Browny won our boardriders the day the riots came to Cronulla.

It was a peculiar and confounding time. Witnessing the events first-hand — the escalating week-long tension and the collective release of anger — was a bruising lesson in human nature. When I reflect upon it, I sense a grim inevitability to the riot; with so much passion, opinion and media focused on an unprepared suburb it could only end one way. It has now been five years since the riot and I still wonder: Why did it happen here? Could it happen again?

On Sunday the December 4, 2005 two teenage lifesavers were assaulted by a group of Middle Eastern boys on North Cronulla beach. The incident provoked an immediate backlash and plans were made for a protest the following Sunday. Information spread through word-of-mouth and text messages commanding “every f-cking Aussie” to “reclaim the beach” and “teach the wogs a lesson”.

Altercations and fights in Cronulla are common. Northies, the local pub, sees a dozen fights — white on white — each Friday and Saturday night. But the North Cronulla assault was different, and for three reasons: the perceived antagonists were Middle Eastern; the victims were lifesavers and hence considered icons and upholders of Australian values; and it occurred at the peak of the Howard-inspired rise of conservative values and indoctrinated fear of migrants.

The week leading up to the riot was highly charged. There is a dogged and proud ignorance in the Australian psyche and this was being shaken as people in Cronulla were forced to hold opinions on subjects they’d spent little time thinking. You couldn’t buy milk without engaging in a heated debate. The media circus had come to town and most people found that when you are “living” the issue it is far more complex than just reading about it.

I knew many people who intended to head down to the protest, some of them with high ideals. I spoke to a few friends who felt oppressed by political correctness and thought a protest would be an ideal opportunity to express their point of view. With the benefit of hindsight and knowing how the protest ended, it is easy to dismiss such thinking. Yet they were friends, they were well-meaning and they had considered their position.

In the early afternoon of Sunday December 11 I rode my pushbike to the end-of-year presentation for our boardriders club. On the way I took a detour through the crowd amassing at North Cronulla. The numbers were well above those predicted and there were no police in sight. Organisation had been loose and no one quite knew where to gather or what to do. Large groups of young men, bare-chested with flags draped over shoulders, walked the streets while sucking on beers. I continued to the presentation.

At approximately 3pm, just when Browny was accepting his pointscore trophy, the riots began.

At the time, a relationship had me spending a lot of time on the northern beaches and I often surfed at Curl Curl and Manly. Among some northside surfers I knew there was a tacit agreement that the riot was a good thing. People from Cronulla, and the Sutherland Shire in general, are often belittled for their perceived lack of cosmopolitan worldliness. But take geography out of the equation and surfers from Sydney’s northern beaches had more in common with their Cronulla counterparts than they would readily admit.

Two weeks after the riots, with Christmas gone and Cronulla still in lockdown I fled for the South Australian desert coast. For three weeks I traipsed between Coffin Bay and Cactus sharing campfires with surfers from all over Australia. As happens in such situations, pleasantries are exchanged and stories swapped. Each night someone in the circle would inevitably say, “you Cronulla guys really taught them wogs a lesson”.

It wasn’t just a “Shire thing” and it wasn’t just a “Sydney thing”, it wasn’t even just a “surfer thing”. The problem was far wider than that.

The fact that the riot happened at Cronulla may be as simple as access — it is the only city beach with a train line. The public transport route allows the residents of western Sydney, many from different racial backgrounds, to visit Cronulla. In summer it is one of the most ethnically diverse beaches in Australia and this leads to occasional bouts of racial tension.

There wasn’t much diversity that summer though. The riot and the subsequent reprisals were worldwide news and Cronulla, although safe with police on permanent patrol, wasn’t a nice place to visit. Olive branches were eventually extended from both sides and an intense period of cross-cultural promotion ensued.

I don’t believe that the riots could occur in Cronulla again and it’s not due to the aforementioned attempts at integration, which proved to be short-lived anyway. Lessons were learnt — harsh but practical — by many locals and, although existing attitudes may endure, they would be quick to recognise a repeat situation. I spoke to some who attended the protest yet were mortified when they became embroiled in a dispute that turned far more extreme than the one they signed up for.

Perhaps they still feel aggrieved and frustrated by political correctness and having their voices unheard? After all, things haven’t improved that much. Yet I vouch they will never attend another protest of that sort.

Personally, I found it alarming to see that during the last election both sides of government used the fear of boat people to advance their party. Political red herrings such as this show that the seeds of intolerance and fear are still readily spread despite the lessons of Cronulla.

Unfortunately, for many people such lessons are only learnt by experience. Which means that there are many more people in many more suburbs that could make the same mistake those at Cronulla did. As was shown, it doesn’t take much for a small, isolated incident to become a rallying point for a broader issue. And when it does, a seemingly harmless event can quickly spiral out of control.