Cronulla rioters 10 years later speak of pride, regret, death: ‘I’m not ashamed’


Geoffrey Atkinson, wearing a green shirt and camouflage cap, joins the mob of men attacking Safi Merhi during the Cronulla riots. Photo: Andrew Meares

It was the day that shamed a nation.

Photos now etched into history show beer and sweat flying as angry young men swing fists and bottles at a lone Middle Eastern man who cowers on the back of a ute.

A shirtless man jumps up and down on the bonnet of a police car. Others storm a train, draped in Australian flags as they attack a passenger before cheering with joy.

Ten years after the Cronulla riots, some of the men captured in the most defining images of the event have spoken for the first time.

“I was a drunk moron who attacked someone with a beer bottle. I’m 100 per cent ashamed of what I did but I’m not ashamed of the stance I took,” said Geoffrey Atkinson, now 28, a father-of-two who runs his own trucking business near Camden.

“I’m not ashamed of being there and if I could have just been one of the people standing on the fence, waving my little Australian flag, holding my can of VB, I would have been 100 per cent proud to talk about the Cronulla riots and tell my kids about it,” he said.

In recounting his memories for the first time Mr Atkinson, who was convicted for his role in the mob attack on Safi Merhi, said he believed the real story behind the events of that day were quickly lost to the enduring narrative of violence, racism and ugly patriotism.

After a morning surf at Cronulla, Mr Atkinson and his mates watched “waves and waves of cars” roll in, ready to “take back the beach”.

They bought 15 slabs of beer, filled the back of his ute with ice and were content playing football with the police and singing Waltzing Matilda until the alcohol set in and the crowd fired up.

“How do you not get caught up in it? I’m not blaming the drink but maybe if I was sober that day, maybe if I didn’t have 50 mates down there, it could have been different.”

Mr Atkinson said he was not racist. He was arrested on January 11, 2006 at his workplace, Habib Brothers Truck and Smash Repairs, and his Lebanese boss stood by him during his court case.

He had best friends who were Muslim, his then-girlfriend was Maltese, he grew up in Kemps Creek and went to school in Cecil Hills with students representing a virtual league of nations.

But, he said, problems with young Lebanese men at Cronulla, where he would surf every week, had been building for months. He said some of the men had claimed parts of South Cronulla rock pools as their own; others would talk rudely or spit at surfers as they passed.

Two weeks before a lifeguard was bashed by a group of young Middle Eastern men, Mr Atkinson and a friend were also bashed as they returned to their car from a morning surf.

When he received a text message about coming to “defend” Cronulla on December 11, 2005 he didn’t hesitate to forward the message on.

“There was no respect. They had a chip on their shoulder and they needed to be brought back down to reality,” he said.

“And for 5500 people to turn up, with no social media back then and no planning, this had brewed and brewed to the point where people were sick of it. They were like, ‘This has gotta stop’.”

He said the violence ended up becoming the story, rather than the grievances shared by 5500 people who, he recalls, came from across the state and from all backgrounds.

Mr Atkinson pleaded guilty straight away, keen to get his life back. He spent 29 days in a protective cell in jail, with a further eight months on parole. He had friends disown him, a $30,000 legal bill and a premier, Morris Iemma, who wanted to see him and other rioters rot in jail.

Today, he believes racial tensions are just as high, but he prefers to keep his head down.

“I don’t want to say I wish it didn’t happen because it needed to happen, I just wish I didn’t take the actions that I did,” he said.

Fairfax Media tracked down another 40 men who were arrested after the riot and subsequent reprisal attacks. Most were too ashamed to talk, having moved on and established businesses, families and steady lives.

One man, convicted of attacking three people when rioters stormed a train at Cronulla station, is now engaged to a Lebanese woman.

“I don’t need past skeletons destroying my own family’s future,” said another, now a fly-in fly-out miner.

For well-known Cronulla surfer Troy Dennehy, the shame was too much. He suicided two years after the riots, in which he was pictured jumping on a police car, an act for which he was given 350 hours of community service.

Dennehy, 35, had battled depression and could be unpredictable, especially when drinking, his friends said.

Despite publicly apologising to the Lebanese community for his role, he never got over the shame and the attention that his actions attracted, his friend Cameron Johnson told the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader in 2007.

He became bogged down in debt from legal fees and fines and his marriage to his Japanese wife fell apart.

Brent Lohman, captured in widely-run images of the train incident, still shares the photos on his Facebook page, alongside news from Reclaim Australia and groups such as “deport all illegal boat people” and “extremely pissed off Aussie infidels”.

When a protest against an anti-Muslim film turned violent in Hyde Park in 2011, he posted on his public page: “line em up and shoot em all… a beer per kill and a snitty at the barr [sic]”.

He told Fairfax Media he would only talk for a large sum of money because “what I have to say will upset a lot of people”.

Now living in Queensland, he claimed the train incident was set up by the media, although he still blamed it on “the wogs”.

“Ten years on and we’ve got a better chance of being blown to bits now than if people listened back then,” he said.

Of the 53 people arrested during reprisal attacks, at least one is in prison again. Mahmoud Eid, a 29-year-old Punchbowl plumber, spent 15 months behind bars for an unprovoked attack a day after the Cronulla riots.

He was again jailed in 2013 for kicking a police dog and punching a policewoman to the ground during the 2011 Hyde Park protest. He was a man who clearly struggled to “control his emotions [and] express his feeling passively”, his lawyer told a court at the time.

One of his co-accused, Mahmoud Omar, was embroiled in drama again when his brother, Mohammed “Tiger” Omar, was fatally stabbed in front of him during a fight on the dance floor at Homebush’s Beirut By Night restaurant in 2010.

Ali Ammar, who served seven months in jail as a 16-year-old for stealing an Australian flag from the Brighton-Le-Sands RSL and burning it, publicly apologised when he was released. He walked the Kokoda Track as a form of rehabilitation. .

Yahya Jamal Serhan, who served nine months in jail for being an accessory to a stabbing outside Woolooware Golf Club in the days after the riot, told Four Corners in 2008 that it was like “guerilla warfare” after years of “us versus them”.

“Like every time you go somewhere, you know, you think people are looking at you or think, you know, someone is going to spit in your food,” he told the program.

He declined to speak when contacted by Fairfax, except to say there should be limits to freedom of speech and “freedom to attack”.

Mr Atkinson said he believed the riot started to settle racial tensions in Cronulla.

One of the men swept up in revenge attacks in Maroubra agreed, although only because 200 Middle Eastern men fought back.

“They wanted the reply from us, they were goading it. Plus, if we didn’t reply, it would have been, like, a step down against our community,” he said. “We don’t take insults and we made that clear. That’s why I reckon it hasn’t happened again.” ​

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