Saturday, March 7, 2009

{Another Part of (Another)} Police Story

(The Story so Far: A friend of a friend was attacked by some racist Vienna cops, and I'm a little disgusted about it....)

As in the US, this particular sort of police brutality has happened plenty of times before in Austria. The cops use racial profiling and they have a record of severely beating black men who are already in handcuffs or lying on the pavement. The difference here is that Austrian police continue to do these things without any apparent concern about oversight, let alone being caught. They have the open support of many politicians, particularly those of the loathsome Freedom Party, one of whom once told the newspapers, " If you see a black man in Vienna, he's a drug dealer."

A lot of Austrians, young and old, have a profound sense of entitlement, combined with a certain sort of nineteenth century obliviousness. Some claim to be baffled by the (American) concept of political correctness. Oftentimes, a claim like this is merely a prelude to a statement like, 'Well, you know, a lot of black people are drug dealers.' Friends of ours have actually said shit like this!

So when my colleague J. told our staff about how his friend got beat up by a gang of undercover cops who never bothered to identify themselves, it sparked some interesting discussions around the water cooler. J. is African-American too, and when he talks about racism or some other bullshit, his voice goes up half a notch; he is as baffled by Austrian ignorance as they say they are by American 'sensitivity'. J. told me a story about being on a city bus, and overhearing a man make a goddamn fool remark. The man probably assumed, like many Viennese, that J. doesn't speak or understand German, because he's black. Of course, J. does, and he did understand the hate speech the guy was slinging, so he looked over at him and said, in German, "You're an idiot."

The man, apparently unconcerned with being busted as a fucking racist, didn't blink. "You should address me with 'sie,' " he said. "Sie" is the more formal way of saying "you."

I laughed when J. told this story, especially at the way he screwed up his face to show his incomprehension of the guy. You would think that this asshole would understand that by calling him an idiot, J. was already dispensing with manners. But no. Austrians aren't always concerned about racism or police brutality, but they worry a lot about good manners.

One of the less funny things about all of this is that it could have easily been J. who was attacked by the Vienna police.

I worry about raising two black daughters in a place like this. Am I going to have to worry about Viennese policeman attacking Vivien when she's 17 years old?

The other night, I was watching tv, and I was dumbfounded by an almost perfect example of why Austrian police think they can assault black people without cause. As I was channel-surfing, I stumbled upon a broadcast of some sort of costume party banquet. (It may have been scenes from the Villacher Faschingsfest, a notoriously offensive event held in Carinthia, the provincial seat of power for the Freedom Party.) I watched a man flanked by two "Secret Service agents" take the stage to the tune of "Hail to the Chief." He began to speak German with a broad American accent and a squeaky (i.e. young and inexperienced) voice. He was obviously meant to be Obama. He was a white guy in blackface.

I started to float in a strange fog of confusion and disbelief. I was watching a minstrel show on Austrian television. I thought, 'What kind of people would allow this sort of 'entertainment'? (Answer: A people with nary a shred of understanding of black people or black history.) But I also thought, 'Is this maybe okay? Could an argument be made that this is a legitimate form of comedy?' Haven't American tv comics put on brown-face to imitate Middle Eastern people? (A: Yes, and I thought that was offensive too.)

And as I sat there staring at the pretty lights on the television screen, I came back to a question I've asked myself a few times before: How am I going to explain all of this to Adinah and V.?

1 comment:

Jim said...

I love when Europeans always point the finger at the U.S. or mock Americans every time something bad happens there, such as racism or homophobia. They claim such things never happen in Europe. In many instances, it's even worse in Europe. They're such better in window dressing it. I've seen it with my own eyes when I was still living in Germany. Heck, I had a few of my own encounters with these so-called tolerant and cultivated people. Racism and such was never just an American problem. And I don't envy you having to explain this to your little ones. Viel Gl├╝ck!