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I Was Detained by Austrian Cops Because I'm Black

According to them, I was stopped because of my "lack of personal hygiene and dirty clothes."
March 3, 2015, 4:50pm

This article was originally published by VICE Alps.

In every city, there's a neighborhood where walking on the streets makes you fiddle in your pockets, trying to make a weapon with your keys. In Vienna, that's the area surrounding the Josefstädter Straße subway station, which has in recent years become a popular hangout for drug dealers, users, and other personae non gratae. Since a good friend of mine moved there, it's also become a place I frequent—every so often coming across situations in which people are searched by the police while exiting the subway.

One of those nights—it was a Friday—a group of policemen in the middle of the station caught my eye. They made me feel a little uncomfortable—not because I had anything to hide or had done something wrong, but because of my appearance. It might seem a little paranoid, but I just know that I look exactly like the kind of person the Austrian police like to stop and search: I'm young, tall, male, and black.

I decided to remain relaxed and simply walk past the policemen, but it only took a few seconds until one of the officers pointed his finger at me. Another approached. I took off my headphones.

"Identity control. Could I see your ID?" said the second policeman.

Unfortunately, I had left my wallet at another friend's place. As I tried to explain this, the officer pointed his finger at something or someone behind me. I turned around to see and realized there was another black man on the opposite side coming down the stairs.

I am not naive, and such behavior on the part of the police was not a new experience for me, but the transparency of it all made my jaw drop. I turned back to the police and looked at him questioningly. "What you are you doing is racist," I said. He looked at me dumbfounded. "What did you say?" he asked. I told him again that what he and his colleagues were doing was obviously racist. The policeman seemed to get even more angry. "We only stopped the other guy because he was attempting to walk in the other direction. And now you follow me, please," he demanded.

I followed him into one of the rooms for the subway staff. The policeman pointed to a table and asked me to empty my bag. I refused: "What is the reason you want to search me?" The policeman put on the same stunned face as before, and said that if I had nothing to hide I wouldn't have any problem unpacking my possessions.

The station at Josefstädter Straße

"I have nothing to hide. I've just had enough of being stopped and searched only because of my looks," I responded. This time the cop gave me a choice: Either I would unpack my things or I would go to the police station. I told him I would not do either: "I have rights, and I will make use of them."

"Right now you don't have any rights," he said.

I began to regret that I didn't have a smartphone to record the conversation. He told me once again that I should follow him, and we went to the patrol car, which was parked in front of the subway station. He told me to get in the car so we could go to the police station. I asked him if I was detained. He said I wasn't. "If I am not arrested, I'm not going anywhere," I said. He again asked me to stop creating unnecessary problems.

As time passed I realized that this man did not have the slightest understanding of what was bothering me. I then asked him how he would find it if he, for example, lived in Africa and was constantly being hassled because of his skin color. He said, "Well, then that's the way it is."

"But that's racism!" I retorted.

He again replied, "Well, then that's just the way it is."

I was again asked to get in the car. I again asked if I was detained. This time one of the policeman said, "Yes, you are arrested." I wanted to know for what reason. "Article 5," he said. Like most people, I don't know the Criminal Code by heart, so I asked what "Article 5" meant. He only said, "Article 5." There was no point in talking to him any further.

I wondered if he would even read me my rights. He didn't. So I got in the car with the blue light, and we drove to a police station. When we arrived, I heard the policeman whisper to his colleagues, "I think he is carrying something." I laughed.

Officers, who apparently had nothing better to do, gathered around me. I tried not to be intimidated and asked the policeman who had "arrested" me to give me his service number. "You will get it sooner or later," he said.

Another officer came to me and asked me to empty my pockets and my backpack. I put my bag on the table and he searched it. I also put the contents of my pockets on the table. The policeman asked me to open a used tissue.

Of course, he didn't find anything so I was asked to take my shoes off and put my cap on the table. At this point I just did what they asked. Two officers took one of my shoes and disappeared into another room. I saw one oft them smell my shoe and say, "Uh, it stinks." At least that kind of amused me.

During the whole procedure I openly told everyone present my opinion. Namely, that it was actually their duty to serve the society and to provide security, not to humiliate people. A senior police officer said, "But you guys sell poison," and "What were you doing walking around Josefstädter Straße, anyway?"

My backpack, phone, and cap—the things I had with me on the night of my "arrest"

By now, the policeman who had stopped me had gotten angry and started screaming, "You reek of cannabis!" Things got even worse when, tired from standing up, I decided to lean on the table. "Don't you sit your dirty ass on our table! Didn't you go to school?" he yelled.

I tried to stay calm and told him that he all the aggression he showed toward me, he really had toward himself. He took that the wrong way and screamed back, "I have no aggression!" When I asked him to give me back my cap after he had searched it with absurd thoroughness, he grabbed it and refused to give it to me. Instead, he asked me to take off my shirt. Then he looked at me and said, viciously, "And maybe we should also take a look into your shorts?"

At least it only was a threat. Since I didn't have a wallet with me, I gave the officers my full name, date of birth, address, and other information. They checked my data in the register and realized that I had no record—I guess to their surprise.

I asked the policeman who had approached me for his service number once more, and this time he actually went to a desk, pulled out a card, wrote it down, and gave it to me. The policeman who had yelled before said, "Give him mine as well!" in a clearly sarcastic tone. I told him that I was not interested in him. They said I could leave and that I would be getting a police report in the next month. A few weeks later I received the report, and it turns out the reason for my arrest was "Aggressive Behavior." I should pay a 99 euro [$110] penalty—apparently it would have been 100 euros, but since I was detained for half an hour and the suspicion could not be confirmed, one euro was deducted as a redemption. I lodged an objection.

The police's version of the story

Due to the objection, the police now had to explain their version of what happened. Unsurprisingly, their story is different from mine. According to them, I screamed and called them Nazis (I did not). My behavior attracted the attention of passersby, who then begun to interfere, and this is why the arrest was necessary. (Under Section 35/1, not Article 5 by the way.)

But the most absurd and offensive part of the report is the bit where according to the police officers' testimony, I was obviously a part the drug scene because of my appearance—specifically my "lack of personal hygiene and dirty clothes." It's a shame that I have to state this, but I'll do it anyway: I was in no way even remotely dirty or unsanitary.

In addition, the report says that on the evening a search protocol was submitted to me, but I refused to sign it. That's a lie too: No protocol was ever given to me. I have been summoned to describe my take on the events, in court later this month. I do not intend to pay that 99 euro under any circumstances, even though I know that my word stands against that of about a dozen police officers.

This op-ed was published under an alias—the real name has been supplied to our editorial staff. Upon request, the police press office told us that the person concerned "was stopped during a key action for a security check." Besides that, they basically confirmed the version of the story that was contained in the police report. Austrian Police spokesman Thomas Keiblinger did not respond to the question of whether "unhygienic appearance and dirty clothes" are a common reason for detentions and whether officers at Josefstädter Straße use skin color as a basis for searches.