After the murder of American George Floyd by Mineapolis Police in June, a wave of anti-racism protests swept across the globe. In Vienna, some 50,000 people took to the streets, the largest gathering in Europe and the city’s third-largest protest in 20 years. Now, a group of young activists has organized Black Voices, a Citizens’ Initiative (Volksbegehren) pressing for a national action plan against racism, hoping to initiate structural change and minimize discrimination in Austria.
Noomi Anyanwu, a spokeswoman for the Black Voices initiative, spoke at the June protest. To the 20-year old university student, the immense support for the movement was “extremely overwhelming.” Together with seven others, she began thinking about ways to build on the movement and cement the issue in the public discourse.
“After the Black Lives demonstrations in Vienna, we asked ourselves how we could use the momentum,” Anyanwu said. “Since everyone started talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, we thought that now would be a good time to demand concrete changes to the system.”
Black Voices describes itself as fighting for social equality for blacks, people with African roots, and people of color in all parts of Austrian society. But with the majority of its team being female and including one Muslim, the movement applies to discrimination more widely.
“It’s the place for all the people who’ve always been told that they don’t belong and for all others who want to fight injustice,” said Anyanwu.
Fighting Systemic Racism
The initiative demands a national action plan for an end to systemic racism in six areas: representation and the public sphere, police, flight and migration, within the health and education systems, and in the labor market. One of their central aims includes a reform of the country’s restrictive voting system, which has become highly controversial following a report that 31% of the population was ineligible to vote in Vienna’s recent municipal elections.
If the citizens’ initiative receives 100,000 signatures by September 2021, the National Council (Nationalrat) must put the issue on its agenda.
Activists say such a plan is long overdue in Austria. In 2001, the UN World Conference against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, “urged states to establish and implement” a national action plan to address racism within our societies. There has since been a scattered effort among EU member states to implement such a plan. In 2006, both Austria and Germany were reportedly still preparing their packages. Austria has since failed to formulate a programme, while Germany launched its plan, updated in 2017.
This lack of action may have contributed to the increase in racist hatred acts. In the 2019 report of the anti-racism organization ZARA (Zivilcourage & Anti-Rassismus-Arbeit – Civil Courage & Anti-Racism Work), the organization recorded 1,950 racist acts, a dramatic increase from the previous year, with three out of five cases online. In response, the federal government proposed a legislation to combat Hass im Netz (hatred online).
From the People
Black Voices believes similar efforts are needed to end racism. To help broaden its platform and strengthen its chances of success, the initiative receives guidance from Green Party speaker for integration and member of the National Council Faika El-Nagashi, along with Mireille Ngosso (SPÖ) deputy district representative for the 1st district, and organizer of the Viennese Black Lives demonstration. Both El-Nagashi, of Hungarian-Egyptian heritage, and the Congolese-born Ngosso both represent those the initiative is advocating for and, at the same time, those the group hopes to address.
To El-Nagashi, the citizens’ initiative is essential in kick-starting the human rights discussion in the political and public sphere.
“It’s very difficult to talk about racism on the political, especially in a country like Austria where a self-critical discussion about racism doesn’t exist,” said El-Nagashi. “The moment we talk about injustices, inequalities, power relations and being affected by racism, then we are asking: ‘Who is responsible for it? Who is silent? Who actually does it? When I’m disadvantaged, then who has the advantages?’ These are uncomfortable discussions for many, which is why it’s so difficult to discuss, debate, and reflect.”
So far, advocacy for anti-racist policies in Austria has been limited and has not gained enough traction to become central to any party’s platform. Of all the political parties, the Greens are the most likely to voice support for human rights issues, but even they would much rather be associated with environmental issues, undermining their label as “the human rights party.”
“Very often the Greens present themselves as the climate party, the environmental protection party, or maybe even the transportation party,” said El-Nagashi. “I also believe that we’re an anti-racism party, but we certainly need a lot more people to speak up about this, to give the movement a face, a voice, and credibility.”
A Volksbegehren could establish such a platform, advocates say, and lay the groundwork for anti-racism legislation. Alongside Black Voices, other new groups, such as the Black Movement Austria and African Diaspora Austria (ADOE) are voicing similar demands.
“Here we have a new generation for whom living in Austria is a given and shapes this country in so many different ways, but at the same time, experiences racism and always has to fight for their legitimate place in society,” said El-Nagashi. “At the moment, this is leading to productive action, and there is a lot of satisfaction in engaging politically as a group.”
The citizens’ initiative is open for signatures at your local Bezirksamt or online with a phone signature. Noncitizens may also support it. For more information: https://www.bmi.gv.at/411/.