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Why do people riot?

As we look at the turmoil around the world, it only reinforces how lucky we are to live in Australia. While it is far from being a perfect society, we do not see people being slaughtered because of their religion or ethnicity. We do not have to fight to have fair elections or for the right to speak freely. All people have the opportunity to gain an education and our standard of living is one of the highest in the world.

But even in this halcyon environment we have seen moments of unrest as in the Cronulla and Redfern riots. They do not compare to the riots we see elsewhere, with troops killing their own people, but they were symptomatic of underlying tensions nevertheless.

The 2005 Cronulla riots grew from an incident where a verbal exchange had taken place after three lifesavers approached a group of four young Lebanese men on Cronulla Beach with both groups accusing the other of staring at them. One of the Lebanese men reportedly responded to the accusations, “I’m allowed to; now fck off and leave our beach”, to which a lifesaver responded, “I come down here out of my own spare time to save you dumb cnts from drowning; now piss off, you scum”. Testosterone took over and a fight ensued.

Racial tensions were already prevalent among the two racial groups due to the Sydney Gang Rapes of 2000, among other social incidents, which likely contributed to the scale of the escalation.

Several other violent assaults occurred over the next week, encouraged by idiots like Alan Jones who said “We don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney”.

Jones also broadcast and endorsed one listener’s suggestion that bikie gangs be brought down to Cronulla railway station to deal with “Lebanese thugs” and that the event be televised, arguing that despite their reputation bikie gangs do “a lot of good things”. By Thursday, Jones had stirred significant discussion, and stated “I’m the person that’s led this charge here. Nobody wanted to know about North Cronulla, now it’s gathered to this.” Jones was later found to have breached the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) Code of Conduct section 1.3(a), as his comments were “likely to encourage violence or brutality and to vilify people of Lebanese and Middle-Eastern backgrounds on the basis of ethnicity.”

The next weekend, approximately 5,000 people gathered in and around North Cronulla Beach and, in a shameful display of alcohol fuelled mob mentality, flag draped yobbos went around attacking innocent people just because they had a swarthy complexion.

When everything finally settled down, I think there was shame felt on both sides with apologies made by some of the worst perpetrators. Hopefully some lessons were learned, not least of all by Alan Jones.

The Redfern riots in 2004 were also sparked by a single incident – the death of T.J. Hickey, a 17-year-old Aboriginal youth who died after losing control of his bicycle during an alleged police chase. There were claims that the police car clipped T.J’s bike but the police deny this.

On the evening of 14 February, Aboriginal youths gathered from across Sydney to the Redfern area, and when police closed the Eveleigh Street entrance to the station, the crowd became violent and began to throw bottles, bricks, live fireworks and Molotov cocktails. The violence escalated into a full-scale riot around The Block, during which Redfern railway station was briefly alight, suffering superficial damage. The riot continued into the early morning, until police used fire brigade water hoses to disperse the crowd. Total damages include a torched car (previously stolen from a western suburb), and 40 police officers injured.

Writer-director Sarah Spillane produced the low-budget drama Around the Block, set amid the turmoil in the Aboriginal community during the Redfern riots.

A long-time Redfern resident who taught at the largely indigenous Eora College, Spillane said:

“The riots were a scary time for everyone, including the local indigenous residents, because tension between locals and the police had reached boiling point. There was a lot of anger and The Block looked and felt like a war zone.”

Spillane knew the personal stories of teenagers caught up in the riots. Like Liam in the film, many were torn between a sense of duty to fight for their community and wanting reconciliation through other methods. She saw students at Eora turning to art, music, video and theatre to get their voices heard.

It would be easy to label those involved in these incidents as hooligans or criminals but that would not be accurate.

It usually takes an incident to get a riot started, such as an accident or the police attacking or killing an innocent bystander. But once it has begun, the raging mob has a life of its own. Deep-seated resentments, repetitive frustrations and long-standing disappointments galvanize people into action. And the mob provides cover, an anonymity that makes it easier to overcome one’s usual reticence or moral scruples. One is immersed, engulfed. And it can become an exuberant experience, a joyful release for long suppressed emotions.

It offers a kind of intense belonging, not dissimilar to what spectators feel at a sports event or fans at a rock concert. But because it isn’t focused on a game or performance, it easily gets out of hand.

This is not to justify the behaviour of the mob, but to recognize that we all can so easily become “hooligans” ourselves. To be sure, delinquents and petty thieves can easily join in under the cover the mob provides. But riots do not rely on criminals or “criminality, pure and simple”, as David Cameron described the 2011 riots and subsequent looting in England.

Thinking that way, though, can distract us from the underlying conditions that give rise to such events. They can be appeals to be heard, when normal channels don’t work. They can be eruptions of rage, when frustrations boil over. They can be expressions of hope that things could change. And they could be all these things – and more.

And that is what the Australian people are feeling with this Abbott government. These very feelings caused the recent riots on Manus Island.

Not that I am suggesting there will be rioting in the streets – violence never solves anything – but, as they said in Newsweek after the English riots:

“If there’s one underlying condition that these movements share, it has to do with unemployment and bitter poverty among people who desire to be part of the middle class, and who are keenly aware of the sharp inequality between themselves and their country’s wealthy elite.”

Take heed Mr Abbott before you send this country down the path of entrenched poverty.

Note: Changes to Newstart expected to save government $1.2 billion. Foregone revenue from giving tax concessions to people fraudulently claiming business usage of their vehicle – $1.8 billion.

Also by Kaye Lee:

What Gina wants, Gina gets

Hi ho, Hi ho….where am I spose to go?

It’s all about the choices you make

My kids are ok, yours can go beg


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  1. Kat

    Yes the oppressed will rise in this country, and it will be worse than the UK
    When they stole from the rich, and caused billions of dollars of damage
    It’s what happens when you pit the rich against the poor,
    I just hope they lynch Tone’s first, but it is a surety if the Libs and their rich voters
    keep pushing the plebs.

  2. Kaye Lee

    I sincerely hope it never comes to that Kat because it cannot help. But if you keep sending more people into poverty there will be social costs. If someone has no income at all, what option do they have but to steal? If people feel despair they are driven to acts they would not otherwise commit. We do not have to persecute asylum seekers or the unemployed. We are doing enormous harm for no reason.

    Forget the stupid fighter jets and submarines and Paid Parental leave for wealthy people. The amount saved by cutting young people off from Newstart is about equivalent to the amount of revenue foregone by the inexplicable decision to allow tax concessions to people who fraudulently claim business usage for their vehicle. Where are their priorities?

  3. Kat

    It will happen, so the rich better be ready, they will be blindsided by the plebs
    Just like the plebs have been blindsided by this pack of insane men we call the fed gov

    It’s a natural evolution, once balance has been so lopsided by the ones in power, it’s a natural course
    For it to return to balance, and the rich and pollies will not stop it, they should never have started it.

    And they will pay, Karma it’s called, or Balance, but it’s so lopsided now,
    People will rise and attack those who are attacking them,it’s human nature,
    Fight for survival comes from the subconscious, not the conscious mind.

  4. Pingback: Why do people riot? | OzHouse

  5. Kaye Lee

    Or we could just vote them out and keep voting them out until they get some decent human beings as candidates.

  6. Matters Not

    violence never solves anything

    Debatable. And at a number of levels.

    As Paulo Freire wrote:

    Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed

    Being ‘oppressed’ means that one is already the victim of violence.


    Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral

  7. Kerri

    Kaye Lee you have so eloquently expressed what has been my greatest fear since this Government took office and arrogantly insisted that they had a mandate to do whatever they pleased. Their stubborn failure to believe anything other than their own ideology I fear will inevitably lead to riotous protest. Take for example their reaction to the High Court ruling that Commonwealth Funds could not be used to fund the Chaplaincy program. Are they really going to change the laws to get what they want? This is not Government. This is Dictatorship! As I have said before, this is the stuff of the Kims, Amin, Gadaffi, Hussein. They seem totally unable to comprehend that while they govern for all of Australia not all of Australia voted for them. There is no mandate. What they consistently claim is their right as Fascists to dominate and force the people, as a mass, to do their bidding.

  8. John921Fraser


    @Kaye Lee

    "Why do people riot" ?
    Most likely the same ones now threatening Bishop,Pyne et al and having them ask for extra protection.
    The are reaping the hatred they have sown.

  9. Florence nee Fedup

    Yes, sadly one cannot be neutral. Every action, and not being involved is an action, has a reaction.

    Ms Bishop once again lying. She said that climate change will not be on the G20 agenda. Says that all leaders agree it should be confined to the UN on climate change., Did not Obama and others disagree with Abbott. In fact emphasise that they seen this as the leading economic, as well as social problem.

    Poverty carries a big economic problems for any society. Loss of productivity alone, does not make sense.

    It is not that one can afford to spend on it’s people. It is that they cannot afford not to spend. Not spending, investing in it’s people and environment that costs more in the long run.

  10. John921Fraser


    @Fed Up

    Looks like Abbott will be sitting in the corner ….. with the big dunces cap on …. while the G19 talk about bringing down emissions.

  11. Kaye Lee

    We won’t be talking about climate change at the G20….Abbott has however agreed to talk about “energy efficiency”. This childish renaming of things is so typical of the Coalition’s dependence on spin. They are letting insidious advertising jocks dictate the message. So far, the majority have lapped it up….I feel the tide may however be turning as we stumble from one disaster to the next with no sight of the promised knight in shining armour sent to save the “average Australian”.

  12. Nick Thiwerspoon

    Although many blame the US’ batty gun laws for their dreadful crime rate, I think their terrible inequality is also a key factor. Just as it is in, say South Africa or Colombia. The free market dream the unhinged right espouses ignores the social costs and implications of massively increased inequality, social costs which will impact them too. There are reasons societies developed the welfare state, and they’re not just about compassion. They’re also about preventing the level of violence, organised and random, from destroying our quality of life. Ironically, the vicious version of capitalism so popular with demented plutocrats does not even in fact deliver higher growth than a more “social” model

  13. Matters Not

    Yes John, they may be ‘rioting’ but how will they be voting? Only time will tell.

  14. Terry2

    People riot when they see their government doing things that are against the public interest and when our politicians refuse listen to reason or common sense.

    We have been told that East Jerusalem is a disputed territory when we mostly know the difference between a dispute and an Occupation : the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are disputed territory as between China, Vietnam, japan and the Philippines. There are competing claims of sovereignty over theses islands. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were taken by force and are occupied by Israel.
    George Brandis and Julie Bishop how dare you insult our intelligence by trying to rewrite history and then tell us nothing has changed.

    This morning I heard that the FoFA changes are going ahead despite massive opposition including within financial circles and the general community, concerned about the erosion of consumer protections – now described as red tape. Don’t tell us as you did today that commissions will still be banned and in the same breath tell us that incentive payments will be permitted. We are not stupid and we will not put up with this manipulation and use of weasel words.

    How dare you tell us that Paid Parental Leave is the same as sick pay, holiday pay and long service leave and is a workplace entitlement, when we know full well that PPL is being paid for by taxpayers and the other ‘real workplace entitlements’ are paid by employers in accordance with a contract of employment.

    You told us that the $7 Medicare surcharge was to pay off Labor’s debt and that Medicare wasn’t sustainable without a ‘price signal’ . Then you told us (and the world media) that you would be putting the money into a medical research fund that by 2020 will total $20 billion and be one of the largest such research funds in the world. You failed to note that this fund would be paid for by the poor, the aged and the sick; in other words those who use doctor’s services the most and can least afford the cost. That is neither fair nor equitable.

    Kaye, I’m getting my placard ready and my pitchfork to hand.

  15. Tina

    “..not have to fight to have fair elections…”

    Unfortunately in Queensland since the state liberal government recently passed laws that impose voter id laws, fair elections is a thing of the past.

  16. Kaye Lee

    A Senate Committee found that concessions, from superannuation tax relief to private health insurance rebates, negative gearing and fuel tax credits, was costing the government nearly $115 billion a year and would spiral higher to $150 billion by 2016-17.

    But let’s cut the dole and save $1.2 billion over 4 Years and charge a $7 co-payment which is expected to raise $3.5 billion.

  17. john921fraser


    @Kaye Lee

    And thats why Aussies will keep protesting.

  18. Mike Stasse

    Riots usually start when shortages of essentials occur……. Most people will put up with other religions and ethnicities until they have to compete for resources to keep them alive. The French Revolution started because of food shortages. The Egyptian revolution was caused by food and petrol shortages, and the same applies to Syria which has the added problem of water shortages.

    Any place where over crowding and over population is a problem is always on a hair trigger. As soon as there’s not enough to go ’round, someone pulls the trigger…….

    Is Egypt about to ignite the collapse…?

  19. Kaye Lee

    The thing is Mike, that there IS enough to go around…it’s just that some people don’t play well with others.

  20. Mike Stasse

    The thing is Kaye, there IS enough to go around… for the time being. By 2020, Australia will be totally out of oil. The oil ompanies may well all have pulled out of Australia before then, maybe 2018. Shell already have, BP has started, leaving only Caltex who will probably only end up distributing expensive imported oil.

    By then, petrol may well be $3 a litre. Or rationed. When that happens, food will cost an arm and a leg too. Or rationed.

    THEN we will see who riots…….

  21. Kaye Lee


    I know resources are finite but I also have faith in the ingenuity of our scientists whose research into alternate energy sources gives me hope for the future. It is crazy to be cutting funding to the very people who are working to save us.

  22. Kaye Lee

  23. Dan Rowden

    Kaye Lee,

    Note: Changes to Newstart expected to save government $1.2 billion. Foregone revenue from giving tax concessions to people fraudulently claiming business usage of their vehicle – $1.8 billion.

    Nice observation. There’s an interesting and disturbing ethical double standard that is exhibited in this country, primarily but by no means exclusively by conservative governments. It has to do with the difference between business entities and private citizens. When the Fringe Benefits Tax changes with regard to company cars were touted, elements of the car industry went ape-shit. But what their whining amounted to was an explicit admission, an overt and clear statement that they were unable to survive and prosper without a reliance on fraud. They literally needed fraud to continue to take place to remain viable. That is the inescapable message of their campaign against the changes. Lots of people accepted their arguments.

    But imagine, just imagine, if a bunch of low-income, welfare dependent persons who engage in some form, either trivial or serious, of fraud in relation to Centrelink were to come out and publicly declare that they could not survive without it; that they would be significantly harmed materially if the fraud did not continue. I don’t think I need say anything about what would follow such a declaration. But therein lies the extraordinary double standard. Business can argue that certain types of fraud are necessary for its life (even if they never actually make that specific point) and lots of people just accept it because, well, without giving business something akin to carte blanche we’re in trouble, right? Without giving business free reign to do whatever they can to escape their tax burden, we’re in trouble, right?

    A form of trickle down theory is well and truly embedded in the psyche of many Australians. If business prospers we all do. It is, of course, important that business does indeed prosper, but I’m pretty sure the only thing I’m getting out of, say, Woolworth’s exploitation of children using Jamie Oliver is Jamie Oliver nightmares. Woolie’s shareholders are no doubt happy as Larry, but what benefit its customers derive I’m not sure.

    We’ve gotten to the stage where we broadly accept as legitimate, if not as a form of sound business acumen, for business to minimise their tax burden via whatever strategy they can employ. If an average PAYE earner were to do the same thing it would instantly attract a completely different moral response. The dispensations afforded the business community – at every level – are a moral and economic farce, in my view. Along with the way we frame our discussions and thinking about tax (as Victoria recently artfully probed) we need to rethink the way we perceive business, its rights and moral obligations as citizens.

  24. DanDark

    Sep 4, 2013 – Uploaded by Greenshack Dotinfo
    3/9/13 Not without my daughters: Tony Abbott: ‘I’m the guy with the not bad- looking daughters.’
    Tony Abbott’s election mesage on Big Brother: ‘I’m the guy with the …
    ► 0:24► 0:24

  25. Kaye Lee

    It just continues to floor me Dan. We give the wealthy welfare to the tune of over $115 billion every year in tax concessions. The beneficiaries of that largesse are big business and those with sufficient “spare” cash to make investments. Wealthy Australians are not renowned for their philanthropy so we ask the sick to donate $20 billion for Joe to hide away to reduce his deficit. It’s madness.

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