Vol 1, No 23
29 November 1999
P R A G U E:
I saw Hitler yesterday on the metro. He wasn't the true Nazi, of course not, but this one did look exactly like the infamous sourpuss without the military garb. He wasn't full of hate, marching up and down the platform hailing Seig Heils; he was standing in another metro car, surrounded by others. Was he listening to anecdotes about work and love, or pointing out the cultural superiorty of the latest video by David Hasselhoff? I don't know what he was talking about. All I know is that I saw a man who looked like Hitler; he looked like he was the life of the party.
Some time ago I remember seeing a poster high above the reach of potential vandals; it showed a sympathetic black man wearing a hockey player's uniform, and stated: "Why are you surprised? Don't judge the group, judge the person." Another poster with the same slogan showed a genial Rom dressed as a fireman. Had these posters been placed on street level they would have been torn down or defaced with racist slogans or insulting words. Words left in response included: swine, parasite, freeloader, etc. Not ironically, these exact words were used on posters for the initial phase of a campaign last year to counter the increasing racism and intolerance in this country.
For the first round of this campaign, funded by the UN Commission for Refugees, posters were placed prominantly around the center of Prague, asking the question, "What is the difference?" On the poster were identical little Lego figures, and beneath each one was a different word: parasite, bastard, loser, etc. Vandals immediately left responses: "There is [a difference]. They are Swine. They don't belong here." Despite the grafitti, however, the campaign was not a total failure. While waiting for a bus, two high-school girls looked at and discussed the intended meaning, as I eavesdropped. One felt the posters were senseless because the dolls were exactly alike. Her friend countered, "Of course they're alike, that's the point. We're all alike inside." I don't know who was ultimately more persuasive, but the posters did start a dialogue on an issue no politicians have yet to address here seriously.
Tougher laws against racism were called for, in 1995, after a shocking attack by white youths on a Rom in northern Bohemia. Tibor Berki, at home, in front of his wife and children, was repeatedly smashed on the back of the head with a baseball bat until he was dead. In response, the Klaus government announced that police and state prosecutors would crack down on racial violence by increasing prison terms by a few years. At that time it should have been noted that the state was failing to hit at the deeper roots of a problem far more extensive than the most easily identifiable violators: "gangs of youths with shaved heads, fascist paraphernalia and knives or baseball bats."
But Tibor Berki never became a matyr. Just several months after his murder I was waiting for a tram at a stop outside the center of Prague. Suddenly a group of about 30 skinheads marched into the square shouting insults at a handful of scattered Roma. The skins were masked, Confederate flags covered their faces beneath their eyes. I am not white, so I looked around for something to defend myself in case they decided to charge me. While I was scanning the ground for a stick, a motley collection of Roma armed with broomsticks and a few shovels rallied into the square ready to defend themselves. With these makeshift weapons, less than ten Roma were quickly able to make the skins run in fear. I remember one skinny Rom charged seven skinheads who were yelling insults at him. He charged with a stick and they ran.
Although their station was about 200 meters from the riot, the police arrived late on the scene, dashed out of their cars to rescue a few battered skins and then proceeded to beat and arrest as many Roma as they could. All the skins retreated safely to an area where the police cars were centered. From this vantage point they would point out a Rom, put their masks back on and, together with the police, they would charge at him full speed. After the police caught him, they proceeded to beat him while skins stood behind chanting insults. One man who carried a broomstick was ordered to drop it. He refused, saying that he was only defending himself against the skinheads and the police too. Since he refused to drop the stick, two policemen pushed him against a metal fence and banged his head against it while pushing a baton into his neck until he finally dropped the broomstick.
The most outrageous example of police abuse involved one Rom versus two policemen and several skinheads. After convincing the police not to beat him, some masked skins charged up behind the police. One brave skin actually reached around a policeman and pushed the older Rom. The Rom angrily took of his sweatshirt and invited the youth to push him again. Surprised by his bulging muscles and body tattoos, the skinhead backed off. The police, however, reacted by tackling the man to the ground then beat him while the skins chanted. All in all, the police, with the verbal support of the skins, ended up giving a really good bashing to the only men that afternoon who had any real courage.
From what I saw, only one Czech tried to defend the Roma by criticizing the police for beating them and not arresting the ones who had started the whole pathetic scene. He actually came close to being beaten as well, first by the irritated police then by the skins; if it hadn't of been for others nearby, he certainly would have been bashed. Like many others that day at Palmovka, I just watched. The intimidated observations of an outsider.
This pathetic episode happened several years ago, but after watching the police, in full force, recently protect over a hundred fascists marching through the middle of Prague, I ask myself when will this situation ever improve? The utter reluctance of politicians to speak out against neo-nazism implicitly encourages further skinhead activity and the perpetuation of institutional racism. The "Roma exodus" from this region attests to the tragedy of those who feel unsafe living here. Often described in the media as "unemployable," these citizens also happen not to be white. And while last year's poster campaign against racism tried to bring the issue out into the public domain, the images and slogans may also be criticized for their ineffectiveness.
One poster, for instance, asked, "What is the difference?" Well, I certainly am different from the natives here. True, we all have the same bones, blood and organs underneath our various shades of skin color, but my background, education, experiences and expectations are not the same as a native. My whole way of feeling and thinking about the world is not the same as a native or even other foreigners here. And why should it be? Each of us has a consciousness that demands priority. This means we are all unique, different. Not just natives against foreigners, but all of us, collectively. We want, or rather we need to be different in order to justify and solidify our existence. Even if I am a loser, my hapless ego confidently assures me that I'm doing it, "My Way."
When talking about his native land, Octavio Paz describes Mexico as a conglomeration of people: indigenous, Spanish, other Europeans, and mestizos all make up today's Mexican. Each culture represents a unique and irreplaceable view of life. According to Paz, only primitive cultures are homogenous. Tribes isolated from all outside influences still exist, but they are an anachronism. For Paz, a civilization without cultural differences is a civilization wearing a death mask. And thus modern countries should be made up of a complex variety of cultures, nationalities, languages, and religions.
Salman Rushdie takes this point to another level. As a massively diverse country with a billion citizens and strong regional loyalties, India still maintains a common national identity. While definitions and ideas of belonging within the culture may differ radically, a recent study showed that all citizens of India feel that they belong in that country. Rushdie explains that we all understand ourselves, individually, as composites. We are all many different people depending on the situation. We can be young, old, poor, employees, parents or lovers at various times of the day yet we still maintain a relative sense of who we are. For Rushdie, this is the way to comprehend India: "It has taken a modern view of the self and enlarged it to a state. It accommodates one billion kinds of difference and agrees to call them all Indian." Rushdie says this is an innovative philosophy to be celebrated; it is a notion far more original than the American melting pot or Paz's cultural mosaic.
Xenophobia and racism have their origins in a whole series of everyday factors: personal insecurity, economic instability, family upbringing and social acceptance of such behavior. As a result, the rise of the hatred of foreigners and racial violence has been accepted as a natural consequence of the changes happening throughout the region. It should be pointed out, however, that Western Europe too has experienced a rise in violent actions, more technologically sophisticated perhaps, but still basicallyy committed against foreigners, particularly Turks and Roma. Letter and pipe bombs have been used by Austrian neofascists "protecting their homeland from invading foreigners". In one case, several Roma were killed in Austria by a pipe bomb; beside their scattered bodies a note was found stating: "Gypsies go back to India."
Unlike racial terrorism in Austria or Germany, racists here apparently aren't as well organized, or well equipped to pursue their agenda. It is still mostly a knife and fist combat zone here with the occasional firebombing. But with the continuing silent acceptance of many citizens, combined with only a half-hearted effort by the police force and politicians to stop the violence, the attacks will increase.
One year ago, just after the murder of an African student, Hassan Abdelradi, I was coming home from a protest rally held in his honor. To students, faculty, and friends of the victim, politicians had called for tougher laws against racial violence. The crowd cheered and I left naively with some revived hope for this country. However, as I passed my local cafe, I saw a group of skinheads, apparently having a party inside! The media coverage of the killing had had no effect in creating an atmosphere of condemnation or concern against this arrogant and easily identifiable group. On the contrary, perhaps they were celebrating a victory, since at that time only one unnamed suspect had been caught, or still worse, "there wasn't a witness at the scene of the crime."
Why does the appeal of Hitler persist? Perhaps because he made such an impression on the world. He broke the rules, he pushed the acceptable boundaries of dictatorship and tyranny to the limit; as a modern ruler, he was a rebel, a defiant thug, he was ruthless in his methods to stamp out all the differences around him. And unlike practically any politician nowadays, he carried through his plans - however insane they were - to their ultimate conclusion. In a strange way I can almost understand the reverence for him, especially among younger people: whereas contemporary skinheads, en masse, can only take out a few "others" here and there, Hitler planned and executed the elimination of millions.
Central Europe is a paradox. While on the one hand they eagerly reach out to the West for co-operation, understanding, and financial support during their transition from communism, politicians here are seemingly indifferent to violence against foreigners living in the region and trying to contribute to its integration into the West; they seem equally indifferent to aggression against their own historic minorities. I have met many friendly, tolerant Czechs here, but the political and bureaucratic system does not adequately reflect this sector of society. Now, on the tenth anniversary of the "Velvet Revolution", one simple statement by a native-American boy should be viewed as just as historically important as any of the other declarations by liberation movements or democratic reformists. At the age of twelve Benito Juarez, who later would become the first president of Mexico, said that his culture (the Zapotecs) was based on a very simple principle: Respect for the rights of others is peace. Democratic governments, by definition, need to uphold and protect these rights. This simple idea has never been given a proper chance in this region where whole sectors of society continue to close their eyes and their doors to the world beyond their borders.
Anthony Ozuna, September 1999, Prague
Anthony Ozuna is Head of Humanities at the Anglo American College, Prague, Czech Republic.
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