Enforcement of Mask Rules by U-Bahn Security Triggers Accusations of Racism

A routine intervention by Wiener Linien staff escalated into alleged use of excessive force; feelings run high while body-cam evidence may prove critical.

The Wiener Linien, operator of Vienna’s public transport system, has drawn allegations of racism following an incident on Saturday, October 17. Following a refusal to wear the required face mask at the subway station Westbahnhof, members of the company’s security staff pinned a 30-year-old passenger with Rwandan roots to the floor for several minutes. According to the Wiener Linien, the passenger repeatedly rejected security’s request to put on a mask nor, alternatively, would he leave the premises. 

Passers-by filmed the scene with their mobile phones, showing the man being pinned to the ground by three security guards.

The incident was first reported in the ORF-show Wien Heute on Sunday afternoon and soon became a heatedly discussed topic on social media. The debate focused on whether the security’s harsh measures were due to the defendant being a person of color, and whether a white person would have been treated equally harshly. One user was reminded of the attack on George Floyd.

Some also questioned the overall appropriateness of the reaction, initiated by the mere fact that the man wasn’t wearing a face mask.

The next day, Sunday, the general manager of the Wiener Linien, Alexandra Reinagl, defended the measures and rejected allegations of racism, while promising to analyze the footage from body and surveillance cameras. 

On Monday, the company published a statement on their social media accounts: According to the evaluated recordings, the man has been “politely asked 18 times to put on his mask or else leave the station.“ 

“When security staff tried to accompany the man out, he started to attack our staff.” This was when they called the police and pinned the man to the floor. Due to ongoing discussions, Christoph Heshmatpour, spokesman for the Wiener Linien, stressed once again that the security members acted within regulations. They are allowed to restrain passengers until police arrive, he told Der Standard on Monday. However, it should be a last resort.

Politician Mireille Ngosso (SPÖ) demanded consequences for the company. “Violence of this sort cannot be tolerated,” she wrote on her social media accounts, announcing that she is already in contact with the responsible city councilor.

The police are investigating the incident further. Both parties have pressed charges of bodily harm.

Verena Mayer
After falling in love with the city on an Interrail trip over 10 years ago, Verena is finally living in Vienna. She’s an editorial intern at Metropole and about to finish her master's degree in journalism at Deutsche Journalistenschule in Munich. Her favorite topics include food, culture & people.

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