Quiet riot: The race to ‘another Cronulla’

Cronulla, 2005

Another Cronulla?

It’s a question that has been floating in the back of my mind for a year or more, a mildly interrogative tally of the situation every time tensions in Melbourne have been fanned anew regarding the so-called ‘African gangs’ panic.

The same question has been bandied about quite freely since Christmas, in light of a widely publicised far-right show of strength planned for St Kilda beach this Saturday. Has the tinder finally been lit for another outbreak of race-based violence, as a loose consortium of racists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other far-right agitators and hangers-on vow to “reclaim” St Kilda beach, taking as their invitation recent heavily reported acts of theft and violence?

There are a number of reasons I strongly suspect we won’t see ‘another Cronulla’ per se in Melbourne — at least not this Saturday.

Over the past fortnight I’ve slowly ambled my way up the News South Wales south coast. From the pristine bays of Ben Boyd National Park through the holiday havens of Merimbula, Tuross Head and Dolphin Point, the beaches have been in full summer glory. Curving sweeps of golden sand, rolling breakers and hissing froth, seal-like surfers and cavorting kids — there are familiar and recurring touchstones, yet no two beaches are remotely the same.

There is, however, one thing that each of these coastal enclaves has had in common. To the last, they have been populated by an overwhelmingly white beachgoer. One could be forgiven for imaging the White Australia Policy was still alive and well in this country, at least on her shores. Not all wore Australian flag shorts and sported sun-faded Southern Cross tattoos, but many did. This bronzed and sunburnt whiteness continued as we moved north, taking in Gerringong, Kiama and Shellharbour.

I spent my teenage years all but living on these beaches. Apart from being overlooked by larger, gaudier houses their make-up has barely changed. While on the surface everyone appears to be bathing and baking beneath the same blue skies, there are any number of things going on beneath the outwardly calm veneer the ‘outsiders’ and ‘oldies’ are not seeing. Rivalries. Tensions. Turf wars. Many of these built around nothing more than your post code. Anyone who thinks ‘post code gangs’ are a suburban phenomenon has never taken their surfboard into 2528 while the Warilla Boyz are feeling itchy.

By New Year’s Eve we had reached Stanwell Park, an escarpment-locked stretch of beach that stands as the northern gateway to the Illawarra. There remained a stellar array of Southern Crossed calves, shoulders and backs. Yet the beach is a relatively short drive from Sydney’s multicultural southwest. Compared to the more southerly reaches of the coast, it reflected far more closely the way the rest of Australia looks today. Skimpy bikinis and full-length burkinis combined with nary a flare-up and people seemed, somehow, to cope.

I spent much of the 2000s as a journalist reporting on a stretch of Sydney from Marrickville to the burbs beyond Bankstown, taking in areas such as Punchbowl and Lakemba. I was there in December 2005, when the Cronulla riots and their aftermath unfolded. Unsurprisingly, these events did not arise out of the blue. There had long been simmering tensions on Sydney’s southern beaches - mostly born of machismo, but territorial fault lines had clearly opened along racial lines. Talkback radio was more than happy to get its vilification on and the rest of what took place is well-documented history.

Many of the ingredients leading up to Cronulla have been more or less replicated in Melbourne over the past year or two. The racialising of crime reporting. The media playing up and obliviously or enthusiastically driving division. Political point scoring. Scapegoating of migrants and refugees for everything from car-stealing and job-stealing to being the clear reason you’re sitting in more and more traffic each day.

Yet Melbourne is not Sydney. This is not about rivalry, about Melbourne being more progressive or cosmopolitan or harmoniously multicultural. It’s in many ways about urban geography and the resulting fragmented tribalism. Melbourne has its rivers and social divides, its haves and have-nots, but St Kilda is not Cronulla. St Kilda is in many ways the entire city’s beach, whereas Cronulla is resolutely the sandy bastion of The Shire. Without resorting too heavily to stereotypes of ‘God’s country’, there is a protective, parochial and deeply masculine mentality that made it difficult to act surprised when close to 5000 people descended on the beachfront chanting “Aussie Pride” and some other choice slogans, guzzling ice cold frothies and baying for blood when “the Lebs” appeared.

Cronulla happened without Facebook. It existed, just, but had not been open to the wider public. Joe Tradie did not have an account. So how was it organised? On top of incitement by Alan Jones, something like 270,000 text messages were sent encouraging people down to Cronulla that weekend for some racially motivated biff.

It was scattergun, but effective. Fast-forward to 2019 and the power of Facebook to aid the organisation of the far-right cannot be understated. Look at the heavy use of Facebook by the likes of convicted criminal white supremacists Neil Erikson and Blair Cottrell to post inflammatory manifestvideos, to mass rally ‘the troops’ down to St Kilda for ‘a political meeting’ on Saturday.

Yet this is only half the story. While Facebook is certainly being used to build a presence at St Kilda, that’s looking at the whole stunt through the wrong end of the microscope. The event itself is in large part a public space recruitment drive to build the Facebook following. There is a Facebook post attributed to Erikson that has been floating about in recent days that spells this out. Although almost certainly a fake, it nevertheless captures the process and motivation clearly at play.

The frisson of potential violence and ‘another Cronulla’ is as much a pitch to the media to ensure blanket coverage before and after the event as it is a call to arms. In fact far moreso. Erikson one-trick agitprop schtick is blunt and amateurish, yet as a marketing ploy it has already worked a treat, earning invaluable TV time. ABC has branded him an ‘activist’. Channel 9 has broadcast him belching out the classic “we grew here you flew here”, while telling us Melbourne is in the grip of a ‘race war’. In a video posted to social media and since deleted, Cottrell explained the value of this kind of strategy:

“Every time we’ve ever been on television, every time we’ve ever been in the media, it’s only ever worked out for us. It only ever made our support go through the roof.”

Erikson’s puerile modus operandi is to stir trouble, not start trouble. It seems a quibble, yet it’s the crux of his baiting and stunts and video-driven antics. Being Melbourne, the far-right turnout at St Kilda will inevitably be overwhelmed by counter-protest. The highly publicised nature of any potential ‘clash’ means Victoria Police will be out in enormous numbers, a very different situation to the outnumbered force in Cronulla. This fact is central to the far-right ploy. They many not say it, but they consider Victoria Police their own private security detail, ensuring their safety from a left they dearly hope will clash with police, increasing the likelihood media will run a narrative that there is somehow an equivalence between those there to foment hate and those opposed to this message.

While my mind has occasionally returned to Cronulla, this is not the format I see playing out in Melbourne. The racist rhetoric and not-so-subtle exhortations to violence are unlikely to find a foothold during such a heavily policed stage-managed pantomime. My concern is that they nevertheless take hold, normalising and mainstreaming extremism, then play out in other, more fragmented ways. On darkened streets. In smaller groups. Another Liep Gony. Another Minh Duong.

In many ways, the African-Australian community has already been living through ‘another Cronulla’. A ‘soft’ Cronulla. There has been heated debate this week about comparisons made between Australia’s offshore detention facilities and Auschwitz. The horrors of Auschwitz that we know are the endpoint of a long and committed process; Cronulla too was simply the most visible flashpoint of an ongoing process of division and othering.

Cronulla had thousands of people ready to exact an imagined revenge not on a particular perpetrator of violence, but simply anybody “of Mediterranean appearance”. This situation has been replicated in relation to people “of African appearance”, particularly the South Sudanese population. Othering, collective punishment, vile threats and actual acts of violence — this is ongoing and escalating, occuring with regular media complicity and tacit or overt political acceptance.

So what does Saturday on St Kilda have to do with African gangs? Precisely nothing. The African-Australian community is, as we saw with the recent Victorian state election and as it has been for at least a decade now, leverage. A scapegoat. Collateral. A pawn in a greater power play.

Will media coverage reflect any of this? Will the usual pundits reflect upon this? Will political players decry or simply roll over and accept this?

I will be heading to the beach on Saturday. It will not be St Kilda, but my thoughts will be there. As I plunge into the breakers, considering these questions, I will very much be holding my breath.