This article originally appeared on BlvdCentral.com in 2013.
Beginning this Friday, supporters of Roma rights are being asked to contact and urge the government of the Czech Republic to take action in protection of Roma citizens’ civil rights. The Roma, a sub-group of the Romani who are commonly referred to by the somewhat pejorative term “Gypsy,” have recently been the target of several organized attacks by Neo-Nazi groups in the Czech Republic. While some towns have banned upcoming right-wing rallies, and President Milos Zeman has called for immediate disassembling of these demonstrations, the violation of Roma civil rights isn’t exclusive to the extremists. Czech Roma are systematically discriminated against in areas of basic necessity, like housing, healthcare, education, employment and legal protection. The status of Czech Roma is unfortunately not unique, and exemplifies a global human rights problem of historical injustice. During the weekend of August 2nd, 2013, normally reserved for annual commemoration of one of the most devastating parts of Romani history, the genocide during World War II, actions in the Czech Republic and in the United States offer a chance to take a step in righting an outstanding wrong.
The current trend of Neo-Nazi anti-Roma assemblies began at the end of June, and has been concentrated in the towns of of Duchov, and České Budějovice. The Institute of Race Relations reports that the demonstrations begin as lawfully approved, but after speakers espouse inciteful hate speech, they routinely break from the designated route and descend into Roma neighborhoods. The chaotic events, which have become a weekly occurrence in places like the Máj housing estate in České Budějovice, have led to several arrests and a substantial amount of injuries. Though the rallies are being organized by people with beliefs seemingly on the fringe, they seem to be getting support from members of the general public too. The Institute of Race Relations explains, “(Human rights activist and journalist) Markus Pape told us that ‘in the past two years whenever neo-Nazis met for a public rally, it was just them without any support from the public.’ Today, this seems to be changing.”
The rallies have spread to other cities, with thirteen similar assemblies planned for the rest of the year, in Bohumín, České Budějovice, Duchcov, Frýdek-Místek, Havířov, Krupka, Litvínov-Janov, Most-Chanov, Ostrava, Prague, Přerov, Ústí nad Labem, and Vítkov. Some local governments have already taken action to ban the rallies, and counter assemblies to the rally in Vítkov are being planned in response by the pro-Roma organizations, the Equal Opportunities Party (Strana rovných příležitostí – SRP) and Blokujeme .According to Romea.CZ, a Czech focused news outlet covering Roma rights, the planned neo-Nazi events are intended to generate publicity for the 2014 elections for the far right Workers Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti- DSSS), and the Democratic Workers’ Party (Demokratická strana pracujících – DSP) a group who recently splintered from the DSSS. František Kostlán of Romea.CZ explains the aim of these gatherings. “All of these events, naturally are targeting Romani people. Based on our experiences to date, they will most probably be violent, involving attempted lynchings or pogroms.”
Before the recent upsurge in Neo Nazi anti Roma public displays, the human rights situation for Czech Roma was described by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) as “cause for serious concern,” in a 2011/2012 report on the Czech Republic. The threat of racially motivated violence is all too common for the Roma community. Vítkov, where the DSSS are planning to assemble on August 3rd, was the location of an arson attack on a Roma family several years ago. The assault by four Neo-Nazis left three-year-old Natálka Kudriková permanently handicapped, after she received burns to eighty percent of her body.
Sometimes physical attacks on the Roma have been state sanctioned. One of the most egregious civil rights violations against the Roma has been the coercive sterilization of thousands of Roma women, a practice which has continued until as recently as this decade, and for which many are still seeking justice.
The practice of placing Roma children in “practical schools,” designed for children with mental disabilities, continues to this day, equipping Roma pupils with substandard skills when entering an already hostile job market. In spite of the fact that the European Union ruled against the practice in 2007, in the case of D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic, the ERRC found that in a survey of 67 practical schools, Roma children still accounted for 35 percent of the population.
The system of discrimination against the Roma was especially illustrated during the past year, in the story of Přednádraží. Roma residents of the street in the city of Ostrava received a 24-hour eviction notice in August 2012. The reason cited for their eviction was that broken sewage lines had made the building uninhabitable. Many tenants, some of whom had been living there for several decades, decided to disobey the order and fight for their homes. As they attempted to repair the damaged lines, responsibility for ownership of the building was passed off between the landlord and the city. The back and forth stalled repairs, while residents lived without electricity or running water. Several who did move out were met with unsanitary conditions in overpriced hostels, and some contracted dysentery. The fight lasted until the last remaining families moved out on July 6th, into nearby apartments in the Slezská Ostrava quarter. Daniela Kantorová,, Steering Committee Member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and co-organizer of the August 2nd US action, described the authorities response to Přednádraží residents for Global Voices in September 2012.
“In one of the first moves, Ostrava Water Company (OVAK) switched off the water supply for all the houses, allegedly due to outstanding water bills. For three weeks, the location received its water from an expensive cistern delivered by the very same water company that switched off the water supply. It took three weeks of negotiations to restore the water supply from a single water tap to be shared by all the residents. Next, families started experiencing difficulties receiving their social benefits. Social security workers explained to them that since they have no water supply, they are not likely to cook or wash clothes, and that without permanent housing they cannot receive housing benefits. A couple weeks after the water supply was restored into one shared tap, the authorities ordered electricity to be shut off. Since the end of August, the city social workers have been visiting Přednádraží and threatening families with taking away their children if they do not move to the hostels immediately.”
The crisis in the Czech Republic today is, yet again, but one sample of a global problem.When discussing modern treatment of the Romani, it is important to also acknowledge the centuries long record of collective punishment against them. The Romani are estimated to have migrated from Rajasthan in Northwest India 1,500 years ago. After arriving in Europe in the 14th Century, where they were thought to have traveled from Egypt, (which may possibly be the basis for the name “Gypsy”), they dispersed throughout the continent. Additional Romani sub-groups with individual cultural identities formed, such as the Romanichals in England; Kalé in Wales and Finland, Manouche in France; Gitano in Spain, or Sinti from Germany. (Irish Travellers are also frequently mentioned in discussions of Roma or “gypsies.” While they share similar cultural traditions and similar struggles for basic rights, Travellers are not ethnically Romani.)
While there are some instances of the Romani experiencing fair reception, much of the time they faced hostility throughout Europe. Their nomadic lifestyle developed out of necessity, as they were frequently expelled from locations like Germany and France, enslaved in modern day Romania until 1856, or executed in places like Switzerland and England in the 1500s, for the crime of simply being Romani.
During World War II, between 500,000 and 1.5 million Roma were killed in the Holocaust. August 2nd, 1944 marked one of the worst Romani massacresof the war, when 4,000 were killed on that day in Auschwitz. Czech Romas made up an especially high number of the casualties. The ERRC’s Czech Republic Country Report says:
“Most of the Roma living in the Czech Republic are descendants of Slovak, Romanian and Hungarian Roma who immigrated or were forced to reside in the Czech territory. Almost all Czech Roma and Sinti were either killed during the Second World War or sent to the extermination camp in Auschwitz- Birkenau in 1943 and 1944.
The 20th Century genocide of the Roma has seldom received appropriate recognition. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reports, “Only in late 1979 did the West German Federal Parliament identify the Nazi persecution of Roma as being racially motivated, creating eligibility for most Roma to apply for compensation for their suffering and loss under the Nazi regime. By this time, many of those who became eligible had already died.”
As is the case in most instances of mass bigotry, hatred toward the Romani and its legal manifestations have often been excused by resentful ignorance. Negative stereotypes, many of which can be observed on any episode of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” have long fueled punitive efforts against the Romani. These tropes, which perpetuate images of Romani as criminals who abuse state welfare programs and are unwilling to cooperate with non- Romani, are not supported by evidence.
As the ERRC’s Dimitrina Petrova explains in a May 2004 article, “Roma: Between a Myth and the Future,” the association with crime is largely the result of biased judicial systems. “Roma are overrepresented in crime statistics especially when figures are not broken down by type of offence. Also, because of the kinds of crime reported to the police, the crimes in which Roma are suspects are investigated more vigorously. Of all pretrial investigations, those in which Roma are suspects are more likely to reach the court room; and of all court trials, those in which Roma are defendants are more likely to result in convictions. The convicted Roma are more likely to receive longer prison terms, with the result that they are significantly overrepresented in the prison population. Thus, it is misleading to claim the Roma have a ‘criminal propensity’ based on crime statistics and the number of Roma in prison.”
In regards to their suspicion of outsiders, there may be an element of skepticism of non-Romani for obvious reasons, but there are also plenty of examples suggesting this distrust is exaggerated. Petrova states, “given the choice, Roma prefer to integrate, rather than live in a segregated, parallel society. Roma today are struggling for equal and just participation in mainstream society, while wishing to preserve their unique culture.”
The story of Jaroslav Herák also demonstrates that separation from the non-Romani community isn’t necessarily caused by self-induced isolation. The Czech Roma entrepreneur volunteered the services of his civil engineering firm to the town of Rudník, which had been devastated by floods. After having his offer accepted over the phone, he was denied later in person by a municipal representative, who according to Herák cited the vague reason, “they had had ‘bad experiences.’” Even amidst the recent Neo-Nazi activity in the Czech Republic, the Roma have shown an interest in dialogue with their non-Romani neighbors.
The purpose of these divisive archetypes is obviously not to be factual accurate, though. They are designed to perpetuate fear of the Romani. As Romea.CZ writer Gwendolyn Albert recently articulated, it is the same kind of fear that breeds the George Zimmermans of the world. As long as false suspicion dominates perceptions of the Romani, their unjust treatment will continue. The only way for fear to stop dictating the conversation about the Romani is for those who support their rights to be brave and speak up.
One group speaking up is Blokujeme (“We are Blocking the Marches”),who are organizing a day of action in the Czech Republic on Saturday, August 3rd in Vítkov, The Initiative, whose platform states “We refuse to ignore the fact that violent anti-Romani demonstrations and marches have been taking place in this country every weekend. We refuse to just passively follow a situation in which hatred stemming from a lack of information and societal frustration is rising with every day that passes,” will be holding a rally to show support for Natálka Kudriková and her family, as well as call on the Czech government to put an end to the Neo-Nazi marches.
Those who would like to support Blokujeme’s message can donate here . Both those who can and cannot donate in the U.S. are also being asked to contact the Czech Consulate on Friday, August 2nd. (For Los Angeles call (310) 473-0889 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.) Additional actions in other cities may also be announced on this post shortly.
Kantorová has provided a sample letter to use as a template. Feel free to alter or add your own personal message.
“To the Consul General of the Czech Republic:
I am concerned about the increase of Neo-Nazi activity in the Czech Republic, particularly their targeting of the Roma population. I fear that this can lead to increased violence on a larger scale.
According to reports of human rights organizations and news agencies, the Roma continue to experience severe discrimination in terms of education, housing, and employment. I call on the Czech Republic to increase its efforts in fighting racism, to protect the Roma from discrimination and hate crimes, and respect their culture and contributions to society.
UPDATE (August 5th): Zdeněk Ryšavý of Romea.CZ reports that though there were twenty two weapons confiscated, and three people detained by police this past weekend in Vítkov, no major violence occurred. Even though the August 2nd mass action has passed, international supporters of Roma rights are still encouraged to continue contacting the Czech Consulate.