December 25, 2005

Sydney police make merry in race riot’s aftermath

By Mark Bendeich

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian police patrolled Sydney's
beaches in buggies and on horses decorated with tinsel and
reindeer antlers on Sunday, as fears of fresh racial violence
dissolved into a quiet Christmas Day.

On Cronulla beach, where gangs of white surfers and ethnic
Lebanese clashed in alcohol-fuelled riots two weeks ago,
families spread out across the sand and children ran into the
sea -- all under the watchful eye of dozens of armed, uniformed

Policewomen kept watch from two tinsel-trimmed mounts,
horses named Hero and Hollywood, which plodded along the sand
wearing fake antlers, while other police officers climbed
life-guard towers or scooted along the beach in four-wheeled

"I think everybody has realized that violence is not the
answer to all our problems," said Phil Wardman, sitting with
his family on Cronulla's powdery sand, beneath a postcard-blue

"I wanted to come down today to show I'm not afraid to come

Australia is trying hard to mend its image after the riots,
which evoked old racist stereotypes and prompted police to
throw a security cordon around Sydney's most popular beaches to
head off threats of more violence from white supremacists.

Only a week ago, police made dozens of arrests and seized a
frightening array of crude weapons, including petrol bombs,
knuckle-dusters and wooden clubs studded with nails, from cars
stopped and searched at seaside road-blocks.

World publicity of the riots and the police crackdown had
sparked fears of a drop in tourism to Australia this summer,
but Sydney's beaches appeared to have returned to near normal
on Sunday despite the heavy police presence.


Hundreds of British and European backpackers and thousands
of other sun-worshippers made their annual Christmas Day
pilgrimage to Sydney's most famous summer playground, Bondi
Beach, while police patrolled its esplanade in cars and on

Private security guards checked all beachgoers' bags before
allowing them on to the hallowed sand -- but this was not a
precaution against racial violence. After years of trouble with
drunken louts, Bondi is now an alcohol-free zone at Christmas.

"No glass and no alcohol," security guard Yahia Haddad
yelled as people approached his check-point.

"Oh yeah," he added jokingly, "and no weapons!"

Bondi, a cosmopolitan community and a magnet for
international tourists, is a world away from Cronulla where
residents are mainly white and there are long-standing tensions
between territorial surfers and newer immigrant communities.

While police and surf life-savers at Cronulla declined to
talk to Reuters, and an immigrant shop-owner there complained
of poor business, the mood at Bondi was as hedonistic as

Wearing Santa hats and playing soccer among topless
bathers, young tourists from the southern English seaside town
of Portsmouth were just pleased to be out in the sun at

"We've gone from rain and stones to sand and hot weather,"
said a delighted Daniel Turner, 21.

Asked to reflect on the state of Australian race relations,
his friend Louis Cross, 20, was more thoughtful.

"Racism in England is a lot worse that it is here," he
said. "Stuff like that can happen in Birmingham all the time."

The peaceful scenes on Sydney's beaches seemed to answer
the Christmas prayers of Australian religious leaders.

"There are pockets of racists among us but criminal racism
is rare and therefore untypical," Sydney Catholic Cardinal
George Pell said on national television.

"During this holiday summer season, let's show the world
what Australia is really like -- fundamentally decent, tolerant
and law-abiding."