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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sydney's 'race riots' (bloody hell, actual news!).

You may have heard that Sydney is currently experiencing a few public order difficulties. This is not a new phenomenon. It's summer, beaches and sunshine attract young people and have always been regarded as territory. Add beer into the mix, a liberal dosage of racial intolerance, beat well and hey presto your very own riot-ette.

The actual facts of how the race riots came to be are both unclear and unimportant. The events of the previous weekend are part of an ongoing attitude of intolerance by everyone concerned. The state premier has said that the riots are a sign of an undercurrent of racism in Australian society, I'm rather afraid he might be right. The Prime Minister said that he did not think that this was the case, even Aussies have greeted this with a degree of disbelief.

This is difficult to explain and has a lot to do with the Australian national character being more than a trifle confrontational. In absolutely no regard is anyone blameless in this situation, everyone involved has some level of culpability. That is not to suggest that there are no victims. As normal everyone ends up suffering for the actions of the idiotic few.

Talking to people this week everyone has some dubious 'a friend of mine' story of being hassled by 'Lebs' on the beach (people of middle-eastern appearance, normally young men). Most of these seem to centre around dress code with people being surrounded and told to cover-up if the girls are wearing bikinis. This pretty much typifies how everyone approaches this situation. The caucasian majority are not too keen on people that look different and the immigrant population are not too keen on assimilating. These stories were all too prevalent and the Aussies were a bit too quick to give them to everyone else.

The original intent of the protests at Cronulla was as a demonstration against gangs on the beach. This demonstration was meant to be a peaceful family event . A text message was sent round by someone who had clearly got the wrong idea calling on people to 'reclaim their beach'. From that point on the whole process seems to have been hijacked by people who had an axe to grind.

The media too must take their share of the blame, which is a sizeable chunk in their case. You may have seen footage and photographs of the riots and they are as unpleasant as one might expect. I doubt very much if anything about them struck you as odd. Compare these pictures to other footage you have seen of riots. All the shots are very close up and are taken from the point of view of the rioter. The photographers and cameramen were in the thick of the action, right in the middle of it. How the hell did they get there?

The media had been talking this story up all week into a race issue in the hope of actually having something to report. Their presence is enough to bring about the display mentality and alchohol and group presence the diminished responsibility that triggered people into idiocy. The reporters were going into the heart of the crowd and asking difficult questions of people that had not the intellect, the vocabulary or inclination to answer. Something the replies showed up:
"No I'm not a racist. I love everyone. We've just had e-fucking-nough. We've had e-fucking-nough."
What he'd had e-fucking-nough of he didn't say, possibly this was the subject of the leading question given to him by the journalist looking for a good vox-pop or possibly he didn't have the wit to qualify his statement.

And then there are the racists, quite a lot of them. Many of them were wearing the cross of the 1854 Eureka rebellion. This flag is very similar in intent to the American confederate cross. This is a shame because it should have none of the racist overtones given its origins. The Eureka rebellion ought to occupy a place in Australian cultural history similar, to that Magna Carta has in England - smaller scale obviously.

Despite all the sound and fury this was pretty small beer as far as riots go. Nothing got burned, no-one was killed, there was no looting and no planned violence. LA, Paris, London and just about anywhere that has had real civil unrest would have laughed this off. To give you some kind of idea of the scale of it, there has been worse violence at football matches in the UK, probably with more pronounced racist overtones. So how did it get in to headlines worldwide? Well for a start because the Australian media are keen to make a name for themselves and really want to export news as much as they import it - which is a little difficult as they are a bit short on product - also because the way they report here has to be seriously overblown to make an impact on an unusually pragmatic and sanguine populace, something that doesn't translate very well elswhere. Secondly because the received image of Australia elswhere in the world is red desert with some kangaroos in it interspersed with beach paradise inhabited by sports obsessed beer drinkers - which is more or less correct - the idea that Australia has overwhelming social issues is a bit new to people who don't think very hard about its' origins and history i.e. everyone. And lastly because nothing happens here and anything of significance happening in Australia is news almost for that reason alone.

The police in any country do not normally cover themselves in glory in situations like this but I have to say the Sydney police seem to have handled themselves pretty well. They protected people from the mob, didn't get involved, and didn't allow themselves to become a target. Actual violence was for the larger part confined to property, there were a few unlucky individuals but it could have much, much uglier. The reaction afterwards has been enourmous. There have been peace and anti-racism rallies, emergency legislation and additional police brought in. All the beaches were locked down this weekend with police putting roadblocks up, searching cars and in real trouble spots not allowing anyone but residents access to the beach. This could be seen as a major over reaction but the police did manage to confiscate a few petrol bombs and some home-made weaponry but total arrests this weekend were in single figures. It is also only 2 weeks to Christmas, and Aussies spend Christmas on the beach. Everyone wants this finished before it ruins the biggest holiday of the year. The cynical amongst us might also be tempted to suggest that this is a result of the Prime Minister being asked difficult questions at an international conference. Whatever the reasons the beach was beautifully quiet. If that is the way things are going to be then the police can have road blocks every weekend.