It was a historic day!
By Gaston Lacombe, Chair of Mozaika, alliance of LGBT people and their friends
Image: Gaston Lacombe, by www.gayrussia.ru
At 8:30 in the morning I was woken up by my phone, receiving an SMS. It was Artis Pabriks, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I called him, told him about our plans, assured him that we were doing everything within the law. We talked for about 10 minutes about the implications of the court’s decision and about our plans. He issued his press release a short time later.
On my way to Alberta 13 for the press conference, I met Maris with his mother on the street. They were very happy, smiling. Maris told me all about the wonderful church service he had just prepared for his congregation, and his mother was holding his arm, looking up at him, as if in admiration. We talked for about 5 minutes, and he left to go to the Anglican Church. I bought some flowers, a big bouquet of blue cornflowers, and I brought them to the foot of the FreedomMonument. I laid my flowers down, and spent about a minute in silence, with nobody around me, looking up at “Milda”, the statue on top of the monument, thinking about Latvia, Freedom and Democracy.
I then went to Alberta 13 around 9:30. There were many policemen there, and I even made sure to show them which was the correct entry door for those who needed to come to the press conference. I did not notice protesters at that time, but then again I was not looking for them. I did not expect them to be there actually. All guests and journalists arrived without problems, or at least they did not tell me there were any problems. I first heard of problems when Amy came for the press conference and was out of breath, since she had been pursued from the Karlis Ulmanis monument all the way to the Congress House. She was carrying a rainbow flag. It turns out that Nacionala Speka Savieniba (NSS), the neo-nazis, had asked all their members to meet at the Ulmanis monument before 10:30, and Amy unfortunately walked by at that time. They were trying to take the flag away from her. She said they ran after her, and were surrounding her, until she was able to run long enough and far enough away to get rid of them.
The Press conference started, and there were more journalists than the room could hold. I then got a call from the Anglican Church from Maris at about 11:00 just as we were getting started. He told me that church goers had been pelted with excrements and rotten eggs. He said the protesters had tried to break into the church, and they had to lock the doors. He also said the front door of the church was covered in filth. The press conference had already started, so I went in and told Juris, who was a speaker at the press conference, about the fact. I then rapidly left since I needed to print documents and make copies in my office down the hall.
I then called our friend from the American Embassy to tell him about the events at the Anglican Church, and about the fact that Amy, an American citizen, had been chased and threatened in the morning. He told me that he had seen large black jeeps, with tinted windows and No-Pride signs on them, patrolling the old city, driving slowly, as if looking for something. He said it looked very scary, like something from a film and we guessed they were looking for any sign of LGBT people or supporters in the center of the city.
Then my partner Lars was coming to Alberta 13 with our car, and I told him to be careful, because of what I had already heard. I was very concerned. It was difficult to pay attention to everything going on, especially because there was not enough space in the room for all journalists, and many of them were attempting to interview me outside about what we were planning to do during the day. I was trying to convince them to go in the room, where it was unfortunately very hot and cramped, and get the news at the same time as all the others. At one point I finally just told them our plans, because they were from important media and needed to know. As I was talking to them, the church goers arrived. An incredible smell of dung took over the whole floor. These people were still dirty with excrements and eggs. They all went straight into the press conference room, where everybody, the whole world’s press, was also confronted directly with their stench, and the first tangible results of the protesters’ violence against regular peaceful people. I was told then that Jolanta had gone to the police station to give a witness report about the incident at the Anglican Church. I was also told at that point that there was no police at the Church.
Lars arrived soon after the church goers. He said he had no problems getting in. He said there were many “observers”, but no outward protest yet.
I then tried to call the President’s press secretary. She was not answering. I sent her a message saying: “Gastons no Mozaikas - Vairak uzbrukumu pret gejiem un citiem Riga sodien, ludzam prezidentes palidzibu un dalibu musu pasakuma sodien 14:00 Hotel Latvija – paldies” (Gaston from Mozaika - Many attacks against gays and others today in Riga, we ask for the president’s help and participation in our event today at 14:00 at Hotel Latvija – thank you). She wrote back that she was in a conference and would get back to me in ½ hour.
In the meantime, there was a lot of discussion in the hallway about if Mozaika should carry out their plan to go to the FreedomMonument and to Salaspils Concentration camp to lay flowers, to commemorate LGBT victims of Nazism, as well as the defeat of freedom and democracy in Latvia. Somebody told me at that point (might have been Vita or maybe Evita) that the FreedomMonument was completely out, since representatives from radical organizations were already patrolling around it in high numbers. There was a lot of talk about Salaspils, many were discouraging it, but finally a small group including Maris, Evita, Liga and Lars ran down the stairs and were determined to get to Salaspils. As I saw Lars leave, I had a small panic attack. I closed the door to my office and sat there for a good two minutes trying to recompose myself (since the library next to my office was full of journalists whom I was helping.) I sent him a message asking him to be very careful and to say I loved him. I got control of my emotions.
A few minutes later Lars called to tell me that as he left Alberta 13, from the Strelnieku 4A door, the mob started acting up. Knowing that Maris is a very recognizable figure, he asked a policeman to help escort Maris to our car. The policeman refused, saying that they did not have orders to do that. He also told me that the car, along with some of our supporters outside of Alberta 13, had been pelted with bags of excrement. I immediately wrote another message to Aiva from the President’s office: “Policija nepalidz, vairak cilveku apmetati ar mesliem.” (The police is not helping, many people have had dung thrown at them.) Within a few minutes she called me. By that time I had already seen on the internet that the President was in Austria that day, so it was clear that she would not be able to come to the Pride event. We discussed that we need to organize an emergency meeting to discuss a strategy to control extremism and eradicate homophobia in Latvia. We agreed that she would be in touch with Linda or me as soon as possible.
Throughout all of this, I was also regularly on the phone with our friend from the American Embassy, informing him of all the news I was receiving. As soon as I had a minute I immediately ran to the press conference room and informed all people there to be careful as they leave since the mobs were outside and they were throwing eggs and bags of excrement. Many members of the press left by themselves, but our foreign guests, deputies from many European countries, or leaders of LGBT organizations from all of Europe, were in danger, and we needed to arrange transport for them. Kaspars from the Ministry of Integration whisked Linda Freimane (Pride main organizer) away, since she was the most recognizable, and without warning told her she was going with them, now! Linda was then led away by armed guards. All the other guests were escorted to the Alberta 13 door and rapidly jumped into our small van. I stayed until last and I was starting to worry about how I would be able to get from Alberta 13 to Hotel Latvija. I was getting phone reports from the van and from the people at Hotel Latvija that our shuttle was being followed by large black trucks, which were pelting the shuttle with eggs and excrement.
I had quite a few journalists that were really not getting the seriousness of the situation and were just staying behind, using my internet, writing their releases. I needed to herd them out to the shuttle, since I needed to close down and get to Hotel Latvija myself. Kristine and I took care of cleaning everything out of the press conference room and went to the Mozaika office downstairs. We needed to be on the last shuttle from Alberta 13 with all of the rainbow flags and the placards for the Pride. We were going to be very visible, and there was a lot to pack in the shuttle. So, we had our privately hired security guards patrol outside Alberta 13 for a while to tell us what the mob situation was like. In the meantime the shuttle driver was calling us, as well as the people in the shuttle, telling us how they were being attacked from all along Elizabetes street, the one that leads from Alberta 13 to Hotel Latvija. The shuttle was also not able to stop at Hotel Latvija, since the mob was blocking the way. The next-to-last shuttle’s passengers got into the Hotel from the side door, but it was clear that Kristine and I would not be able to get in by any door.
After our security guards assured us that the mobs had left, Kristine and I loaded our shuttle with all of our materials for the Pride. I was afraid to go out the door, there were police all long the street, but it was obvious that the mob had moved on. I then saw the shuttle. Almost all of it was covered by a thick opaque liquid that had already started to harden. The driver could not see out from most windows. As we were driving to Hotel Latvija he was showing us all the places where the “throwers” were just a few minutes ago along Elizabetes street, and telling us about all the trucks that were following him, throwing stuff and hindering his driving. It was clear that all of these people were now at Hotel Latvija, and we needed to figure a way for us to get in and drop off our materials. Our people at Hotel Latvija made arrangements for us to drive into the delivery area. When we got there many of our Mozaika members were waiting on the delivery dock, to help us unload the car. We carried everything through the kitchen, and then upstairs to the second floor of Hotel Latvija, where we had reserved conference rooms.
The first people I saw at Hotel Latvija were my friend Vita and her baby twins. It was so refreshing to see her, smiling, unafraid, with her children. By the time I got the room we rented for Pride, everything was already decorated, and I was incredibly surprised to see how happy it all looked! I was really excited to be there!
I had brought my folk costume to Pride, since it was a festival, and as good a time as any to wear my folk costume! I went to change in the bathroom, then went to our information office, which was at the opposite end of the hall from the room rented for Pride. As I was going to the info center I noticed that some protesters from the NSS were let into our “safe space” at Hotel Latvija. I was not sure if the guards or the police were doing anything, but it seemed they were coming in without problem. I saw and heard that there was a bit of pushing, and the NSS people were screaming insults and obscenities at our Pride participants. Our Pride people were not responding, just trying to get through. The guards let the NSS supporters come in and sit on the couches in the hallway between our info center and the Pride room. I knew that by walking by I would get harassed, because by then I would be wearing my full folk costume. When I walked by then, all at once they started to scream at me: “Hey piece-of-shit get out of this country!”; “Read the Bible, garbage!”, “Take that costume off you are dishonoring our nation!”; “Pedophile!” I kept my head up and walked by.
When I got behind the line where the guards were blocking the hallway, I asked Kristine what was going on, why were these people allowed upstairs! She said the hotel administration could not stop them from coming on their property unless they started to harass us. I went straight to the info desk of the conference center and I told them that I had been harassed, these people had broken their promise not to harass us. They said they could not do anything, and sort of smiled at me in a derogatory way. I left, but made sure to tell all security guards there that I had been verbally harassed.
Soon after I went to the info center again and was yelled obscenities at one more time as I walked down the hall. I also was getting an incredible amount of press attention for being in my costume. I was looking out the window of the press center, looking for Lars. I was very worried since he had not arrived from Salaspils yet, but I knew he was on the way. Out the window, I saw my friends Evita and Liga, both in orange-red t-shirts, surrounded by no less than 100 people. All these people were screaming at them, their faces were contorted in hate, many were pointing and laughing. Evita and Liga were completely stuck. I could see Evita responding to a man who was screaming at her, and all I could think about was “Please get out of there.” I was terrified for their safety. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a man wove his way forwards and spit Evita right in the face. The spit ball was big enough for us to see it from the second floor of the hotel. Liga, who is an athlete, dragged Evita through the crowd, took out a kleenex and wipped Evita’s face. They came in right after that. I first saw Liga, and I grabbed her and hugged her so hard, I just burst our crying, telling her how horribly afraid I was for them. As we were hugging, we were being screamed at by the NSS people in the hallway. They were screaming at Liga: “Couldn’t you make yourself look more masculine today?” Still hugging, Liga and I walked away towards the Pride hall. In the back I could hear that our foreign guests were getting more and more aggravated and were asking for the removal of the NSS people. They eventually were removed, but I was not there when that happened.
I was walking back and forth a lot since I was always looking for Lars. In the hallway I met Lars’ relatives, his aunt Sarmite and his cousin Roberts, which really moved me. Lars was calling all the time, and I directed him to the delivery area of the hotel. They all got in, back from Salaspils, with pictures to be shown on the screen in the Pride Hall. I was extremely happy to see Lars back. I was also very proud of what he had done, laid flowers at a concentration camp site to commemorate all victims of totalitarianism, including LGBT people.
In the meantime our friend from the US Embassy called me, this time to say the Prime Minister’s office was accusing my colleagues from other LGBT organizations in Latvia, Imants and Gabriels, for announcing they were going to arrange an illegal march in VermanesPark. The Prime Minister’s office was very angry and condemning. There was an article on the portal tvnet.lv about this illegal march. Within 2 minutes I found Imants and Gabriels, and they assured me that they never never advertised anything such and that the news was false. I called our friend at the US Embassy right away, and that situation was cleared. It seems that it was provocation of some sort, but that is still not clear.
The speeches started, the Pride was going on, and everybody was having a good time. Imants and Gabriels had to leave around 15:00, when everything was at its peak, inside and outside. There were a few hundred protesters outside, screaming, praying, signing, harassing simple tourists, homos and heteros, running after buses of tourists (thinking they were LGBT people) and really wreaking havoc. Imants un Gabriels were amongst the first to leave, and I guess we did not know yet what the crowd was ready to do, and to what extent the police was ready to protect us. They left the hotel from the front door and got into a cab, with two Swedish guests. The mob attacked the car, pelted it with eggs, excrements, as well as “holy” water. Dozens of people got on the car to try to stop it from moving as the wife of a well-known singer, laid herself on the hood, with icons of saints in her hands. When the police was trying to get the people off the car, the mob tried to topple the car over. As they left, many bottles were thrown at the car. This was all captured on film and shown on the evening news. Imants called me from the car and told me to tell everybody to not go out the front door anymore, since they were nearly killed. He also called back a few minutes later to say their car was being pursued by a big black No-Pride jeep, and this jeep was driving dangerously around them, and trying to push them off the road. He said their taxi driver had to operate many dangerous maneuvers to avoid crashing or driving off the road. The got to the airport safely but shaken up.
In the Pride Hall we had a great time signing and dancing, as well as listening to inspiring speeches. There was a lot of love and a lot of positive energy in that hall. As the guests left, we instructed many of them to leave through the kitchen, especially the families with small children. Many of our guests left from side doors. At the end there were about 30 people left who did not want to risk going out anymore. As all our other guests left from the side doors, the mob noticed it and started patrolling all the hotel exits. We could see from the window that they were talking on their phones, or on walkie-talkies, coordinating their efforts, exchanging information. They were waiting for the most recognizable people to get out, mostly the board of Mozaika. Juris, Kaspars and Viktors were also amongst the potential targets. For all of the others, Kaspars helped organize transport from the State Chancellery to get them out as rapidly as possible. In the end, we were 14 left, stuck in the hotel, with mobs outside waiting for us.
We decided that if we make it look like the Pride Hall and info center is empty, the mobs might go away. We asked the hotel to give us a room. All fourteen of us pilled up in room 2318, on the 23rd floor, with, fortunately or unfortunately, no view of the front of the hotel to evaluate the situation with the mob. The people there were Linda, Yvonne, Juris and his sister, Kristine, Vita, Maris, Jolanta, Viktors, Kaspars, Arthur from Sweden and another Swedish guest, as well as Lars and I. We had room service, and we strategized.
While we were in there, we were getting constant phone calls from all sides telling us what is going on. We got calls from the US Embassy to tell us that Hotel Bergs was being mobbed. It was one of the locations where we had planned to meet after the Pride, but that was cancelled. The American Embassy had to interfere to protect American citizens. Some of our Swedish guests were there and they also called the Swedish Embassy for help. The owner of the hotel, her nephew and his wife, were holding the mobs down. They were left alone for about ½ hour before the police really came to help, at the request of the Embassies. Knowing this, Lars contacted Artis Pabriks, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was abroad. He was shocked to hear of the news, and he called the Prime Minister’s office to find out what was really going on! We were on the phone with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kaspars was talking with the Minister of Social Integration, Linda with the Security Police, and we spent all our time on many phones. We could not see the situation outside, so we could just rely on reports from outside. We were still hearing about the mobs roaming the city, about patrolling jeeps, about protesters standing on corners watching all exits. We were also reading comments on the internet, from which we knew that the mobs were waiting for Mozaika’s board specifically to come out. We were scared, but we were safe, and we were together. The room was very small and hot, but we were safe.
We needed to get out somehow. Artis Pabriks wanted to help. He called the acting Prime Minister Aigars Stokenbergs (Min. of Economics), and discussed with him that he would come get us out. We were now getting reports that the mob at Hotel Latvija had dissipated, but before we knew it, Stokenbergs was in our room talking to us. One memorable moment was when Linda was talking to the Head of the Security Police, asking them to come get us out, and they suggested that we call the municipal police instead, to which Linda answered: “Here is the acting Prime Minister, you can tell him that.” We all left, everybody was escorted to a mini-van, except for Lars and me, since Stokenbergs asked us to go with him to Hotel Bergs to check out the situation. I was petrified to be outside, unguarded. I was completely numb. Stokenbergs asked us to walk with him three blocks to Bergs, and I did not think I could do it, but I did anyway. We got to Bergs, everything was over, everybody was shaken but safe. Stokenbergs talked to all the people there, then left. We sat down with the owner of Bergs, Ieva, her nephew and his wife, and had a drink. As we talked I started to calm down and loosen up, and felt better and safer. After Bergs we went to the Restaurant Osiris, where everybody else was, and a few extra, and we had so much, so so much, to all talk about! It was great to be with friends. We then went to Golden Bar, and Lars and I came back home at 3am.
It was an historic day.