SYDNEY—It was a terrible 17 hours in downtown Sydney on Dec. 15 – one deranged gunman, 17 hostages, hundreds of heavily armed police and finally the tragic loss of three lives.
Despite those horrific hours, the Australian community came together and fought back, not with hate and violence but with a quiet compassionate strength.
“It was quintessentially Australian,” said Professor Margaret Alston, from the Department of Social Work at Monash University.
A social media campaign to help protect Muslims from backlash quickly went viral and turned the tide of “disempowerment and violation” into a positive force.
The campaign gained momentum when Sydney resident Tessa Kum tweeted out hashtag #illridewithyou, offering to accompany any person wearing religious attire and afraid for their safety on public transport. The tweet went viral; many people began posting their location and photos to offer the same.
“It changed the language and discourse very quickly from a strong sense of outrage and helplessness to ‘here is something we can actually do’,” said Prof Alston. “[People thought]: ‘I can show that I am a part of a decent and respectful society and I am not going to let the other interfere with how I feel about being Australian.'”
Prof Alston also commended the different government agencies—the police, emergency workers, ambulance services, government authorities—for their efficient, calm approach, and for keeping the public informed.
“We have a very strong institutional structure in these situations and it kicked in very quickly,” she said. “We should take great pride in that.”
Safety Primary Concern
The chilling events of Monday Dec 15 will never be forgotten. An Iranian-born, self-proclaimed cleric entered the Lindt Chocolate Café in busy Martin Place around 9.45 am, carrying a gun and a blue bag, suspected to contain some sort of explosive device.
Staff and customers were rounded up and many were forced to stand with their hands pressed against the glass, their terrified faces clearly visible from outside.
Behind them a black flag could be seen, at first thought to be a flag of the ISIS terrorist group but later identified as words of Islam translated as, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is the messenger of God.”
The fear in Sydney was palpable, with questions flying—how many gunmen were there? Were they acting alone? Where else would they strike? Was anywhere safe?
Within the hour hundreds of heavily armed police and emergency services descended on the CBD. Soon Sydney’s CBD, formerly packed with holiday shoppers, was deserted as whole buildings and department stores were shut down. Public transport had been cut, roads were closed and air space above the area cleared.
The gunman, later identified as Man Haron Monis, directed hostages to call media outlets, record videos and use social media to make demands.
The police moved quickly to shut down his efforts to gain publicity.
Conscious of the hostages’ safety, authorities were careful to tone down any inflammatory language, describing the event only as an “armed incident”. At the same time, they kept the media briefed on what they felt could reveal, while informing people of where they could go, what trains and buses were working and where the safe zones were.
“Those sorts of things are really important for people to know,” said Prof Alston. “It gives them a frame of reference.”
She commended authorities for their calm handling of the situation. “Giving that communication to people on a constant basis in a way that allows people to understand … it was immediate information and that was really important.”
Horror Inside Café
Meanwhile it has now been revealed what the hostages were going through inside the café. Monis was a man known to police for a litany of violent offences. He had allegedly been complicit in the murder of his wife, who was violently stabbed and burnt; he had 40 counts of sexual assault against him; and he had written inflammatory letters to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
According to reports from hostages, Monis pointed a short barrelled gun at them and screamed at everyone in the café to put their hands up. He told them there was a bomb in the building and directed the hostages to contact the media with three demands, The Guardian reported.
Monis wanted a live broadcast phone call with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for which five hostages would be released. Next he wanted the government to declare that he was committing a terrorist act on behalf of the Islamic State, and in return he would release two more hostages. He then wanted a black Islamic State flag for the release of a final hostage.
None of his demands were met and no one was set free.
Hostages reported that he became increasingly frustrated and then started to lose control. As the afternoon dragged on, five hostages managed to escape.
As night fell, lights in the café went out and the nightmare continued. Although it is unclear exactly what happened, around 2am gunshots were heard from inside the café and police moved in.
In the fracas that followed, two hostages were tragically killed – Lindt café manager Tori Johnson and Sydney barrister Katrina Dawson. Unconfirmed reports said Mr Johnson died trying to wrestle the gun from Monis; Ms Dawson died shielding her pregnant friend from bullets.
Monis was also killed.
Community Comes Together
The following morning after the shooting people came from all parts of Sydney to pay their respects to the two hostages who had died. Martin Place is now flooded with flowers, a spontaneous shrine representative of the community’s grief.
Flowers have also appeared outside the Lindt café in Melbourne and messages of condolence and support have poured in from around the world.
Prof Alston said with so many people, including children, touched by the event, the shrine provided a tangible way for people to come together and to express their grief. “Those symbols are very important for people’s healing and for general community cohesion,” she said.
While the community was made to feel vulnerable by the tragic events, social media has provided a medium to redirect people’s emotions into compassionate community responses.
“The people who were feeling they might be subject to attack would have taken enormous strength from the way that campaign turned the discourse,” Prof Alston said.
“If we can focus on some of these positives in what was essentially a very bleak day, I think it is important we take strength from them.”