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Could riots happen in Melbourne?

By Waleed Aly - posted Wednesday, 21 December 2005

Events like the race riots in Sydney don’t just happen. They have a long gestation period. They are the result of social friction that has been building for years, which eventually reaches breaking point.

If that is the case, the burning question for Melbournians is whether or not similar tensions exist in Melbourne just waiting to explode. In short, could this happen here?

It’s always unwise to say “never”. But there are a number of reasons why it is unlikely Melbourne will see the animalistic violence Sydney did on the weekend, at least in the short term.


What we have witnessed in Sydney is the clash of two despicable gang subcultures. The first is the surfie gang subculture that has stalked many of Sydney’s beaches for decades. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Sydney beaches hosted ongoing skirmishes between “surfies” and “rockers”. These were essentially turf wars on sand. In more recent times, we’ve seen the emergence of the Bra Boys, a beach gang from Maroubra, who have long claimed ownership of the beaches and have never been shy when it comes to a brawl. Perhaps the worst example was in 2002 when a punch-up involving 120 surfies and police ended with 30 police sustaining injuries, including broken jaws and noses.

Of course, the second subculture is that of the Lebanese gangs that have risen to prominence in the past five years in Sydney’s south-west. We are more familiar with this scourge because it has received far greater media coverage. You have probably heard of the shootings at police stations and the gang rapes that dominated the headlines in the early part of this decade.

Both gang cultures are wholly alien to their respective communities. Lebanese gang culture is as reflective of Lebanese Australia as the surfie gangs are of wider Australian society. And this is partly why they are so difficult to reign in.

But the take-home lesson for Melbournians is that neither of these subcultures exists in Melbourne. Our beaches are not the subject of turf wars, and Melbourne’s Lebanese community does not seem to have within it the gang element of its Sydney counterpart. Certainly, Melbourne has had its share of gang warfare in the past, and it would be naïve to think Melbourne is gang-free, but we have nothing on the scale of Sydney. You could see the Sydney riots forming years in advance. Nothing quite like it appears on the Melbourne gang-scene’s horizon.

The other crucial element to these events is that Sydney’s riots took place against a background of intense racial hatred, which has also been building in Sydney for years. Here, there is a common element with Melbourne. Recent years have seen increased hate crimes, particularly against Arabs and Muslims, and particularly in our northern suburbs. This week, the second brick in a month was thrown through the Islamic Council of Victoria's front window.

But racial tension is significantly, and noticeably higher in Sydney than in Melbourne, and in my experience, it always has been. It seems embedded in Sydney's geography, where communities, tend to live in enclaves. This is not true just of "ethnic" communities, but also of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Celtic social groups. If you live on Sydney's north shore, you rarely venture elsewhere. Many who live south of the harbour have never crossed the bridge to visit the north.


By contrast, Melbourne's layout is far more fluid. Our suburbs tend to be more mixed, and without the intrusive water of Sydney, mobility is easier. We get around more, and see each other more. Our range of racial and cultural communities tend to be more integrated, even involuntarily. That naturally removes some racial heat.

None of that means Melbourne is immune; just that for the time being we're lucky. The trick now is to use the disturbing Sydney riots as an opportunity to take stock and be vigilant against any racist hate-mongering. The worst we could do is let the riots inflame our own society.

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First publishe in the Herald Sun on December 14, 2005.

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About the Author

Waleed Aly, a Melbourne lawyer, is a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria executive. He is a lecturer in the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash Univeristy. His book, People Like Us (Picador), will be published in September.

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