Racism or patriotism? An eyewitness account of the Cronulla demonstration of 11 December 2005.

Author:Barclay, Ryan

This article provides an eye-witness account of the Cronulla demonstration of 11 December 2005. It puts various interpretations of the demonstration to the test via the writers' observations of what happened. They conclude that the 'beach culture' the residents were defining was seen by them as an expression of their patriotism rather than of prejudice towards their Lebanese antagonists.


On 11 December 2005, there was an important event on Cronulla Beach in southern Sydney. It was called a race riot by the media and a demonstration of white Australia. In this article the authors describe what happened on the day itself, and assess its importance. We cannot possibly comment on all the events that have happened subsequent to that day. Instead, we wish to present an eyewitness account of the day itself. But before doing so, we must ask about the Australian national character and the nature of Australian patriotism.

The question of our national character has been much discussed in Australia. Visitors to our shores often want to talk about the character of the Australian people; although many have raised the question of who is an Australian. The best account is still that of Russel Ward:

According to the myth the 'typical' Australian is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry an appearance of affectation in others. He is a great improviser, ever willing to 'have a go' at anything, but willing too to be content with a task done in a way that is 'near enough'. Though capable of great exertion in an emergency, he normally feels no impulse to work hard without good cause. (1) This captures some of the laconic nature of the much-discussed 'typical' Australian. (This has nothing to do with the average Australian.) Many have asked what makes the Australian people distinctive. At the Sydney, 2000 Olympics, the British newspaper The Guardian said that: 'The mixture of efficiency, friendliness and boundless enthusiasm is uniquely Australian'. (2) It seems that Australians are often patriotic without being excessively so; Carroll finds that Australian cricket crowds are not blindly patriotic, for they cheer West Indian or other non-Australian cricketers and do not cheer for their own country in any mindless way. (3) Newcomers are welcomed by Australians, says Carroll, as long as they are willing to leave their ethnic conflicts behind. Thus Australians seem to have a talent for being inclusive and welcome strangers to their shores. (4)

But there has also been a strain of racism in the Australian national identity. Fear of the Chinese on the goldfields led to violent acts against Chinese gold-seekers in the 1850s. The Australian nation was formed in 1901 in part because of fear of Japan and fear of cheap labour from the Pacific Islands. And white Australians have historically been neglectful and complacent about Aboriginal people. (5) The racist strain is there.


Many observers have commented on the importance of the beach in Australian culture. Australia has made many aspects of the beach part of its national identity. The beach, lifesavers and many other aspects of beach culture have been praised as Australian symbols or icons. This was evident in the way that our beach culture was proudly displayed to the rest of the world at the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games. These portrayals are accepted as national symbols because the beach is a relatively normal part of daily Australian life and, still more, of Australian holidays. The vast majority of Australians are urban coastal dwellers, and live near a beach of some description as more than 90 per cent of Australians live along the country's coastal fringes. (6)

Beach behaviour encompasses a wide range of things, although there have been changes as Australian society has become more liberal. For example, until 1902, it was against the law to swim during daylight hours and without full neck-to-knee coverage, and it was considered immoral for men and women to swim at the same time. The abolition of these laws, along with the introduction of surfing in 1915, led to the beach becoming more important in Australian culture. (7) Nowadays, on any given weekend there are thousands of people on Australia's beaches, including Sydney's. People at the beach include surf lifeguards (volunteers on the weekend) and paid council lifesavers (during the working week), surfers, fathers and mothers with their children, older people, fishermen, and fitness enthusiasts. While at the beach, people swim, sunbake, enjoy watching other people, eat food and drink (often including alcohol). Some play a wide range of sports such as cricket, soccer, volleyball or rugby. Thus the range of behaviour on the beach is wide. People do not, as a rule, care very much about the religious beliefs, opinions or other aspects of those lying near them. The beach in Australia is a public domain open to use by everyone. Nobody owns the beach; it is a space shared by those who turn up. It is normal for a beach to include gays and straights, people of any religious belief, and any number of cultures. Beach-goers take in the sun and surf, read, or just lie on the sand. This detail is necessary because the events at Cronulla focussed public attention on how people behaved at the beach and how some disrupted normal behaviour.


It might seem paradoxical that trouble happened at Cronulla, rather than on another Sydney beach. Cronulla Beach is a strong contrast to Bondi Beach, which is a short bus ride from the centre of Sydney, and is a public beach, well-patronised by tourists. On this beach on almost any day you can find backpackers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Scandinavia, Canada and dozens of other countries. A section of the beach is largely inhabited by gay men. There is an outdoor gym frequented by bodybuilders. It has an exuberant Brazilian population drumming and playing beach volleyball, and an annual Islander Festival. Many celebrities visit Bondi beach and are photographed there.

Cronulla Beach is quite different. It is part of the Sutherland Shire, known informally as 'the insular peninsular'. It does not have the extremes and the loud brassy nature of Bondi, nor does it have the backpacker-tourist flavour of other city beaches. It...

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