The racial unrest that broke out in Sydney’s beachside suburbs over the weekend has spread to two other large Australian cities, where people of Middle Eastern descent were assaulted by whites, police said Tuesday.
In New South Wales, where Sydney is located, lawmakers scheduled an emergency session of the state Parliament to consider legislation cracking down on the rioters who rampaged through the city’s suburbs for two straight nights, the region’s premier said.
Seven people were injured and 11 arrested after youths rioted in the suburbs Monday night, smashing the windows of stores, homes and parked cars. The youths appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, leading police to believe the destruction was in response to racially fueled attacks on a Sydney beach a day earlier.
Calling the rioters “ratbags,” New South Wales premier Morris Iemma said police would be given special “lockdown” powers to stop convoys from forming and driving into communities to carry out acts of retribution. He also said he would urge lawmakers to pass legislation toughening prison sentences for rioting offenses.
Opposition lawmakers have already called for tough new laws and are expected to support the legislation. The state Parliament session is scheduled for Thursday.
“I won’t allow Sydney’s reputation as a tolerant, vibrant international city to be tarnished by these ratbags and criminals who want to engage in the sort of behavior we’ve seen in the last 48 hours,” Iemma said.
He added that rioters had “effectively declared war on our society and we won’t be found wanting in our response.”
Text messages spread the word
The rioting began Sunday on Cronulla Beach when about 5,000 white youths, many drunk and wrapped in Australian flags, attacked people believed to be of Arab or Middle Eastern descent after rumors spread that Lebanese youths had assaulted two lifeguards earlier this month.
Police, who had stepped up patrols on the beach after learning of cell phone text messages urging people to retaliate for the attack on the lifeguards, fought back with batons and pepper spray.
Carloads of young Arab men then struck back in several Sydney suburbs, fighting with police for hours and smashing dozens of cars with sticks and bats, police said. Thirty-one people were injured and 16 arrested in the first day of unrest.
On Monday, police said they discovered weapons including firebombs and rocks on the roofs of some houses in the beachside suburb of Maroubra. Some of those arrested were armed with machetes and baseball bats.
Spreading to other cities?
Elsewhere, Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio reported Tuesday that a family of Middle Eastern origin was attacked in the western city of Perth by a group of 11 white men, who threw eggs, shouted abuse and kicked their garage door.
The 42-year-old father, who did not want to be identified, said his family was badly shaken by Monday night’s incident.
“I don’t know if we were mistakenly identified,” he said. “What I definitely know is it was something linked to the escalation in New South Wales.”
Perth police Superintendent Shayne Maines said authorities could not rule out a link between the attack and the racial violence in Sydney. “There was some suggestion they did make ethnically-related comments to the occupant of the house,” Maines said.
In Adelaide, a taxi driver of Lebanese origin, Hossein Kazemi, was injured when he was punched by a passenger during an incident Tuesday.
“There was some sort of discrepancy and argument over the fare,” a South Australian police spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity. “Apparently during the assault, the victim, because he was of Lebanese origin, was taunted about the stuff in Sydney and Cronulla beach.”
Arab retaliation possible
More violence seemed likely. New text messages circulated Monday, one of which called for more fighting next weekend: “We’ll show them! It’s on again Sunday.”
Another message warned of possible retaliation from Middle Eastern groups.
“The Aussies will feel the full force of the Arabs as one — ’brothers in arms’ unite now,” the message said.
Prime Minister John Howard has defended Australia’s policy of tolerance, noting the nation has successfully absorbed millions of foreigners. Before leaving Tuesday for a summit of Asian nations in Malaysia, he said he didn’t believe the rioting would affect Australia’s overseas reputation in the long-term.
“You have outbreaks of domestic discord that happens to every country and when it occurs there’s publicity, but people make a judgment about this country over a longer term,” he said.
Television images of the violence shocked Australians who pride themselves on their tolerance and credit an influx of immigrants with helping build up the country in the post-World War II years.
However, tensions between youths of Arab and Middle Eastern descent and white Australians have been rising in recent years, largely because of anti-Muslim sentiment fueled by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States and deadly bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, in October 2002.
In the 2001 census, nearly a quarter of Australia’s 20 million people said they were born overseas. The country has about 300,000 Muslims, most in lower income suburbs of large cities.
The unrest recalled three weeks of rioting in France that began in the suburbs of Paris on Oct. 27 and spread nationwide, baring frustration in communities with high immigrant and Muslim populations.