Seeing Stories in What Wasn’t Being Reported
A public radio series explores the growth of the antiracism movement in Europe.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europeans have experienced a resurgence of neofascist and racist ideology among various segments of the region's population. In the many stories done about this situation, much of the attention has been paid to the racist "skinhead" movement, specifically groups living in the eastern half of Germany, Russia and Poland. Skinheads there have been responsible for hundreds of violent, sometimes fatal, attacks on immigrants of African and Arab descent, refugees from the Balkans and Asia, Roma people, Jews and those generally regarded as "other."
And as Europeans — those who live in both Eastern and Western Europe — wrestle with burgeoning immigrant populations and their integration into society, millions of them are also turning to extreme right-wing political parties as a solution to what they see as the immigrant "crisis." Crime, housing shortages, chronic unemployment, and general misery are seen by many as the logical conclusion of shortsighted, porous immigration policies flowing from traditional liberal-democratic idealism.
Yet while baldheaded youth sporting black shirts and intemperate individuals like France's ultra-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen reap the attention of American news consumers, a loosely defined grass-roots, antiracism movement is working largely unseen and unknown to counter the proponents of hate. It is the story of this European movement that I will be explaining to public radio audiences in a six-part series I am reporting and producing.
Developing the Idea
The idea for developing such a public radio series — a collection of stories about people and organizations that are standing up to the intensifying hate in Europe — began like many other ideas do: I observed what wasn't being reported about this major societal and political shift taking place. As I surveyed newspapers and magazines both in Europe and in the United States, I could find little being reported about the activists, the human rights workers and professionals who work in the shadows. This was in great contrast to the level of attention heaped on activists in the United States during its most challenging period of racial conflict.
In 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd of 260,000 in Washington, D.C., millions of Europeans heard his message as the March on Washington was broadcast on Voice of America, the BBC, and other radio networks. And during the civil rights movement, Europeans recoiled in horror at the bloody scenes from the American South and condemned what they were witnessing. Back then, fewer than two decades removed from the Holocaust, many Europeans saw themselves incapable of such extreme racism. But in recent years, as the backlash to immigration has grown more violent, some in Europe have begun to rethink that view and know now that such racism must be confronted. Nor is it hyperbole to say that these people have taken up where leaders such as King, Medgar Evers, and others left off.
Those who are the founders and members of European antiracism groups whom I interviewed speak of their mission with the same sense of urgency as did black and white civil rights workers in the 1960's. Like their U.S. forebears, some are paying the ultimate price for their dedication to this cause. Yet few Americans know of Nikolai Girenko, for example, a Russian human rights scholar and activist who was devoted to the goal of eliminating racism in his motherland. Girenko was shot dead, presumably by neo-Nazis, in his doorway in Saint Petersburg in 2004.
In the third part of this series, focus will be put on the work of Girenko and others in a segment called "Standing Up One-by-One." No Martin Luther King, Jr. type-figure has emerged among Europe's antiracism activists, but across the continent thousands of individuals are actively organizing against bigotry directed at immigrants, blacks, Muslims, Roma and others.
The rest of the series divides thematically along the following lines:
Part One: The Organizations. This opening story looks at various antiracism groups in Europe. In France, SOS Racism, for example, leads campaigns targeted at the elimination of antiblack and Muslim discrimination in the workplace and schools. In Hungary, the European Roma Rights Center has a similar goal in mind as it works on behalf of Roma, a perpetually persecuted minority.
Part Two: Marching Against Racism. At a recent rally in Berlin, demonstrators recalled words that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder spoke seven years ago when he called for an "uprising of decent people" against neo-Nazis. In January 2001, the king of Norway led his country's largest peacetime rally ever in response to a killing of a black teenager. Rallies and marches continue to be an important way of organizing public support.
Part Four: Gypsies — The Blacks of Eastern Europe. I visited the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest to learn more about how it uses U.S. civil rights-style strategies as it seeks redress against rampant racial discrimination. In this report, we explore how domestic and European laws are being used to bring about change.
Part Five: The Cultural Wars. This report looks at how music, art and other cultural tools are being utilized to encourage the integration of colored peoples into European society and to counter the cultural messages of far right-wing anti-immigrant groups.
Part Six: Creating a Movement. This report examines how dozens of antiracism groups scattered across Europe are uniting, given that many agree that the gravest threat they face as Europeans is not from skinheads and neo-Nazis but from the "denial" and acceptance of racism.
As former race relations correspondent for NPR, I had a great deal of experience covering these kinds of stories in the United States. The German Marshall Fund of the United States has provided the resources to make it possible for me to take my reporting about these issues to another level, and in 2003 I began reporting on antiracism in Europe. Eight weeks of on-the-ground research took me to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. This year I continued the work begun three years ago, assisted this time by freelance reporters I hired to interview antiracism proponents in Russia, Spain and Italy.
When the series is broadcast in late September it will be pegged to a report on "Racism in Russia" that is scheduled to be delivered to the United Nations General Assembly. This summer a UN human rights investigator visited Saint Petersburg to probe a growing wave of racist killings and beatings in that nation. Russia continues to experience street violence directed against minority and immigrant populations and, in some instances, these actions are abetted by segments of government and security forces.
"Standing Up to Racism" makes clear that what is happening in Russia — and in other European nations — will no longer be able to happen with impunity because of grass-roots opposition from groups such as Youth against Racism in Europe and the Anti-Fascist Centre. Today many other groups and individuals in Europe are echoing their ever-more shared belief that "We are not alone." Nor should their actions remain invisible while the violence of those they confront remains a centerpiece of what we call news.
Phillip W.D. Martin, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, is executive producer of Lifted Veils Productions, a nonprofit radio journalism organization dedicated to exploring and investigating issues that divide society.