Has The Shire Moved On?

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It’s not often you get to quote Frenzal Rhomb — the band that gave us "Johnny Ramone Was In A F*cken Good Band, But He Was A C*nt (Gabba Gabba You Suck)" — on a website like newmatilda.com, but the truth is there are few works that better capture what it can feel like to be from the Sutherland Shire — where the Cronulla riots took place in December 2005 — than the band’s 1997 song "Racist":

To educate when there’s a national debate, on an
Issue that appears to be so straight-forward and
You say it’s alright, but it’s not alright, it’s not alright.
To ignore is to condone it if you think
About it don’t shut up. You might as well be speaking
At the next One Nation meeting.
And everytime you have a pointless dickhead relating
Another unfunny ignorant joke based on pigment you should say
That belongs in yesterday.

Some of my best friends are racist.
I’m not racist but…

It might well be because Frenzal lead guitarist Lindsay McDougall was a "Shirey": an Engadine boy like me, no less. I had to mention that — it’s not often you can associate the Sutherland Shire with anti-racist sentiments these days.

Nearly three years on, it’s hard to say how far the Shire has moved on from the Cronulla riots. On the one hand, the undercurrent of racism which permeates the southern Sydney borough is as strong as ever, but on the other, it’s hard to find anyone from the area who won’t say the riots were an embarrassing blight on the community and the nation.

Nevertheless, if it’s possible in 2008 to have Holocaust deniers, it’s also possible to find apologists for the Cronulla rioters. It won’t surprise me if over the next few years an attitude emerges that the actions of the rioters were blown out of proportion, that the riots were the inevitable culmination of ethnic incompatibility, and that those young Lebanese men would just be better off staying in their part of the city, lest their presence in "God’s Country" provoke any further unrest.

It’s hard for me as a lifelong Shirey not to take personally every news story which seeks to link my home neighbourhood to a culture of racism, but it’s not a reputation we’ve done anything to shake. Very recently my suburb was twice thrust into the wrong kind of limelight: first when Australian Protectionist Party founder Darrin Hodges stood at the local council elections on a ticket of preventing urban development on the basis that it would encourage "Asian-isation", and again just last week when a list of British Nationalist Party membership leaked over the internet revealed local swimming instructor Benjamin Hugh as a member.

Both Hodges and Hugh are Engadine residents.

"It’s the birthplace of the nation," Hodges said of the Shire. "Europeans discovered and built this country and I can’t see any reason why the Shire or any other part of Australia should not remain predominantly European."

"I just feel a connection — like most white Australians — with Britain and my ancestry and I care deeply about the survival of the British people," Hugh was quoted as saying, speaking — he believed — on my behalf too

Racism is just part of the atmosphere in the Shire, and growing up there one just begins to absorb it as comfortably as oxygen. I’ll admit that I never did much to resist the problem: the problem was too widespread and it was easier just to avoid rocking the boat rather than fight a relentless and lost war with people who were and still are my friends (sorry, Frenzal).

Three years ago, reeling from an up-close experience of the riots, I didn’t write an article condemning the atrocities. Everything I wanted to say had already been said and I didn’t feel any need to add my outrage to the pile.

Rather, I wrote an article condemning those who seemed intent on painting the picture as a "Shire issue" rather than an "Australia issue", conveniently ignoring the fact that the rioters had expressed views found across Australia, and that hundreds who took part had come from all parts of the city to do so. It wasn’t simply an impassioned defence of my home borough, but rather an argument that if we allowed ourselves to view the problem as region-specific, we would never really solve it.

In hindsight, though, it is fair to say that the Shire is racist, and it’s a declaration I feel qualified to make having lived there for 23 years (and counting). The area is overwhelmingly white — or, to be more accurate, bronze — and seems to produce in great quantity that particular brand of racist which fears that with which it has had little or no personal experience. "Lebs" are from Lakemba; "Abos" are from Redfern; "Chinks" are from Hurstville: and many Shireys would like to see it stay that way.

I’ll always remember the thing that shook me most about my experience of the riots was the carnival atmosphere about it all, the glee of the crowds, the sense that this was a day they had waited for and dreamed of, and now they were getting it. It would take a few hours for the media coverage to filter through and depict it for the unmitigated bastardry that it was, but for a few hours there, the crowds clearly felt like they had accomplished something great that day in the name of Australia. They really believed they were defending themselves from some sort of foreign attack. It was beyond sickening.

Kurt Vonnegut once recounted how he was asked to make a speech about his experience as a POW trapped in Dresden during the Allied forces’ carpet bombing of the German city, which took place at the tail end of World War II. Vonnegut accepted, though when the time came to make the speech he realised there was nothing that could be said: "Atrocities celebrate meaninglessness, surely. I was mute. I did not mount the stage. I went home."

The same could be said for my experience of the Cronulla riots. What could I say, really, that would make sense of a group of drunken louts viciously beating a defenceless young Lebanese man because they found his ethnicity objectionable? Perhaps it was intellectual hubris to try and make sense of the senseless.

A new play by Roslyn Oades, Stories of Love and Hate, goes some way towards explaining the events of December 2005, primarily because it doesn’t really try to. The play, written — or rather, compiled — and directed by Oades, utilises an "audio-verbatim technique". Instead of reciting memorised lines, the actors wear headphones and speak along to a sequence of carefully edited audio interviews. Over the course of two years, Oades recorded interviews with 65 people from the Shire and Bankstown areas, with ages varying from 14 to 65, not just about the riots but the things they are passionate about.

Hence, the title is not a pretentious conceit but an accurate depiction of what the play is really about, mere stories about love and hate, which were the two driving forces behind that blazingly hot December day.

The play is performed by four actors, a young Anglo woman (Janie Gibson), a young Anglo man (Roderic Bynes), a young Middle Eastern man (Mohammed Ahmad), and a slightly older Mediterranean woman (Katia Molino) who switch between roles, sometimes playing their ethnic or gender opposite.

At one point, Bynes plays the role of a Middle Eastern father who expresses concern over the vengeful attitude of his son following the riot. Even though Ahmad would seem a more suitable choice for this part, having an Anglo actor in the role makes the point that the concerns of these characters cross all cultural divides. While the play sometimes smacks of the hokey "we’re really all the same underneath" argument that’s usually the domain of Disney movies, the riots themselves suggest that it’s still a point worth making.

There are times when the characters and dialogue feels rooted in stereotypes. We encounter young Middle Eastern men talking about their cars and sound systems — "your car is your baby, your world, your life" — and dim-witted surfer girls who brandish their Southern Cross tattoos and shout "Nulla Pride" at passing "Lebs". The fact that the dialogue is real testimony makes the play all the more poignant and, at times, disturbing. The viewer is not able to walk away with the consolation that the more objectionable characters are simply the products of a hack’s imagination.

The play does feel at times like an intermediary, telling stories from opposite sides of cultural divides (Anglo vs ethnic, Muslim vs Christian, young vs old, man vs woman) in order to enhance understanding on all sides, a feeling further supported by the fact that the play has been staged in both the Shire and Bankstown. Stories of Love and Hate does, however, stop short of moralising: the dialogue just rings too true for didacticism.

While the absence of any testimony from any of the rioters themselves — presumably because there wasn’t anyone wishing to stick their neck out merely to satisfy Oades’ creative vision — feels like an oversight, Oades claims that "Stories of Love and Hate is not a work about the riots, but rather a work about the ordinary people who were there."

And as someone who fits this description, I’d say she’s done a pretty good job.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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