Sunday, March 11, 2012

Request to publish the logo for the International Romani Day on Google's main page

Here is something simple, yet meaningful that could be done to raise awareness about the Romani people, their rich history, and their human rights struggles today. I invite you to please take a minute and join this effort by the civic organization, Romea, to email Google to request the company post the logo for the International Romani Day on its main page on April 8 to honor that holiday.

Below is the email I sent to Feel free to copy or write your own:

I would like to request that you please publish the logo for the International Romani Day on your main page on April 8 to raise awareness about one of the largest minorities in Europe which has a rich history on the continent, but also experiences some of the most severe discrimination of all ethnic groups in areas of employment, housing, education and health care. Violence against Roma is also on the rise as economic strife across the EU deepens. Roma, of course, live all over the world, including in the US where they have been called the "hidden Americans" because they remain largely invisible.

International Romani Day was established in 1971, the year the Romani people themselves, representing communities from 14 different countries, organized the first-ever, historic World Romani Congress in London to discuss civil rights, cultural heritage, post-WWII reparations, and more. The Congress also agreed on the use of the word "Roma" as a self-identifier (instead of the pejorative term "Gypsy"), on the adoption of a Romani flag, and on the Romani national anthem, connecting Roma, whose heritage can be traced to India, the world over.

Please post the International Romani Day logo on April 8 2012 to commemorate this day and to raise awareness about the human rights struggles for Roma all across Europe and the world.

The logo designed by Laďa Gažiová, a Romani artist born in 1981 in Slovakia. She has based her design on the Roma flag and traditional Roma motifs.

The logo URL:

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Czech neo-Nazis becoming more violent and sophisticated, report warns

(Czech Ministry of Interior logo)

This very important piece, published on March 1, 2012, is reprinted from

Despite a fall in numbers compared to the 1990s, extreme right-wing movements in the Czech Republic are becoming more discreet and sophisticated and widening their range of targets, a report commissioned by the Czech Ministry of Interior says, warning that neo-Nazis and other groups may resort to terrorism.

According to the 50-odd page report authored by political scientist Miroslav Mareš and several contributors, a rise in racially motivated attacks can be expected over the next five years. While the ethnic Romany population will continue to be the target of violence, the report says far-right groups are increasingly focusing their attention to resistance to multiculturalism and immigration to the Czech Republic.

“Calls to form home defense units (which came from the [banned] Workers Party) against Vietnamese present a risk because they could lead to an escalation in ethnic violence,” the report published on Thursday states.

Mareš says in the report an increase in violent attacks can be expected due to: worsening economic conditions; increasing social exclusion; mainstream political failure by extreme right-wing parties; and the influence of foreign white supremacist groups.

There are currently around 4,000 extreme right-wing activists in the Czech Republic, the report says, with an especially active core of around 400 leaders and ideologists. The core of the movement is now formed by the free nationalist and autonomous nationalist movements, which operate in coordinated regional cells as opposed to adhering to a national leadership, the report says.

‘The Russian way’ of terrorim

“Within the neo-Nazi scene, which is attempting to work out courses of action, terrorist concepts influenced in part from Russia (the so-called ‘Russian Way’), are being propagated,” the report states. It notes that numerous Russian judges who have sentenced neo-Nazi activists have been attacked — and several murdered (though no right-wing militants have been convicted for the homicides).

“It’s necessary to monitor whether the Czech neo-Nazi scene will adopt similar tactics in reaction to a wave of controversial trials,” the report’s author recommends, pointing out that the Czech far-right movement has close ties with similar organizations in Russia.

The Ministry of Interior last year published an instructional booklet intended primarily for police chiefs under the title Extremism as a Security Threat warning of right-wing extremists infiltrating police ranks. The new report likewise warns that Neo-Nazi activists are drawn to the police force: “We can expect more conspiracies in this area than there have been before.”

Similarly, right-wing extremists are attracted to employment with private security firms, which is a way for them to get firearms licenses. Mareš also draws attention to potential problems arising from the increasing use of private security firms in conflict zones, warning that some extremists have gained conflict or combat experience in this way.

Mareš and his colleagues also warn that some core members of extreme right-wing movements are attempting to influence public life, primarily on the local rather than national level. They do so by infiltrating mainstream politics by joining the major political parties, gaining positions in public organs other than the police, where “for the time being they covertly act in the interests of their ideological orientation.”

Change of image

Czech extreme-right wing organizations are turning away from the skinhead image, which was widely adopted by its activists and sympathizers in the Czech Republic in the 1990s. As well as the changing tastes of the younger generation of right-wing extremists, many of the activists prefer not to wear the politics on their sleeves, so to speak. “The neo-Nazi scene is not as visible as in 2008, but the number of activists remains the same,” the report says.

Further, it warns that in response to a shift in ideological outlook — and with their perceived war on multi-culturalism in Europe and protecting European traditions — neo-Nazi groups will likely try to recruit sympathizers and active supporters by exploiting populist issues and opposition by conservatives and traditionalists to “liberal” tendencies such as same-sex marriages, as well as some stereotypical perceptions.

“Today they manage to blend in with larger mass protests as was the case in the Šluknov district last year, where it was very difficult to tell who belonged to the neo-Nazi scene, and who were ‘ordinary citizens,’” the report says, referring to the large protests against a wave of attacks and a rise in crime in the northern Bohemian district last fall, which many local residents attributed exclusively to the growing Romany population.

Italian professionalism

The report also notes the influence of the Italian neo-Fascist movement Casapound, which spurns identification with the traditional image of the far-right and presents itself as a mainstream political movement beyond the confines of traditional left- and right-wing politics — although the party is openly anti-immigration.

“Professionalism is a key characteristic off the neo-Nazi movement of the new millennium. In the case of Casapound, there is a managerial leadership and managers are groomed for specific activities,” the report says, adding that the movement makes a point of appealing to university students.

“A part of the Czech neo-Nazi scene views Casapound positively precisely because the movement has managed to penetrate into everyday public life. ... they view the concept positively because they themselves are attempting to find a form more acceptable to society, thus the collections for dog kennels, cleaning refuse from woods and forests, help in the wake of floods, etc.,” the report states.

Mareš and colleagues say the best way to combat far-right extremism in the long-term is through educational programs. Also in cases where school pupils have become involved in extremist groups, patient persuasion as opposed to in-school punishments such as suspension or detention are far more effective, they conclude.

The Czech Ministry of Interior has published a number of documents in English about the ministry’s “Fight against Extremism,” which are available here.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Never Again," an apropos motto in a climate increasingly hostile to Roma

Here is my piece for Cultural Detective blog:

Two generations have not yet passed since ninety percent of Czech Roma, and between a half million and two million European Roma in total perished at the hands of the Nazis in The Great Devouring, or Porrajmos, the Romani word for the Holocaust. Roma, also known by the pejorative term "Gypsies," make up the largest minority in Europe today with some 10 to 12 million members. Roma face fierce discrimination in accessing employment, education, health care, and public and social services. In spite of repetitious cases of racist violence and hate speech targeting Roma, the community continues its struggle for human rights all across the continent.

Two years ago I paid my homage to those who died in Auschwitz and Hodonín u Kunštátu, a Czech concentration camp for Roma. “Tensions in society are heightening. Perhaps the time will come again when we are sent away to designated areas," were the words of the priest leading the commemoration service.

Today, many in the Romani community echo these fears, afraid for their safety since numerous neo-Nazi-led marches have been taking place periodically across Europe, and several arson attacks at Romani residences have been perpetrated by white supremacists. Racial tensions have been growing more intense with the media printing negative stereotypes, inventing damaging reports and spreading fabricated accounts blaming criminal acts on members of the Romani community.

In mid-February, the director of the European Roma Rights Center, at a hearing in Washington DC held by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (US Helsinki Commission), testified that violence against the Roma is on the rise.

In the Czech Republic, where I was born and raised, a study on extremism commissioned by the Czech Interior Ministry states that there are currently about 4,000 militant neo-Nazi activists in the country. Experts warn that violent crimes committed by neo-Nazis against Romani people will likely rise. The risk of race wars in some regions of the country, specifically between gangs of white Czechs and groups of ethnic Roma, looms large, experts say.

Today's white supremacist movement is pan-European (with strong German and Italian influences), and international (namely US-inspired). Since the years 2008 and 2009 the movement has become more radicalized and organizationally sophisticated in the Czech Republic, becoming more visible in the streets and infiltrating the political scene.

In Hungary, an armed militia group has been patrolling and terrorizing a Romani village. This following a series of racially motivated murders.

“Gypsy criminality” is one of the most prevalent anti-Roma stereotypes. It permeates all parts of central European life—and can be found as commonly in the media as the local pub. The Roma are also said to abuse welfare and to not want to work. The World Bank just showed the former was absolutely untrue in Slovakia. The latter is a also a damaging myth held by the white majority. These stereotypes are all the more exaggerated in light of the economic downturn and the scarcity thinking the crisis triggers in the white majority.

What are the solutions? Many rights groups are pushing for economic betterment in the form of job creation and training. Organizations are active in producing independent media with a human rights bent, as well as waging campaigns pressuring mainstream media outlets to be accountable and responsible in their reporting. Key are also positive opportunities for cross-ethnic social interactions and education. Those aware must remain vigilant and spread the word about the threat of extremism that exists in European societies. We must never again permit another Great Devouring.

Friday, March 2, 2012

First US state recommends redress for forced sterilization

Similarly to the Czech Republic, state-enforced sterilization of those considered "undesirable" has also been practiced in the US.

Between the 1920s and 1970s, 60,000 Americans, many of them poor and black, were sterilized. The state of Georgia apologized for its role in the eugenics movement in a 2007 resolution by the General Assembly.

More than 30 states drafted sterilization laws and created eugenics boards that passed judgment on inmates of mental institutions and also those on welfare rolls or those recommended by social workers. Children as young as 8 years old were sterilized.

In January, North Carolina became the first of the 32 states with sterilization programs to consider compensating its victims. The redress amount would amount to $50,000 for each victim, but is still only a recommendation sent to lawmakers along with the Governor's budget proposal in time for the May legislative session.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Government of the Czech Republic’s Council for Human Rights recommends redress for illegally sterilized women

The news server Romea reports that the Czech Government Human Rights Council has approved a resolution recommending the government provide one-time monetary compensation to all women who underwent forced sterilization by the State between the years 1972 and 1991when regulations from the Czechoslovak Labor and Social Affairs Ministry were in effect.

Here is a powerful short film about the practice of sterilization of Czech Roma institutionalized during communism, but practiced into the 2000s:

Violence against Roma on the rise across EU

The director of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) testified at a hearing in Washington DC on February 16, 2012 stating that violence against Roma is on the rise across Europe.

This according to the ERRC:

A recent European Union Survey on Minorities and Discrimination highlights that on average one in five Roma respondents were victims of racially motivated personal crime at least once in the previous 12 months. 81% of Roma who indicated they were victims of assault, threat or serious harassment considered that their victimisation was racially motivated.

An ERRC report in 2011 found that the state rarely achieved successful prosecutions in cases of violence against Roma.

Read more on the ERRC website.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

International Roma Day: A time to celebrate Roma heritage & condemn anti-gypsyism

April 8 is International Roma Day, an occasion when Romani culture and history are celebrated, but also when awareness of the issues facing the Roma people should be discussed.

In the Czech Republic, where I was brought up, the Roma comprise the largest ethnic minority. Across Europe, there are an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma. University of Texas Professor, Romani scholar and advocate Ian Hancock estimates as many as one million Roma live in the America.

As groups around the world honor the rich history and cultural heritage of the Roma communities, it must be emphasized that to this day, Roma all across Europe face intense discrimination and continue their struggle for human rights.

As the economic downturn hits harder and causes insecurity and inter-group friction, disturbing trends are emerging. The far-right across the European Union continues to grow more powerful and inconspicuous as seen in both mainstream (no longer fringe) politics and in the streets, where neo-Nazis meet, march, intimidate and even attack Europeans of color and immigrants with intensifying frequency.

Two years ago, a notable shift took place in European politics when during the biggest transnational vote in European history, the EU Parliament elections, far-right and anti-immigrant parties gained visibility and a significant amount of political power.

In Hungary, for instance, the far-right Jobbik ("For a Better Hungary") party performed stronger than expected. Jobbik, which blames the Roma, or Gypsies, for a perceived breakdown of law and order in the countryside, the BBC reported, took nearly 15%, giving it three seats in June, 2009.

Incidentally, I met a Czech Jew with Hungarian citizenship who unabashedly admitted she voted for the Jobbik party despite their fascist doctrine. When asked why, she justified her vote by insisting that Jobbik promised to "create order" in her home country of Hungary, an insightful, albeit disturbing and paradoxical window into the mentality underlying the rise of the region's ultra-right.

Nearby in the Czech Republic, controversial figures continue to be selected by policy makers as key advisers. One such person is Roman Joch, appointed human rights adviser to the Prime Minister. Joch is a neocon-Christian right ideologue, who denies that well-documented human rights violations against the Roma exist in the Czech Republic.

More recently, Minister of Education appointed a former leading candidate of the extreme-right National Party to be his adviser. The party, which no longer exists, reports, "profiled itself as anti-foreigner and anti-Roma. In 2009 their video advertisement for the EP elections even included the words 'final solution to the Gypsy question' ('konečné řešení otázky cikánské')."

In addition to ultra-right ideologues in key advising positions, blatantly racist policies from forced evacuations and raids to welfare reforms disproportionately affecting impoverished Roma communities are being proposed and implemented in towns and countries across Europe (in Italy, France and elsewhere).

And in the streets, right-wing extremists continue to flex their power. In Hungary just last month, 1,000 black-uniformed neo-Nazi vigilantes surrounded a 450-strong Roma community, rolling out a "law and order" mission in Gyongyospata, a Hungarian village of 2,800 people 80km north-east of Budapest. Some, as Al Jazeera reported, were reportedly armed with dogs, whips and chains. The local Roma's crime? Two hens allegedly stollen by a Roma from a non-Roma neighbor. Supposedly, one elderly non-Roma man killed himself because he thought Roma neighbors might move in. And it is said that some Roma in Gyongyospata beat a young female school teacher. But there is no proof, according to Al Jazeera.

It must be stressed that, as Al Jazeera reported, "there is no evidence that even petty crime has risen in Gyongyospata, but the financial crisis has driven up the significance of people's everyday possessions and the far right is only too happy for the chance to profit from the heightened sensitivity."

Incidents of racially motivated violence, though underreported, have significantly impacted Roma communities throughout the EU. In Hungary, attacks on the homes of Roma people, planned and carried out "with military precision" by neo-Nazis, have killed at least nine people in recent years. In the Czech Republic, Roma have been terrorized and injured by Molotov cocktails thrown into their families' homes.

Troubling is the reality that neo-Nazi groups cooperate across borders on recruitment, message crafting and political organizing strategies as is the case with Czech neo-Nazis working with their German counterparts. Just this spring, the international neo-Nazi organization Blood and Honor launched a new website in the Czech Republic.

As reports, the designers of the new website have posted the information that C18, a militant white supremacist group the site is endorsing, "is doing its best to 'destabilize the system and unleash race war' in the Czech Republic. C18 is said to have been behind several actions in recent months 'and will commit many others again soon.'"

Last fall, Ian Traynor of the Guardian wrote about the xenophobic tensions cropping up all over the EU in his article, Economic gloom fuels far-right growth in Europe:

"The backdrop to the backlash is economic gloom, austerity packages, and public spending cuts, with voters worried about their jobs, living standards, and children. Mainstream leaders are desperate to shore up support, and extremist populist mavericks resort to scapegoating immigrants in a time of troubles on everything from lost jobs, soaring welfare bills, social housing, and crime rates. The far-right is benefiting from the failures of mainstream politics."

Although the Roma, whose ancestry is Indian, have called Europe their home for centuries, they are seen as the perpetual foreigners and scapegoated by whites. For further blatant examples of this we need to look no further than my country of birth last month when approximately 500 right-wing extremists marched through the Czech town of Nový Bydžov, intimidating, even physically attacking members of the local Roma community, rendering one victim unconscious.

The Workers' Social Justice Party, which organized the above march, says its mission is to stand up "against rising crime." The group's messages have consistently targeted and intimidated the Roma community, against whom the mayor and residents of Nový Bydžov unleashed what some have called "a war on Gypsies" by collectively libeling this ethnic group following a rape of a 21-year-old woman in November 2010 by a suspect who was allegedly a Roma.

Another neo-Nazi march is expected in the Czech city of Brno on May Day and this Saturday in Krupka, a town with a sizable Roma community. Fears of a pogrom have led activists to call for a non-violent protest to come out against ultra-rightwing The Workers' Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti - DSSS).

The organizers of the counter-demonstration writer in their press release:

On the basis of similar marches held by the same groups..., it is our opinion that there is a risk of violence and that the entire action could culminate in a pogrom against the Roma people living in Krupka. This is unacceptable to us.

Our Initiative will actively and non-violently come out against the DSSS march... We believe in the democratic principles of the Czech Republic, which include respect for dignity and human rights. These values are now in jeopardy. We have an opportunity, and essentially we also have the obligation, to stand up for the defense of these values, as indifference just gradually moves the boundaries of the permissible past the point of no return.

Human rights activists and organizations such as Amnesty International as well as the occasional politician warn that more needs to be done to protect the Roma and to ensure equal access to housing, education, health care and jobs. But to those from the Roma community whom I know, words are not enough.

The pressing question is what needs to happen to ensure safety for the Roma communities in Europe? The European Roma Rights Center lists three demands in its petition urging for the protection of the Roma from racially motivated violence.

They call the European Union and national governments to:

• Swiftly and clearly condemn all acts of anti-Roma violence, recognising and denouncing their racial motivation;
• Ensure prompt State response to protect Romani European citizens against threats to their security and to conduct effective investigations and prosecutions to deliver justice to victims of violent attacks;
•Implement a “zero tolerance policy” for public officials engaged in hate speech or other violations of the rights of Roma.

The deeper question, perfect to pose on International Roma Day, is: what will it take for white Europeans to see the Roma as their fellow citizens; human beings who merit nothing short of a life of equal opportunity, and freedom from fear and discrimination? Part of the answer could be more opportunities for inter-group dialogue and programs (including affirmative action) which purposefully engage majority and minority group members in interactions and collaboration. As many European societies stand now, segregation is a reality for many Roma. This needs to change.

[Photo credit: Image from protest against neo-Nazi march in the Czech town of Litvinov. The cardboard sign reads: "We must employ all possible strategies against Nazism" or in simpler terms, "Down with Nazism."]