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The underlying causes of the Redfern riots run throughout Australia

By Aden Ridgeway - posted Monday, 23 February 2004

In many ways what happened in Redfern on Sunday night could only have happened on that particular night. The tragic death of a well known and loved community member, TJ Hickey; the stories which quickly circulated regarding the involvement or otherwise of police in his death; a day of grief, anger and confusion built as the temperatures soared; night fell ... and it was on.

I do not excuse the events of that night but they come as no surprise to me or any person who is familiar with the volatile dynamics of Redfern, and the wider issues in Indigenous politics in this country.

This is the worst race riot in Australian history. It peeled back the thin veneer of an undercurrent of racial tension building up over the last ten years. We had not seen such an eruption of violence since the Goondiwindi-Boggabilla race riots of the late eighties, which led to the establishment of the Toomelah Inquiry in 1987.


In race riots the world over, most who participate are young men. No doubt, people will over-simplify the images and the reports they have seen. Many will be quick to point the finger of blame at Aboriginal youth and some will question the absence of parents or responsible community leaders in this tragic saga.

What happened on Sunday night in Lawson Street was an extreme expression of the mistrust between Aboriginal youth and the Police Service set against a backdrop of poverty, a lack of jobs and limited education. This combined with a general sense of hopelessness that any young person there might have greater life opportunities beyond Redfern, Waterloo or surrounds.

“The Block” has its share of drug, alcohol and dysfunction problems, just like any other community where poverty is rife. What is exceptional here is that we have a community of Aboriginal people living in Australia's largest and wealthiest city. They have life’s entire infrastructure at their fingertips - and yet the opportunities of life in the big city are not within their reach.

Why is it that many of these young people do not stay on at school? Why is it that their parents invariably can't get a job and why is it that both adult and young are over-represented in the criminal justice system?

I would doubt whether there is one Aboriginal person working in the local retail outlets and nor would any of the larger retail stores ever consider moving to the area.

Most local Aboriginal people work in the services sector, predominantly for local Aboriginal organisations involved in health, housing, employment, women and children's services.


Many of these activities occur within the Indigenous work for the dole program. While this program has merit, it has been in place in Aboriginal communities for more than 25 years now, with little prospect for participants to graduate to real and meaningful jobs.

I have my doubts as to whether Premier Carr's "three inquiry" response is sufficient or if it will hit the mark at all. It is a weak response that will not satisfy the community, mostly because it will not be seen as independent of the police and government, and largely because it will not examine any issues concerning the social and material needs of the local Redfern Aboriginal community.

As in 1987, nothing short of a full judicial inquiry will offer the sort of outcomes and expectations that the community requires.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
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This article was previously published in The Australian on 18 February, 2004.

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About the Author

Senator Aden Ridgeway is the Australian Democrats' Spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs and a Senator for New South Wales.

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