Hurtful lie about the Cronulla riots
As gentle waves break and roll onto the golden shore of Cronulla's south beach, old-timers can be seen waving at mates in the intensely bright morning sun.
It's a weekday at the tail end of winter, but the growing buzz of chatter and the black dots of surfers in wetsuits bobbing in the endless blue gives the impression of an idyllic Aussie summer's day.
On a morning like this, it's easy to see why the colourful characters who inhabit this blessed part of world modestly refer to their southern Sydney home as "God's country".
The postcard-esque serenity is perhaps what makes it so jarring that Cronulla has become synonymous with one of the darkest events in Australia's modern history.
It almost seems unfathomable that something as ugly as the Cronulla race riots could have unfolded here 14 years ago.
But far from refusing to talk about such a bleak chapter in the suburb's history, those basking in the winter sun this morning tell me they're more than happy to have a yarn.
In particular, they're keen to point out that images of violence that were beamed across the world in December 2005 left their beloved suburb with a reputation of being an all-white, Anglo hotbed of racism.
Locals tell me the reputation is not founded in reality and, in fact, Cronulla is one of the most multicultural and tolerant beach suburbs in Australia.
One of them, 56-year-old Neil Miles, was there on the day riots broke out.
Today, he sits clutching a large takeaway coffee with his mate Steve outside a busy beachfront cafe and points towards Dunningham Park.
The green space, sitting at the base of Cronulla's north beach, is beginning to fill up with young mums with strollers and those passing through.
However, Mr Miles said that on the day of the riots he only realised something worrying was going on when he saw droves of police officers swarming the park.
The beachfront had become a sea of red, white and blue as a group of mainly of young white males draped in Australian flags - along with far-right group members - gathered bringing barbecues and beers.
In the days leading up to the gathering, more than 270,000 text messages were sent to incite a "racially motivated confrontation" after two off-duty surf lifesavers were reportedly the victims of an assault.
Now, Mr Miles says he has a good recollection of who he saw among the crowd, which began yelling "f**k off wogs" among other sickening chants that day shortly before violence broke out.
"I didn't recognise any of them," he said and his mate Steve nodded in agreement.
"Now that might be normal in other places, but what you've got to understand about Cronulla is that everybody knows everybody."
He and Steve spoke of a "surf community and culture" in Cronulla and laughed about how it made it easy to spot outsiders just based on what they're wearing.
So when someone, say a scruffy news.com.au reporter with a northern English accent for example, comes into town and starts raising hell, they stand out like a sore thumb.
"When you see a bunch of people running around causing trouble in jeans and T-shirts, you know something's not right," Mr Miles said.
"I'm not saying there wasn't anyone from here involved, That's not true. We saw a few surfies from North Cronulla in the crowd. We have some deadbeats here like everywhere does.
"But I'm telling you, 95 per cent of people involved were not from here."
Steve again nods in agreement, telling me: "It was a put-up job from outside."
It's a sentiment I hear time and again as I meandered along the beach's esplanade, rudely interrupting conversations between locals topping up their winter tans.
Another thing I keep hearing is that Cronulla has been wrongly stereotyped as an overwhelmingly white suburb that has a problem with racism.
One mum from nearby Caringbah even tells me it's one of the most multicultural beach suburbs in Australia.
It's a bold claim that seems at odds with the latest census data.
The statistics from 2016 show more than three-quarters of Cronulla's 18,000 people were born in Australia, describing themselves as having Aussie, English, Irish or Scottish heritage.
That's a stark difference to many parts of Sydney, like the CBD for example, where over 80 per cent residents were born overseas.
And, aside from a South Asian family of tourists taking selfies in front of a surfing reserve sign, Cronulla, at first-glance, looks overwhelmingly white on this weekday morning.
However, locals tell me the statistics and first appearances only tell half the story.
"A lot of people from the eastern suburbs, who haven't been here in years, like to joke about how the Shire is the whitest place in the world and how we're 'skip central'," Sutherland Shire mother-of-two Deana Baxter tell me.
"But if you came here on a weekend and compared it to Bondi or Coogee, you'd see a massive difference because we're the only beach in Sydney that has a train station.
"Having a few French backpackers staying in your hostels doesn't make you multicultural."
On a busy weekend, which is apparently every weekend in Cronulla, locals tell me Muslim families from western Sydney take the train down to take a dip in the sea or enjoy a barbecue.
"We have all sorts of people from all walks of life here, they're always smiling and they are always made to feel welcome," Deana tells me.
"We are the most tolerant of all the beach suburbs," her friend Ruth Adams chimes in.
Hearing Shire folk speak of how welcoming they are, you can see why it irks them so badly that some far-right political circles still regard Cronulla as a hallowed ground.
Social media is still studded with pages calling for reunions and celebrations of the riots and violent scenes have broken out in the suburb as recently as April.
It was then that controversial former senator Fraser Anning arrived with a band of followers and stoked tensions by making an unverified claim about Muslim immigrants attacking people in the Shire.
"There's been all sorts of problems here with the Muslim immigrants who have come in here and attacked people right here where we're standing now," he said to an applauding crowd not far from where the race riots broke out in 2005.
However, longtime Cronulla Mayor Carmelo Pesce, who referred to Mr Anning as "that far-right idiot", told news.com.au attempts to stir up tension in the suburb have fallen disastrously flat.
"The locals here don't want any part of it," he told me. "That far-right idiot from Queensland came here in April and locals were simply asking him, 'Why are you here?'
"And, look at the 10-year anniversary of the riots four years ago. There was a lot said about how it would all flare up again, but it just fizzled out.
"We're not vulnerable, but because nothing much ever happens here in Shire, I think these far-right groups think they can come here and take advantage of us."
Jihad Dib, a proud Muslim and NSW Labor MP for Lakemba, said he felt "sorry" Cronulla had gained a special status among Australia's far-right.
"The far-right see strong symbolism in Cronulla and that's why they keep trying to cause trouble there," he told news.com.au.
"The riots were an awful flashpoint in Australia's recent history. We were all shocked by what happened and it exposed our fragilities, but the truth is that Cronulla was just a meeting place for people looking for a fight and people who lived there got drawn into something that had nothing to do with it."
Mr Pesce said Cronulla didn't need anyone's sympathy.
The rioters caused destruction and locals were left to pick up the pieces, but he believes Cronulla is in a stronger position than ever.
"I've just been away to Europe for six weeks and, to be honest, I couldn't wait to come home," he said. "What we have is something special. We're surrounded by natural beauty and we're like a big country town where everyone knows everyone.
"The house prices aren't dropping like other parts of the city, we're not overdeveloped and we have the highest amount of volunteers per capita in Australia - with people getting involved in surf life saving or their local sports clubs - and that just shows that people here care about their community.
"There are some crazies out there who will always be trying to disrupt that, but we're wise to it now so I don't think we'll ever see anything like 2005 here again."
Mr Dib said there was also a silver lining to the 2005 riots, in that they paved the way for a major shift in race relations in Australia.
He said this began locally with a number of bridge-building initiatives that came about as a result of the riots.
One of these was On the Same Wave, a program that encouraged young Australians of Middle Eastern backgrounds to volunteer as surf life savers in Cronulla.
"There was a lot of ugliness on show from both sides of those involved the riots, but it's also brought out the best in Australians too," Mr Dib said.
"I can't see anything like that happening again because there's much more acceptance between communities than there was back then, and we're more willing to call out racism and hatred."