Racial riots broke out yesterday in Cronulla.
Cronulla is a suburb of Sydney, Australia's largest city. It is part of a local government area called "The Sutherland Shire". It is located on the coast and is a favourite spot for surfers to go. One week ago, middle-eastern youths (probably Lebanese) were on the beach when two volunteer life guards approached them and asked them to cease their activities - I think they were playing football and were causing some distress among other beachgoers. The two lifeguards were then assaulted. The media naturally ran this story, and for the past week there have been news reports of the Police ramping up their activities in the Cronulla area to prevent any more violence - obviously from any Lebanese people who had come to make trouble. But instead of experiencing trouble with Lebanese gangs, the police had to deal with around 5000 young, white "Aussies" who turned up waving Australian flags and singing patriotic songs. This was, supposedly, a "show of force" by the white community against the troubles caused by the Lebanese visitors. Law and order broke down and the group of 5000 young whites quickly turned into a mob. Some Middle-eastern people had turned up, and the mob began assaulting them; the headscarf of a young muslim woman was ripped off as a mob chased her; small groups of Lebanese people were chased around the shops, some trying to hide in shopping centres and restaurants; one middle-eastern youth was set upon in full view of the media, and, when he was rescued by the police and taken away in an Ambulance, bottles of beer and other items were hurled at the vehicle as it passed.
The "Shire" (as it is known) has never been one of my favourite places. Even ten years ago, when I "experienced it" for the first time it was obvious that most of the people there had very little contact with Sydney's growing ethnic minority. Asian, European and Middle-Eastern migrants had settled in their own particular areas - pretty much south of a line stretching from Parramatta to Port Jackson. Wealthier migrants, especially those from China, had begun to move into Sydney's North Shore and North-western Suburbs, thus mixing with the middle-upper classes in those areas for quite some time. The Shire, however, remained fairly white - and I am beginning to think that the reason was that many migrants learned to stay away from the area.
Moreover, the Shire itself tends to view itself over and above others throughout Sydney. For whatever reason, they seem to have a chip on their shoulders about how they are perceived by outsiders. During the 1994 Bushfires, for example, when Lane Cove and other areas were being burnt up, Shire residents were up in arms that the media (especially talk-back radio) were concentrating on these areas rather than the fires that were threatening the Southern suburbs.
It's that sort of low-level hostility towards outsiders that has allowed the Shire to become the scene of mob violence. But what about those "Leb gangs"?
I lived in Merrylands from 1993 until 2000. The suburb is as multicultural as they come. There are Indians, Italians, Vietnamese, Chinese and Lebanese people living all over the place.
Are there Lebanese gangs? You better believe it. I used to work at a petrol station in the area and one night I had to lock the doors and keep customers safe inside while two gangs decided to use the station forecourt as their own private battlefield. There were a couple of other low-level incidents as well that concerned me.
Nevertheless, I need to point out that many Lebanese and other middle-eastern people came in to our shop and were good, respectful customers who never gave me a hard time. One Lebanese bloke lived near the station, and was an entertaining and colourful character that got on well with me and the other staff. I have olive skin and dark eyes, and one day this guy actually asked me if I was Lebanese myself. I said no, and he could not believe me when I showed him my driver's license which proved my very Anglo name. "No mate!" he exclaimed "You're Lebanese - it's your eyes!"
I have no trouble in believing that Lebanese youths did in fact assault some life guards in Cronulla last week. Although I wasn't privvy to the Sydney talk-radio personalities, I felt the media coverage of that particular incident generally was not sensationalist at all. Up until Sunday, the media seemed to focus more on the potential police presence in case any other Lebanese youths decide to call trouble.
What I wasn't prepared for was the sight of an Aussie mob attacking any Middle-eastern-looking person that came within their range. The police, who had been sent to prevent any Lebanese youths from causing further trouble, found themselves trying to protect the small amount of Lebanese and Middle-eastern people who actually did turn up.
There was no doubt the crowd of young, white Aussies were angry at what had occurred at their beach the previous week. Nevertheless, Australia is a free country which means that people can essentially move from place to place if they so desire. Even though it may not have been "wise" for these Middle-eastern people to turn up, their presence in Cronulla on Sunday was by no means unlawful. The crime was committed by the Aussie youths, who decided that they would take the law into their own hands and take out their frustrations upon convenient passers-by who didn't look like them.
Yes, there is racism here in Australia. Many Lebanese - especially the younger ones - have a barely concealed disdain for White Australians. This is a problem, but it is hardly going to be solved by white Aussies going on a drunken rampage. We're supposed to be above this sort of thing, but it is obvious that we are not. The flying of Australian flags and the chanting of Australian sporting songs and national anthems made a disturbing juxtaposition with drunken white men chasing and bashing coloured bystanders. It was sickening.
For me, the change came about from about 1996 onwards - when the current Howard government came to power. Pauline Hanson's few years of fame derived from this time as she began to travel around preaching a disturbing and xenophobic message ("please explain?") Hanson was an indicator that Australian society was not as nice as it seemed, and that an underlying anger was beginning to come to the surface.
The current mess that we are in - of which the situation in Cronulla is a result of - is a result of the ineptitude of both sides of government since the early 1980s. Hawke and Keating both embraced the concept of a naive "Multiculturalism" and began to increase the amount of migrants to Australia, thus creating the circumstances we have today. Once Keating lost power in 1996, Howard and his allies did nothing to prevent any escalation in race relations.
It's not that I'm against immigration - I'm all for it. I'm happy that we have Lebanese and Sudanese and other migrants coming to our country. I'm not even worried that they keep themselves in enclaves and speak their own language and have their own customs - the last time I looked that sort of activity was not illegal.
What needed to be done, however, was to assume from the very beginning that both migrants and "Aussies" would fall into racism if nothing concrete was done to prevent it. The high school curriculum especially has a very "leftist" understanding of the importance of harmonious race relations, and should be commended for its efforts. One wonders if the situation might have be worse had the curriculum not had this emphasis. But harmonious race relations require more than just doing essays and school projects on other cultures.
Moreover, there was a need to promote some form of explicit understanding and harmony between white Aussie youths and the children of migrants. Both sides are to blame for the current situation, so both sides need to be educated. Lebanese kids need to be shown that they can respect and like white Aussies, and white Aussies should learn how to accept and like their Lebanese Australian neighbours.
And, for once, let's drop the notion of "tolerance". Tolerance is actually a negative term that implies the ability to put up with some sort of stress without breaking. To me, the influx of migrants and refugees is not some stress that I should somehow put up with like a low-level headache - it is a chance, rather, to celebrate the fact that our country is relatively peaceful and that people from around the world wish to live here (which is, in the light of what has happened in Cronulla, a rather ironic thing to believe!). The fact that a community of Sudanese refugees live a few blocks from where I live should not be cause for my concern, but a vote of confidence that our way of life is actually benefitting those around the world.
The opposite of intolerance is not tolerance, it is acceptance. I am happy that Lebanese and Middle Eastern migrants have come to our land and are enjoying the peace that our society gives them. So long as they obey the law, I have no problems whatsoever. After all, everyone should obey the law - even white Aussies.
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.