Austria: Police attack anti-fascists on May Day

Brutality inflicted on peaceful protest

On 1 May, hundreds of anti-fascist demonstrators gathered in Linz, Austria, with the aim of preventing the neo-Nazi NVP (Nationalist People’s Party) from marching through the streets. The lesson that the anti-fascist activists can learn from this episode is that no trust can be placed in the authorities – in particular those in the Upper Austria region where Linz is situated – to assist in the campaign against the fascists. Instead of taking action against the groups of Nazis that have been surfacing in the city, the police proceeded to brutally attack the anti-fascist demonstrators and for hours prevented a peaceful and officially registered demonstration. Here are the facts and observations of various eye-witnesses:

How the demo began

Just as the demonstration had begun to set off towards the main square in Linz, a group of 50-100 anti-fascists were cut off from the main body of demonstrators and put into a “kettle” (“Kessel”) by a chain of policemen, who claimed they were ‘masked’. The authorities in Upper Austria are well known for being all too keen to use a law which bans demonstrators covering their faces to harass anti-fascist demonstrators.

The regional director of security claimed in the ‘der Standard’ newspaper that these protesters were repeatedly requested to uncover their faces. However, when and where these requests were made is not known – certainly the police did not address the ‘kettled’ protesters over a PA system to communicate this. This is yet another example of how this law is being used to legitimise denying the basic democratic right of protest, something which anti-G20 protesters in London will be all too familiar with.

The commanding officer at the demonstration told reporters, “It was necessary to use the tactic of ‘kettling’ on these people, since there was the danger that they could commit arrestable offences. We will of course try to prevent this under all circumstances.”

Following this train of thought, any of the demonstrators can be denied the right to participate in a protest for the most trumped-up of reasons – for example, a broken pair of glasses could be termed as an ‘offensive weapon’, a pram could be seen as a ‘battering ram’ and flagpoles could be considered by police to be ‘spears’.

Amongst the protesters that were ‘kettled’ were three young girls from Linz, no older than 18, who came to the demo with one of their brothers. All were dressed in bright summer clothing and were absolutely shocked with the treatment they received at the hands of the police. They had to give the police their personal details, including their mobile number, and even made them write their names on a board to hold over the chest so the police could take their ‘mug shot’.

Another demonstrator who was arrested was Rainer Zendron, locally well-known as the vice-rector of the Linz University of Art.

The rest of the demonstrators quickly debated whether the best course of action would be to carry on regardless or not. The person who officially registered the protest, a member of the KPÖ (Austrian Communist Party), was in favour of this carrying on and leaving the surrounded protesters on their own. However the representatives of the SLP (Socialist Left Party – CWI in Austria) and some migrant organisations (such as the Turkish/Kurdish group ATIGF) argued strongly against this.

It was put clearly that, “even though we don’t agree with them on every single point, we are here to demonstrate together against Nazis. The police won’t decide who is allowed to participate in our demonstration – we will.” In the end, the KPÖ had to accept that 90% of the body of demonstrators were not willing to leave the kettled protesters behind.

As the police provoked the demonstrators with insults, marching into the protests to push them back, and when pushing women back, applying force to their breasts, the tension in the crowd grew and grew as stories started to circulate about the appalling treatment of the kettled demonstrators. The police became more and more aggressive, wielding their truncheons, throttling a demonstrator from Salzburg, spraying tear gas and pepper spray at the crowd, sometimes at very close range (barely a half a meter away) and were happy to ignore calls from protesters to assist those who had been injured. Many of these were eventually forced to go to hospital, including Michael Gehmacher, a member of the SLP Executive Committee, who, whilst attempting to help a demonstrator who had been thrown to the ground by a policeman, was sprayed in the face with pepper spray for his efforts.

Dr. Edith Friedl gave an eye-witness account of events. “After being kettled for a good two hours, the situation got more and more tense. The youngsters present were screaming and shouting, were visibly becoming more and more agitated, wanted to escape and that’s when all hell broke loose. Policemen snatched individuals from the crowd, threw them to the ground and set about whacking them with their truncheons… Shortly after the chaos that ensued, the chief of police in Linz turned up in person at the crime scene and gave an ‘objective’ interview to state television, which only served to infuriate those present even further. Basically, these young people weren’t doing anything. The commanding officers provoked them massively and intentionally let the trouble escalate.”

“It was the first time since the Nazis were in power that a May Day march had been stopped by the police. And, of all places, this had to happen in Linz, European City of Culture 2009. Is this a sign of things to come?”

Why did this happen? How could it have been prevented?

The assumption is that the police wanted to stop this demonstration at all costs as a part of a bargain to dissuade the far-right FPÖ (Austrian ‘Freedom’ Party) from holding a rally in Linz on the day.

In the past, the authorities in the whole of the Upper Austria region have shown themselves to be only too happy to turn a blind eye to the activities of far-right. Two years ago, two anti-fascist activists were arrested as they, along with others, attempted to stop Nazis from marching in the town of Ried. There, the Nazis were allowed to march unhindered, just like they have done on a number of occasions.

In the run up to 1st May, the SLP had warned against leaving the fight against the far-right to the authorities. However, the Social Democrat organisations relied on them to ban the NVP’s march and instead, called for torchlight procession the night before and stayed away from the anti-fascist demonstrations on 1st May. It is clearly a positive development that 2,000 people protested against the far-right on the 30th April, but it is not enough if on 1st May the police go on to employ brutal methods against anti-fascist demonstrators in order to allow NVP and other neo-Nazi activists to take part in a rally organised by H.C. Strache, the leader of the FPÖ.

If the various Social Democrat organisations had taken part in the demonstration on the 1st May instead of watching from a safe distance, it would have strengthened the anti-fascist cause and the police would not have been in a position to attack the demonstration.

The role of the SLP

‘Anti-fascism’ and ‘solidarity’ aren’t just phrases and buzzwords for us – the SLP mobilised activists from all over Austria to Linz on 1 May to intervene in this demonstration. It is also why we protested in the strongest terms against the exclusion of the anarchists kettled by the police – even if we have different views to them on a number of points, as it was important that all anti-fascist activists took part in the demonstration.

Herbert Wanko, a family man who trains apprentices for a living and can hardly be described as a ‘young firebrand’, reports on the SLP’s intervention on this demonstration.

“We paid a crucial role in making sure that the demonstration did not leave without those who had been kettled by the police, contrary to the wishes of the KPÖ, and brought attention to their plight.

“Our comrades were on the frontline at all times and didn’t let themselves get intimidated by the police incursions. Apart from the odd scratch, a bit of bruising here and there and a few eyes streaming from the tear gas, the protesters were not put off and continued demonstrating.

“Unfortunately, the police’s excesses had led to Michael Gehmacher (of the SLP) being badly hurt, but thankfully he’s already on the mend.

“I’ve been on many demos in my time and I’ve seen, not to mention felt the full force of the police attacking the protesters, however it’s been a while since I’ve seen a uniformed mob lay into peaceful demonstrators in such an aggressive manner.”

“For many of our comrades, as well as many of the other protesters, it will certainly have been the first time that they would have experienced something like this. Taking this into special consideration, I would especially like to praise the calm, collected and brave behaviour of our younger comrades who resolutely kept their heads and refused to rise to the police’s bait.

“When the police had had enough and it was past the time that had originally been declared as the end of the demo, what was left of the KPÖ contingent had quietly sloped off and most of the migrant organisations had also called it a day. However, for the SLP contingent, especially the youngsters, had different ideas, took to the main road to the main square in the city. Despite the tactical errors of some demonstrators earlier in the day, this march was a loud, impressive, and in my opinion, a terrific demonstration that was largely led by SLP members.

“I was particularly struck that there was no trouble or attempts to damage anything, even though we passed banks and Rolex watch shops along the way.

“In Linz we have once again proved how important it is to carry out determined anti-fascist work and that we – unlike the social-democratic organisations – do not accept unprincipled compromises, such as being content that the NVP demo was merely ‘banned’.”

What now?

The reckless behaviour of the police will certainly have legal consequences. However, we cannot limit our work to just this area.

The SLP demands an independent commission to research and find out, what really happened. This commission has to be made up by the organisers of the demonstration, representatives of the Trade Unions and the victims.

We also demand that all information that was collected by the police is deleted and that no information should be given to the work places, the unemployed office, schools or universities.

Those who were politically responsible for these events – those in charge of the police as well as the politicians in the Linz city council and regional government – have clearly lost any credibility they may have had.

Those groups who did not participate in the demonstration, but are criticising the police’s actions (which they are right to do so), should not just express their horror from the sidelines. If they really want to put their words into practise, they should call a big demonstration in Linz in the coming weeks against the NVP and police brutality.

We invite everyone who wants to take a stand against the Nazis and police brutality to become active with the SLP.

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May 2009