How I Overcame My Fear of The Police
12 January 2016
It was in Vienna where I overcame my fear of the police. It was during Spring and summer 2011 when the entire world was in a mass social and political tumult from the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia through the Indignados protest movement in Spain to which ultimately three months later became the Occupy Wall Street resistance which spread across North America with varying degrees of success.
I had just returned to Vienna after a full year living and traveling in most of ex-Yugoslavia. Down on my luck and bored I decided to get involved with Acampa Vienna, which was the solidarity protest with the Indignados in Spain. Acampa Vienna fist occupied an area of the park in Karlsplatz. Incredibly the occupation went mostly unnoticed and unhindered by the authorities. It was only after the Austrian secret police known as the Staatspolizei (roughly State Police in English) noticed Acampa Vienna did the city authorities decide to act. A senior civil servant from the city showed up only to make nasty insults and childish threats.
It was decided by the demonstrators that Karlsplatz was too big a public space to occupy. Given the size of Karlsplatz the occupation encampment could be missed by most people passing through or by the park. The campus of Vienna University was selected as the next site of occupation. The Vienna University Campus is roughly 1 KM from the main university building. The campus is compromised entirely of the former General Hospital of Vienna. The campus is essentially a square of buildings which line the perimeter of the streets with a large enclosed yard with pedestrian walkways, grass and trees. The Campus was definitely much cozier than Karlsplatz. Within a couple of days an administrator from the university came down to the encampment. He had heard all sorts of outrageous accusations made against the occupation. After asserting that these were lies and explaining what the occupation was about, did the administrator give us four more days to leave.
The next day came a senior uniformed police officer. He calmly approached the encampment with the most bored look on his face. By observing the bars and other insignia one could discern he was a senior officer. Perhaps a captain. He was uncharacteristically sloppy in appearance. His trousers and his shirt were one size too big for him and his police bill was just slightly crooked on top his head. First he checked out the overall scene. He observed people sleeping, sitting, writing and talking. Then he looked at each sign, poster and banner. He seemed to take an interest in the texts and content of the signs. Though his police presence and his sloppy appearance made him seemed dimwitted, his eyes revealed lucid comprehension. This was confirmed by what he said.
"This is philosophy. This is all about philosophy." The policeman said in German.
"What?" was the general response of the protesters.
"This is a philosophical struggle." The policeman countered with increasing bored detachment.
"What do mean?" was the follow up question by an increasingly perplexed group.
"This is a struggle about what type of economy and social system there should be." The policeman explained. "There is a struggle now of competing philosophies. This occupation is about one philosophy against another." The policeman concluded.
We were left speechless. With that the senior policeman walked away. He didn't yell, insult or threaten. He didn't make an ass of himself. Something exceedingly rare with the Austrian police. He didn't even ask to see anyone's identification. The senior policeman understood that he was not dealing with any criminal activity. Certainly there wasn't a terrorist plot being hatched. Moreoever, we weren't threatening the public. He looked at us as real people and realized that none of us were the normal criminal segment of the population that the police normally deal with. Most importantly, he understood our philosophy. We were squarely in the camp of Humanism and Rationalism. Indeed, our demands were nothing new in Austria. These were the same demands that the Austrian Social Democrats had presented a century earlier. At the end of the day, we were no different than the Austrian Social Democrats of the latter half of the 19th century. It does seem to be the case that the senior police officers in Austria are very educated while the vast majority of the rank and file constables in the country are morons.
We eventually shut down Acampa Vienna as it didn't gain any traction. There was no need ever for the police to intervene. The circle of activists decided that it was time to open up a new squat. Locations were scouted throughout the city. Squats used to occur quite frequently in Vienna for nearly 15 years. Lobmeyr-Hof, the first apartment complex in Vienna and one of the earliest in the world had been mostly vacant for more than 20 years. The history of Lobmeyr-Hof is quite interesting but beyond the scope of this essay. Lobmeyr-Hof is located in the 16th District of Vienna named Ottakring. It's one of the oldest working class quarters of the city which today is home of many immigrants from ex-Yugoslavia, Turkey and Poland. Lobmeyr-Hof was owned by the Vienna Housing Authority which is a city government agency. Like most capitalist cities, housing is expensive in Vienna. Yet the city of Vienna holds an empty apartment complex in which thousands of people could be adequately housed.
I liked Lobmeyr-Hof. I appreciated how it was the template for most of the thousands of apartment complexes in New York City. The Austrian word for apartment complexes is "Wohnpark" or Housing Park in English. Lobmeyr-Hof was similar in architecture as Vienna University Campus. Lobmeyr-Hof was a square of ten 4 story apartment buildings built in a rectangle on the perimeter. Within the perimeter was a large yard with grass, benches, flowerbeds and playground. New York City copied the "Wohnpark" style of mass housing from Lobmeyr-Hof which I appreciated personally as I mostly grew up in apartment complexes in New York such as Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. My heart was so much into this occupation that I drafted the manifesto of the occupation in English.
After 5 days the Vienna Housing Authority decided to evict us. The elite tactical police squad "Wega" or the Special Unit was dispatched. We had been prepared for such an eventuality. A couple of days before the eviction, we had erected barricades. There was a radical protester from France who had spent most of his young life engaging in environmental direct action occupations in his country. He supervised the construction of the barricades. Always leave it to the French to handle the logistics of front line barricades. The day that we had expected the eviction nothing happened. Another day had passed and still no action. We had let our guard down and of course the police arrived early the next morning.
I awoke in an apartment with some friends early one morning and immediately knew that we were surrounded. The police had the entire complex surrounded from the outside. The fire brigade were also on hand. We had been split into two groups. The first group had occupied one building and we had occupied the neighboring one. Each group separately decided that it would be best to run up to the roof and make our stand there.
I panicked. My worst nightmare was upon me. I had managed to avoid getting arrested. I was arrested once before working as a journalist in Montreal but generally I had a squeaky clean record. Not only was I afraid of the police but I was and still am terrified of jail and prison. Most importantly, I value my freedom. Being locked up is my single biggest nightmare. A criminal record also hinders one's freedom of travel. Now I was caught with no place to run. It was only a matter of time before the police would reach us.
Upon the roof it was windy and raining. This lasted for 20 minutes before the rain stopped. The sun appeared and with each passing hour the temperature increased. We could see the other group on the roof on the other side. It took the police more than 3 hours to get through all the barricades. We could hear the constant and tedious clanging of battering rams slowly making progress. It seemed to take one hour for the police to break through each barricade. For no less than 45 minutes was the repetitive sound of:
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!
Then came the sounds of wood breaking and metal crashing. This was followed by another 45 minutes of monotonous industrial metal on metal.
Meanwhile I sat calmly subdued on the roof. I was certain that my goose was cooked. The following thoughts raced across my mind:
I'm fucked! How could I be so careless as to get caught by the stupid cops! This is Austria. Not only will they verbally insult me racially but they're probably going to have a go at me. They're going to beat the shit out of me. I'm going to jail. I'm going to get deported. If I get deported from Austria, then it will be at least ten years before they might let me return. If I get deported from Austria, I may be barred from ever returning to Europe. If they do deport me, I will try to convince them to deport me back to Serbia rather than the US. This sucks but oh well. There's nothing that I can do about it. I should've thought about the consequences. I can't blame the police. I knew what I was doing was against the law. Now I'm fucked. Oh well. I'll live. I'm not in America. The police aren't going to kill me. They'll just beat the shit out of me but they can't be any worse than the thrashings that my mother meted out to me. I will survive and live through this. It's sad that my time in Europe will come to an end like this.
After more than 3 hours the police finally appeared on the roof. They were in full riot gear. The leader of the group came up to us. Normally under the circumstances one would expect the police to say something along the following lines: "You are under arrest!" "You are commanded to leave the premises immediately." "This is an illegal assembly!" "You are trespassing and therefore under arrest." "We got you now you hippie anarchist motherfuckers! We're going to fuck you up!"
No. Nothing remotely close to that was said by the leader of his police group as they came upon us. Instead he said: "Der Spaß ist vorbei. Geh schon!" (The fun is over. Go already!) Seeing that we didn't immediately move he repeated: "Geh schon!" as he indicated with his gloved fingers to leave. The police opened the hatch to the roof and additional officers on the floor below put up a ladder.
"Geh schon!" The policeman repeated as his finger pointed down to the hatch we were to exit through. A young Anarchist Austrian resisted leaving.
"Geh schon!", repeated the policeman.
The Austrian Anarchist resisted more. He was picked up and pushed down the hatch. Then an Austrian born Iranian Kurd from Burgenland went down on her own free volition. I followed suit. I descended down the ladder. I stepped off and turned around. To my horror the building corridor was lined with a gauntlet of cops in full riot gear. I gulped. This was it! I was going to be whacked and slammed going through the gauntlet. Confronted with this spectacle I uttered the best imitation of aristocratic Viennese High German from Hietzing which I could conjure up. "Guten Morgen!" (Good Morning!) I greeted the gauntlet of police in perfect Hochdeutsch.
To my complete amazement the entire squad replied in the most courteous and respectful manner: "Guten Morgen!"
Two officers in riot gear grabbed me firmly but gently by my biceps on either side and we began walking. I waited for the inevitable tap by a stick or a nasty racist insult at the very least. Nothing happened. I was slowly escorted by the two officers down the stairs, out the building door into the inner courtyard. There I saw and made eye contact with the Vienna Housing Authority Commissioner. She was some Vienna SPOe Party hack. To her credit, she was neither nasty nor reactionary. I was escorted through the courtyard through the main gate to the complex and then out on the street. Upon exiting the complex we turned right. There was a cameraman there and as soon as I had stepped out, he trained his camera on to me. I thought it was the Staatspolizei. If it was the Thought Police, I wanted to look straight into the camera and show how much contempt that I had for them. Later I found out that it was the state news broadcaster ORF. Not surprisingly they didn't show my face during that evening's news broadcast.
The two officers escorted me on to a side street and took me up to a van. They relieved themselves of me. A female officer asked for my papers. I gave her my passport. I was kept waiting for 20 minutes as they checked me out and determined what to do with me. My passport was handed back to me. I was free to go.
Just like that I overcame my fear of the police. I had been in a position of extreme vulnerability and powerlessness. I expected the worst, yet the best resulted instead.
However, while I was spared the rod one of my friends was slashed by a baton on his upper back below his neck. He was left with a minor bruise but nothing severe enough to prove "excessive force". He himself was a blonde Austrian from Steiermark. They were polite with the Black foreigner but took a jab at the white native. Most likely he was punished by the cops for behavior unbecoming of an Aryan.
The icing on the cake was that there were no arrests at all. When everyone was accounted for, we went directly from there en masse by U-Bahn to occupy Green Party Headquarters in the 7th District of Neubau. Three months later Epizentrum was occupied and evicted after nearly 30 days. The rest is history.
Since that time I've had encounters with the police in other places. While I'm still leery of the police, I no longer fear them. I'm quite aware of the powers of life and death which they have. I cannot be blind to see what's happening all around the world, in the USA in particular, with the epidemic of police violence and murder. However, one must not be afraid of them. In spite of their power, they are human beings equal to me. One shouldn't live in fear of any other person. Submitting to them through fear only diminishes your own self. It's like being in an environment with poisonous animals. Simply being afraid is not going to help you survive. Being cautious yet operating from a sense of fearlessness and confidence in your own awareness of consciousness. The world has always been a deadly place. Injury and death can afflict any living being within an instant. Being aware of the dangers and confronting in self defense those beings that go out of their way to harm you. We live in a police state. We must acknowledge that. We cannot be afraid of it. We have to change it.
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