Tear Gas & Homophobia: The Serbia Riots

Trip Start Aug 18, 2010
Trip End Apr 09, 2011

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Flag of Serbia  ,
Sunday, October 10, 2010

I'm writing this from a Belgrade hostel, safely locked in for the evening following a day of riots.

I spent the day outside, playing cat-and-mouse with the skinhead gangs and protestors.

Today has been a day to witness the heroism of those who want to fight for their rights, and also the ugly sides of religion, sexual phobias and anger. And it’s been a lesson in how messy fighting for civil rights and recognition can be.

Saying the event that was was held was a "march" is a bit of a misnomer. In preparation for the day, the police secured a few block radius between the train station and a local park, and a majority of the event was a large rally held in a fortified green zone surrounded by a phalanx of police.

Outside of the zone, however, the packs of wolves circled. And unfortunately I was stuck outside with the wolves.

I left the hostel in the morning, asking a local police officer the safest way to get to the rally. He replied in broken English, “Safe? There is no safe way.” The officer suggested I instead head out to the other side of town.   Thanking him for his help, and went the opposite direction he suggested. I looked back as I walked to see him and a few fellow officers watching me go. I think they thought I was crazy for trying to get in. 

After hearing news reports of where the masses of rioters were gathering, I decided to edge around to the other side of the protest area, hoping to sneak in through the back.

But I what I found instead were gangs out hunting.

 Belgrade’s gay rights activists have been trying to hold marches for several years. The last rally held was over a decade ago. The responding violence from the parade was so great activists held off organizing another for years. Last year they tried again. But there were so many threats of violence that the march had to be canceled.

This year, they were not to be deterred.  For the first time the activists garnered the full packing of the political parties, the police, and the even apparently the Serbian military. Depending on the report, some 4,000-6,000 police and Serbian soldiers were assigned to secure the zone around where the rally, whose numbers were not more than 1000. Inside the rally, I hear, the protestors felt relatively safe.

Outside, on the other hand...

One aspect of mob mentality is that once blood has begun to flow, some victimization HAS to happen.  If you can’t take out your aggressions on the gay marchers themselves, go after the police. If you can’t get the police, go after banks and the political parties who sponsored or at least condoned the march, or anyone else who could be a reasonable scapegoat for your anger.

The mobs, being unable to find a way to get to the marchers, roved around the city looking for easy targets.

Coming back to my story, I came upon one such gang attempting to enter the back part of the square. 15-20 hooded figures with their ski-masks and baseball bats, throwing bricks at passing ambulances and police vehicles. I attempted to circumnavigate them, but they switched directions and headed back down the street I was coming down, forcing me to take refuge in a local grocery as they passed.

I spent the next hour or so talking to locals about the riots. I found the usual spectrum of responses to violent situations such as this- ranging from anger and fear of the protestors to anger at the gay rights activists for staging the rally and stirring up the negative sentiments. Normally I would have taken objection to that attitude, but being as I was a guest of the shop’s hospitality I figured this was not the appropriate time for such as confrontation.

Upon leaving the shop, I weaved my way back towards my hostel finding that the masses of rioters had changed their locations several times, staging pitched battles and then fleeing. The city was full of tear gas, burning trash bins, and broken windows where hooligans had taken their anger out on car or bank windows.
This is about the time when the bombings started. Several times large explosions were heard in the city, as rioters with Molotov cocktails set buildings, including the Democatic Headquarters, on fire. One of the bombs went off just outside the hostel where I was staying, forcing several fellow hostelees (who had come out looking for food) to flee. I also have footage of the largest mob of protestors as they swept through street below, being chased by police.

I find the incident to be a great example of how much the LGBT movement is the civil rights movement of our century. What is incredible about this rally is that it was not, say, on the eve of a vote for marriage equality or some other major legislative action. These steps are years away in Serbia. Instead, the activists here wanted nothing more than to show that there IS homosexuality in Serbia - and to be able to announce who they are. And even that much is seen as a threat to the conservatives.  One of the local conservative groups dubbed the anti-gay protests "A march of family people, for the defense of family.”  To be fair, I understand that a majority of the anti-gay crowd was not (or did not intend to be) violent. But still, I can’t help but to wonder how those same people justify their “family event” resulting in burning cars and bombed buildings. No buildings were burned by the pro-gay side.  It's perhaps the most ironic part of the conservative argument – to imply that our state is at risk because of the 'cultural degradation” caused by gays when their own militant groups are bombing government buildings in the name of protecting it.  It shows that in the end,  the rationalizations made are just covers for the root fear and hatred that lie underneath it.

I salute the gay activists here for what they accomplished in Serbia today. They acted both nonviolently and with the cooperation of the state, and they made a stand in a situation where many would shy away at the threat of violence. And, they were successful. They proved they could not be intimidated and announced to everyone (both in Serbia and in the world) that gay society exists in this country too. And by taking that first (painful) step out into the open, they made the first movement towards being accepted.  Good job guys.
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jeffery kenya on

well the struggle continues all over,like the apartheid days in South Africa and hard times one philosopher once said we shall wear the down by our ability to endure hate, assaults, and any forms of social discrimination meted against us. but with wisdom engage the willing minds to find understanding to our struggle for acceptance.

Allie on

Wow. Incredible stuff, Casey. We're seeing how "it gets better" here in the U.S.,but it looks like Serbia still has decades to go.

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