What I know about Cronulla - Graeme Cole

AMS Staff

Long-term Cronulla resident Graeme Cole writes about his experiences and impressions of his beloved Shire days after the riotous events of December 11

It doesn't take long for "God's country" to fall to new lows. Sydney's "Eden" has been on a down hill run for decades. And despite the initial talk about policing, resources and pulling community leaders together to "work towards a solution", Cronulla's problems are far more deep seated.

My son's local rugby league team was returning from an end of year trip when the unfolding violence at Cronulla was broadcast on radio. Dads and sons had enjoyed a weekend of surf, barbecues and fun. We were worried about friends and families and what might happen in the coming weeks and months if the carnage was to escalate. We knew the mad mob had just pulled the cat's tail. Would the expansive beaches of Cronulla, which had symbolised freedom and enjoyment, become a crucible of fear and hate?

Among my son's team mates were children from Lebanese and Italian backgrounds " born in the Shire " yet in that Sunday’s vitriol they and their fathers would have been bashed. I felt ashamed and saddened about what happened, having grown up in the area and worked in youth ministry in the local parish for many years and now seeing faces I knew from around town showing scant regard for life and decency. The wick was lit and suddenly my home town was on the world stage not for its beauty but for all the wrong reasons. Jokes about the Shire will now resonate to punch lines about rednecks and the brain size of sharks.

There are two major issues at the heart of the events: alcohol was and remains the Shire's and the nation's number one problem. The December 11’s attack on ambulance officers by a drunken mob was nothing new. Turn back the clock 20 years and, as a young reporter working on the local paper, I covered the death of a man at Cronulla Workers' Club. As paramedics tried to save the young man's life a belligerent drunken crowd decided to "put the boot in' to the attending paramedics. One paramedic picked up an oxy-via tank and swung it around to clear the mob. The year was 1984.

A glass in the throat " albeit an accident " took the young man's life. It was a Four-X fuelled February night, hundreds of young men and women were at each other in Dunningham Park, the scene of December 11’s pitched battle with a brutality that shocked and dismayed me.

Fast forward to the 1990s and Caringbah Inn on New Year's Eve when revellers blocked the Kingsway and smashed and kicked passing cars. Move to New Year's Eve 2004 and police are called in to disperse thousands of drunks who had taken over the eastern end of the Kingsway around Northies Hotel. Cronulla once more gained national media coverage. Each week groups of intoxicated young people make their way along Cronulla Mall. There's fear on the streets as well as the beaches. And its Eden's citizens who often dish it out to local residents.

Travel through the Shire on a Friday or Saturday night and you will see the behaviour. This is a story which doesn't make the headlines. It's what the Cronulla Chamber of Commerce speaks about in hushed tones until their shopfronts are damaged. I will be interested to see if the Chairman of the Cronulla Chamber of Commerce condemns the actions of his hotel patrons.

Living a life of leisure in the "Nulla is a right of passage for many young Shire residents. Young kids who live in the western part of the Shire can't wait to turn 18 and move to the "Nulla for the surf and party lifestyle. Work all week, party all weekend. Head out for a surf on a Saturday or Sunday morning and you will hear the drinking stories being recalled in between waves. But Cronulla is not alone: this is our national culture of booze masquerading as a "just another stage of life" rather than calling it for what it is: young people growing into lifestyle which abrogates responsibility. Grog and violence are generational and it's about time we had a national public discussion and debate about the ugly side of Australia.

Sunday's event was shocking not only for its racism but the degree of violence. It sent a message to young people that the way to solve a problem is through bloodshed. Fortunately most young people have been sickened by the downward spiral. What disappointed me was that some of the aggressors were men in their thirties and forties " some I knew by face " who had the potential to offer leadership of a different kind.

Perhaps they had never been shown a different way; perhaps it was something that had been passed on to them from a previous generation. It was ironic that those bare-chested boozers imploring others to defend what "our fathers had fought for" (including my own) showed behaviour reminiscent of jack boot Nazis. Fortunately they are in the minority.

The Shire contains the largest number of Anglo-Saxons in Sydney. It's also a community with its own divisions: the self-made, big money property developers and industry heavy weights live south of the Kingsway and along the waterways (remember Sylvania Waters?) while mainly working class and professional families live to the road's north. There are also plenty of working class and small business people who have made good: John Howard's "forgotten people' enjoying the fruits of plasma prosperity and a new liberalism devoid of social reciprocity.

Celebrities and cricketers like Ricky Ponting and Glenn McGrath call the place home. When people leave the Shire often choose the far North Coast, the northern suburbs of Wollongong or the Sunshine Coast of Queensland - the home of Hansonism - not cosmopolitan Sydney.

Traditional jobs have progressively disappeared from big industry such as the Caltex oil refinery at Kurnell, Carbon Black and other manufacturing industries around Taren Point and North Caringbah. However, unemployment is not the problem. The Shire also boasts among the highest number of tradespeople for any local government area in NSW.

Its tough ministering to people in their twenties and who are living in Cronulla: this part of the population is highly transient. Lots of people move in, cohabitate with friends or partners then move on within year or two. Long-term residents of the area were appalled at Sunday's display of stupidity and racism.

The second issue is about young people feeling alienated and their attempts to find identity and meaning. Middle Eastern gangs are a reality. Violence, intimidation and abuse do exist: I know from personal experience. Many of these young kids are not comfortable in their own skin, have been disadvantaged and are struggling to find a place in the world where they can be accepted and loved for who they are. When significant adults are not part of the transition process to adulthood the peer group becomes the "significant other' with its "gangsta' and drug culture.

While everyone will attempt to make political mileage out of the current milieu the fact of the matter is that the gang problem at North Cronulla Beach dates back to the 1970s when Sharpie gangs roamed the beaches and beat up surfers travelling home on trains from the city. Today the stakes are higher, the language and threats stronger and the violence much more flagrant. I knew the local photographer who was bashed following the initial attack on North Cronulla lifesavers.

Years ago I gave up driving to the beach on a Sunday. I will not park my car along the beachfront or contemplate surfing at North Cronulla at the height of summer. I walk from my mum's place. There are kilometres of surf breaks along Bate Bay and it isn't worth the cost of being abused or having your car stolen or damaged by groups of young men along the Elouera to North Cronulla beachfront. There are countless times when cars have been broken into or have been vandalised. We resigned ourselves to "just live with it.'

Even driving home from church can have its risks: carloads of young men have tail-gated and abused my wife and daughter. I have friends whose surfboards have been deliberately run over, my son was belted and had his scooter taken from him at a beachside park while parents stood by and threatened me when I came to my four-year old's assistance. These were adults not young men. Then there was my son's pre-school Christmas party at a local beachside park which was stormed by children and gifts taken from their hands as parents stood by. 

During the past week my family has lay awake listening to sirens and awoken to police helicopters as they pursued cars following "hit and runs' around Caringbah. Only a short distance away a man was stabbed, shops smashed, a woman shot at, another followed home and threatened, tyres blown out, and a shopping centre "locked down.' Going to Cronulla to visit my mum at night has been like crossing Check Point Charlie on the old East German border.

Thirdly, December 11 should be placed in the broader context of the world stage. Six local girls were killed in the first Bali bombing and many more escaped the fire of the Sari Club. The war on terror has come home in a much more tangible way: the Kingsway feels like the Baghdad Highway and people have changed their behaviour out of fear. However until the last day or so there has been no coalition of the willing, only a coalition of hate. In the past week we have felt more like residents of Brixton or Paris than people of the sleepy Shire. Sydney and Australia has changed forever.

People on both sides of this conflict need to search their own hearts and minds and repent of all that is evil and wrong in the sight of God. Like Eden's fall, fear has reigned supreme between people and God and among people: "But God called to man, "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9). He answered, "I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid." The second recorded incident of sin following was Cain's murder of Abel (Genesis 4). Fear and violence are closely linked.

Yes there is trouble in paradise" it's been that way for a long time but when will it end? In Cronulla it has been Christians leading much of the reconciliation: praying, meeting and dialoguing with others. Cronulla's surfing community has apologised to representatives of Sydney's Lebanese community. Brad Whittaker, a Christian, Beach Manager for Sutherland Shire Council and champion longboard rider, secured apologies from local surfers after Sunday's event. High profile rugby league player and Christian Jason Stevens has been calling for reconciliation and a prayer and worship meting has been organised for this Sunday. Christian surfers are active and some are talking of a surf school to build bridges of friendship and trust.

Paul's call to the people of Athens - "men of Athens I see you are religious in every way" " was as much a call to abandon those things which give meaning and identity: identity not grounded in the one true God "in whom we live and move and have our being." This same God is the great reconciler who brings love and forgiveness to those that seek Him and call upon His name. Those who know and love Him are building the bridges of peace and hope in a fearful community. They have no fear because they know to whom they belong.

Graeme Cole is Public Affairs Manager with Wesley Mission, Sydney and a former Cronulla youth worker, who has worked as a journalist on local papers and The Australian. He worships at St Andrew’s Cronulla.