Following the death of the 46 year old, unarmed African American George Floyd May 25 while in police custody, protests in the name of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have risen up around the world. On June 4th, Austria joined in.
The demo began at 17:00 at the Platz der Menschenrechte (Human Rights Square) at the foot of the Mariahilferstraße near the Marcus Omofuma Monument, dedicated to the Nigerian asylum seeker who was killed by police during his deportation in 1999.
Originally, organizers had assumed that about 3,000 people would come. But neither government advice to avoid large crowds nor the rainy weather kept the Viennese away. According to the police, in the end, 50,000 turned up. For comparison: In Brussels, 10,000 people gathered for the #BLM demo. In Hamburg and Düsseldorf 20,000 assembled, in Berlin: 30,000. The strict corona restrictions still in place in many countries probably kept some people at home, and others from traveling to join the protests.
“I Can’t Breathe”
In Vienna, the demonstrators walked from the Museumsquartier to the front of Karlskirche, while holding up home-made signs and chanting “No justice, no peace; ”Nein zu Gewalt, Ja zu Toleranz;” and “I Can’t Breathe.” Most signs were in English, many taken from the memes coursing across social media and where images of the protest were sure to find a place in the days that followed.
From somewhere in the crowd, a young woman shouted out,”Say his name!” from the top of her lungs. “George Floyd,“ George Floyd!“ the crowd roared back. Colorful signs everywhere, torn off cardboard boxes with Tixo, attached to short wooden strips, written on with Edding markers.
Demonstrators talked and laughed together, not because the situation wasn’t not serious, but out a pride in the sheer numbers present. They had all showed up. For a cause they believed in.
A guy in a wheelchair rushed between the #BLM signs, the feminist banners and rainbow flags in the direction of the Karlskirche, before a sidewalk stopped him and he looked around with a sheepish grin. In seconds, fellow protesters had lifted him over the curb.
In front of church, some jumped into the fountain, presumably to “make a splash” for the cause. It certainly wasn’t because of any summer heat on this pleasantly cool evening.
A little after 18:30, proceedings began, opened by Viennese actress Marie Noel, who moderated the rally. “We are tired, we are angry and we are afraid,” she cried out. “But we are here!” The crowd roared.
Next came Mireille Ngosso, the respected SPÖ deputy leader of the 1st district and human rights activist: This was about standing up against structural racism, she said. “The death of George Floyd has really hit us all.” She had been unable to watch the video through to the end. “I saw in it my son, my brother, my uncle, my father. And I wonder, how much longer?” Later, she spoke to journalists: “We need to make people more aware of this – also here in Austria,” she said, gesturing with her hands in frustration, “…in all the institutions you see it. Black people, people of color… so often are affected by injustice, it happens so often.”
In the crowd, many said they were there out of solidarity. Black people get treated differently, we see it, people said over and over again. Where exactly? “In the bus, when I am with my mother,” said one well-spoken teenager named Lina. “I got kicked out of school, and the teacher told my mother that ‘people like us’ can’t make it very far” in Austria.
Second demo in front of US embassy
The following day, Friday, June 5, people were demonstrating again. This time, the place was the American embassy in Boltzmanngasse in the 9th district. Some 9,000 showed up, again, more than expected. About an hour after the #BlackLivesMatter demo started, police had to close Währinger Strasse and let the crowd move slowly towards Votivpark.
From the roof of an apartment building, far-right counter protesters hung a provocative banner down over the windows below. It wasn’t there for long: Minutes later, from several windows, people grabbed the cloth and tore it from the roof – to a surge of applause from the demonstrators. All transpired peacefully, with one person was slightly injured, according to police reports afterward. The poster had been removed, the police said, in order to “dispose of it properly”. On the fringes of the meeting, a few water bottles were thrown at the officers, otherwise there were no incidents. No one was hurt.
New guidelines for protests
After last week’s large demonstrations throughout Austria, critics complained about the lack of protection against the coronavirus – too few masks, no social distancing. In response, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (SPÖ) published three guidelines on how to proceed at future rallies: First, in agreement with the organisers, he called for “spatial separation” (räumliche Entflechtung) at future events, planning the rallies in such a way that demonstrating groups can use different routes. Second, reserve spaces should be planned in, to avoid excessive concentration at manageable locations. Third, the ministry wants to revise the rules for mouth and nose covering for the coming days, such that when the current one-meter distance requirement cannot be kept, a mask would again be required.
(Fotos: by Julia Seidl)