Foto: Krista Vavere
During the 8 years since I have lived here I have not been in prison, or the police, I have not done anything illegal or anything at all to provoke hatred or suspicion. Must I accept racism if it is based on ignorance or fear? No. I have done nothing to provoke such an attitude.
interviews George Steele, an American who has lived in Latvia for 8 years
What do you think about the court decision in the Los Amigos case against Brivibas partija’s (Freedom Party) political advertisment?
Brivibas partija lost the case because they chose to try to use fear tactics and racism to gain support in the elections. The Latvian courts are finally maturing to the point that they understand also their responsibility in trying to end racial discrimination and racist behavior in Latvia.
I also think that there was not enough media coverage. I heard about the court decision from my attorney. There was not much information on TV or radio. It is rather typical here, when big news breaks everybody covers it and then when there is an important follow-up, nobody pays any attention. I think that more people need to know that Brivibas partija lost their case. This would lead to think about what is going on in Latvia.
Do you remember the first time you saw the advertisement? What was your reaction?
My wife and I were going to have dinner and watch TV at home that evening. At first, while I was watching, the sound was off. I saw a dark-skinned man hugging (I think they were kissing) a girl. This was the preview of the evening’s stories. I thought, this is interesting, and switched the sound on. Then the news report came on and they showed and talked about this advertisement. I could not eat after that. It was so repulsive and dirty. It made me angry and sick at the same time. Immediately after that I started to think, Jesus! This is happening just a few months after my first interview about racism in Latvia. Everything I said before was true. This is probably one of the most racist societies that I know, including the USA.
Are you saying that racism in Latvia is more widespread than in the USA?
Per capita, there is probably more here than in the United States. I can walk down more streets in United States in a white neighborhood and not hear abuse or observe people staring at me. However, here in Riga where I live in the center, every day leaving the house, I expect humiliation and contempt.
A few weeks ago there was a truly racist attack on black British DJ in Riga. The first words that came out of the Russian neo-nazi attackers were What a f— are you doing here, nigger? They chased him and then proceeded to beat and kick him in front of Freedom monument.
That is quite crowded place. Was there any reaction from the people around?
No. This is a typical reaction, also towards even local people. The same reaction would be towards somebody who is hurt or a drunk who has stumbled. The ironic thing was that this attack occurred 15-20 minutes before I walked past the same place.
Have you ever experienced physical intimidation or danger on the basis of racism?
Several times. Last time it happened a few weeks ago in the very center of the Rigas Latviesu Biedribas Nams (The Riga’s Latvian Society Building).
Have you thought about to suing Brivibas partija?
Immediately after the advertisement was shown on television, Ineta Ziemele (Professor of International Public Law and Human Right Law at the Riga Graduate School of Law) contacted my wife and asked how we felt about the ad. She offered help in the case I decided to do something about it in the legal sense. I considered her offer as a sincere gesture and accepted it. Ineta had read and seen my previous interviews in magazine Rigas Laiks and on TV. She was shocked, like many other people who could not believe there is such racism in Latvia. This advertisement demonstrated that racism is a problem here. So, two days before the decision in the Los Amigos case, I submitted a civil claim against Brivibas partija for the violation of my honor and personal dignity. And, because the advertisement was broadcast in the Latvian Television, I am also suing them as well.
What do you expect from this legal action?
First of all, unlike Los Amigos, I am not asking for the same type of financial compensation. My objective is to make it clear that this advertisement was truly racist. I would like people to understand that it reflects the situation in Latvia. A public dialogue should begin on this issue. There was some dialogue after my previous interviews when I openly talked about racism and my experiences here – I wanted to release my pain and to give people some reason for debate. There has been a little dialogue about the Brivibas partija’s advertisement, but there should be more.
I am absolutely sure that there will be more people of color here in Latvia. I am not saying this to make people afraid. A lot of those people of color will be intelligent and very capable, who will not come here not to dominate, but rather to help Latvia. Regardless of their skin color or religion, Latvia will only benefit from their work. I am not talking of refugees; I do not think such a situation is possible.
Did you receive any comments from strangers after your previous interviews?
Staring was more prominent immediately after the interviews. Last summer I noticed it even more. Mostly, but not always, they were Russians, who would stare and yell at me from across the street or from passing cars. Everywhere. From a close distance they would hiss at me f— you nigger. It happened all summer after that interview. After Brivibas partija’s advertisement many people would look at me and whisper: Look, that’s the guy from the ad. But Peter (who was the guy in the ad) and I do not even look similar! But for most people it doesn’t matter because they do not regard other people as distinct individuals. If you are person of color, you fit into only one category.
Many have said that there was no racism in Latvia and the cases you have mentioned are exceptional comments of rude teenagers. The members of Brivibas partija are intelligent, respected people. Does this aspect surprise you?
Obviously, some members of this party made the decision to run this racist ad. But the leaders are supposed to reflect the ideology and views of the entire party. Therefore I question their intelligence. Even after the advertisement was broadcast there was still the opportunity for individuals within the party to publicly separate themselves from the election campaign ad and say, I am against this. But not one person came out and said this. That says to me that they were all speaking in one voice: Yes, we are racists. Yes, we look down upon people of color.
Have you been advised to ignore those nasty comments on the streets?
To such advice I reply, you try and listen to insults and abuse nearly every hour of every day!. They are few exceptions. It happens at lease every other day – sometimes every hour. How emotionally strong would you be after eight years of this? It’s very hard to pretend that I am strong and this does not mean anything, and just go on. I am told that the insulters are uneducated youngsters therefore I should not pay attention to them. I ask in reply, where do they learn such intolerance? From their parents? What will their own children be like?
There is one more absurd thing. Some people say, well, if we were in China or Africa, people would react the same: stare and make comments about someone who is different. But we are not in China or Africa! Even during the soviet times people of different race studied and lived in Latvia. Now people of different race and color come to Latvia as tourists. If people cannot comprehend that the contemporary world is a free and open society, it means they are out of touch with the reality. If today, when people have the possibility to use the Internet, to watch international movies, read magazine articles and travel, it doesn’t occur to them that it is possible that someone from another country will come or live here, they have a most archaic view of the world.
Maybe the intolerance in Latvia is based on ignorance and inexperience? There were very few dark-skinned people in Latvia during the soviet times, they were rare exceptions.
If people cannot look at me as an equal human being and accept and respect me as such prior to getting to know me, that is a reflection on themselves. During the 8 years since I have lived here I have not been in prison, or the police, I have not done anything illegal or anything at all to provoke hatred or suspicion. Must I accept racism if it is based on ignorance or fear? No. I have done nothing to provoke such an attitude. I have the right to walk down the street in peace and not hear abuse. Racists say that people of color are inferior human beings. What have I done to be the recipient of such attitude here?