Violent scenes erupted on Sunday as anti-Islam and anti-racism protesters confronted each other in Melbourne and Sydney, with police using pepper spray to control crowds and one man being taken into custody for allegedly punching a police horse.
Police arrested six people in Melbourne and one person in Sydney after clashes between the rival groups turned ugly. Protests in other capital cities were largely peaceful.
The right-wing Reclaim Australia group arrived at a series of anti-Islam rallies in capital cities carrying flags and with their faces covered with scarves.
In Melbourne, they were met by equally noisy No Room For Racism activists, who held a counter-rally in response and were heard chanting “Muslims are welcome, racists aren’t”.
Capsicum spray was used at Melton, west of Melbourne, and one man was charged with animal cruelty after he allegedly punched a police horse.
Police said three men were arrested for weapon offences, while two more men, aged 22 and 44, were taken into custody for riotous behaviour.
About 500 people from Reclaim Australia gathered at the Melton Civic Centre carrying Australian flags and signs reading “integrate or immigrate”, protesting against the planned construction of a mosque.
Several scuffles broke out between the groups, with police also forced to use capsicum spray on pro-diversity members.
One protester from Reclaim Australia defended his right to protest and denied the group was racist.
“I want my kids to have the same upbringing as I had, I want our kids to be able to sing the national anthem, have Christmas carols at their schools and not have to put up with the hijab,” he said.
“Why do they need to build their own mosque and their own schools when they can send their kids to our schools?
“They need to assimilate and become a part of us.”
Victoria Police acting Commander Alan Byrnes said three people were injured but the protest was largely peaceful.
“It’s always a bit disappointing to see people turn up with masks,” he said.
“You wonder what their motives are for doing that, but we think all in all it was fairly peaceful.”
About 300 anti-racism protesters drowned out the estimated 200 Reclaim Australia supporters in Brisbane after their microphone failed to work, the Brisbane Times reported.
One man, 64, was charged with public nuisance after he allegedly jumped a barricade.
In Sydney, police and anti-racism protesters – some with small children – clashed at Sydney’s Martin Place, when they were pushed back by officers as they tried to march down Macquarie Street.
Here’s the Reclaim Australia rally… About 100 people and “I was only 19” playing. pic.twitter.com/WuZFW6UvNN
— Mark Di Stefano (@MarkDiStef) November 22, 2015
At least 200 police worked to keep the groups, which had gathered at opposite ends of Martin Place, at least 100m apart on Sunday.
Reclaim Australia protesters held two minutes’ silence for terror victims, broken by calls of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”, and also played Redgum’s I Was Only 19, inspired by the Vietnam War.
Police said a 36-year-old man was arrested for allegedly damaging a memorial, while a 16-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly breaching the peace, but was not charged, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Reclaim Australia also held rallies in Perth, Adelaide, Canberra and Hobart, as well as other areas, which were largely peaceful.
Not even a sweltering 35-degree day in Perth could keep rival protesters at home as they gathered near Parliament House.
WA Police were out in force to keep an eye on the crowd, but people on both sides were well behaved, if not loud as each group tried to drown out the other with music and speeches.
Alexis Vassiley, an organiser of the anti-racism rally, said they were there to stand up against racism and fascism – things he said were not welcome in Perth.
“Reclaim Australia is Islamaphobic and they are also fascists so it’s important that they’re exposed,” he said.
“They’re not the ordinary mums and dads that they’re made out to be by the media, but they’re actually violent and they’re bigoted and they’re racist.”
Naomi Halford, a supporter of Reclaim Australia, said they were not racist, they were welcoming of all groups and nationalities, but they were against Islam.
Ms Halford said they stood for all things Australian, and so were against the practices of Sharia law.
“Islam you’ve got female genital mutilation, which we totally stand against,” she said.
“Over there you can marry young children and over here that’s like paedophilia.
“Basically we’re looking after the rights of our kids, and our future children and we just don’t want it to be ruined by Sharia law.”
Hundreds of rival demonstrators faced off on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra, where there were fiery clashes between the groups but no arrests made.
In Adelaide, a 48-year-old man was charged with affray in the rallies at Adelaide Festival Plaza.
No violence or arrests were reported in Hobart.
Two days before the Melton rally a Melbourne supporter of Reclaim Australia was jailed for possessing stun guns after police were tipped off some people were planning on taking weapons to the rally for self-defence.
Phillip Galea, 31, also allegedly had a flare at an earlier rally in Bendigo and was issued a penalty notice for having a knife at another event.
-with Brandon Cohen, Emma Manser and agencies