Reportage

The Australian way

THE MORNING AFTER the Cronulla riot dawned cool, calm and clear. Early light caught surfers lolling on the small swell and picked out twinkles of mica in the footpaths along the esplanade. The sand had already been raked clean and a soothing breeze rolled in off the sea.

The previous day, on the same patch of shore, had been a twisted Guernica of struggling bodies: hit with fists, feet and heads, spat at, chased, scratched with fingernails, slashed with fangs of broken glass, clubbed with bats and cement blocks and one man stabbed and left on the ground, a snapped knife jutting from his back.

The contrast was eerie. It was as though something dark had boiled up on to land, ignited a mad frenzy, then slipped back overnight into the water. The only clues left in its wake were a few bloodstains on the concrete and a tattered flag caught fluttering in a pine tree.

But the illusion of a community violated by a malevolent, outside force quickly faded. That force came from within. The morning after the riot of Sunday, December 11, few on the beach were surprised or ashamed. "It's been coming for years; at least we got our beach back," said one cocky, bleach-haired kid.

It seemed as apt as most of the bland justifications that had to pass for comment in the days after the riot. Most of those directly involved were uneasy with words, as though they would be trapped and ridiculed if they spoke. The meaning slipped through the cracks of language, but locals had their own code of understanding. As an outsider, I didn't find it easy to read.

Over the following months, I conducted a series of interviews with some of those involved in the riots and revenge attacks, to better understand their actions. Gaining access to those involved was sometimes difficult, and a few would only speak on condition of anonymity. I wanted to understand why ordinary people would hurl bricks at cops and jeer at an ambulance, or line up in a convoy of cars, baseball bats across their knees, staring at the road and heading east.

 

AHMED IS TWENTY-FOUR. A bricklayer by trade, he spends much of his spare time at his mosque or working on his muscles at his gym. He lives with his mother and sister. Ahmed's broad face looks tough; his thick shoulders confirm it. He has been jailed in the past for inflicting lasting damage in a street fight. He didn't want to say exactly what he had done. In some situations, people find his physical presence overbearing, even frightening. Ahmed agreed to meet and talk about what happened the day following the riot, when he heard that a bomb had been planted at the Lakemba mosque.

He was playing Rugby League in a park near his Liverpool home when a carload of men drove past. "A car pulls up, they were Christians. They said there was a fight, the Australians were coming. They said they were attacking the mosque. They took off. I thought: 'Here's some Christians in a car backing up my religion.' I jumped in my ute and took off to the mosque."

News rippled quickly through the community by text and word of mouth. Very soon, about a thousand people were milling beneath the mosque's minarets. It was a hot evening. All day, radio had been fizzing with talk of the beach violence. Outside the mosque, dozens of public conversations were going on at once, a hail of angry words in Arabic and English. Some shouted to calm the crowd, but anger about the previous day's riots was still raw. The attack on a young woman, whose headscarf had been torn off – a souvenir – by the mob as she scrambled down a sand dune to escape, inflamed them. False rumours circulated by text suggesting a woman had been killed. "When I got there I seen a big crowd full of all sorts of people, and no one was listening to no one," Ahmed said.

Michael drove to the mosque from his home in Chester Hill with his friend Ayhan, both twenty-one. Like Ahmed, they are Lebanese-Australians, Michael was born here; Ayhan came to Australia as a child.

Ayhan is short and broad and wears a cap as if it were permanently attached to his head. Michael likes saying he can do "two fifty or three [hundred]". Push-ups, that is, squeezed out on to the thin carpet of his bedroom floor. His dark eyes are thoughtful and intelligent.

"We didn't know what lengths they (non-Muslims) would go to, what they were capable of. I seen what they done on TV, at Cronulla. There was thousands of them. Everyone wanted to get together, to protect themselves. Because we knew the cops wouldn't."

"We wanted to go to the mosque, just in case," Ayhan chipped in. Neither saw the men with Glock pistols who were rumoured to be patrolling the crowd. Police cruised at a distance, and warned journalists that it was too dangerous to go near the mosque. There were reports of shots being fired, but no one seemed to know what for, or by whom. A police car parked in Wangee Road was smashed by elements in the crowd.

 

ONE OF THE most striking themes to emerge from the interviews was the widespread, almost paranoid willingness to believe that others meant them harm. Despite watching police swinging batons at rioters and shepherding victims away from the mob on the news, many knew that the police were happy to see them bashed. This was ingrained; some had experience of unhappy contact with police, of being pushed to the ground and searched. It was assumed you could only trust those with a similar background.

Writer Taghred Chandab told me months after the riot that the sense of alienation had been thriving and growing for several years. "When we were growing up, we were just dealing with people calling us wogs," she said. "Now young Muslims have to deal with getting called terrorists and rapists. The point is that it has got much worse than a few years ago." The overwhelming impression was of a group of young men, drawn up back to back, facing a society that they believed mocked them and loathed them.

The term "people of Middle Eastern appearance", adopted by much of the media because it was the wording used in police communications, catches a broad group, and inflames those it describes. Most of the people I spoke to were the sons and daughters of the immigrants who arrived in the 1980s; a few came here as children. Lebanese-Australians represented a significant slice, though probably not the majority, of those involved in revenge attacks after the riot. According to some accounts, they were a mixed group: men with Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Serb backgrounds, including some gang members well known to police.

Place was also vital. Those I interviewed live in the wedge of working-class suburbs that stretch away from central Sydney to the city's south-west: Lakemba, Bankstown, Chester Hill, Wiley Park, Belmore, Punchbowl, Auburn and Fairfield were threaded as compass points through the conversations. Territory – ordinary enough streets lined with red brick and fibro homes and newer blocks of flats – was important. Family, extending to second cousins and relatives by marriage, also counted for a lot. The group meant everything, defining how you were expected to behave and, to an extent, who you were.

"You've got to be tough, growing up in Auburn, you've got to show you can fight," Ahmed said. "Everyone is like that. If you are not from there, maybe you don't know what it's like. You've got to learn to survive. I was always fighting, just with cousins or whatever. Just going out with them and getting in a few fights."

Ali, another young man of Lebanese descent who was part of the crowd at Lakemba mosque on December 12, said he felt "loaded" because: "You know the Anglos are against you. It is the little stuff. Try getting a fuckin' cab if you're a Leb and you are with your mate." Why? "I don't know. Maybe they're afraid of us. Like, the way they look at you ... They think maybe you are going to bash them or rape them. What can you do about this?"

Michael said: "It's like, you can be pushed so far, then you have to think of ways to get back. I think we are second– or third-class citizens here. I was born here." He looked at his palms and said: "Cronulla or whatever, it doesn't matter mate. We are pushed so far and then we will just have to snap back. That's basically what happened – we snapped back."

 

AFTER DARK, THE crowd at the mosque began to disperse; some went inside to pray. But about a hundred younger people moved on to Punchbowl Park. It is a big, grassy, open space and gathering place for young people in the area, a couple of kilometres west along Canterbury Road from Lakemba.

"We go there a bit, to hang out, it's pretty much our place," said Navid, a seventeen-year-old from nearby Wiley Park. "People just go there. There's usually someone there."

Men and teenage boys began packing into cars and sorting themselves into convoys to travel to the coastal suburbs of Cronulla, Maroubra and Brighton-le-Sands. "No one planned it, we just started out. We didn't know anyone there. We were just angry," said Michael. Everyone said the gathering in the park was spontaneous.

But it soon became clear to journalists – and no doubt police – that prior thought had gone into organising the convoys. Armed gangs with a history of crime were central to what happened that night. Some of those later arrested in connection with revenge attacks were already on bail for other offences. As photographers and reporters sped around the streets of southern Sydney trying to keep up with events, those who had hacked into the text message chain were being fed false information by those in the convoys. Evasive moves by attackers suggested that some cars were fitted with scanners to listen to the police radio. It was primitive psychological warfare.

Ahmed went to Punchbowl Park. "I just talked to a few people. I said: 'Forget about it, forget about it.' I said the cops have got enough of us Lebs locked up already. No one would listen, so I went home."

Michael and Ayhan joined a convoy that turned south through Hurstville, bound for Cronulla. Navid also went along, in a separate car with two of his cousins.

"We went. In the car, it was just quiet ... Nobody was talking or nothing like that," Michael said. "We were kind of getting it straight between us, like everybody was of the same mind. You know what I mean, like, 'we are brothers'. Nobody in the car said nothing."

I asked what they were thinking about. "Nothing mate ... just ... we had to show we were not weak," Michael said. "Yeah, I was thinking that. This was it, you know. Just to get our own back, to give something back for what they did to us. They treat us like dogs."

The convoy kept within the speed limit. "We didn't want to let the cops know we were coming," Ayhan said. At the same time, Ahmed, who was halfway home towards Liverpool, changed his mind and decided to turn around and follow the convoy to Cronulla. The mood in Michael's car became tense as they neared the bridges that link south-west Sydney with Sutherland Shire. The stars were now out. The first tang of sea air came in through the wound-down windows.

 

ON THE BEACH, the Monday after the riot was hot. By midday, carloads of young men and women were parking next to the cement slab of North Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club, now partly occupied by police. Locals and police slowly walked the esplanade, watching each other from the corners of their eyes. Police and TV helicopters buzzed overhead. Australian flag t-shirts were everywhere and flags hung from windows overlooking the sand. Some had small flags on their belts or messages scribbled on their skin, casual and defiant. Nobody, including those shopping with children on the nearby Kingsway, Cronulla Street and Surf Lane, seemed inclined to ask why it had come to this. Everyone I spoke to already knew.

The beach had become a theatre; to be part of it, all you had to do was walk along the footpath. Young men stuck their chests out and strutted. Reporters were everywhere. The media had become participants in the show, a little universe where observation alone altered the outcome.

Many people who had been in the riot the day before wanted to talk. Daniel, aged fifteen, kept striding up and down until I gave up and asked him a few questions.

"It's a lesson for the wogs. We smashed them. They come to our territory; they cop it."

He said he joined in because his friends had been intimidated by Lebanese men at the beach and in other parts of the Shire. He had a fake shark tooth on a cord around his neck and played with it while he talked.

"Did you hit anyone?" I asked.

He paused for a few seconds. "I didn't hit anyone. We chased them."

"Why?"

"They're stupid to come here. It's obvious what was going to happen. Leb-bashing day."

Another man said the riot was fuelled by more than race. "Unfortunately it started out with race, but it's really about money, property ... These people are getting forced out of their own suburb. They're standing up for themselves for the first time."

I said that would not have seemed like much consolation for anyone with dark skin who had wanted to go swimming yesterday.

"They got in the way. It's a bad thing. But don't say 'racism', the media always says 'racism', puts it across that way. If it's racism then everyone here today is a racist. They are just the little blokes sticking up for their rights, and some people got in the way."

Another common theme was disgust at the previous night's stabbing in neighbouring Woolooware, one of the revenge attacks after the riot took over North Cronulla beach. A man was knifed while trying to defend two women against a carload of men. "That's the way they work: they gang up in a group to bash people, stab them in the back," said Claire, a local. "I am sad at the way it has all happened, but ... everyone knew it was coming. Except the cops."

I interviewed Claire a few months later and asked how the stabbing could be called unfair when a crowd of hundreds had turned on a few people the day before. "It was still the way they did it, forty or fifty on one guy and two girls – not fair. With the riot, no one wanted it to be like that, it's just the way it was. It's not the perfect thing – it happened like that, you couldn't control it. Maybe they (people attacked during the riot) were sort of examples, like sending them back with a message. I'm actually pretty sorry for them, that they got taken out."

"Was it mainly people from outside the area who did the bashing?" I asked.

"I don't think anyone knows. Once it got going, it wasn't going to stop... It would be bullshit to say it wasn't locals. Whether they were the ones bashing the Lebs, I don't know, though. I didn't recognise any. Most of them were pissed and just running where everyone else did."

 

BY AUSTRALIA DAY 2006, attitudes had hardened. I was with a cluster of reporters trying to interview members of Australia First, a small anti-immigration group with aspirations to be a political movement. At first the activists spluttered nervously, but soon an impromptu crowd of children – most around twelve years old – gathered behind them and raised a deafening "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" chant. Reporters were denounced as "left-wing journalist communist gays" – not just by the far-right desperadoes, but by ordinary residents in the crowd. Parents and grandparents encouraged the kids, clapping them on.

Flag capes were the order of the day, worn over bare torsos – a sign of membership of the dominant group. It was like being scolded by an army of superheroes. The saturation of blue, white and red, the thousands of Aussie flag transfers on healthy, tanned skin, the slogans, Waltzing Matilda – it was a political rally in all but name.

When a man, who was later jailed, joined a group looking for revenge after the riot and burned a flag at the Brighton-le-Sands RSL, more people seemed to identify with the symbol. At the riot many had said: "I love this flag" and "We fought for this flag".

Not everyone agreed. Jen Adam – who lives in Woolooware, up the road from the beach – said: "We will never be able to forget this because it is so sickening." She was proudly wearing a green and gold boxing kangaroo. "This shirt is me saying I will not let anyone twist my Australia. The hoons wave the flag now, but I want people to know everyone doesn't agree with the way they are using it. It's my flag too."

In the months that followed, this feeling that the Australian flag had been sullied grew, that authentic patriotism had been co-opted by the mob. Advertisers used it with caution and at the Big Day Out concert there were reports of groups of flag-wearing men forcing others to kiss the flag. But there was no coherent politics. Australia First and the handful of other groups accused of stirring the crowd seemed largely incidental. It was a community that felt victimised, gathering strength and expressing solidarity with itself.

 

BEFORE THE RIOT, drinking and brawling and occasionally attacking police had become a custom in Cronulla. Tales of groups of Lebanese men pushing people around at the beach were repeated all over Sutherland Shire, but all sorts of famous fights were also part of local lore. On Australia Day 2005, a dozen police were injured in a rolling melee when groups of locals, some of them draped in flags, hurled rocks and bottles. The December 11 riot was the latest and most fearsome expression of an atmosphere that had been growing for years.

The artificial ring of stones in Cronulla's Dunningham Park, on the beach-front, is a deliberate echo of Druidic circles in Europe, designed as a community gathering place. But the park has been a dangerous place for outsiders for decades, a no-go zone at night when the cardboard cases of VB are ripped open and young men and women who have spent the day in the sun settle down to re-enact Puberty Blues.

For anyone under thirty, beer, Bundy and sporadic punch-ups are as much a part of the beach as the sand. While the December 11 riot was shocking to many, to others who could read the subtext, brawling was part of the scenery – not at all out of keeping with the boozy, sun-soaked, occasionally scary gathering place that is Cronulla.

On the Kingsway, late on the Monday afternoon, I sat on the kerb and phoned the police to check some details about arrests. The photographer I was working with went to get some shots of police patrolling the surf. A young man staggered along the footpath wearing the local uniform – Nike shoes, jeans and a t-shirt with the Adidas symbol replaced by a marijuana leaf. He looked dazed and had a few scabs on his arms and chin.

"Are you alright?"

"Yeah mate," he said.

"Where are you off to?"

"I heard about the fight in Miranda tonight. I'm going to see what's happening."

"Were you in the riot last night?"

"What riot?"

Part of the scenery. In the evening, news began filtering through: police raids in Maroubra had uncovered rocks, crowbars and hidden baseball bats. In Cronulla, the crowds on the beach began to thin out. The feeling, reinforced by messages coming over the police radio, was that the situation was calming down.

 

AT 10PM, THE convoys carrying Michael, Ayhan, Navid and their mates rolled into Cronulla. The first anyone knew that they had arrived was the crunch of breaking glass and hollow gong-like sounds as vehicles parked along the sides of the road were beaten with bats and clubs. The visitors yelled through a megaphone, challenging locals to come out and fight. No one did. The response was vicious and indiscriminate. A few people, confused or caught in the path of the attackers, were beaten around the head and left bleeding.

The Kingsway was clogged with cars, men ran alongside looking for someone to hit. "We wanted to get revenge, but there was no one," said Navid.

Claire, who lives a few metres away, recalls: "It was the darkest night. Once we knew what was coming, you would be mad to go out. So I shut all the doors and waited. We phoned the cops. What else could you do?"

All the tensions in Cronulla resolved into this strange predatory act, in which people called out and stalked each other in the dark, or hid behind locked doors. Within a few minutes, the main convoy began to disintegrate, as police cut in amongst them, guns drawn. Some of those arrested twisted to spit at cameras while lying on their stomachs on the grass. Individual cars moved on, some turning north along Elouera Road, heading north parallel with the sea.

"It became havoc, like they couldn't find anyone who would fight," Michael said. "It just became, like let's get anyone, same as the Australians do. I suppose it was like the Australian way. I felt sick. We just thought, we have to get out of this, someone will get killed and they will pin it on us for sure. I said: 'Let's go, let's go'. We got out the back way."

"For both sides, it was the Australian way," Ayhan said.

Steve was walking up the Kingsway near Cronulla Mall when men from the Punchbowl convoy circled to attack him. The first blows knocked him to the ground, where he was kicked and stamped on. Men and teenagers took turns to kick and tread on him as he lay in an alcove with an arm across his head.

Ahmed pulled up in his ute and pushed through the crowd. He used his powerful frame to haul men out of the way so he could get to Steve, then stood over him. No one wanted to argue with Ahmed. The mob went back to their cars. Steve staggered to his feet and collapsed again, bleeding and with a broken arm but alive.

"I just told them all to piss off," Ahmed said. But there were some lines he still wouldn't cross: "Then I wanted to go – I knew if I stayed there the coppers would say: 'Oh, he's just a Lebbo, let's put it on him.' I thought, no way."

Ahmed drove home.

 

By the end of June 2006, 95 people had been arrested and charged with 250 offences according to police records. By the end of May, fourteen people had been convicted, five jailed, four placed on community service orders, three fined, two placed on a bond and one a suspended sentence. The maximum jail sentence was nine months and fine $3,000. The most common charges were riot and affray. 

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