Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Riots in Sydney

Dark days loom in Cronulla

The news coming from my old home over the last few days has been worrying. A confrontation between a group of Lebanese-Australians and two white lifeguards seems to have caused underlying tensions to erupt. Nobody seems to know exactly what happened - maybe the Lebanese were running, divebombing, or indulging in heavy petting. It escalated from there and this weekend mobs of 'Anglo-Saxon' men went on the rampage - they might as well just call them racists - assaulting people of Mediterranean or Arabic appearance. Police made dozens of arrests in suburbs of South East Sydney - most of them in Cronulla (above) which I visited just over a year ago (see Dec 2004 archive). Predictably gangs of 'Middle-Eastern' youths responded with violence of their own, peaking on Monday night in an attack on Cronulla which forced people to run for their front doors...

...More than a dozen men leapt out of a van and jumped on [parked] cars, smashing the windows with baseball bats. Through a megaphone, they challenged residents to come out and face them. Those inside turned off the lights and hid behind the blinds. (Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 14th, 2005)

Now in an entire year of living in Sydney - I never once came across any racism. Although I'm not of 'Middle-Eastern' apperance of course - I'm a non-racist 'Anglo-Saxon', albeit more 'Anglo' than most Sydneysiders. I didn't even get much anti-English stuff either, even when Flintoff and the boys were creaming them in the Ashes all summer. But like most big cities, Sydney has a problem - segregation. This has come about as a result of two factors; size and community.

Sydney sprawls over such a colossal area that people building houses and communities were free to go where they liked - you go on a train from the Pacific coast to the Blue Mountains, it takes two hours to chug through the seemingly endless Western Suburbs. So new arrivals had plenty of choice when they had to find somewhere to live. The second factor then took over - everyone arriving in Australia is an immigrant, in the same boat (no pun intended). When you have to start a new life, it's natural to want to live near people that have come from your country, speak your language, can help you start out. Hence communities of single ethnic backgrounds spring up, and as they grow, become isolated.

Sydney has many of these communities. The Turkish community in Auburn, Vietnamese in Cabramatta, Irish in Bondi. Over the years people - for whatever reason - have felt more comfortable living amongst their own, and it's to the detriment of the overall city. Heck, it's something I was guilty of - I could have moved into any of Sydney's suburbs. I chose Paddington because it was popular with young, go-getting types like me (ahem). I could have lived in Eastwood with the Chinese community - but it didn't enter my mind. So when you have isolated communities, some will inevitably become disaffected, which leads to resentment and anger, and eventually there's a spark that ignites it all.

I think the Australians have been genuinely staggered that it has happened in their back yard - and in one of their beachfront neighbourhoods of all places, the most iconic Australian environment. Australia revels in it's 'fair go for everyone' mantra, and rightly takes pride in being a welcoming society. But maybe this has been relied on too much over the recent years, and the changing populations of the cities have combined with the Howard Government's increasingly Republican-esque leanings to tarnish that ideal (the Government says every few months that Islamic terrorists attacking Australian cities is not a case of 'if', but 'when'. How can those announcements serve any purpose other than to instill resentment?).

I don't think the problems - as of Tuesday night, when I'm writing this - are as critical as some are making out in the media. There have been recent riots in Paris and Birmingham without societies there falling apart. But the rumblings in Sydney have definately found a nerve - as can be seen from the editorial of Monday's Sydney Morning Herald...

..."A nation's reputation for tolerance has been severely damaged...Australia has changed suddenly and inexplicably into an uglier and darker place [and] is now in a racist cul-de-sac. To progress from here, the whole country needs to stop, examine what has gone wrong in Sydney's beachside suburbs, and find a way to reverse direction."

So if the recent trouble forces the Sydney public to look at themselves, and the authorities to look at the causes of the resentment, then hopefully things like this will be the wake-up call a large city needs to re-discover the wonderful reputation it sorely deserves. Anyway, just my thoughts. My next post will be after the office Christmas party, so will probably be a bit lighter in nature - although with 200 drunk statisticians in an enclosed space - you never know...