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Vienna night club owners continue to deny entry to blacks - and get away with it

News | Kata Cserveny | March 2009

"I’m sorry ma’am, I cannot allow you to enter. The bar is full," says one of the two black-clad doormen that has stepped forward to block the entrance. Only seconds later, two other guests arrive and walk straight in, past the bouncers, without any interference.

"If the bar is full, how come those guests were admitted?" I ask.

"I’m sorry ma’am, you cannot enter without a reservation." The bouncer retorts indifferently.

"How would you know that we don’t have a reservation without asking us in the first place? And how come those other guests were not asked for reservations either?"

The bouncer exchanges a quick glance with his colleague and replies dryly, "It doesn’t matter; anyway, only members are allowed."

A Candid Camera prank? Unfortunately not. This is merely every day reality for many dark-skinned foreigners in Vienna, citizens or otherwise, where discriminatory entrance policies at bars and clubs are not uncommon.

"The fact that he did not specifically say that we were not allowed to go in because two of us were black, prevents me from proving that we were denied entry due to our skin color," says Joyce Zemanek, an Austrian citizen born in Kenya, and long time resident of Vienna. "However, the logical order in which the doorman jumped in with his excuses explained it all."

Zemanek’s experience is confirmed by several organizations tracking encounters of this kind.

"Unfortunately, this is no exceptional incident," says Beatrice Achaleke, Executive Director of AFRA, the International Center for Black Women’s Perspectives. "Similar cases are reported to us time and time again."

The annual Racism Report compiled by ZARA – an organization for "civil courage" and anti-racism – reveals there were 406 reported incidents of racism in Austria in 2007 alone. Assuming a large number go unreported, the actual number of incidents is certainly even higher.

According to ENAR, the European Network Against Racism, Africans, Muslims, Roma and even Jews continue to be Austria’s main victims of racism: While African men are labeled as drug dealers, the women are considered prostitutes.

A 2007 case reported to ZARA illustrates the point: Mr. S (name withheld on request) intends to visit a bar in Vienna’s 6th district with an African friend. A waitress stops them at the door, explaining that they won’t get in because her boss instructed her not to let "N....s" into the bar. When asked directly, the owner confirms this, explaining that because black drug dealers have frequented the bar in the past, he generally does not permit Africans to enter. As Mr. S and his friend insist on remaining anonymous, however, no charges can be filed.

In the light of Europe’s history of ethno-centrism – particularly in Austria, where the dark shadows of National Socialism and the Holocaust still linger in the background of public debate – these events are disturbing.

"Austria has a unique place in the history of racism. Therefore, people in this country have a special responsibility to prevent racism from rearing its ugly head," says Dr. Anthony Löwstedt, who teaches courses on racism at Webster University in Vienna. Löwstedt’s American wife is black, and while a well-known singer, has been a frequent victim of discrimination. 

And although several organizations – including ZARA, AFRA or Black Austria – have been active since the late 90s recording incidents, and working to eliminate racism, the issue still seems far from resolved.

Austrian law incorporates several regulations that proscribe racism: The Discrimination Prohibition Act (Diskriminierungsverbot), for example, forbids the lesser treatment of persons on grounds of skin color, ethnic background, religious conviction, gender or handicap.

Also, Article 3 of the Introductory Act to the Code of Administrative Procedures (Einführungsgesetz zu den Verwaltungsverfahrensgesetzen - EGVG) states that "persons who subject others to unjustified discrimination because of their skin color, ethnic origin or religious denomination or prevent them from entering premises or from obtaining services commit an administrative offense punishable by a fine of up to 1,090 Euro." Fines are paid to the authorities who can, in severe cases, even decide to withdraw the defendant’s trade license.

Complaints under this law need to be filed with the Municipal District Offices (Magistratische Bezirksaemter). However, proceedings are carried out behind closed doors, preventing the complainant from testifying or challenging the evidence of the defendant. Nor are they granted access to files or transcripts. Potential fines are paid directly to the authorities only, and complainants have no right to damages.

In reality, these laws are seldom enforced, according to ZARA, and few – including law enforcement officers – seem to know they even exist.

"There is no such rule that I am aware of," said police officer Brigitte Novak with a shrug.

And evasions are common: One argument is that bars and discos are private property, where the owner has the right to decide who is granted or denied entry. However, that is not completely true.

"Discos, bars and restaurants are privately owned enterprises that offer their services to an undefined public," explains jurist Wolfgang Zimmer. "Generally, owners are granted private autonomy rights to the extent that they may choose their clientele. However, in cases of rejection due to racist, or other unjust reasons, this right to private autonomy is limited in the service of higher justice; Article 3, therefore, applies in all cases of racist admission policies and is to be enforced by administrative authorities without exception."

Unfortunately, even with the law on their side, court proceedings rarely turn out in favor of the victims: A particularly troubling incident at a Viennese disco was reported by Mr. A, an Austrian citizen of Iranian descent. Mr. A, attempting to get into a club around 11 p.m. one night, was refused entry; the bouncer said the club was full, and suggested he try again later. Upon his return he was rejected again, and threatened with a beating. When Mr. A inquired a third time, he was shoved away by the bouncer. He managed to get the attention of two policemen driving by, and explained the situation to them; but they were reluctant to help, explaining that the club was private and the bouncer free to do whatever he deemed right.

Mr. A finally walked away, but when he turned around to look back, he saw the doorman provoking him with gestures, which he returned from a distance. Suddenly the doorman started running after him, catching up with Mr. A half-way across the street. Mr. A. was thrown to the ground, where he was then beaten by the doorman and several of his colleagues, until some pedestrians called an ambulance. As a result of court proceedings, both the disco as well as the doorman were found not guilty.

Managers themselves appear to be in denial. Though the reactions of owners and event organizers vary greatly, most of them claim no racist motivations behind their selective door policies.

"The primary criteria are based on economic self-interest," says one private event organizer. "A certain dress-code, as well as compliance with the event’s targeted age group are the deciding factors. Also, we select guests differently depending on the respective image of an event, which in turn depends heavily on the style of music as well as the venue."

Still, the substantial record is hard to ignore. There just is too little oversight and too many loopholes in a legal code that is easy to get around.

"Without proper laws in place – laws that leave no room for ambiguity and are genuinely enforced – as well as the insight, cooperation and support of event organizers and club owners, the situation is unlikely to improve," says Löwstedt.

Without political leadership and a commitment from enforcement authorities, such cases are likely to continue.

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    the vienna review March 2009