A beach whose name will long live in infamy, thousands of young, sun-kissed Aussies throwing themselves into battle, blood on the ground, fighting under, and for, the flag. If Anzac was the modern birth of our nation, what were these riots? A self-inflict
It’s nearly a decade since December 11, 2005, a bloody, brutal day that changed everything – a line in the golden sand we can never uncross. It wasn’t just the innocents who took a beating on that hot and hateful day – it was our international reputation, our relationship with our fag, our national identity. You’ll probably recall the TV news reports – 5000 beery blokes howling for Lebanese blood in the streets – and that sinking sense of shame and disbelief watching them. But what you may have forgotten is just how vicious and vile the violence was. View the footage again and it squeezes the breath right out of you. It’s not possible to watch, and listen to, these belligerent bogans, shirtless and daubed with words as war paint – ‘We grew here, you few here’, ‘Love Nulla, Fuck Allah’ – their chins thrust forward, fsts raised and fury pouring off them like the heat from their sunburn – without shaking your head. You’ll also recall the footage of policeman Craig Campbell laying into the liquored louts on a train, shocked all over again at the savage beating of two innocents he was trying to put an end to. It was a scene reminiscent of World War Z – mindless zombies pouring over each other desperate for a piece of fesh. How so many people were driven to such white-hot rage in the same place, at the same time, is hard to understand. Because it wasn’t anger fashing in those young men’s eyes – it was hate. Genuine, blood-baying hate. It’s frightening, mystifying and something we’d have easily labelled un-australian before that day. So how did it happen – how did a beatup turn into a bashing, one in which our entire identity, and fag, took a fogging? Ten years on, academics, politicians and the good and peaceful people of Sydney’s previously quiet Shire region are still trying to explain it. And plenty of them are worried it could happen again. Would the Cronulla riots, and the days of reprisals and fear that followed, seem even more tragic if it was all started by a lie? Or at least a tall tale that spiralled out of control and on to the airwaves? The event that set in place a week of malignant media coverage and thousands of text messages calling for a “wog-bashing day” was alleged to have taken place on North Cronulla beach on December 4. The hungrily adopted version was that a group of Lebanese “thugs” set upon some unsuspecting Aussie icons – two young lifesavers going about their job. It was an outrage. And yet, according to Macquarie University’s Professor Catherine Lumby, who was tasked by NSW Police to analyse the role of the media in the lead-up to the riots as part of the Strike Force Neil investigation, it was a fght that never happened. “It was a myth and one that was reported as fact by even the more rational media,” says Lumby. “But as I understand it from the police, it wasn’t true, there never actually was a confrontation between a mythical Muslim man and a lifesaver. “But that’s the story that went around – this challenge at the very heart of Australia, the beach. And it went viral and ramped up the Anglo-aussies in Cronulla.” Dr Amelia Johns, the author of a book about the riots, Battle for the Flag, also challenges the allegorical origin story. “I spoke to some lifesavers and it was just a skirmish between some Lebanese boys and an off-duty lifesaver – he was defnitely off duty, he was plain clothes. It was taken out of context and made into an assault on an icon and broadened into a battle of cultures,” says Johns. At a different time, this spark probably wouldn’t have been enough to light the fames of fury that were fanned by media fanatics over the next week. But Australia had changed since September 11, 2001. “People ask why it erupted then, but 9/11 was a real trigger point. And then you had the Bali bombings in 2002, and there was this real ignorance and fear about Muslims, but more generally just about people who don’t look like ‘us’,” says Professor Lumby. Jihad Dib was a teacher at Punchbowl Boys High School at the time, and remembers all too well the ugly shift in the air. “All of a sudden, I had to justify who I was. The way people looked at you changed considerably, and you can only know what that’s like if you feel it – at the footy, at the train station, at the beach,”
says Dib, who moved to Australia from Lebanon aged two, and has since become the frst Muslim MP in the NSW State Parliament. “I feel Australian. I mean, I know that I’m different – it’s hard not to be with a name like Jihad. But I’m Australian, not anything else, and suddenly I had people asking me, quite openly, whether I was loyal to the nation? “It was terrible, people felt they could say what they liked, ask you what they liked, it was like the start of the world’s longest apology – apologising for things that aren’t your fault,” Dib trails off. “Racism was just more open, like the foodgates were opening.” Nowhere were those foodgates spewing forth more bile that week in 2005 than on talkback radio. Professor Lumby was asked by police to examine specifc transcripts of what was said on air at the time, as the story of the lifesaver bashing took on a life of its own. “I was shocked to my core by what a number of talkback hosts were prepared to say, as well as what their callers were saying that the hosts would implicitly endorse. I cannot believe how vicious the talkback commentary was,” she says. “And I’m horrifed by what Alan Jones had to say, absolutely horrifed. For younger generations, talkback is irrelevant, but for the older people, if Alan Jones says something it’s like the Bible. There’s no question it was a big infuencer, and that’s the view of the police as well. It ramped people up, particularly the opinion leaders in that community.” Andrew Quilty, a photographer who found himself in the middle of the melee that December day, and whose subsequent photography of the unfolding events were splashed across Time magazine, agrees. “There’s a fne line between reporting on what’s happening and encouraging what’s to come, and Alan Jones crossed it and was more effective than any bare chest and pair of fsts in riling up the mob that day,” Quilty tells GQ. Jones kicked off the week describing the perpetrators of the ‘bashing’ as Middle-eastern “grubs” and “human pollution”. He was only warming up, later adding, “These people know one thing, they hate us and they’re going to take over.” Just days before the riots, Jones then read out a text message asking people to join the “Leb and wog-bashing day” that coming Sunday. After his broadcast, more than 270,000 text messages along a similar theme were circulated. His fnal gambit was to read out a suggestion that bikie gangs be invited to Cronulla. “It will be worth the price of admission to watch
these cowards scurry back on to the train for their return trip to their lairs, and wouldn’t it be brilliant if the whole event was captured on TV cameras and featured on the evening news so… we can see who these bastards are.” On Sunday December 11, bikies were at Cronulla train station, but were swallowed by the size of the mob. Speaking to GQ, Jones says the reporting of his role has been marred by “rank inaccuracies”. He then explodes on being read his quote about the bikie gangs. “I did not say that, but I can’t stop people who call in, that’s the democracy of the open line, people made infammatory comments, but that is their view,” he snaps. “I’m not here to be interrogated by you, I’m not answerable to you, I’m not remotely interested in ploughing over old ground from 10 years ago, it’s not worth commenting on again. “My memory is that I invited the Premier at the time, Morris Iemma, on to the program three times that week and he and I urged people not to take the law into their own hands. And that’s never been reported.” Jones was later found to have breached the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) Code of Conduct for comments “likely to encourage violence or brutality and to vilify people of Lebanese and Middle-Eastern backgrounds”. He labels the charges “disgraceful”, claiming complaints about him were made by people who’d never listened to his program. As Dr Johns says, “Jones was charged and found guilty, but he was straight back on the radio and, 10 years on, I can’t see that it’s affected his career that much.”
Things are diferent in The Shire, a community the rest of Sydney refers to as being ‘white bread’, a passport needed to cross the Georges River and into the enclave. An Australian passport. Home to Kurnell, where the frst white immigrant, Captain James Cook, landed, 75 per cent of Sutherland residents identify as ‘western European’ or ‘Australian’. Despite the idyllic green lawns and golden beaches, it has long been a scene of confict. Lifelong Shire resident Lee Howell, 53, is the director of youth development at North Cronulla Surf Club. He says there have always been turf wars along the stretch of southern Sydney sand. “It’s been like that for years with different surfng groups taking each other on, but that was more Aussies v Aussies. In 2005 it was different, there was [sic] a lot of issues, these Lebanese guys staring
at girls in bikinis and grabbing their costumes, playing soccer on the beach and kicking the ball at people,” he says. Professor Greg Noble, from the University of Western Sydney’s Institute For Culture and Society, investigated the area’s simmering history to edit a book on the Cronulla riots, Lines in the Sand. “There was always tension between people in the Cronulla area and people from [south-western Sydney suburb] Bankstown. If you look at local papers going back 50 years, there was a history of clashes in and around Cronulla, the locals against the ‘Bankies’, as they were called then – it was even in [the 1979 novel] Puberty Blues,” says Noble. “It’s interesting how some people say the riots proved that multiculturalism is a failure – that some groups can’t be assimilated. But you have to look at why they happened. The riots didn’t happen somewhere culturally diverse, they happened in this overwhelmingly Anglo area, and we’d never seen anything like it before. “Australia doesn’t have a history of race riots, and when we see them overseas it tends to be a minority rising up against the majority, but here we have a cultural majority attacking a minority.” Howell claims the reports of the lifesavers being attacked were true, but says they were far from the only fghts on the beach. “I’ve spoken to the two guys involved, who were on patrol, in their red and yellows, and there were a couple of guys playing soccer, of Middle-eastern background, and one of our guys asked them to stop, and he said, ‘You look like an idiot in that outft,’” says Howell. “And he shot back, ‘We might look like idiots but it’s idiots like us that save dickheads like you.’ And there was a bit of a fare up, some testosterone and then there were about six of them against our two guys, and I think one of the guys lost his balance and fell forward into one of the lifesavers and he got a bit of a shove back. There was a bit of retaliation, just your standard beach scrap, really. We’ll never know for sure what happened.” He adds that the two lifesavers involved, who were in their early 20s, have never publicly spoken about it, and never will. Quietly spoken, with a face that’s worn the weather of years on a beach, Howell’s adamant that what turned a local scuffe into a national disgrace was the work of outsiders. “I saw the texts going around and I think they came from other agitators, people outside of the area, and lots of the guys who were spoken to by the police on the day of the riots, they came from the outer-western suburbs, from different White Australia kind of groups. They were the ones trying to fre people up,” he says. “I don’t think there was enough animosity among the locals to cause what happened without those racist agitators whipping them up.” This is Cronulla’s version of events. A local dispute blown out of proportion, ripped out of their hands and turned into a bigger, uglier incident by outside infuences. They just went along for the ride.
Former sergeant Craig Campbell had seen plenty of violence, bloodshed and hatred in his 20-year career, but nothing prepared him for the scale of the Cronulla riots. “As a copper you get a sixth sense about these things, and you could tell, early that Sunday, that it was a powder keg and it was all going to turn to shit,” he recalls. “It was muggy, that kind of energy-sapping, itchy humidity. I saw a girl drinking a Cruiser at 8am, and beer, everybody was drinking so much. It started out with this real carnival atmosphere, people having barbecues, but I just knew it was going to go off. What can you do? You just try to contain it.” Reports differ as to what started the violence. As part of her research, Dr Johns interviewed one of the young front-row witnesses who was arrested on riot and affray charges. “He said that a Middle-eastern youth confronted one of the protestors who was wrapped in a fag, pulled it off him and said, ‘Look, this is my fag too.’ And that footage of the frst two guys being attacked by the crowd, that’s what started that altercation,” she says. Quilty and his camera were in the middle of it, and he recalls how many people were smiling, actually enjoying the spectacle. “I remember being rattled seeing mobs setting on one or two guys and the sea of bare backs, singlets and fags fooding through streets, literally thousands of mostly young men swarming to where rumours of ‘wogs’ might be, knocking over anything in their path – bins, motorbikes, cinder-block walls, whatever,” says Quilty. “I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt saying, ‘Mohammed was a camelraping faggot’. The presence of skinheads was shocking to me, too. These are the guys you hear about but rarely see given an opportunity in the spotlight. They had the spotlight that day, and they knew it. “And the cops that found themselves among it were powerless, the crowd just fowed around them like they were a pebble in a food.” Sergeant Campbell was one big pebble. His frst arrest shocked him the most, forced to capsicum spray a 60-year-old local man who was laying into a security guard. “He was a decent bloke, but he was just swept up in it all. That anonymity of the mob, people do things they’d never normally do, and when we took him away to clean him up [at the station], he was embarrassed, and scared of his wife,” says Campbell. “He couldn’t believe what he’d done.” Howell says it was a common refrain among the locals – many lost to a feeling of group hysteria. “I could see guys that I knew, people who weren’t like that, and they would say, ‘I have no idea what took over me, I was pissy, and we were being revved up by these people with megaphones, but still,’” he says. “They said they were mesmerised, their minds elsewhere, they were just so whipped up, and they regretted it, it’s like, ‘How did I do this?’” Just after lunchtime, a ripple went through the noisy beast of 5000 angry souls, as word passed that a bunch of Lebanese thugs was at Cronulla train station. Photographer Craig Greenhill, whose shots would carry the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s ‘Our Disgrace’ front page the next morning, followed the mob onto a carriage, where he saw two young, innocent men being attacked by wave-after-wave of fsts, feet and fying bottles. “The rage was unbelievable, these guys getting kicked and bashed and punched, I had to put the camera down and say, ‘Get the fuck off, you’re going to kill him,’” Greenhill has said. “They paused, looked up at me, saw I wasn’t really a threat to them, just kept going. And then there was Sergeant Campbell, old school, with his baton, [he] just started whacking everyone. “They wanted blood and that’s what they got, and these guys were just so happy with themselves for what they did.” Campbell had a nickname for his baton: “Milo, because it’s amazing what a difference Milo makes.”
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“They would have died, those young blokes, or been very seriously injured, if we hadn’t gotten there when we did, they were just curled up in a ball, people hittin’ ’em,” he recalls. “I yelled out to people to stop, but no one wanted to take heed, so I had to give them a reason and I gave them 134kg of animal connected to 26 inches of spun aluminium. That got them moving, and they weren’t happy.” Campbell managed to get the badly-beaten victims off the carriage and into a station lunchroom. He then had the train sent off down the line so the mob would think they’d left. “You just have to play a smarter game than the pissed drongos, so we actually put them in the guard’s cabin on the next train and got them out of there. They were pissed off and shaken up, but they were grateful. “One of them was born in The Shire, and the other one was Russian. To me that’s the worst part of the whole day, that it was race based. Some of the people down near the surf club were Italian and they were beaten just for having olive skin. Ridiculous.” Campbell’s actions saw him put forward for a commendation for bravery. He never received it and within six months started suffering nightmares and mood swings. It took until May 24, 2007, before he was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. Four days later he had a breakdown, attacked his wife of 30 years, knife in hand, and woke up in a psych ward. “It’s absolutely horrid, the effects it has on you, one minute you’re happy, the next you’re crying and crawling into a corner somewhere,” says Campbell, who now lives alone in a caravan on the NSW South Coast on a $440-a-week police pension. “With the riots it was just the amount of high visibility – there was me flogging people on the news for the next 18 months. And seeing the footage, you have to relive it,” he says. “Then there’s the intense scrutiny, everyone knows who you are and you feel like you have so many eyes on you. “I just try to get on with my life. But I do feel sorry for the people of Cronulla. They’re good people.”
The day after the riots, a Monday, was a school day at Punchbowl
Boys High for Jihad Dib. He turned up to face the fear and questions from his students, all shaken by what had gone on. “I still have images I can’t get out of my head that really were an indictment of the day; the awful image of what happened on the train that captured such a moment of hatred,” says the now Labor member for Lakemba. “It was beyond sadness and disbelief, I never thought I would see that in my country, ever. I saw the flag, my flag, being used for nationalism, a kind that divides, not a nationalism that unites. And I had students coming to me, asking what do we do, how do we deal with this, why is this happening? “There was a lot of anger, rumours, they were saying, ‘Sir, they grabbed this girl with a hijab and ripped it off and slapped her,’ and I was like, ‘No, they didn’t.’ I just told them, ‘Don’t get into trouble, don’t do anything stupid.’ “But the revenge attacks came anyway, and the retribution was just as ugly. Australia woke up that week and thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’” Again, thousands of text messages were sent, this time calling the “Lions of Lebanon” to fght back. Over the next few nights, gangs of men poured from Sydney’s west to east, rampaging through beachside suburbs not blocked off by police, smashing parked cars and shop windows, bashing and even stabbing several locals. “Ten years on it’s all about the riots, that one day, and not about the reprisals. I had a friend stabbed with a screwdriver for walking along the street, people had concrete blocks thrown at them, and that’s all been written out of history,” says Howell, emotion rising in his voice. “When they came for revenge, they didn’t come for a fst fght, they came with knives and machetes and guns. It’s a shock that no one was killed.” It took a week for calm to be restored, something that happened in spite of, rather than because of, political leaders. “What you need, in a time of crisis, are leaders who understand that their job is to bring people together, and that not saying something is almost as bad as saying something inflammatory,” says Dib. “The Prime Minister, John Howard, said he was surprised that he didn’t see it coming. Come on, really? Go back to when this sense of nationalism started to come in, when you had someone like Pauline Hanson saying stuff and not being pulled up on it. Then you start demonising migrants, having a go at refugees, it puts into people’s psyche that these people are different.” Pauline Hanson sees it differently. She remembers the Cronulla riots as ordinary Australians standing up for their country. “And then after that I was at [southern Sydney suburb] Brighton and I saw MiddleEastern people burning our flag and nothing but hatred and violence from them, it disgusted me,” she tells GQ. “There was only one Australian who was persecuted [sic] and charged for what happened the frst day, and yet the violence the next few days was nonstop. “There’s not enough coverage on that, the media to this day, they cover up how Aussies feel about issues, they protect the migrants and they sensationalised the story and sent the wrong message to the rest of the world. “I felt bad for the people of Cronulla, they’d put up with these people on their beach for years, and the bubble just burst that day.” Hanson adds that multiculturalism simply doesn’t work. “I’ve been saying that for years. They need to realise there’s an Australian way of life and if they don’t like it, please fnd another country that suits your culture.” Police actually charged 51 people over the riots, and 53 over the reprisal attacks. One of those charged with riot and affray was the young man Dr Johns interviewed a year after the riots. She found his attitude remained unchanged. “There was no regret from him, but there was pride there,” she says. “He thought it was a bad thing that happened, for Cronulla, because people stopped going there, so it was bad for business, but for the young people involved, they felt a sense of pride and of a community coming together. “Interviewing young people in the area, they still said it wasn’t about patriotism or nationalism, it was about ‘Shire pride’ and ‘Shire identity’, and national things got appropriated into that. “The Australian flag, after Cronulla, became very much a sign of intolerance, and it’s hard to take those meanings away from it.”
For Pauline Hanson, another race riot, somewhere in Australia, is not
just inevitable, it’s imminent. “It will happen again and you can see it coming,” she says, her voice climbing. “Now is the frst time we’ve got people protesting against the building of mosques and against Islam in our country. Australians have never stood up against another religion like this. And leaders can’t tell me it won’t happen again, because it will.”
Jones, meanwhile, is slightly more cautious. “The riots were socially unacceptable, but 10 years on, we would be fools to imagine that there aren’t legitimate concerns about cultural clashes – you just have to look at what’s going on in Europe,” he warns. “But the police are more aware now, the intelligence wasn’t up to it back then. The police should have been there [in Cronulla] in numbers, and they weren’t.” As for Professor Lumby, she believes the danger of another explosion of hate is real, and it’s being fuelled by politicians. “I do think, and I say it with a heavy heart, that it could happen again, because there’s real ignorance about the Muslim religion and I think our political leaders should be educating people instead of dog whistling,” she says. “I would say that Cronulla brought racism to the surface, and the Adam Goodes thing brought it up again recently, but there’s a deep denial at the heart of Anglo Australia about the invasion of this country. “If you’re a white Australian, you took someone else’s country and you fear that someone else will take it off you, and so every successive wave of immigration – the Chinese, the Vietnamese and now Muslims – is frightening to us.” Despite her words, Lumby fnds some hope in the way Australians recently rallied in Melbourne to oppose Operation Border Force, in which people were meant to have their immigration status checked to prove their legal status. She also cites the positivity of the #illridewithyou campaign that followed the Sydney siege. Ever the teacher, Jihad Dib MP also looks to reflect on the learnings of that day. “The positive thing is, it brought [racism] out into the open, it forced people to talk about it more, and to get an understanding of one another,” he says. “People like myself, we’ve got to step up, we’ve got to build bridges, because we’re all Australians. We have a slightly different heritage but the way those backgrounds interweave makes the beautiful fabric that is our great country. “Cronulla was a turning point, and we have to deal with it, and we have to move on and focus on the power of positivity.” If things had gone slightly differently, if Sergeant Campbell perhaps hadn’t caught that train in time, the 10th anniversary of the Cronulla riots would have a different tone. It would likely be a memorial for lives lost – the flag, flown and worn in anger that day, would be at half-mast. The lucky country got lucky because no one died. But our sense of self, of what Australia is, sustained casualties. Lest we ever forget. n
FROM TOP: ON DECEMBER 11, 2005, THE NORMALLY PLACID BEACHSIDE STREETS OF SYDNEY’S CRONULLA HEAVED WITH CROWDS EMBROILED IN RACIALLY-BASED SKIRMISHES. AS MEDIA DESCENDED ON THE BEACH TO COVER THE RIOTS, POLICE WERE STRETCHED THIN AND TENSIONS QUICKLY ESCALATED, PHOTOGRAPHERS CAPTURING COMBATANTS WHO’D DAUBED THEIR BODIES WITH ETHNIC PROVOCATIONS.
FROM TOP: THOSE WHO WERE UNFORTUNATE ENOUGH TO BE IN CRONULLA AND NOT DEEMED ‘AUSTRALIAN’ WERE SET UPON BY THE MOB WITH FISTS AND BOTTLES. AGAINST A BACKDROP OF CAMERA CREWS AND AUSTRALIAN FLAGS, DOZENS OF POLICE WERE MOBILISED AS AUTHORITIES SCRAMBLED TO ADDRESS THE SCALE, AND VOLATILITY, OF THE SITUATION .
LEFT: BROADCASTER ALAN JONES WAS FOUND TO HAVE “INCITED HATRED, SERIOUS CONTEMPT AND SEVERE RIDICULE OF LEBANESE AUSTRALIANS” IN THE LEAD UP TO THE RIOTS. RIGHT: PAULINE HANSON BELIEVES A REPEAT OF THE RIOTS IS IMMINENT.