BACKGROUND OF THE RIOT
The fall out from the riots on Sydney’s beaches continues amid accusations that the State government and police have ‘gone soft’ on Australians from Lebanese backgrounds.
The December 11 Sydney riots last year consisted of a demonstration of about 5,000 white Australians who wore t-shirts and chanted slogans in a Sydney beach suburb. These slogans included ‘wog-free zone’ – ‘Lebs outs’ – ‘Lebs go home’ and – ‘ethnic cleansing unit.’ The word ‘Lebs’ is a contraction of Lebanese: first generation Australians from Lebanon were the main target of the white Australians.
The main thrust of what the white Australians was saying was that the Lebanese Australians were engaging in unacceptable behavior. This behavior included ‘aggressive’ use of some of Sydney’s beaches, as well as sexual comments by Lebanese Australian young men towards white Australian women. In the days before the riots, an assault on Australian beach lifesavers – an icon of Australian culture – was the immediate catalyst which led to the 5,000 demonstration.
Included in the 5,000 protest were members of far-right organisations handingout leaflets. The protest turned into a riot where at least one Muslim woman had her headscarf pulled off as she ran away from an attacker, as well as multiple attacks on young Lebanese Australian men. At least one Jewish Australian boy and one Greek Australian girl was also attacked.
Many of the white Australians who took part in the demonstration appeared to be poorer and less educated than average Australians. While not an excuse for racist behaviour, poor, uneducated people with racist sentiments tend to be more open about their racism than middle class whites. This is especially the case when such people are with their ‘mates’: ‘mateship’ tends to be more important to everyday life for working class Australians compared to the competitive individualism of the middles classes.
The racist protesters / rioters are the same people who have been under pressure from industrial relations reforms introduced by the right-wring Prime Minister, John Howard. The reforms, introduced last year, undermines traditional minimum workplace guarantees. Also of note at the riot was the disproportionate number of men. As in most Western countries, male identification with their jobs is becoming increasingly weak given the historical decline in secure full-time male employment, and this combined with other factors have led to abusive behaviour and drinking. Behaviour linked with heavy drinking was a notable feature of the riot.
The Lebanese-Australians themselves are also under government attack because of the demonisation of Muslims because of the ‘war on terror.’ Arrests of terrorist suspects in Australia have all been Muslim, and Muslims have been the main or collateral casualties of the war on terror. In fact, however, many Lebanese Australians are Christian, and some of the Muslims arrested for terrorism charges are white Australian converts to Islam, but these details are lost in the broader public debate. Indeed, referring to the people who were attacked by the 5,000 riot as Lebanese Australians is in itself not an accurate term, as many come from middles eastern countries other than Lebanon.
THE REVENGE ATTACKS
The day after the 5000 riot, a ‘revenge’ attack occurred, with many men of middle eastern appearance entering beach side suburbs in up to 100 cars who then systematically vandalise parked cars. Those attacked included attacks on lone white Australians, one of which has rekindled the ‘soft on Lebanese crime’ accusation.
Mr Morris Iemma, the Premier of New South Wales, which covers the city of Sydney, has suggested that what is needed is more Australian values, and that new units will be introduced into government primary schools to teach Australian values. Mr Iemma said ‘I believe what happened at Cronulla, Maroubra and Brighton-Le-Sands had its roots in a fundamental lack of respect for authority, developed at an early age,’ according to the January 22, 2006 Australian newspaper.
THE HIDDEN VIDEO FOOTAGE
Security camera footage was released on January 19 showing a gang of about 20 men of middle eastern appearance attacking a single white man in Cronulla on the night of December 12, the day of the ‘revenge’ attacks. He suffered a broken arm. The footage had been kept from the public for 5 weeks and has since received extensive broadcast coverage on Australian television.
However, despite the police having the video in their possession for 5 weeks, the Commander responsible for investigating the riots, Dennis Bray, has said that no arrests had so far been made as a result of police checks from the video.
It seemed to be the case that the blame is being put down to more junior officers sitting on the tape and not letting others know about it. According to a Seven Network report the Police Commissioner was said to be “furious” he was not informed about the of the tape.
The conservative Opposition Leader Peter Debnam says that the delay in releasing the tape vindicates his earlier assertions that the police had been going soft on the revenge attackers because they are of middle eastern descent. The ethnic minority vote, especially the middle eastern one, has traditionally gone to the ruling Labor party.
Mr Debnam said that “The Government has had this tape for more than a month. They’ve now released it under media pressure. There’s 200 thugs on the streets of Sydney who should be in jail, that’s the issue. I’m saying to the Government ‘get in their face, get ‘em arrested, get ‘em locked up’.” Clearly, Debnam is playing to the gallery, as well as overlooking problems of due process when he says that people should just be arrested and locked up.
THE SACKING OF THE SENIOR POLICE INVESTIGATOR
Following the public release of the video the head of Strike Force set to investigate the Cronulla riots has been stood aside following claims police failed to arrest those responsible for revenge attacks, according to the January 20 Age newspaper.
The police commissioner, Mr Moroney, said he was unhappy Superintendent Bray had not released the footage earlier.
“Clearly, there was material there that he could have been releasing and should have been releasing to the general community,” Mr Moroney told Southern Cross Radio Broadcasting.
In a clear public rebuke, Mr Moroney said that “Effective forthwith, Detective Superintendent Ken Mackay … will assume command of [the Strike Force]. Dennis [Bray] will return to his … position as detective chief inspector at Blacktown,” reported the January 20 Age.
The decision to remove Bray from the position seems to have been made on the hoof. According to an opinon piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 22, he was sacked by a telephone call to his home 12.30am.
This has caused a backlash among police officers, according to an AAP report in the January 20 Australian newspaper.
A meeting of 30 officers investigating the Cronulla riots has called on the Police Commissioner Ken Moroney to publicly apologise to Acting Detective Superintendent Dennis Bray and to reinstate him.
The NSW Police Association (union) president Bob Pritchard said the video was withheld in accordance with established policies.
“Members of the task force are dismayed that video footage crucial to the investigation has been released to the public and will therefore compromise their investigation,” Mr Pritchard said in a statement. However Mr Pritchard did not elaborate on how releasing the video would ‘compromise’ police investigations.
The police officers connected with the Cronulla riots will hand a list of demands agreed to unanimously at the meeting to Mr Moroney on January 23. The officers have threathened industrial action, some 3 days before the Australia Day public holiday.
Mr Moroney has announced that the number on the Cronulla riots strike force will be increased from 28 to 100. He also anncouned that a permanent Middle Eastern crime squad will be established.
One reason why the public release of the video seems to have been so extensive is the wide-spread revulsion of 30 men attacking a lone man. This cuts across a wide-spread Australian cultural perception of acceptable masculinity that it is cowardly and unacceptable or un-Australian to engage in physcial violence unless there is an equal number of people on both sides. Groups of young men of middle eastern descent, the perceived ‘Lebanese gangs,’ may also grate against white Australian cultural perceptions: Australian young people may be less likely to socialise in large groups, and being with others of the same ethnic identity is a way to protect oneself from racist violence.
This value was illustrated by the intervention of Ahmed Jajieh, born in Australia and of Lebanese descent, who bravely intervened in the bashing that was captured on video. The 24 year old said ‘I felt sorry for the guy. It’s not right – 30 blokes on one person.’ He added ‘But I am Australian and I am not captured by my background.’
Before his removal from the strike force, Superintendent Bray said there was even more video footage of the revenge attacks. “Again we’re working through those images, and at the appropriate time I’ll release them.”
Possibily reacting to media pressure, on the very same day that the video was made public, NSW police arrested two people in relation to the revenge attacks, and therefore presumably of middle eastern appearance. A 16-year-old was charged with various public order offences, and a 17 year old was sent to youth conferencing, according to the January 20 Sydney Morning Herald.
The aftermath of the riots will not go away soon. At the time of writing (23 January) Police Commissioner Maroney attended a meeting with the strike force officers threatening to go on strike, the outcome of which has not yet been made public. One of the right-wing groups who were at the 5,000 riot, Australia First, has asked for protesters to attend Cronulla breach on January 26 to ‘register their disgust with selective policing.’ January 26 is an Australian public holiday marking the arrival of the first white settlement in Australia.
A heavy police presence of about 800 police officers will maintain ‘order’ and it would be a very brave person of middle appearance who would go to that beach on Australia Day. What is certain, however, is that racist tension in Australia is alive and well, and further riots will occur in future.