said, ‘Is this Lakemba or Cronulla?’ My partner said, ‘Mate, it’s Cronulla on the outside, Lakemba on the inside.’ A couple of times we’ve had [Middle Eastern] girls say that local boys have been rude to them. I’ve seen boys fighting outside the shop. But, you know, the problem isn’t racism, the problem is alcohol. These boys, they drink to get drunk and that’s what caused the problems a few years ago.”

Hythem Damouny’s story is a useful yardstick. Out of the Cronulla riots – albeit indirectly – a Palestinian-born retailer has been encouraged to come to the heart of the battleground and set up a business. He has done so without any victimisation and is happy in the area. “Look, where I come from, that’s a war, that’s a bad area. When people say there was a war in Cronulla, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The truth is that nobody knows quite what triggered Cronulla, how deeply racial tensions are running, or how close we are to a reprise. But Hythem Damouny knows not to push things too far too fast. “I tell my staff, when you’re in the shop, don’t talk religion, don’t talk politics. You might say something that is taken the wrong way. We don’t want things to get nasty.” 

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life, and his new novel, Bluebird, will be published in September 2020.

Cover: December 2010 - January 2011
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