Thousands march against right-wing Austrian ball

A march against the Academics Ball in Vienna, Austria on January 29. (Twitter/Rafaela Freitas)

A march against the Academics Ball in Vienna, Austria on January 29. (Twitter/Rafaela Freitas)

Thousands of left-wing and anti-fascist activists participated in multiple protests on Jan. 29 against a far-right gathering taking place in the center of Vienna, Austria.

“This is a very important meeting for the European far-right and neo-Nazi elite,” one protester told the BBC. “For example, there are participants from PEGIDA, from the National Front in France, from the Finnish True Finns Party.”

The demonstrations were in protest against the Wiener Akademikerball, or the Viennese Academics Ball. Aside from the presence of nationalist student fraternity members, the annual ball has no official connection to Austrian academia and has become known for traditionally having members of European far-right parties as guests. Tatjana Festerling, a German politician and organizer for the right-wing, anti-Muslim political group PEGIDA, was revealed as one of the guests at this year’s ball. The event is organized by the anti-immigrant, far-right Freedom Party of Austria and was formerly known as the Wiener Korporations-Balls, or Viennese Corporations Ball. Since 2013, the event has been organized by the Freedom Party in order to continue holding the ball at the Hofburg Palace, the former imperial palace in the center of Vienna.

Protests against the ball have occurred since 2005, and many protesters oppose the fact that it even occurs at the Hofburg Palace, which is regarded as a historical site used for important state occasions. This year, the Socialist Left Party marched at around 3:30 p.m. from the Wallensteinplatz station to the Schottentor station, near the University of Vienna. The anti-fascist group Offensive gegen Rechts started their march at the University of Vienna at about 5 p.m., making its way around the city center and ending at the Museumsquartier, not far from the Hofburg Palace. Organizers claim that about 8,000 people attended the protests while police claim that number was closer to 5,000. The group “Jetzt Zeichen setzen!” then held a rally and concert at 7 p.m. at Heldenplatz. Protesters let off fireworks, held signs with anti-fascist messages like “Vienna remains strong. Nazis must be stopped,” and chanted pro-refugee slogans like “Say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here.”

“We are here to show the people that another world is possible, a better world is possible,” another protester told the BBC, “where all the refugees that are coming now to Europe are being welcomed.”

A little less than 3,000 police had formed a human wall and cordoned off the entire city center in fear of the clashes that broke out last year between protesters and police, which ended with dozens arrested and one police officer injured.

“Last year showed us that this area was quite hazardous for people who were heading towards the ball,” police spokesman Johann Golob told Austria’s The Local.

Police also dispatched 20 camera teams with cameras mounted on poles in order to better surveil protesters and be able to film above the crowds. “We’ll be able to document exactly who does what,” police chief Gerhard Pürstl told Austria’s The Local days before the ball.

Thanks to the police protection, the right-wing ball went off without any interruptions. “The opponents of the ball are on the losing side,” Freedom Party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache said during his opening speech at the ball. “They are undemocratic. We must fight for our rights as citizens. This ball is a part of world heritage.”

Police say that the protests were largely peaceful except for a few protesters who shot fireworks and threw eggs at cops towards the end of the night. Nine people were ultimately detained by cops, and six were arrested. The police said that 14 officers were “slightly injured” during the protests.

But despite the police repression, protesters vowed to continue demonstrating against the Academics’ Ball every year until Austria’s far-right is stopped.

“Right-wing extremism is still not properly handled in Austria,” Magdalena Augustin from the Offensive gegen Rechts told Austria’s The Local. “And until it is, we will not cease to demonstrate against this ball.”