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PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 12:00am

Conflict between locals and police makes The Block off-limits to whites

It lies just a kilometre from Sydney's gleaming skyscrapers, but the inner city suburb of Redfern looked more like a war zone yesterday.

Burnt-out car wrecks and broken glass littered the area known as The Block, a small grid of half a dozen streets with an almost exclusively Aboriginal population.

The ghetto, which has been inhabited by Aborigines for at least a century, is the most ramshackle area of Sydney. Rows of 19th century terraced houses, which in other parts of the city have been gentrified and sell for up to A$2 million (HK$12 million), are covered in graffiti.

Doors hang off their hinges, roofs are half collapsed and smashed windows have been boarded or bricked up. An enormous Aboriginal flag adorns the side of the area's largest building, which contains a boxing gym and a Seventh Day Adventist Church. 'Jail visits by arrangement', a sign outside the church reads.

The violence, which was sparked by the death of a 17-year-old Aboriginal boy whom locals believe was chased by police, has shocked Australia.

'Redfern Erupts' proclaimed the front page of the local tabloid newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.

The riot also dominated the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald, under the headline 'Teenager's death triggers fiery Aboriginal rage'.

As police officers kept watch on the run-down area, a group of about 200 locals listened to Aboriginal elders give vent to their anger and frustration through an impromptu open-mike session in a local park.

Locals said that while the death of Thomas 'TJ' Hickey provided the catalyst for the riot, the long-term causes of the violence included entrenched poverty, unemployment and police harassment.

'Police killed TJ', one young man scrawled on the pavement, as he was filmed by television crews.

'He was a cheeky kid but he didn't deserve that,' said Eric, 52, a local Aboriginal man who declined to give his surname.

Trevor Davies, who edits a community newspaper, the South Sydney Herald, said: 'The tension has been building up for 20 years. You get young policemen straight out of the academy who can be very arrogant and insensitive.'

Police argue that they maintain a strong presence in the area to deter the heroin dealers who have made The Block a no-go zone for most white Australians. Locals, however, say a policy of zero tolerance towards crime is backfiring.

'It is very confrontational,' said Sally Quilter, the treasurer of a local youth community group.

'Aborigines feel they are not just an under-class; they are even further down the ladder than that.'

Clover Moore, the independent MP for the area, said: 'It's a very volatile situation. We need to move people from an attitude of despair to one of hope.'