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DIY Sovereignty and the Cronulla Riots

In early December 2005, an SMS text started doing the rounds of Sutherland shire locals.

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It was an invitation.

“Aussies: This Sunday every f***ing Aussie in the shire, get down to North Cronulla to help support Leb and Wog bashing day. Bring your mates down and let’s show them that this is our beach and their never welcome back.”

This coincided with broadcasts by popular Sydney radio announcer Alan Jones, who reminded listeners of his role in raising consciousness triggering the event: “I’m the person that’s led this charge here. Nobody wanted to know about North Cronulla, now it’s gathered to this.”

Was there any reference to race in Jones’ broadcasts? “We don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in western Sydney,” he said. What about vigilantism? When a caller named John suggested, “If the police can’t do the job, the next tier is us”, Jones’ response was: “Yeah, good on you John.”

The cultural festival of sorts took place on 11 December 2005. A few thousand people turned up for a barbecue and a few beers. OK, more than a few beers. Some attendees covered themselves with the Australian flag. The air was filled with a passionate chorus of “We grew here, you flew here.”

Not all locals could attend. In her 2007 article ‘Cruising : ‘moral panic’ and the Cronulla riot’, July Lattas wrote about a group of Cronulla youths who were away on a schoolies cruise when they heard about the event. They said that as their cruise sailed back to Sydney under the Harbour Bridge, “pumped-up young Shire people [struck] up a chant of ‘White Pride!’ and ‘Shi-ire!’”

The riot was apparently in response to some young Lebanese boys misbehaving toward lifesavers and making lewd and racist remarks at young women on the beach. We’re also led to believe that this behaviour is part of a broader problem with Lebanese/Muslims not integrating, becoming radicalised, etc.

Yet surely a drunken race riot is not the most temperate response to a few boys misbehaving. If Cronulla and subsequent rallies by Reclaim Australia held every few months are anything to go by, the non-Lebanese and non-Muslim communities are equally capable of exhibiting violent extremism in word and deed. And drunken race riots weren’t part of the values I learned at pre-school, kindergarten, infants, primary and secondary school in Sydney.

Then again, smashing shop windows and randomly attacking people (as happened during reprisal attacks) aren’t exactly part of the core values of Australia or Lebanon for that matter. Lebanon is one of the Middle East’s most cosmopolitan nations, where people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds live in peace.

The Cronulla rioters saw the beach as almost their sovereign territory, and wanted to exclude outsiders, especially Lebanese and Muslims. As Dr Amelia Johns puts it in her recently published book ‘Battle for the Flag’, the Cronulla riots were an act of “DIY Sovereignty”.

We can’t build enduring Australian patriotism by imagining we live in small sovereign spaces where only “our” kind are welcome. Australia is what it is – multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional. So what if I grew here while you flew or sailed here. As our national anthem reminds us: “For those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share”.​

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and author working on a PhD on counter terrorism at Deakin University.

Watch SBS’s award-winning documentary ‘Cronulla Riots: The Day That Shocked the Nation’ on SBS2 Thursday 9.30pm. Ten years on, is Australia more tolerant? Take our poll.

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