By Jill Fraser
MELBOURNE, Australia (AA) - Hundreds of police failed in their bid to separate opposing protesters as violence erupted in the heart of one of Australia’s most multicultural suburbs on Saturday.
Protesters were drenched in pepper spray during ugly clashes between anti-racism and anti-immigration groups holding counter rallies in Melbourne's north.
According to local city councilor Sue Bolton, the clashes occurred at a park a distance away from a No to Racism rally.
The rally was initiated several months ago with the endorsement of the local council, the main body of Australia’s trade union organizations, the Islamic Council of Victoria and organization No Room for Racism.
Bolton -- organizer of the No to Racism rally -- told the Anadolu Agency that “a far right group, that targets Muslims in particular, organized a rally to protest against ours”.
Protesters, many on both sides with their faces covered, hurled abuse at each other and faced off despite swarms of police in riot gear, including officers on horseback, forming barricades to try to keep the two groups apart.
Speakers included a Muslim woman who had been attacked on a train on two occasions, Aboriginal owners and refugees from Afghanistan.
Police had predicted two days ago that violence would erupt between the two opposing rallies and urged people not to allow children to attend.
Speaking to media on Saturday afternoon Commander Sharon Cowden of Melbourne Police noted that she had predicted the violence.
"We saw inappropriate and often cowardly behavior with people wearing masks and hiding their identity and we actually believe that in these circumstances they're not coming to a peaceful protest," she said.
"We have some people who try and do the right thing... they want to come along and have a rally and want to protest and have their say peacefully and then you get the extreme ends when people come along and all they want is a fight."
Five people were arrested for riotous behavior and two for possession of weapons.
Anti-racism protesters chanted "Nazi scum off our streets", while right-wing demonstrators shouted "the Left is going down", according to a report in The Age.
Victoria Police said both sides were to blame for the violence.
Cowden said police were well prepared and denied they had "failed" by not preventing the clashes in the first place.
“Some people come along ... and they're looking for trouble," she told the gathered media.
Bolton distanced herself from the violence.
She told Anadolu Agency that protesters involved in scuffles with the extreme right group were “not part of our rally”.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has said that around one in five Australians say they have experienced race-hate talk, such as verbal abuse, racial slurs or name-calling.
More than one in 20 Australians also say they have been physically attacked because of their race.