'All it took was a trigger': the racism of the Cronulla riots, 15 years on

This week marks 15 years since the Cronulla riots, with some community leaders saying Australia has not learned the lessons of one of its darkest days.

A man threatens police at Cronulla Beach during the riots.

A man threatens police at Cronulla Beach during the riots. Source: AAP

As the Cronulla riots erupted on 11 December, 2005, people across the country were shocked by the images of racial violence in the Sydney beachside suburb.

But not all Australians were surprised by what they saw.

"I was obviously horrified ... [But] no, I was not completely surprised," Roland Jabbour told SBS News, 15 years on. "As I said at the time, these tensions had been building and all it took was a trigger." 

A police officer tries to protect a man from being punched during the Cronulla riots.
Source: AAP

At the time, Mr Jabbour was the chairman of the Australian Arabic Council, a position he still holds.

"It brought to the surface the ugly face of racism and bigotry," he said.

And today, Mr Jabbour is again warning Australia has not adequately addressed such issues. 

"There are many lessons [from the riots] and unfortunately we have not really learned them and have not put them into practice. We tend to forget about these sorts of events and pretend that all is good," he said.

"Racism is well-entrenched [in Australia] … It's an underlying issue in our community and all it takes is an incident, a certain trigger to bring this to the surface."

'Leb and Wog bashing day'

On the morning of 11 December 2005, thousands of people descended on Cronulla after text messages calling for a "Leb and Wog bashing day" had been shared widely.

In the hours that followed, a number of people were attacked and images of the violence circulated around the world. Some countries went on to issue travel warnings for Australia.

SBS interactive: Cronulla Riots - The day that shocked the nation

Said Kanawati was part of a delegation from United Muslims of Australia who visited Cronulla and Maroubra beaches in the days after the riots to assist with reconciliation efforts.

"People knew there was an element of racism [in Australia], but they didn't know it was to this degree," he said. 

A crowd gathers outside Northies Hotel in Cronulla on 11 December, 2005.
Source: AAP

Mr Kanawati now helps run a course with United Muslims of Australia called Towards Understanding Islam.

He said one of his biggest concerns in the 15 years since the riots is the language coming from state and federal parliaments.

"Racism in the political arena has, no doubt about it, become much worse. It's disgustingly worse."

Said Kanawati (centre) speaks with community members in Maroubra days after the Cronulla riots.
Source: AAP

Mr Kanawati cited a comment One Nation leader Pauline Hanson made in 2017 where she said: "Islam is a disease, we need to vaccinate ourselves against that".

"If a politician is saying this, what are the followers of that politician saying?" he said.

"[And] what message are they giving to the broader community, to those who are on the border of being racist?"

'You and us' mentality

Mr Kanawati also cited the international political environment, specifically the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, as another area of concern for Australian race relations.

Early on in his presidency, Mr Trump ordered a travel ban on citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries and has a long record of inflammatory comments towards certain faiths and minorities.

"Creating a 'you and us' mentality is quite dangerous," Mr Kanawati said.

A man is attacked by a crowd at Cronulla Beach during the riots.
Source: AAP

It is a point echoed by Tim Soutphommasane, Australia's former race discrimination commissioner.

"When public figures stir up racial hatred, it can easily escalate into racist violence. That's what we saw in Cronulla 15 years ago," he said.

SBS Voices: The legacy of the Cronulla riots - How many Arab-Australians will remember Alan Jones

"The lesson of Cronulla should be that when we have figures appealing to prejudice and hatred, they need to be held to account. And we can't be complacent about countering racism when it is publicly aired.

"[And recently], there has been an ideological push to attack anti-racism, and to use free speech as a defence for racial hatred."

Cronulla Beach one week after the 2005 riots.
Source: AAP

Professor Soutphommasane, who is now with the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, also said some Australian media outlets have not learned the lesson of the riots.

"It's concerning to find that, in some sections of our media, commentators seem to be able to make regular appeals to prejudice and intolerance and often without suffering any consequences," he said.

"Given the rise of nationalist populism and far-right extremism across many liberal democracies, there remains a need for strong vigilance towards racism."

The rise of keyboard warriors

One of the biggest changes to race relations both locally and internationally since the Cronulla riots has been the rise of social media.

When the riots took place in 2005, Facebook had only just launched and Twitter did not yet exist.

"Now we've got the digital space which is another platform to perpetrate racism - it's another layer that we are not dealing with. [Australia] tends to be reactive rather than proactive," Mr Jabbour said.

Chairman of the Australian Arabic Council Roland Jabbour.
Source: Supplied

Mr Kanawati said social media provides the space for more extreme views to reach a wider audience than ever before.

"We now have keyboard warriors, that are 'brave' enough to do all their stuff in the safety of their bedroom, behind their computer," he said.

"[On social media] we have extremists on both ends of the spectrum that I feel are becoming more extreme ... they have more of a platform."

Social media has played a role in many high-profile racist attacks since the Cronulla riots, including the 2019 Christchurch mosques massacre.

But Mr Jabbour said addressing racism or racist groups online poses difficult questions.

"There's always going to be a question of balance - at what point do you intervene and stop such activities without infringing on freedom of speech?"

Everyday racism persists 

While Australia has not seen large-scale race riots since 2005, material from the Australian Human Rights Commission says that about one in five Australians experience racism each year.

Professor Soutphommasane said the onus is firmly on state and federal governments to lead the fight against racism.

"There must be a redoubling of efforts against racism. And that must start with political leaders having zero tolerance of racism," he said.

SBS Voices: My wedding day was marred by the Cronulla riots

"There hasn't been any specific federal funding of an anti-racism strategy in Australia since 2015. This is remarkable for a country that likes to consider itself the most successful multicultural society in the world.

"Racism doesn't always involve physical violence or threatening mobs. It doesn't have to involve ugly threats or intimidation. Racism can be dealt out with polite respectability, too. It can take the form of structural or institutional racism."

An anti-racism protest held in Melbourne a week after the 2005 Cronulla riots.
Source: AAP

Mr Jabbour agreed there was "no quick fix" to address racism and that Australia needed a far more coherent longer-term strategy.

"When such incidents come to the surface, [governments] tend to look for community leaders and community organisations and provide them with some funding ... unfortunately these are band-aid solutions and really do not deal with the core of the issue," he said.

"The approach needs to be much more substantial, much broader... It needs to start with education at the school level. We need to accept that our differences are a source of richness.

"We all know that ignorance often breeds fear. Not knowing 'the other', and portraying 'the other' as foreign from the main body of society, then you tend to fear them."

Mr Kanawati said there had been a number of positive changes since the Cronulla riots, such as workplaces taking racism much more seriously.

"[And] people stop my wife in the street and say nice things, like 'nice colour hijab you've got on'. So there's been friendliness too ... People wanting to show not all Anglo-Australians are like the rioters."

But, he said, every Australian is responsible for helping make sure an event like the Cronulla riots never happens again.

"Every single person has to stand up and fight racism, and it's got to begin at home, at the family dinner table," he said.

Nick Baker is a freelance journalist who grew up in the Sutherland Shire

Published 10 December 2020 at 5:57am
By Nick Baker