arch-peace editorials

21 May 2006

Ruminations on the beach, the flag and that day in Cronulla

You can take the girl out of the shire…
Ruminations on the beach, the flag and that day in Cronulla.

Shelley Freeman May 2006

In February 2006, Anthony McInneny wrote an editorial entitled ‘Flag burning, flag raising, flag wearing, flag painting and flag waving’.

In December 2005, around 5000 young (predominately) white people got together in Cronulla to celebrate ‘Leb and wog bashing day’
[1]. There were a lot of flags raised, worn, painted and waved that day. The burning came later.

I originate from Sydney’s Sutherland Shire. Born at Sutherland Hospital, I lived in Miranda then Sylvania Heights. I attended Sylvania High School; I was a life saver at Cronulla Beach. I had blond hair and a tan. I even had a go at riding a surfboard.
I left the Shire when I was 17. I felt it was not the place where independent- and free-thought would be nurtured and encouraged; it was not the place for me.

A fortnight before last year’s riots I visited the Shire. I was with my mum and dad at the pool at Shelley Beach. My dad swims there every day. Along with an older woman, we were just sitting, chatting and looking at the water. Two young Muslim families were in the pool, splashing around. The women were wearing hijab and were fully clothed, in long track suit pants and t-shirts.
‘Would you look at that’ said the older woman sitting with us, ‘I can’t believe they go in the water with their clothes on, how disgusting’.
I sat there with my mouth agape, incapable of keeping it shut: ‘What a racist thing to say’.
She just shrugged.

Two weeks later 5000 young white ‘Aussies’ were expressing the same sentiment. They were ‘retaliating’ after a couple of lifesavers were allegedly bashed by a group of Lebanese youths at the start of December. The story of this ‘attack’ was spread by the mainstream media; the riot was incited via our TVs and radio.

This was the same media who, by all local accounts, ‘blew the whole thing out of proportion’. But a man was stabbed at the end of the street where my sister lives…

More recently I was sitting back on that same bench looking at the same pool. The old lady was there, but the Muslim family was not. A quick scan around revealed a disturbing sight – no people of ‘Middle Eastern Appearance’ anywhere and Aussie flags everywhere. The absence of the former and presence of the latter was unmistakable.
I asked my sister, a resident of nearby suburb Woolooware, whether she had noticed this. ‘No, there’s always been a heap of flags up at Cronulla.’

Maybe I just hadn’t seen the flags before. Maybe I never noticed because I never found the flag to be so offensive, such a symbol of hatred, intolerance and racism.
Last month in Melbourne during the Commonwealth games and as the IR laws slid into existence, the Aussie flag was more prominent than ever. The check-out girl at Safeway wore flag tattoos on each cheek, banners of flags draped between each assistant at the Medicare office, our favorite sports heroes celebrated their countless victories draped in the flag and the $2 shop had flags on special – 2 for $5. Patriotism is cheap.
I returned to the shire at the start of April intent on documenting the presence of the flag. I wanted to show people what I had observed within a two block radius of the beach. This was an average Saturday morning, it was not Australia Day. The sun was not even shining but there was plenty of flag waving, raising and wearing.

Fig 2
I’m curious about the young boy. Did he choose his own beach towel? Is he imitating his sports heroes, blending in with his neighbourhood or unwittingly preserving the images of the riots that took place in his own backyard?
And all those houses and units adorned with the flag. Does this look like harmless home decorating or extreme nationalism?
Has the Australian flag become part of the architecture of the Shire, part of the architecture of Australia?

‘His [John Howard’s] patriotic, or "put out more flags", campaign is pure George W Bush. Schools have been ordered to erect flagpoles, and on "Australia Day", 26 January, which "celebrates" the "settlement" of another people's country, flags are distributed and often displayed with gormless aggression. This was never part of Australian life; Americans wrapped themselves in their flag, but not we Australians. We saw it as a respectful reminder of those who had gone to fight and die in Australia's mostly catastrophic imperial wars, who "did their best". The Howard regime has changed all this. The little leader wears a plastic flag in his lapel, just like Bush, and puts his hand on his heart, just like Bush, and reinforces a race-based society, just like Bush.’

[1] This was part of the text message sent around to locals and outsiders inviting the events of December 11, 2005. The text read: “This Sunday every Fucking Aussie in the shire get down to North Cronulla to help support Leb and wog bashing day...Bring your mates down and let’s show them this is our beach and they’re never welcome back.” From the Four Corners program transcript "Riot and Revenge", 13/03/06

[2] John Pliger :28 Feb 2006 PUT OUT MORE FLAGS: THE MAKING OF ANOTHER AMERICA, The New Statesman

Images attributed to:
Fig1. The Age 13/12/05.
Fig 2., Week in pictures Dec 10-16, 3, 6 + 7. Andrew Quilty
4 + 5., Warren Hudson Dec 10, 2005


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