You don't forget the night you almost kill someone.
It was nearing midnight on a Saturday night eight or nine years ago and we - the nucleus of a rugby league team from Sydney's southeast - had been making our way through the Cross looking for a taxi. I'd begged that we didn't, that we take the long way round and avoid the guaranteed s*** show that was The Cross on a Saturday night. No one listened.
Just past Kings Cross station, it kicked off. We'd run into a crew from the nearby housing commission. Someone stared at someone too long and it was on. I turned when I heard screams and saw a wild haymaker (what the media now call a "coward punch") from our prop miss and slam into a perspex phonebox.
It was a pretty big one - five on five, five on seven, something like that. It spilt out onto the road. People ran, others gathered round to watch the show. It looked paired up evenly enough so I just stood there.
As it began to fizzle a friend of mine, who had been doubled over with his hands covering his head as two attackers laid into him, looked up just in time to catch a free kick to the head. I knew the kid. He liked knives and had already done a bit of time in juvie. I called him out, looking for a square up, but he legged it.
"He was out before he hit the ground, sliding lifelessly across the asphalt."
I chased him down and hit him on the run with a swinging arm. He was out before he hit the ground, sliding lifelessly across the asphalt. I covered up and got out of there.
It was all smiles when our crew met up at a pub on our side of town later, but beneath it I was a shell. Searing anxiety would send me staring into the distance for I don't know how long and I'd remain that way for the next couple of days (until I got word the kid was fine, bar a bit of a graze on his face).
When I hear people talk about the scourge of street violence in this country today, I cringe and know: it was me.
Growing up in Sydney's southeast (Bondi to La Perouse), fights were a constant. Just as they were in Mt Druitt, Macquarie Fields, Bulli, the Tweed or any other semi-suburban district you can name.
Legendary Australian boxer Danny Green says it's become part of our culture.
"There is a real problem with the culture in Australia where young blokes think it's tough and cool and brave to start trouble at the slightest hint of a confrontation," Green begins.
"Hunting in packs is also something that is creeping in with the next generation. Both are very cowardly. Society is slowly degenerating I feel and people are not being held accountable for their actions," he says.
Brawling is a ubiquitous feature of Australian youth culture. For the unimaginative it is a shortcut to fame and notoriety. For others it is an unconscious continuation of an old convict tradition. Though mostly I found it to be the preserve of the weak and the traumatised - an easy way for those tainted by a tortured upbringing to cover up deep-seeded feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.
Leading youth psychologist, Professor Michael Carr-Gregg calls these guys the "new breed" of Australian male.
"Extremely narcissistic, under-fathered adolescent males ... [with] no respect for authority, little exposure to tradition or ritual and few, if any, skills in anger management," he says.
But it's not a new thing; broken boys brawling it out in streets and parks has been a reality of Australia since penal colony days.
"The origins of the nation involve a deep legacy of violence both among those transported to Australia as a punishment for crimes committed on another continent, and those who joined them in the settlement of this country," says an Australian Institute of Criminology report into violence from 1989.
The tenants of toughness, standing your ground, and standing up for yourself are key aspects of the Australian male identity. Many of our most beloved heroes and cultural creations - from Ned Kelly to State of Origin, Underbelly and the Bra Boys - are born from it.
When combined with complicated and still yet to be fully understood social issues, such as the internet and the breakdown of the family unit, you've got yourself a real problem.
"A culture of self-indulgent thuggishness is being incubated, primarily in broken families, and fuelled by alcohol, drugs and the normalisation of violence in popular culture," explains Professor Michael Carr-Gregg.
So many of the violent offenders I knew came from broken families. The ease with which irresponsible parents pop kids out then shirk the responsibility of raising them has created a serious burden for the rest of us.
Stop the blame game
No matter how much you want to, you can't blame the kid.
Rejection at the hands of a parent is a crippling thing for a young brain to endure. And the ensuing years of torment, tears, and inadequacy almost always gives way to the toughest, meanest facade you can imagine. It's the yin and yang of street violence: weak on the inside, tough on the outside. It might be a ruse to conceal the broken little boy within, but the anger and violence is real.
It wasn't just The Cross where I saw and participated in brawling. That's where it made headlines, but I'd just as routinely see it at the beach, the park, at a 21st birthday, or on the sidelines of a suburban rugby league game. Anywhere, an excuse to brawl. Lockout laws will never fix this problem. They are a Band-Aid.
The violence within these young men will always be there, no matter what time they can get a drink in a city or how many cops are on the street. The real path, if we want to help end it, is far more complex.
"Education is vital, and more importantly how kids are raised," offers Green, adding, "harsher ramifications penalty wise would be a deterrent also."
For me, the answer was to get out and leave it all behind. I left the friends and the bored, destructive environment we inhabited, and went in search of a place where violence, aggression and intolerance weren't tolerated. I chose life. I hung out on Oxford Street, the famously eccentric gay district (I am straight). The parties ran late, the conversations were good, and it gave me a sense of privilege just for being given the chance to share in an environment as inspired and free as this.
Who I was remained in me (the victim of three separate coward punches in my life, among other things) but there was no outlet and no reason to let it out in a world as stimulating and sophisticated as this. Choice and diversity was key. If you want to fix the problem of violence in this country, you need more of this. More life, more vibrancy, energy and creativity, across all the dead spots and culture vacuums. Culture is the cure.
The hardest part, personally, was accepting who I was and what I'd done in my previous life. As I grew older I came to understand that I was part of a cycle, and that the demons that ruled my life were not mine. They were passed onto me.
These are things I still struggle with, but confronting it was the first step. For the many out there who haven't, or can't or won't, I have all the time and forgiveness in the world. For them, you do what you can. But it's hard when the country is setup back to front.