It seems like a ritual here. On an almost biweekly basis, the Ringgasse goes silent, the barriers go up, and riot police in white helmets and shoulder pads take to the streets. In my last article, I wrote about the Viennese culture of stickers as a form of street art, and this art is often a reflection of another facet of street and youth culture in Vienna. As I’ve traveled throughout Europe, the trend of thriving and passionate alternative and oppositional culture has become apparent, and this same culture exists in Vienna to a very high degree. Demonstrations, or “demos” as the Viennese call them, are not an uncommon sight in Vienna, and large-scale ones that immobilize sectors of the city are fairly regular.
During my first few weeks in Vienna, it was the ball season, in which a variety of communities and organizations hold formal dances at prestigious venues within the city center, and one such ball was the Academiker Ball. While the name might allude to a collective of highly educated individuals gathering for an evening of fun, the Academiker Ball is actually a major annual gathering for the nationalist and far right community in Vienna. Naturally, this presented an opportunity for Vienna’s radical left to stage a major demonstration that brought out riot police in full gear throughout Vienna’s first district.
Another notable demonstration came at the time of the Opera Ball, which sees attendance from some of the wealthiest Viennese, as well as noteworthy politicians. This also provoked a similar demo titled “Eat the Rich”, which was organized by radical Austrian socialists to protest opulence and consumerist culture that they see as an affront to the wealth divide and to Austria’s working class. In similar fashion, this demo led to an absolute closure of Vienna’s first district, with specialized police forces roaming the empty streets in their white riot helmets.
Not all demos exist on such a major scale, however. In the past several weeks, I have come across numerous street corner demonstrations for the Yazidi and Kurdish communities of Vienna in response to the rise of right-wing nationalism and the conflict in Syria. Members of these ethnic communities have settled in Vienna in recent years in increasing numbers as refugees from ongoing violence in their homelands. These demonstrations typically comment on events occurring in the conflict or inequalities faced by these communities here in Vienna. While the big demonstrations may warrant a larger police response and more news coverage, these smaller demonstrations are equally as visible and may even be more successful in promoting a message as they are more visible to the general public and not regulated as strictly as the larger ones that result in a shutdown of the first district.
As well as the frequent demonstrations and commonality of street art-like stickers, Vienna is also home to a number of stores and bars that help perpetuate the oppositional and alternative culture communities in the city. One such company is Bahoe Books, whose posters and stickers can be seen throughout Vienna. Bahoe Books is a small socialist-anarchist bookstore and print shop located near between St. Stephan’s Cathedral and Schöttenring on the banks of the Danube canal. Bahoe Books offers a wide variety of socialist and anarchist literature while also distributing stickers produced by local leftist movements. Similarly, the store Rattlesnake near the museum quarter also offers a wide range of countercultural apparel, with a focus on punk and metal music, while also offering a tattoo and piercing parlor in the back room. As well as hosting a variety of alternative culture shops, Vienna is also home to a number of bars and cafes that act as watering holes for Vienna’s leftist political and musical scenes. These kinds of storefronts help to support up the local alternative and oppositional communities while these communities exhibit a deep sense of enthusiasm for their cause and act on that enthusiasm by remaining vocal in politics and broader society.