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RACIALLY MOTIVATED RIOTING ROCKS AUSTRALIA

December 11, 2005

The "2005 Sydney race riots" began with an incident of mob confrontation which took place at Cronulla Beach, a southern coastal suburb of Sydney, Australia's largest city. On Sunday December 11, 2005, approximately 5000 people had gathered in an ad-hoc protest to "reclaim the beach" from recently-reported incidents of assaults, harassment, and intimidatory behaviour by individuals from certain groups of non-locals, most of whom were identified in the earlier media reports as Lebanese Muslim youths from the western suburbs of Sydney. The crowd had assembled following a widely-reported series of earlier confrontations, and an assault on three volunteer lifesavers which had taken place the previous weekend. In the week leading up to the major incident of the 11th, these confrontations and the subsequent circulation of anonymous calls (spread via SMS text messaging and other means) to gather at the beach were the subject of much publicity and media commentary.

The crowd intially assembled without incident, but violence broke out after a large segment of the mostly white crowd chased a man of middle eastern appearance into a hotel. The ensuing mle soon became widespread; in the course of it a number of police, ambulance officers and individual members of the public perceived to be of Middle Eastern appearance were assaulted.

The following nights saw incidents of retaliatory violence and vandalism in Cronulla and other suburbs throughout the southern Sydney Metropolitan Area, by people of Lebanese ethnicity, and an unprecedented police lock-down of the beaches in Sydney and surrounding areas, from Wollongong to Newcastle.

"No Lebs" handwritten on t-shirt.

On Sunday 11 December 2005, prior to the outbreak of violence, a crowd of people estimated at 5,000 gathered at Cronulla beach[1]. As well as individuals of European and Aboriginal descent, people of Pacific island descent were involved in the protest (Daily Telegraph, December 12). Elements in the local community had called for the community gathering in response to the previous weekend's reported assault by several individuals of "Lebanese ancestry" on two or three Cronulla beach surf lifesavers[3], although police have stated that they believe the assault was not racially motivated. According to ABC News, the initially festive atmosphere rapidly became violent:

"Earlier in the day the atmosphere had been party-like despite the large crowd, which some estimates say numbers 5,000 people. That changed when a man of Middle Eastern appearance was chased into a hotel bistro. Within a minute the hotel was surrounded by several thousand people screaming and chanting. About a half an hour later a fight broke out across the road and police led away a man with a shirt over his head as the crowd lobbed beer cans at him".

Many demonstrators wore clothing with slogans such as "We Grew Here, You Flew Here", "Wog Free Zone", "Aussie Pride", "Fuck Allah - save Nulla", and "Ethnic Cleansing Unit". Chants of "Lebs out", "Lebs go home" and other expressions were continuously shouted by many of the demonstrators, including families with young children. NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said police believed neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups were among the crowd. "That in fact is something that we're following up," he told the Nine network.

Skinheads wearing boots, braces and neo-Nazi emblems were among the mob. Three far-right organisations: "Australia First Party", "Patriotic Youth League" (PYL) and the Newcastle-based "Blood and Honour" - all handed out pamphlets. PYL describes itself as a "radical nationalist" group with links to the German-based skinhead group Volksfront, British National Party and the New Zealand National Front.

A banner saying "LOCALS ONLY" with a symbol for anarchism in place of the "A" was displayed (Daily Telegraph, December 12).

Through the course of the day, several individuals of supposed "Middle Eastern appearance" were assaulted, however several non-Lebanese were attacked, including a Jewish boy and a Greek girl. Police and ambulance workers leading away the victims from the riots were also assaulted by groups of young men throwing beer bottles. Several dozen people were treated for minor cuts and bruises, while six individuals were evacuated under police escort to be assessed by doctors. One was further evacuated to St. George Hospital, in a serious but stable condition.

Police observing protestors

While police at Cronulla had commented that they were prepared to deal with any violence at Cronulla beach at the time the SMS message suggested, local police were in fact overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who turned up to the beach on 11 December. Local police officers who were leading people away had bottles hurled at them. Many police used riot equipment, including capsicum spray to subdue their attackers and had to call for reinforcements from the Miranda police station. Police moved to protect several individuals targeted by the crowds, using capsicum spray to subdue several rioters. Elouera Road was temporarily closed to traffic. A total of 25 people were injured, including two ambulance officers.

On the evening of the 11th, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted an New South Wales Police spokesman as saying that seven people had been arrested, with charges being filed against four individuals. By the morning of the 12th, "news.com.au" reported twelve arrests total. Charges included assaulting police, throwing a missile, offensive behaviour, hindering police, and resisting arrest.

Reaction and Retaliation

11 December

Cars and windows in Maroubra and Rockdale were vandalised. [12] Several instances of property damage at the Rockdale railway station were reported. One man was stabbed in the back when assaulted by a gang of ten men. It is alleged that the assault was carried out by men of "middle eastern appearance", in apparent retribution for the attacks by the crowds at Cronulla on individuals earlier in the day.

By 1AM , violence had also spread to Brighton Le Sands, where police wearing riot gear sectioned off Bay Street in a confrontation with a crowd. [13] The violence then spread to Ashfield in Sydney City's Inner West, as well as suburbs in Greater Western Sydney, with outbreaks in Bankstown and Punchbowl.

Police said 16 people had been arrested and charged with 41 offences. Those charged were from Mortdale, Cronulla, Bondi Junction, Kareela, Granville, Lugarno, Greenacre, Mascot, Northmead, Jannali, Sutherland, and Riverwood. Offences included malicious damage, resisting police, hindering police, assaulting police, resisting arrest, possessing prohibited drugs, behaving in an offensive manner, threatening violence, affray, possession of a knife in a public place, and driving in a dangerous manner. All of those charged were men between 17 and 40 years of age.

Several of the local residents who were quoted in media reports indicated a state of shock and a reluctance to be identified, out of fear of retribution.

12 December

On Monday 12 December 2005, political, community, and religious leaders condemned the violence. Some politicians and other leaders have alluded to underlying racism within Australian society, whilst others have condemned the violence as "thuggish", criminal and alcohol-fuelled behaviour. Ken Moroney, Police Commissioner of NSW, told the Sydney Morning Herald that he was ashamed at the "mob mentality" of the rally. He further elaborated:

"The other equally offensive conduct today, the absolutely total un-Australian conduct today, was an attack on an ambulance. That has brought a higher level of shame to those involved in that level of attack and they deserve to be condemned in the highest possible terms."

Keysar Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, stated that the violence was "bound to happen" because of racist rhetoric on Sydney talk radio throughout the week.

Prime Minister John Howard condemned the riots, describing the violence as "sickening", adding however that he did not believe racism to be widespread in Australia. Opposition leader Kim Beazley also condemned the violence.

On 12 December a police strike force was established to track down those responsible for the riots using video and photo evidence.

The New South Wales State Parliament was recalled by the Premier on Tuesday, 13 December, to increase police powers in regard to the riots. The new powers may include the closing of alcohol outlets and the confiscation of motor vehicles.

On Monday 12 December, there were initially reports of new text messages circulating, leading to concern over fresh violence at Cronulla.

Various news sources later reported around a thousand people gathering outside Sydney's Lakemba mosque on Monday night. Residents claimed they were there to defend the Mosque against attacks from Southern gangs, as had been threatened by the white demonstrators. The crowd had started to disperse at 9:30pm, but the Seven Network reported that some then packed into dozens of cars, travelling in convoys towards Sydney's southern district, while sporadically assaulting people and vandalising cars and property in Bexley and various other suburbs on their way.

Reports from Sydney Police Radio and news.com.au reported further violence on the night of 12 December, with residents of Cronulla reporting that cars full of apparently Middle Eastern men had driven into the area. The local shopping centre appeared to be a target for mobs, with several vehicles vandalised. The men "went on a rampage" while nearby residents prepared to defend their homes and families.

After the large 11 December riot, some youths from the Middle Eastern and Lebanese communities began to organise a series of retaliatory attacks. Public and police hopes that the violence would subside were dashed when, in the first of a series of apparent retaliatory strikes, a 23-year-old white Australian man was stabbed at a golf club at the nearby Sydney suburb of Woolooware. Two cars carrying a group of males, described by police as being of "Middle Eastern" or Arab appearance, approached the man at about 10.25pm (AEDT) Sunday night. After the man confronted the group of men, they attacked him and stabbed him once in the lower back. The man was taken to hospital where he was in a critical condition as he underwent surgery.

At the same time, carloads of youths, mostly from the large Lebanese communities of western Sydney, made their way to the suburb of Maroubra, organised again by SMS text messages circulating throughout the community. Armed with baseball bats, crowbars and bricks, they vandalised private property (including over 100 cars) throughout streets of Maroubra. Terrified residents took refuge in their homes, while others who tried to confront the gangs were attacked. A 23-year-old man was injured during the unrest, as he was bashed by baseball-bat wielding youths, who attacked his car.

Seven people were injured and dozens of cars severely damaged in a second night of ethnic violence that spread across Sydney, Australian police said on Tuesday, as they were given special powers to stop the unrest. Gangs of rioters, mainly of Muslim backgrounds, again called for retaliation against the original December 11 Cronulla riot. They attacked several people with baseball bats and threw rocks and projectiles at police patrols.

At Maroubra Beach, police said they found a stockpile of 30 Molotov cocktails and crates of rocks stockpiled on rooftops, as hundreds of local surfers gathered. Weapons such as iron bars, baseball bats, knives and even firearms are being found and confiscated.

Morris Iemma, Premier of New South Wales announced on Tuesday that police will be given "lockdown" powers which would allow them to prohibit entry into specified areas.

Referring to vigilantes, Mr Iemma said, "These criminals have declared war on our society and we are not going to let them win... ...You will not take control of our streets."

Police said this kind of unrest was unprecedented in Australia. Australian media reported that mobile telephone text messages from Australians of Anglo-Saxon and as well as Middle Eastern backgrounds were both calling for revenge attacks to continue.

14 December

On the morning of 14 December 2005, local media reported that SMS text messages, inciting further riots, were being sent to mobile users in other states including Victoria and Queensland.

During a Christmas carols service at St Joseph the Worker Primary School shots were fired into cars and parents were verbally abused. A total of four Churches in Sydney's South-West were attacked during the evening. The Uniting Church hall in Auburn, which is next to an Islamic centre, was set ablaze about 1.30am (AEDT) on the 15th of December. Police suspect it is directly related to the ongoing racially-motivated violence in Sydney.

15 December

On 15 December, NSW Police increased their activity on Sydney streets, including searching individuals. Police were also asked to keep a careful eye on places of religious worship or significance since the arson attack in Auburn. Two people were arrested in Cronulla. The first was chased by police down Croydon St at 8pm AEDT and arrested in the front yard of a unit block. As he was led away he screamed: "I'm just sticking up for my country." The second person was arrested at 9.40pm when weapons including knuckle dusters and crowbars were found in a bag in Cronulla Mall.

Later that evening a couple suffered facial and head injuries when they were attacked at a restaurant in Caringbah. A man sustained fractured ribs and head injuries while taking out garbage bins at his Cronulla home; he was attacked by men of "Middle Eastern" appearance carrying golf clubs. A police officer was also injured as he broke up a brawl at a shopping centre in Wetherill Park in Sydney's south west at about 8.30pm. An 18-year-old man was charged with a range of offences including two counts of assaulting a police officer.

The New South Wales Parliament was recalled from Christmas Holidays on Thursday 15 December, to pass legislation giving police the power to order that bottle shops and hotels close down and to lock down areas of suburbs with roadblocks, and also the right to instantly confiscate weapons, search and impound cars. Under existing law, police in New South Wales could ask bottle shop and hotel owners close their doors, but not force them to do so.

Police

Police Commissioners and Authorities expected violence to again continue as signs of more retaliation and revenge were discovered, such as inflammatory SMS Messages being sent, youths gathering in cars and on streets and hidden stockpiles of weapons being found.

Amidst fears of a third night of violence, perhaps continuing for the entire week, 450 police officers were deployed in Sydney's suburbs, ready to respond to any violent youths or gangs. The New South Wales Deputy Commissioner of Police Andrew Scipione said that while they had no specific intelligence, police expected more unrest. He also said that if needed he would seek assistance from police in other states, for extra resources and manpower.

Deputy Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said there had been a "welcome respite" last night from the violence of past days. But he said police would not be dropping their guard, with 450 officers on the streets of Sydney on the December 15 and 16, and numbers are likely to rise on the weekend as well. "I'd say this is the first time we've ever encountered this kind of phenomena anywhere in Australia," Mr Scipione said. "We'll look at it with a view of saying what is it that we can draw from the new powers that will allow us to be safe?" But he said police would have sufficient resources to cope with any more flare-ups at Sydney's eastern and southern beaches.

Police were also been aware that gangs of Lebanese and white youths had been organizing retaliatory attacks and violence through SMS messages, and that a message congratulated "Australians" for the fight against the Lebanese, but called for more attacks. "We'll show them! It's on again Sunday," the message said. Likewise, messages circulating amongst Arab gangs called for another large-scale retaliatory riot at Cronulla beach(18 December AEST).

Political and community leaders

Many Political spokesmen and analysts, such as NSW Premier Morris Iemma, Professor Michael Cyline and leaders of Islamic communities such as Keysar Trad, expressed fears that further violence would happen, fuelled by ongoing racial or ethnic tensions. See BBC News for information of the long-term ethnic tensions in Sydney.

They perceived this state of conflict as a result of the years of brooding disagreements and hatred between the two main ethnic groups involved in these incidents: "Anglo" Australians, on the one hand, and "Middle Eastern", Lebanese and Muslim Australians on the other. In the years after the September 11, 2001 Attacks on the World Trade Centers, many had felt the sense of fear created by terrorism has only heightened public awareness of Arab communities in Sydney and their ongoing differences with non-Muslim Australians.

Several Muslim women's groups made calls for the a voluntary curfew on Arab youths, requesting parents to keep their children at home over the weekend after the mob violence. They also urged parents to confiscate mobile telephones and car keys, in an attempt to forestall further aggression and retaliatory attacks. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Assistant Police Commissioner, Mark Goodwin, who said "I urge community leaders to continue dialogue in an effort to defuse the aggression."

Jack Passaris, Chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW, the peak representative body of the State's ethnic groups called for an urgent review of the racial-vilification laws in light of the race riots. "We would urge the government to introduce laws which would make the intentional incitement of racial hatred into a criminal offence," he said.

In the days following the events of the 11th, NSW Police Minister Carl Scully outlined preparations to be made by police in anticipation of further unrest the next weekend. He also added that the increased police presence in Sydney could be expected to continue throughout the summer.

"We expect further problems. We had more than 400 cops (police) last night. Expect hundreds on top of that on Saturday and Sunday," he said.

In a speech made on December 15th, NSW Premier Morris Iemma also described the intentions and action plans for increased police coverage to be put into effect. "Special attention will be paid to places of worship, our churches and our schools," he said. Mr Iemma warned that a 500-strong Anti-Riot Squad would be out in force over the summer to as a precaution against any further disturbances.

The Premier also foreshadowed that a draft of a Bill (Legislation) had been prepared, which was intended to provide special and augmented powers to police, to be used in the case of continuing violence. These proposed laws were to contain a sunset clause of two years, he said. Mr Iemma also welcomed the "swift justice" and the four-month jail term which had already been handed down in the case of one man who had been arrested and convicted of a charge arising from the recent violence.

Surfer Nathan Rogers, from Maroubra's notorious "Bra Boys" gang, said: "The beaches are not anyone's turf, they should be open to everyone, no matter of ethnic background." Similar "peace talks" between Muslim leaders and surfers were held at Cronulla Beach on the evening of Wednesday the 14th.

Brian Wilshire, host of a talkback radio program on Maquarie Radio station 2GB, sparked further controversy for calling Lebanese "inbred".

"Many of them have parents who are first cousins whose parents were first cousins. The result of this is inbreeding – the result of which is uneducationable (sic) people...and very low IQ."

Following widespread condemnation, including by NSW Premier Morris Iemma, Wilshire has since apologised for his comments.

Melbourne anti-racism rally

In Melbourne at 5:00 pm at Bourke Street Mall (Friday 16th) there was a large "anti-racism" rally to protest against the riots, though organisers also used it as an opportunity to protest other loosely politically related issues such as the War on Terror and Mandatory Detention.

SMS Messages, Emails

Authorities and police have taken the new rounds of circulating SMS messages throughout Middle-Eastern, as well as Anglo, communities and youths very seriously, as signs portending more violence. Police said they had been investigating text messages allegedly inciting racial violence in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.

Of special note is that in the case of the Cronulla riots, these SMS messages were broadcast nationally, in prime time, uncensored, showing the location and date of the proposed riot days in advance, by the Nine Network's A Current Affair.

SMS messages were widely circulated in response to these attacks, calling for "anti-racism" protests in Melbourne and other cities on Friday December 16 and Sunday December 18.

Messages from both "sides" (Lebanese and Anglo gangs) of the apparent violence were calling for further large-scale protest the following Sunday, police said, much the same way text messages had originally been used to incite mob violence in Cronulla.

An inflammatory E-mail received by Reuters from an unknown source appeared to call on immigrants to riot at Bondi beach at the weekend and read: "Time to show these people stuck in the 1950's that times have changed. We are the new Australia." In a counter campaign, Lebanese and surfer gangs held "peace talks" at Maroubra Beach in Sydney on Wednesday and agreed to start a text message campaign calling for calm. "There are certain individuals and they will be weeded out, they will be outcasts," Tony Nasr, from the Lebanese Christian Community, said after the meeting.Religious Leaders call for calm. A small number of Usenet postings were also been utilised in inciting violence.

Economic impacts

Many of the small businesses in the affected areas (particularly in the beachside suburbs) reported a significant downturn in trade since the main incident of 11 December, with losses of anticipated earnings down by up to 90% at what would ordinarily be a busy time of the year. A significant downturn in the number of beach visitors over the weekend of 17-18 December was reported as far away as Terrigal on the Central Coast. The head of the Tourism and Transport Forum indicated on December 19 that there had already been layoffs of employees working in the tourism and hospitality industries in Cronulla, and the chief executive of the State Chamber of Commerce, Margy Osmond, was quoted as saying "If the violence continues there is the potential it could even force some businesses to close down and significantly damage our reputation as a tourist destination among both domestic and international visitors".

On the 22nd December the BBC reported  that some beach-side businesses reported a slump in takings by up to 75% since the unrest, and that the New South Wales state government had announced an A$250,000 ($183,000) campaign to bring tourists back to Sydney's beaches, including advertisements featuring well known sports stars, assuring tourists that it was safe to visit the area. Authorities in Britain, Canada and Indonesia issued warnings to their citizens to be on guard for possible continuing racial violence.

Background and analysis

On Sunday 4 December 2005, a group of male youths of presumed Lebanese descent were playing soccer on a Cronulla beach when the North Cronulla surf lifesavers are reported to have asked them to stop, as it was disturbing other users of the beach. The response from the youths was allegedly: "Get off our beach. This is our beach. We own it." Gerard Henderson, columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald, alleges that the surf lifesavers then provided the youths with "a degree of verbal provocation", and "reminded the south-western suburb inhabitants that they could not swim".  Shortly thereafter three surf lifesavers (aged 15, 19 and 20) were confronted by initially four, and then later up to twelve individuals, and in the process were allegedly assaulted. Not all of those present were directly involved in the mle, and several of the larger group were reported to have attempted to break up the altercation. Youths of Lebanese descent were alleged to be the culprits, but police say there was no apparent racial motive behind that assault. A teenager was later charged with assault in company occasioning actual bodily harm.

Reports of sexual harassment and intimidation of female beach-goers by groups of Lebanese youths subsequently emerged. The ensuing print and media coverage also included accounts of similar, prior complaints in the area from members of the general public over a period of several years. There are unsubstantiated claims that hostility towards Lebanese youths was running high in the area, following a number of gang rapes elsewhere in Sydney over three years earlier.

Build-up

Throughout the following week, from Monday 5 December to 10 December 2005, tensions rose as the wider public became aware of the confrontations through extensive print and media coverage and other means:

  • An SMS text message was circulated urging retaliation. The text message encouraged "Aussies" to take revenge against "Lebs and Wogs", and said "Bring your mates and let's show them that this is our beach and they are never welcome". It encouraged meeting on Sunday 11 December.  The SMS message, and its content, was widely disseminated through talkback radio, national television programming and other media.
  • On 7 December there were ongoing stories in the media about people who had been harassed and assaulted at Cronulla beach by Lebanese groups.
  • On Thursday 8 December, the Premier of New South Wales (NSW), Morris Iemma, urged people not to take the law into their own hands.
  • Throughout the week, Sydney radio personality Alan Jones, known for his inflammatory comments, repeatedly read out the infamous SMS on air, while 2UE host Steve Price urged a "community show of force".
  • On Saturday 10 December, Cronulla beach was unusually deserted despite the summer heat, and under-18 volunteers were relieved from local lifesaver patrols.

Beach violence

Beach-related violence is a phenomenon that has existed since at least the early 1960s, when the fights were between "westies" and "surfies". The book (and later film) Puberty Blues describes the violence of the local surfing culture. Unlike most Sydney beaches, Cronulla is serviced by a rail station, making it a popular destination for beach-goers who live further away.

In April 2005, the NSW Parliament member for Cronulla Malcolm Kerr spoke to the legislative assembly about law and order problems in that suburb, including a riot in the mall on Australia Day.

Copyright 2005-2009 by Rev. Dr. Ricardo E. Nuez.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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