Why Context Matters…
OR When the Stormtroopers Are the Good Guys
Last Saturday in Budapest, there were at least three significant political demonstrations. The first was organized by the Hungarian Democratic Charter (HDC), theoretically a non-partisan group, but one that was founded by the Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, head of the Hungarian Socialist Party. It was a large, peaceful demonstration against extremism and fascism, and several thousand people showed up (one source I read said 4,500, which seems plausible after being there).
Another rally was held by the Roma (or “gypsies” as they prefer not to be called), this demonstration later joined with the larger HDC for a march to the square in front of the Parliament building.
The final demonstration was a counter-rally staged by several far-right nationalist/fascist groups, including the Sixty-four Counties Youth Movement (the name–which must be catchier in Hungarian–comes from the territory held by Hungary prior to WWI), and the Jobbik party. I never got close enough to get a good look at them, but news reports seem to put their numbers between 500 and 1,000. By all accounts, the right-wing protesters were radical, angry, and violent.
The Hungarians at the data retention conference told me that these right-wing groups usually stage violent riots several times a year, and that September 20 is a particular holiday for them because of the birthday of one of their historical heroes (which is why the anti-fascist demonstrations had been scheduled for that day). The Hungarians I talked with were generally very dismissive of the political aims of the rightists (“They’re just like football hooligans, they like to get drunk and fight”), but they also reported that the right-wingers have been growing in number and becoming better organized every year.
The other force present in central Budapest that day was the police, and they were out massive numbers. It seemed like every cop in Hungary was there, and they were all decked out in riot gear. I snapped some photos, but they don’t really do justice to quite how omipresent the riot police were. I would say at a bare minimum, there had to be around a thousand cops there. Every major intersection had cops guarding it with metal gates, which they opened and closed at different times in response to the movement of the crowd and the rioters. There were even more cops who I saw either piling into or pouring out of these APC-esque vehicles which moved them around the center.
It was clear that the authorities knew the right-wing demonstration was likely to turn violent and were taking no chances. They were well-equipped, there were enormous numbers of them, and they clearly knew what they were doing: opening and closing intersections to funnel the rioters the way they wanted them to go. As a demonstration of the efficient and overwhelming power of the state, it was frighteningly impressive.
As an American, the entire experience was somewhat strange for me. For one thing, I’m not at all used to fascists being a real and dangerous political force that must be opposed with large rallies. In the States, “fascism” has long since evolved into an empty and meaningless synonym for “whatever political position I strongly disagree with.”
For another thing, I’m not used to sympathizing with the riot police. Despite their imposing uniforms, plexiglas shields and truncheons, the Hungarian riot cops I encountered were generally polite, and even friendly. I saw tourists taking photos with their arms around two cops. At one point, I was going to lunch with some other people from the conference (none of whom spoke Hungarian) and the restaurant (a vegetarian place run by the Hare Krishnas) we wanted to go to was down a street obstructed by riot police. After some confusing inter-lingual back and forth, somebody gestured toward the restaurant, “Can we just go to the vegetarian restaurant?”, and the demeanor of the riot cops instantly changed, “Ahh…vegetarians!” and they opened the gates to let us pass. Apparently violent rightists do not frequent vegetarian restaurants. Afterwards, we joked that “vegetarian” was the secret password for getting past Hungarian riot police.
The only “bad” encounters I had with the Hungarian police were when they searched our bags before letting us enter the HDC rally. I don’t know whether this was a legal search under Hungarian law, but I thought it was justified since the Prime Minister was at the rally, and the other side was throwing Molotov cocktails. Also, a riot cop shouted at me for jaywalking and crossing against the light. I thought this was pretty ridiculous since there were absolutely no cars on the roads due to the demonstrations and the police roadblocks, but you better believe I moved out of the street double-time.
The riot cops seemed effective at keeping the rioters boxed in and away from the peaceful demonstrations. They also did a good job of keeping “normal” people away from the violence. This was a little disappointing because I would’ve liked to get close enough to take some photos, but on the whole they were doing their job well, and I’m glad I didn’t get the crap kicked out of me by violent fascists. The news reports say the rightists were tear-gassed, and some of the Hungarians told me that “They use the same strategy every time. They fence them in and beat the hell out of them, and leave them only one narrow way to leave when it’s over.” I can’t speak to how the police treated the rioters, but they were well-behaved in everything I saw.