Lessons from prejudice abroad inform demand for justice at home

Photo credit: Annie Cappetta

In a quiet corner of the Prague Six neighborhood, scrawled in white paint and angry capital letters, a solitary park bench reads “Allah is Jewish Gay! F*** Islam.” The adjacent sidewalk reads “F*** Islam” and “GNLS,” which I would later learn stood for “Good Night Left Side,” written clockwise a Celtic cross spanning several feet.

The numeric combination 14/88 is used to represent Hitler’s “14 Words,” “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” and the 88 standing for Heil Hitler, “H” being the eighth letter of the alphabet. Photo credit: Annie Cappetta

The first time I noticed this graffiti, it was around noon, a family of tourists were snapping happy photos nearby and I was headed to class, seeing the city through my incomplete, foreigner’s lens. But when that paint caught my eye, I felt immediately unsafe.

“GNLS” is a slogan espoused by neo-Nazi groups, particularly in Central Europe. It stands for “good night left side,” a reactionary chant to the antifascist movement’s “good night white pride.” Photo credit: Annie Cappetta

The unfamiliar symbols haunted me. With the help of the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbol database, I began to recognize how hatred was expressed, and found it painted across the city.

In 1990s, extreme nationalist political parties filled part of the void left by communism. While they remained politically marginal, never receiving more than about 8% of the vote, a large skinhead subculture simultaneously developed that was able to get around the constraints of legitimate governing.

Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist specializing in extremism, identified the Czech skinheads to be one of the strongest and most violent of their kind throughout central and eastern Europe in 2005. The following year, at least 25 violent racial attacks were reported in the Czech Republic.

Though the hate crimes go largely unreported, the skinhead violence seems to have waned.

“It was kind of open warfare on the streets then, just after the revolution. But that was because the fall of communism kind of lifted the lid on all this stuff because it didn’t really exist before,” says Rob Cameron, the BBC’s Correspondent for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “Whereas now, it’s so tightly controlled, whenever there’s a neo-Nazi demonstration, there’s usually some kind of counter demonstration by antifascists, but equally there’s also a huge riot police presence to keep the two groups apart.”

However, since the 2015 refugee crisis, Islamophobia has risen, and accepting refugees is a highly unpopular political position across the spectrum. Czech President Milos Zeman attended a rally against refugees and Islam in 2015 on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

A far right political movement called “Dawn of Direct Democracy” received 6.89% of the vote in the 2013 parliamentary elections. This new party was led by Tomio Okamura, who called for Czechs to walks their dogs and pigs by mosques, and boycott Muslim-run businesses. The Multicultural Center of Prague says hate crimes against Arabs are up, too.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has a tiny Muslim population, between the official estimate of 3,500 individuals and unofficial estimates of 10,000. The government granted asylum to only 148 applicants out of the 1,475 who applied for international protection in 2016.

Faint paint at a tram stop shelter reads "Refugees not welcome" Photo credit: Annie Cappetta

This of course begs the question, how much is the Czech refugee “crisis” actually contributing to acts of hatred? Dawn of Direct Democracy takes the inspiration for its name from Greece’s neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. Greece is on the very front lines of the refugee crisis.

Yet, regarding the difference between anti-refugee sentiment in Greece and Central Europe, Holly Metcalf, a political officer in the U.S. Embassy to Greece says, “It’s different. Here I would say Golden Dawn is much more marginalized. They have a few seats in parliament and occasional demonstrations, but it’s pockets. It doesn’t seem to be a movement that’s going to get a lot of support in the Greek population. Especially because the government is so left-leaning, the people in power are not politically inclined to lend any support to that kind of group.”

The extremely limited refugee intake and Muslim population yet high degree of Islamophobia in the Czech Republic compared to in Greece suggests some deeper racial sentiments may be at work. These attitudes can be found in prejudices toward Romani people and the increasing Vietnamese immigrant community.

Kendall Aufmuth, a student studying abroad at Charles University, experienced racist speech directed at her within her first week in Prague. She recalls the incident with an older Czech man sitting nearby in a pub: “My friend had ordered a steak tartare and she didn’t know it was raw and he says to me, ‘Oh your friend can help you.’ I say no, and he says ‘Why? Your people eat dogs.’ They definitely aren’t the biggest fans of Asians.”

But some Czechs are intent on creating a counter subculture to balance hatred with messages of freedom and respect. Enter the antifascists, or antifa movement. Often considered an extremist group with anarchist wings, antifa fights neo-Nazism outside the confines of the law. This is most evident in a kind of warring graffiti, in which antifa attempts to cover the message and assert their own.

Photo credit: Annie Cappetta
Photo credit: Annie Cappetta

These are culture wars fought on the streets, at demonstrations, on the subway, and even on the doors of university bathroom stalls. Carlee Grubbs, a rising senior at UM who participated in the spring 2017 UPrague program recalls seeing the opposing sides while riding public transit: “I saw a man who was wearing a leather jacket with a white supremacy hate symbol spray painted on the back and detailing on the sleeves with the number 88.”

Wearing such clothing is referred to as “hailing,” and can be prosecuted as a crime in the Czech Republic.

Just days later Grubbs saw a young Czech expressing his opposing stance.

“There was a person wearing a black denim jacket with a ‘good night white pride’ sticker on the back,” Grubbs said. “It had a picture of a man with an electric guitar smashing down someone that apparently was a white supremacist.”

Carlee Grubbs.jpg
A young man is spotted with a "Good Night White Pride' logo on his jacket. Several variations on the logo have been used by the antifa movement. Photo courtesy Carlee Grubbs.
A "Good Night White Pride" logo spotted on a city light pole. This is just one of many versions of the logo used by antifa. Photo credit: Annie Cappetta

Fighting bigotry can be as simple as a sticker on your jacket, or showing up to a nonviolent opposition march. At a neo-Nazi protest in Brno on May 1, a photo went viral of a Czech girl scout, Lucie Myslikova, standing up to one of the racist marchers.

As I leave Prague, all of this makes me reflect on the injustices going on at home. I’ve learned that decent citizens are not the ones sitting quietly. Be ware of romanticizing. As Grubbs pointed out, “I saw a lot of the graffiti before I knew what it meant, so I was kind of a passive bystander to what was going on here.” Try to see the place you live as it truly is.

Because of my skin color I have the luxury of being able to see things from a new perspective, instead of being bombarded daily with racial slights. Someone recently told me that they believe hope is a luxury of the privileged. If that’s true, don’t I as a privileged person also have the duty to fight particularly hard?

Although I would never assert my voice in the place of someone actually facing discrimination, I have an obligation to speak. We hear national stories about police officers murdering children such as Jordan Edwards without motive, and synagogues being defaced on college campuses, but how many more acts of hate go unreported?

The layers of paint filled with messages of love on Prague’s Lennon wall are thicker and hold more weight than the veiled symbols of a few neo-Nazis. It is powerful to call them out for what they are: racist, cowardly, few. But in our country, where racism was threaded into our very constitution, it’s going to take sincere work in policy and culture to remove its grasp on every small town, every police department, every subconscious mind.

Prague's Lennon wall, a wall of graffiti inspired by the work of John Lennon. Anyone can write here, so the message is constantly changing. Photo credit: Annie Cappetta