Irena Biháriová: I will not let the extremists own the streets
A couple of months ago I promised on my Facebook page that if it would be necessary to travel all over Slovakia in order to combat extremists, I'd do it. If what is needed is to knock on the doors of those voting for Kotleba's "People's Party-Our Slovakia" (ĽSNS) and to speak with them, then I have no problem doing that.
If it is necessary to confront these people nonviolently in the streets, then I will also participate in that. In the coalition of Progressive Slovakia and SPOLU (PS/SPOLU), that's exactly what we're doing - walking around the villages where the ĽSNS has enjoyed significant voter support and listening to what they have to say.
We're assembling at the locations of the ĽSNS election events to express our disagreement with their incendiary propaganda. We're walking around apartment complexes, speaking with people on the streets, we even moved our entire headquarters to the east for a week.
I am also personally running around to villages with large numbers of Romani people and meeting with skilled local stakeholders who have managed to do some good work on this subject. How are the disinformation channels and the followers of Kotleba reacting to our activities?
As is traditional for them, they are responding with much deception and defamatory disinformation. We will explain some of it here.
QUESTION #1 - "Haven't you paid local Roma to protest and abused your own campaign to do so?"
I must admit that it's also a (nice) surprise to me that Romani men and women have massively joined our protests against the ĽSNS, especially in eastern Slovakia. Naturally I do not speak on behalf of those people, and I am not able to offer an analysis of the motivations of everybody participating that would be based on any kind of more detailed, in-depth information.
However, what I am certainly able to rule out is the allegation that anybody from the PS/SPLU coalition would have bribed or manipulated those Romani people. I myself always, if I get the opportunity, at least encourage the Romani people whom I encounter (i.e., mostly those who are integrated) to turn out and vote against Kotleba irrespective of which other party they vote for.
I would never allow Romani people to be politically abused by our party. They have experienced enough political parasitism already.
If Romani people today are coming to protests, it's not because of us - they're not showing up to campaign for PS. They are turning out at protests especially because they fear the state will soon be dominated by the followers of Kotleba.
QUESTION #2 - "Aren't the Roma there drunk and ready to fight without even knowing what they're protesting against?"
I have not personally encountered any Romani people who were "drunk or armed with rocks" at any of the protests or who escalated a conflict physically. Naturally, as happens at almost all protests, one can always find participants in the crowd who chant slogans that are not exactly chosen with sensitivity, who go so far as to use more radical slogans or speech, or who simply do not refrain from shouting vulgarities.
In any event, today we can certainly rule out the version of events that Mazurek related when he explained why he cancelled the assembly by the ĽSNS in Levoča. His deceptive allegations about armed disruption of that gathering have even been refuted by the police themselves.
The police have confirmed that no conflict happened at the scene, that they have no record of anything to confirm Mazurek's claim that the safety of those assembled was endangered. The patrolling officers even confirmed that none of the ĽSNS members or organizers ever approached them to warn them of any kind of incident that would have justified calling off that event.
At the protest in Sobrance I had more of an opportunity to speak with the protesting Roma. The end of that rally turned into a spontaneous atmosphere of solidarity, so I introduced myself to them, thanked them for mobilizing, and encouraged them to continue.
I encouraged majority-society members and Romani people to work together as one when combating extremists. They liked it when, in conclusion, I said this to the supporters of Mazurek: "You rose to power by walking over us, but we will be your downfall."
I think it was at that moment I managed to win the confidence of the Roma in Sobrance, and that may also be why they opened up to me when I asked them afterward why they had come to the protest. A Romani man roughly my same age said to me: "Madam, I've had enough. I walked into a shop with my baby in a pram. I paid for my shopping normally at the cash desk, no alarms went off. Suddenly a security guy rushed at me and searched the entire pram while my baby was still lying in it to see if I'd stolen something. You know what kind of shame he caused me."
A younger Romani woman added: "Kotleba, that Nazi, has deprived people of their common sense. If a hairdresser sees a Cikán, she won't take him."
Others joined the debate, saying "They don't even let us into some shops. Either that, or the security follows us everywhere. The worst is with jobs. They hire us on the phone. Then we arrive in person, and the job's already been filled by somebody else."
I heard part of a debate among some young boys where one of them said "If that fascist gets into power, they'll be shooting at us." On the one hand, it hurt me to hear that.
On the other hand, though, I was proud of all the majority-society people who shouted "We Love Roma", and "The Roma Are Ours" that evening, and who merged into the crowd with the Roma without drawing any dividing lines. I can imagine it also meant a great deal to the Roma - finally, they had the feeling that they are a part of a "common cause", that they counted, that they have allies in the majority.
It may have been, for some of those Romani people, the very first time ever that majority-society people whom they had never met before had invited them to take a photo together. Maybe these, too, are the answers we are looking for when we ask why Romani people care about who has come to do agitprop among voters in their town.
It's useless to seek answers in the conspiratorially, tendentiously-edited videos being published. Let's try to communicate normally with Romani people about their motivations, not subject them to school-style tests like the journalists do who shove microphones in their faces.
Let's speak with them as equals. Maybe we will discover that in reality it's "just" a natural concern about fascism that has pushed them into the streets.
Naturally, misinterpretations of our actions don't just come from extremist channels. Some of the queries and questions about our blockades are absolutely legitimate and deserve an explanation from us.
QUESTION #3: "Isn't it dishonest of your campaign to end up at citizens' protests and give the impression that they're your events and that the people were standing there for the PS?"
The truth is that in November my personal campaign team planned to attend events organized by Kotleba supporters along with my campaign aides and to "blockade" them through silent protest. I admit that I spent a long time considering whether to do this myself or not.
I told myself that the personal pride I would take in confronting the leading representatives of the ĽSNS might not aid us with stopping them. If it might have at least a positive symbolic effect, though, then I would do it.
I believed that if there would be at least 20 members of PS/SPOLU doing this, then maybe we would, at a minimum, symbolically express that we are brave enough to stand up to the fascists face-to-face. So at that time even I did not expect that this type of activity would eventually be included as a component of the central campaign, and I really didn't count on it launching a wave of protests driven by civic activists and supported by local populations.
I was prepared to go into this back when civil society had not yet announced protest assemblies, and I was acting under the conviction that I would be there alone with a handful of our members. I myself have worked in the NGO sector and I am one of the biggest critics of NGOs not keeping their distance from political parties.
For that reason as well, if we, as PS/SPOLU, arrive at a protest organized by a civic initiative, none of us make any appearances involving any agitprop party speech. I don't think anybody in their right mind could even think for a moment that the other protesters are confused - that in fact they haven't been turning out against the ĽSNS, but for what they thought were PS election rallies.
QUESTION #4. "Isn't this resistance to extremism by the Progressive Slovakia party just a kind of left-wing political tactic? Shouldn't you, as politicians, avoid these civic forms of protests?"
I was on my feet in the crowd against the Nazis "before it was cool". I did so even while in an advanced phase of pregnancy.
For all my life I have consistently been making appearances against extremists, whether at public assemblies, as part of my many years monitoring the extremist scene, when doing educational campaigns, when cooperating with the criminal justice authorities, or when contributing to legislative changes in this area. The same goes for Ivo Štefunko and for many PS members who have worked in the activist sector, they were especially sensitized to this issue and were involved in it long before the PS even existed.
For many of us, the advent of ĽSNS politicians sitting in Parliament was one of the crucial motivations for us to exchange our activist uniforms for political party t-shirts. I do not see a single rational reason why my identity as a politician should be disqualified by such activities undertaken years ago.
In the end, this struggle will not become powerful or strong enough until as many people in society as possible are moved by it. Today we are not playing the game of whether a third-class neo-Nazi band will perform at a community center in the back of beyond.
Today the game is about whether this country's political parties can minimize the risk that a coalition of brownshirts will arise in national leadership. In this fight, politicians are crucial stakeholders.
It would be unfortunate if, while upholding the rules referred to above (i.e., not exploiting a public protest in order to promote one's own party) politicians were to be excluded from such activities. That especially applies to those who have demonstrated many years of authentic absorption in this resistance, those for whom it is possible to follow their track record and those who, as extra-parliamentary politicians, have no other political instruments available for combating extremism.
QUESTION #5. "By doing such actions, aren't you just increasing the chances that the followers of Kotleba will succeed?"
This is probably the most harmful perspective to take on this issue. The same goes for all the naive ideas that if we ignore the ĽSNS, if we don't express our disagreement with their actions and messages, then they will evaporate on their own.
The mass of voters who got them into Parliament are expected to disappear as well, under that hypothesis. At a time when the classic media have long ago lost their monopoly on the mass dissemination of information, it must be the critical masses and those in opposition who use those very same weapons to outshout them - in other words, social media, videos, and visibility on the streets, in neighborhoods, at assemblies or protests.
If we give up our democratic instruments of resistance (which the extremists are perfectly abusing in order to refashion democracy in their own image), then we waste an opportunity - we will have released the country into their care at no cost to them, we will have abandoned it without showing resistance. We cannot allow that.
On the contrary, we have given in to them for far too long. We've allowed ourselves to be driven away from the debates on social media, we've allowed ourselves to be hammered by their army of committed trolls.
We have allowed them to set the tone of public discourse and frame the topics of this election - instead of combating the ĽSNS, politicians so far have been competing to see who can make the biggest claim to bring the Roma "in line", who can come up with a more conspiratorial, hateful narrative about liberals, who will be the harsher border guard against the migrants (not pouring into the country). Some parties have even taken up their expressions about an "elite in Bratislava cut off from reality", or "the journalist sellouts", or the "Soros NGOs".
"I can't believe the news today ... I can't close my eyes and make it go away"
Today, one month ahead of the elections in which we are facing the biggest political threat since the Slovak Republic became independent, we actually cannot afford to waste time on academic debates about which strategy it will best pay off to try, or who is allowed to attend which forms of protest. We can't let ourselves be dictated an interpretation of reality by people from the conspiracy theory scene who are not in their right minds.
Let's spare ourselves the indignant, unnecessary status updates that will be authored by all the wannabe generals after the war has been fought - let's actively deploy now, when we still have a chance to reverse the upward trend in the extremists' growth. I don't want to experience an even worse blow that we experienced in March 2016, when in my desperation the lyrics "How long? How long must we sing this song?" kept on running through my mind.
You don't have to love Progressive Slovakia - we don't have to be the party you will vote for in the election. These elections aren't just about which party builds the taller hill in the sandbox, though.
They're about us managing, during a decisive battle, to get into formation, to mobilize, for each of us to find our way to resist fascism. I am determined to do all that I can for that.
We will continue our massive field campaign, I will keep knocking on doors, I will speak with voters, we, with hundreds of our activists and members, will be freezing in the streets and mobilizing people to turn out to vote. I personally began combating extremism 10 years ago, it's why I got into politics, and I will not stop until the fascists are driven to the fringes of politics.
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