Skinhead chic meets academic cheek

predavanjeDon’t be jealous, but we have had a very interesting evening! It capped off a pretty interesting day, but as Tolstoi says, all interesting things are interesting in their own way.

But first, a little background. Why are we in Belgrade? It is to offer our modest assistance to a research project on representation of gender minorities in media in some of the Southeast European states. The project is a fine research project, which promises to offer some original material on a subject which is not researched nearly as much as it ought to be. It is not a terribly sinister project, and it is not secret either – here is the project web site. The research is supported by the Swiss Regional Research Promotion Program for the Western Balkans, which has the aim of promoting social science research throughout the region. The project is led by staff of the Faculty of Media and Communications in Belgrade, and has participation from colleagues based in Macedonia and Montenegro. The role of me and my colleague from my home institution of UCL-SSEES is to offer advice on developing the research, mostly by suggesting literature, making recommendations on methodology, and trying to be helpful about finding venues for publishing. We are researchers and academics – none of what we do is unknowable to the public, all of it is funded by your kind taxes, and the worst thing you can say about us is that sometimes we can be a little boring or opaque.

We had a useful workshop during the day, spent a couple hours enjoying some of the sights of Belgrade, and then reassembled at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Belgrade to hear my London colleague Dr Richard Mole deliver a lecture on LGBT migration to Germany and the UK. The lecture was based on survey and interview research exploring how identities, attitudes and relations to cultures of origin changed with the experience of migration. The material is interesting to me and you, but then we are the social-science academic audience. It is not advocacy material, and is neither ideological nor provocative (except in the sense that it is empirically rich and productive of ideas).

A pretty sizable audience turned out, and Richard began presenting his research material. And he continued presenting it for about 20 minutes. Then came a little bit of a surprise. Five (very) young gentlemen, dressed in the style that might be called “transcontinental yobbo klerifa,” rushed into the room, shouting. They shouted that they were cancelling the lecture, and told the people assembled that they should leave the room. They assumed positions in front of the lectern, obscuring the speaker.

The audience, a much larger group than the unwelcome visitors, was not much inclined to cooperate. To the question of “who are you?,” they responded “Serbian nationalists!” (NB: this is sort of a vague answer). To the question of “who told you to come here?” they avoided giving an answer. To the question of “why are you here?” a few of them offered some incoherent replies until the member of the group who appeared dominant signaled to them to stop saying things (we questioned them a lot, and they were not too well able to maintain compliance with this command). In any case, a standoff position developed pretty quickly. We were not willing to abandon our lecture or the room, and clearly, they were also not willing.

All of the news articles you will read about this event (this one, for example, or this one) will say that the lecture was disrupted by a group of five people. This would appear to be partly true. There were three more people sitting in the back who did not participate in the disruption verbally but gave every appearance of directing the dewy skinheads with gestures. For a long time the intruders and members of the audience photographed one another, reveling in the sweet potential of smartphones and Twitter. A student at the Faculty was also filming the lecture, and in the process filmed the whole incident – so there are lots of photos and moving images that no police investigator or prosecutor will ever take an interest in. But as several audience members noted, the three grey eminences at the back were filming and photographing before the rushed entry of their juvenile protégés.

But let standoffs be standoffs. It was clear that this one could end in only one of two ways: either we would wait each other out until the building was closed and everybody was sent off, or university security or the police would come to remove the precious jackbooted snowflakes so that the lecture could continue. University security has a fetching glass booth at the entry to the building on the floor right below the lecture hall, but apparently it is possessed of a force field that prevents the security officers from ever leaving the booth to provide security. This may be a gesture of honour to UCL, developed in the hope that over time Filfak might be able to emulate my home institution’s morbid Jeremy Bentham display. In any case, no action was forthcoming from the floor below.

As for the police, it looks like an interesting story. They were called very soon after the incident began, and the caller was told that they were on their way. After 20 minutes, they were called again, and the caller was told they were already in the building. Both of these responses may have been true, but in any case there was no sign of them in the occupied lecture hall. After about 45 minutes, a solitary old university security gentleman did turn up, carrying a document and gently informing the intruders that they were not permitted to hold a political meeting at the university. But he also asked the organisers whether they were permitted to hold lectures at the university (NB: they probably are). The poor fellow was solidly ignored by everyone, on both sides.

The connecting incidents I can only tell you second hand. One of them involved using the available technology to awaken the police’s interest at higher levels of state. Another of them involved the dean interrupting his (presumably perfectly enjoyable) dinner at a restaurant to come over to the Faculty, inform the police that it is legal to hold lectures at the university and not legal to disrupt them, and assure the police that they were permitted to do their job. One or both of these stories might be true; I am not in a position to confirm either one. In any case, about an hour after the entry of people who had not come to listen to the lecture, the exit of the five of them who were most exposed was assured.

Once the little-league ljotićevci were removed, there was nothing to do but the thing that everyone came for: to hear an interesting lecture. Which we did, with added pleasure at receiving a sign that every bit of shared knowledge represents a small, and more or less fragile, victory. So score one for the interested and curious, or at least half of one.

As for interest – when it was ending, a crew from one media outlet did show up to interview Richard. And the police left one fairly nonstrapping officer outside the entrance to the building. When we had all gone out and were standing in front discussing where we ought to go for beer, he made his tracks away from the temple of learning about as quickly as he could.

You won’t have a hard time imagining that a lot of our discussion afterward was dedicated to this interesting set of events. We wondered whether the police would respond to a similar attack on people with less access to resources. We compared notes on the signs that these forlorn laddies did not appear to be acting on their own and that there was organisation behind them. We speculated as to what dear old Professor Heisenberg might say about us having been transformed into objects of our own research.

But mostly we noted how clueless and incoherent our uninvited guests seemed, and exchanged ideas as to how they became interested in this sort of recreational activity. We could inflate it and talk about Big Fancy Ideas on the racist right, but you know something? Not many ideas coming out of those heads, big or small. Nobody was especially hurt, and aside from a little bit of temporary media publicity, the main effect is that our lecture lasted a bit longer. The most impressive overall effect was emptiness – in the heads of the fascettes who carried out the action, in the action itself, and in the environment in which it appears to make some sort of sense. Srbija bi mogla nešto bolje od ovih floskuli ponuditi mladim ljudima. Ako ume i zna. Uopšte.