Video: Rioting in Australia

updated 2/16/2004 12:26:53 PM ET 2004-02-16T17:26:53

A young Aborigine dies. His family and friends bitterly blame police, and within hours gasoline bombs and rocks rain down on a Sydney ghetto. Cars and a train station are torched.

Australians like to think of their society as fair and egalitarian. But a riot in Sydney’s Redfern neighborhood has dramatically highlighted problems of race that have haunted this country ever since the first white settlers arrived more than two centuries ago.

Forty police were wounded, eight of them hospitalized, in a nine-hour street battle with a mainly Aboriginal mob Sunday night and Monday morning in and around a slum known as “The Block.” It’s not clear how many protesters were hurt.

The trouble started after a 17-year-old Aborigine fell off his bicycle and was impaled on a fence Saturday. He died in a hospital Sunday. There had been allegations he was chased by a police patrol — a claim denied by officers.

But Aborigines said the reasons for the riot went deeper than the boy’s death.

“People should not kid themselves; this is Australia, and last night’s display of violence is an extreme example of the extent of the alienation felt by some Aboriginal kids,” said Sen. Aden Ridgeway, the only Aborigine serving in federal Parliament.

Ironically, Aboriginal heritage and culture is a multimillion-dollar industry in Australia, with tourists buying thousands of Aborigine-themed souvenirs each year.

But few visitors see the crisis in housing and health care that is crippling indigenous communities and fueling the sort of resentment that exploded Sunday.

Aborigines now number 400,000 in a population of 20 million, and they live on average 20 years less than other Australians.

Discounting government employment projects, unemployment among Aborigines runs at about 40 percent, according to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, an elected body that distributes about $780 million in government funding each year.

Aborigines also receive millions of dollars each year in land earnings since a 1992 court case returned ownership rights taken away after European colonists arrived in 1788.

But the money has done nothing to alleviate the problems.

Joblessness, alcohol, drugs
Unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse are blamed for Aborigines’ making up nearly 20 percent of the nation’s prison population despite numbering only 2 percent of the nation’s people.

Relations under Prime Minister John Howard have been strained by Howard’s refusal to apologize for past governments’ mistreatment of Aborigines.

For decades, authorities took many children away from their Aboriginal parents — often by force — in a now-discredited attempt to assimilate them into mainstream society, creating the so-called “Stolen Generations.”

Although only a few hundred Aborigines live in and around The Block in Redfern, it is one of the highest-profile symbols of Aboriginal inequality.

Slum stands out
Much of this is due to its prime location, just one railway stop from Sydney’s Central Station. Nearby upscale neighborhoods have been gentrified while The Block has crumbled into a garbage-strewn slum.

Officials have promised to hold an inquiry into Sydney’s riot. But no one expects a legacy of distrust to dissipate anytime soon.

New South Wales state opposition leader John Brogden — a senior member of Howard’s Liberal Party — said the only way to clean up The Block was to knock it down.

“I’d bring the bulldozers in because I think allowing this to happen every couple of years, which is what’s going to happen, will never fix the problem,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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