Race Riots Erupt in Sydney, Australia
ED GORDON, host:
Police in Sydney, Australia, have begun randomly searching cars for weapons in the hope of stopping violence by white and Arab youth. Rioting erupted in the country's largest city last week when whites attacked Arabs on a popular beach. Arabs reportedly retaliated elsewhere in the city by attacking whites and police. The rioting has since subsided, but concern is mounting over deteriorating race relations Down Under. NPR's Farai Chideya joins us now with the latest.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Ed, I'm joined by Claire Mathie, a police reporter for ABC radio news in Sydney. ABC in this case, of course, is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Claire has been covering the racial unrest.
Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. CLAIRE MATHIE (Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio News): Hello.
CHIDEYA: So there have been three days of riots, reportedly led by neo-Nazi groups. Explain who the players in this are and how the rioting began.
Ms. MATHIE: The rioting began on the weekend here at a local beach in southern Sydney. It's probably about 40 to 50 minutes outside of the city. Now there are about 5,000 people that gathered on the beach front under the hot sun, and fueled by alcohol, things turned ugly. And there were instances where people of Middle Eastern descent were set upon by local youths.
CHIDEYA: Has it been a place that has been very racially diverse in the past or is it newly diverse? And, you know, kind of how secure do people feel in this neighborhood or in this community? Here in the United States, a lot of times what happens is that when people are feeling insecure economically, racial tensions also break out.
Ms. MATHIE: If you talk to the people who describe themselves as locals at Cronulla, those who regularly use the beach down there and who live in the area, they say that this sort of racial tension has been simmering for years. And it's an affluent suburb, a suburb that perhaps hasn't had the degree of integration or the degree of migration that other Sydney suburbs have.
CHIDEYA: This must have really shaken people up to see this level of violence in their area.
Ms. MATHIE: Yesterday there was a statement issued by these community groups. The boardriders at the beaches and members of the Lebanese community have been meeting with police to try and resolve the issue. They issued what they called a joint declaration of tolerance. One of the representatives of the board riders said that they condemned the violence, that it must stop, that they apologized for the behavior of some members of their community. They described the initial day where the violence broke out as being one where they wanted to show their solidarity against the behavior of what they called ethnic gangs who'd been harassing them. They say that it escalated out of control under the influence of right-wing racists, who they say came from outside the community. They say now that they reject racism and also that they've sent a written apology to members of Sydney's Lebanese community expressing their remorse for the actions that were taken and that have unfolded over the past couple of days.
CHIDEYA: Your prime minister has stated that he doesn't think that race had anything to do with the violence. Is that a commonly held perception or has he been perceived as out of touch?
Ms. MATHIE: You're right. Prime Minister John Howard did describe the attacks as sickening and that they were unacceptable, but he doesn't believe that Australia is a racist nation. He doesn't believe that there are underlying issues of racism. Obviously there are others that disagree with his opinion. The New South Wales police, who have been the authorities dealing with this situation, have clearly said on a number of occasions that they believe that it is or has been fueled by racist discrimination. They say, for example, that they could clearly hear in the barbs that were being exchanged--the nature of the content of those barbs were, in their opinion, racially motivated. One fellow in particular had a T-shirt on; on it was written `ethnic-cleansing unit.'
CHIDEYA: Well, every major society--every society period, virtually, has some problems around race and ethnicity. And America is no exception; Australia has had a long history with the Aboriginal people. It seems here that the government isn't--not particularly addressing this as an intervention culturally. They're addressing the criminal justice side, but not, perhaps, the underlying cultural issues. Do you think that this is going to cause longer problems down the road?
Ms. MATHIE: They have had some roundtable discussions with various community leaders, both from the Muslim and Christian Lebanese communities, those from the surfing communities, in a bid to try and get all the issues, I suppose, on the table and to address them. But in this first instance, they seem to be trying to address the criminality they see in the riots, and today it's expected that legislation giving police more powers to crack down on the rioters will be passed through both houses of Parliament.
CHIDEYA: Is there any opposition to, you know, granting new powers?
Ms. MATHIE: The state opposition here, which says that it has been briefed about the new powers and that it will support them, which means it will go through both houses of Parliament here--it'll have a two-year sunset clause on it, and it'll give police the powers to do things like lock down streets to conduct random searches of cars without warrants, to shut down pubs, clubs and bottle shops, and they're also planning to increase the jail term if you're convicted of rioting. That jail term is going to be tripled from five years in prison to 15 years.
CHIDEYA: Claire Mathie is a police reporter for ABC Radio News in Sydney. That's the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. MATHIE: Thank you.
GORDON: That's NPR's Farai Chideya.
Thanks for joining us. That's our program today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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