Justice Served?

A racially-motivated beating of a newspaper salesman raises troubling questions about tracking racism

News | Christopher Anderson | October 2011

Anthony Songi, victim of a racist beating (Photo: David Reali)

Toni walks down a long hall in the Vienna courthouse (Landesgericht für Strafsachen), his regard fixed ahead of him, his gait relaxed, a slight tremble in his hand. At the end of the hall his two assailants from the night of his beating stand waiting to enter the courtroom. As he enters with a solemn face and walks through the crowd of five defendants, their eyes follow him as he sits down outside the courtroom for the hearing. They haven't seen him since the early morning hours of Feb. 12 at a OMV petrol station on Adalbert-Stifter-Straße in Vienna’s 20th District.

Anthony Songi, nicknamed ‘Toni’, had entered the station as usual after a late night in the city selling Augustin newspapers and meeting friends. Living around the corner, he was a familiar face in the district, and the attendants greeted him as a buddy each time he entered. That particular night, he came upon two men in their 20s in the men’s room, smoking hashish at the sink.

"The one smoking the hashish came and put (the joint) out on my head," Toni recalled at the scene of the crime, where he recently retracied the events of that night. "I said ‘He, Jungs. Was machen Sie so? Ist mein Kopf für euch ein Aschenbecher?’" (Hey guys, what are you doing? Do you think my head is an ashtray?)

"He just hit me, so surprisingly, on my right eye here," Toni said, pointing to a scar. "And they pushed me inside here (pointing to the private toilet), and threw me on the ground." Then the beating and kicking began.

When it was over, Toni made his way towards the door.

"When I left this place – with my swollen eye and swollen lips – the two guys said, ‘Du Scheiß Neger, geh weg von Österreich’ (‘You goddamned nigger, get out of Austria’)."

Toni contacted the police, and was escorted back to the scene. The two white males were still in the café area next to the cash register, where they were apprehended after brief questioning.

In all, Toni sustained two broken ribs and a leg injury that required a cast, in addition to the swollen, bleeding eye and lip. Photographic evidence of the injuries alone attested to the brutality of the act, which presiding judge Michaela Roeggla-Weisz noted at the first hearing on August 24.

At this second and final hearing on Sept. 16, the two defendants sit with blank faces and eyes aimed at the floor. Two others have also been summoned, as Songi’s case has been coupled with that of three Filipinos attacked at a Strassenbahn stop in Kagran on Jan. 22. A fifth defendant already serving time for a previous offense, and awaiting trial on five different counts, was brought in handcuffed and would be questioned as a witness. All five are white males in their 20s, natives of Austria.

After the proceedings, Judge Roeggla-Weisz announced the sentence. Toni’s attackers received 13 months in prison, eleven of which are conditional, meaning only two months will physically be spent behind bars and the eleven will be added on in case of a repeat offence.

"The aggravating element over everything else was lashing out on a foreign fellow citizen for no reason, which is especially, especially contemptible." Roeggla-Weisz added. "This is simply not acceptable."

For Toni, the sentence didn’t fit the suffering he sustained.

"I thought it would have been more than that." He gazed at the floor.

Documenting instances of racism in Austria such as Toni's is far from a thorough science. The local racism watchdog ZARA (Zivilcourage und Anti-Rassismus-Arbeit – Civil Courage and Action Against Racism) also finds the current mechanisms for documenting racism insufficient.

"The Austrian government does not publish any systematic and reliable statistics on the extent and severity of racist incidents," ZARA CEO Barbara Liegl told The Vienna Review. "We would have to have such statistics to know what kind of measures need to be developed and implemented in order to effectively combat racism."

In judicial sentences, racial motivation may be cited as an aggravating factor (Erschwerungsgrund), but such instances are not officially documented for statistical purposes. The Integration Report 2011 (Integrationsbericht 2011)published by Statistik Austria and the Commission for Migration and Integration Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences attempts to paint a picture of the racial makeup in Austria, but falls short of quantifying actual acts of racism. In the two pages devoted to crime related to race, one learns that 24% of prosecuted criminals and 20% of the victims are foreign nationals, whereas they only make up 11% of the population.

In the face of this dearth of data, ZARA publishes an annual report tracking racist incidents based upon information gathering and anecdotal evidence. In 2010, there were a reported 745 incidents of racism in a variety of forms, including those on the Internet, those involving the police, and those directed against anti-racism work. Of these cases, 27% occurred in public, while 18% were racial slurs defacing property.

According to Liegl, "the Racism Report published by ZARA can fill some of the gaps of the official statistics, but only shows the tip of the iceberg of racist incidents."

As for Toni, he has moved to another part of town. The Brigittenau district where he used to live is one of five in Vienna with a makeup of more than 40% foreign nationals, according to the Integration Report. Although such a statistic is informative, it sheds little light on the likelihood of being a victim of racist violence or descrimination. Statistics aside, Toni just wants to move on.

"These guys are racists," Toni says shaking his head. "It has been their attitude, and I fell victim (to it) on this day in front of them."

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