Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Critical Mess

We had just come up to ground level from the Westbahnhof underground station when a few hundred protesters rounded the corner and began to march down both lanes of traffic on Mariahilfer Strabe on a busy Friday night.  We had no idea what they were shouting let alone what their cause may have been.  Moments later, a dozen police vans, their blue lights flashing and filled to the brim with riot police pulled up right beside us.  We stopped a couple of people to ask if they spoke English and if so, could they explain to us what was going on?

A young lady stepped forward and said that she was a university student and could speak English. January and February are the time of the year for balls in Vienna and this particular night the Neo Nazis were having a ball in one of the numerous palaces that dot this imperial city.  The protesters had applied for a permit to demonstrate  against this particular ball, but had been denied by the city.  The protesters were angry and had decided to protest anyway.

The young student asked if she could join us in our walk to make it look as though she was our daughter/granddaughter.  I suspected that she was part of the demonstration and didn't want to be arrested.  Within moments, the riot police were swinging their clubs in the middle of the protesters and much to our shock the crowd of demonstrators and riot police were headed towards us. People began running in every direction to avoid being apprehended.  Protesters were being thrown to the ground and cord cuffed while others were being frisked up against a wall not 3 meters from where we were cowering - hoping to be invisible.

It was at that point that we made a hasty retreat and removed ourselves from a situation that had threatening potential.  Once it was safe, the girl left us and we put some distance between us and the fracas on the street.  We hadn't gone more than two blocks when we could hear another disturbance behind us and we discovered a large group with signs on their backs taking over the street with their bikes.  My first thought was that this was the Vienna chapter of CRITICAL MASS since it was the last Friday of the month.  Not being able to decipher the message on their signs I was left wondering if these cyclists were protesting the Neo-Nazi ball in their own pedal powered way or if this was typical street theater in Vienna on a Friday night.

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