City of Good Colors? (24)

Can the guests tell the difference? Indrek Taalmaa as the Führer in the Vanemuine production of Pip Utton's "Adolf", staged in one of Tartu's beer cellars. Photo: Postimees/Scanpix
6/7/2011 11:00 AM
Category: Opinion

“If I ever see a negro on my land, I’ll shoot him in the head,” my friend’s uncle told me in English at his farm just outside of Tartu. He used a stronger word than “negro,” however, to demonstrate his profound knowledge of English profanity. I asked him why. “Because they want to take our stuff!” he exclaimed. I inquired as to what he’d do if he caught a white man breaking into his decrepit house. “Call the police of course, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

He did, however, admit to never having seen a black man in person.

Tartu is no stranger to racially motivated incidents. There is a long, hushed history of racial slurs, beatings and even an unsolved drowning. Most recently, a Cameroonian PhD student packed his bags after suffering three beatings in a month and a half. So does Tartu have a problem with racism and xenophobia? Or just violence in general?

The police take these events seriously, of course. The problem is that not much is done about them. I am reminded of the David Haslam case from 2010. A white British artist, the night his exhibition was opened, was brutally attacked by two Estonian men. He was talking with two Estonian friends, speaking English, and when the attackers heard them, they approached, used pepper spray to immobilize Mr. Haslam and one of his friends (the other friend escaped to call the police), and repeatedly kicked Mr. Haslam in the head, all the while uttering xenophobic slurs.

The attackers were so furiously engaged in their harming of a human being that they didn’t notice the police until they were being handcuffed. Mr. Haslam was taken to the emergency room in an ambulance and scanned for cranial injuries. He was lucky. His face was merely unrecognizable for almost a month, nothing else.

I contacted Indrek Mustimets of the Tartu City Government to ask him about the Haslam event. The police had listed a call to break up a drunken fight, and there was no hospital record of any foreigner having been there at all. At the very least there is an anomaly with Tartu’s statistics.

The Ministry of Justice, in a 2007 survey, dubiously announced that there was “no base for an increase in the number of hate crimes in Estonia,” and further explained that no such survey had previously been conducted. So officially, at least in 2007, it wasn’t getting worse. Nothing was mentioned about how bad it already may have been.

The OSCE has even written about this subject regarding an incident in Tartu in that same year. Stones were thrown at a dark-skinned French student. “A local police officer denied this, however,” the report read, “maintaining that incidents involving foreign students in the past two years had been limited to a few cases of ‘robbery, fights, or insults.’” Huh?

Mr. Haslam pressed charges, and was repeatedly urged by the prosecuting attorney, Toomas Liiva, to settle out of court. Mr. Haslam insisted on going to court, and key evidence was not presented — namely, the fact that pepper spray was used and that non-Estonianness was a factor.

(According to Haslam, the police could not identify which of the assailants had used the pepper spray, despite the presence of fingerprints, and the arresting officers claimed not to have witnessed any xenophobic slurs, despite the victims’ repeatedly offered testimony.)

Mr. Haslam’s testimony was entirely stricken from the record by the court because the prosecutor had not written any of it in his case notes. This testimony clearly identifies the user of the pepper spray and contains specific xenophobic quotations made by the perpetrators.

The attackers were sentenced to three years’ probation: no alcohol, and no remorse. Despite the fact that one of them, Martin Kramin, has a photograph posted on his account showing a hanged man with the caption, “We hang negroes.” They were also ordered by the court to pay damages to Mr. Haslam. Haslam has received nothing.

Racism is the belief that another race is inferior to yours, or that your race is superior to all others. This concept has been subjected to an enormous amount of research, and all of it concluding there is no such thing as racial superiority.

Nazism is a rather radical form of racism. I have seen a popular fraternity in Tartu marching in public, arms raised, yelling “Sieg Heil!” in unison. There was a Nazi costume party in a local nightclub. They were not asked to leave. A popular, local restaurant even willingly hosted a Holocaust Party. The attendees, some of them upper-level politicians in Estonia, were quoted as saying, “Happy Holocaust Day.” The article in Eesti Ekspress regarding this has mysteriously become impossible to find online. However, the Estonian Security Police did investigate several state officials — some even from the military — for attending similar Nazi-themed events in 2006–2007.

Yet not all is lost. Tartu has gone to great lengths to address this problem, via an annual effort to promote tolerance in which a few locals paint their faces brown and go about their daily business as if they don’t look offensively ridiculous. South Africa’s problems would undoubtedly be solved if black people there painted their faces white.

But I do not believe there is a problem with racism in Tartu. Nothing organized at least. I think there are some real idiots who like to dress up in funny brown clothes with red armbands from time to time, but that’s not a problem. There are some unhappy people who place foreigners (especially foreigners of color) in the position of a scapegoat, guilty of causing all their woes. But that’s not a problem either. They’ll change their minds when they all get high-paying jobs at the sawmill and can afford more and better books to read. And burn.

The city government needs to wake up. Denying there is a problem, however small as it may be, is ridiculous. The criminal justice system, downplaying acts of violence in official paperwork, is ridiculous. The people of Tartu deserve exactly the reputation they create for themselves, be it through xenophobia or inaction. I would like to tell people that I live in the City of Good Colors, and not feel ridiculous saying it.

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