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."]

Friday, March 18, 2011

Perpetrators of Racially Motivated Arson Sentenced

Last October I wrote about the trial of four Czech arsonists whose Molotov cocktail attack set fire to a house inhabited by a nine-member Roma family, injuring three and severely burning a two-year-old girl over 80% of her body.

The arsonists appealed the verdict for their April 2009 attack, saying they had not realized the house was occupied and that they had no intention of murdering anyone. The court heard their appeals and doled out the perpetrators' sentences today.

As the news service reports:

Today the High Court in (the Czech city of) Olomouc reduced the sentence handed down to defendant Ivo Müller for the 2009 commission of an arson attack on a Roma home in Vítkov from 22 to 20 years. The extraordinary sentences previously handed down by the Ostrava Regional Court of between 20 and 22 years for the other three extremists involved in the arson were upheld on appeal.

David Vaculík and Jaromír Lukeš byli were sentenced to 22 years in prison, while Václav Cojocaru received a 20-year sentence. All four defendants were sentenced for multiple counts of racially motivated attempted murder and for destruction of property.

Whose Side Were They On?

On March 12, approximately 500 right-wing extremists and roughly 200 counter-demonstrators gathered in the Czech town of Nový Bydžov. The police forced the counter-demonstrators out of the way of the march using horses, firecrackers and night sticks. According to the news service, one person suffered contusions to his foot during the intervention.

The way Czech Police handled last week's far-right Workers' Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti - DSSS) party's march has caused an outrcy from human rights activists and organizations.

As reports, "Amnesty International is alarmed by the Police approach and calls for an investigation of the intervention."

In sum:

The Police of the Czech Republic failed to ensure protection for three Roma people who were attacked by supporters of the extreme right after a demonstration by the Workers' Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti - DSSS) in Nový Bydžov on 12 March. Police also used disproportionate force against counter-demonstrators gathered under the rubric of the Nový Bydžov is not alone! Initiative, which did its best to block the DSSS march.

The Romea civic association is outraged and demands that the police Inspectorate investigate the proportionality of the police intervention. The civil society members of the Czech Government Inter-ministerial Commission for Roma Community Affairs also demand a proper investigation.

Police say they are reviewing video tapes of the demonstration and still investigating the attack on a Roma man who was allegedly waylaid by 13 right-wing extremists once the rally was over. The victim was rendered unconscious.

(Photo credit:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Czechs Prepare to Say No to Hate this Saturday

Czech Roma and human rights activists are gearing up to take a stand against racism and neo-Nazism at a demonstration many fear could turn chaotic, even violent. This coming Saturday, March 12, the Workers' Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti - DSSS) is scheduled to gather and march through the town of Nový Bydžov, the new epicenter of anti-Roma sentiment in the Czech Republic.

The Workers' Social Justice Party 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 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.

"The worst-case scenario," states a press release issued by Freedom Not Fear, a group which supports the counter-demonstration, "would be another attempt at a pogrom similar to the one that played itself out three years ago at the Janov housing estate in Litvínov," a town in the north of the Czech Republic.

Amnesty International, who plans to monitor the event, has just released a public statement urging "the Czech authorities to ensure protection of Roma in Nový Bydžov during a demonstration by the Workers’ Social Justice Party planned on 12 March."

"Following the Mayor’s statement," explains the Amnesty International public statement, "the Workers’ Social Justice Party welcomed 'open and truthful naming of the problem' and announced its readiness to help, including by providing monitoring patrols to the municipality."

The AI document also provides a bit of history on the Workers’ Social Justice Party (DSSS):

The Worker’s Party, the predecessor to the Workers’ Social Justice Party, was dissolved by the Supreme Administrative Court in February 2010. The Court held that its programme led to incitement to national, racial, ethnic intolerance and amounted to an attempt to infringe the basic rights and freedoms of certain groups, in particular the minorities.

Young Greens (Mladí zelení) civic association is one of the groups actively opposing the Workers’ Social Justice Party's message and upcoming neo-Nazi demonstration. In their statement and invitation to all others to stand up against hate this Saturday, the Young Greens explain:

This DSSS action has been convened under the guise of being "Against Rising Crime“. However, we believe, after this country's experiences with similar demonstrations in Litvínov-Janov and Přerov, that in reality this will be a hate gathering intended to exploit the anti-Roma mood in society in order to score more political points for the DSSS and the totalitarian, undemocratic ideas that party represents.

As you all certainly know, a group of mayors recently met in Nový Bydžov and has started calling for the increased repression of people whom this society has learned to generally call the "inadaptable" (often as a front for racism, xenophobia and other generally asocial worldviews) - even though the sociologist Stöcklová asserts that "'Inadaptability' or resistance is essentially a positive value in society. Rejection of that value made it possible for Nazism to prevail in Germany during the 1930s."

The official municipal web pages of the town of Nový Bydžov are shocking in the their anti-Gypsy content. There it is possible to read the completely open claim that "The Gypsies have committed rape!" The hatred against one group of the town's inhabitants culminated in the publication of a document entitled "The Town's Measures" on that website. This generalization about and condemnation of an entire ethnic group on the basis of legal violations committed by individuals is not only something completely unbelievable in the 21st century, but primarily borders itself on being a crime. We continue to believe in the democratic principles of the Czech Republic and in values such as a right to a fair trial, including the presumption of innocence, in respect for human dignity, and in human rights. The behavior represented by the leadership of Nový Bydžov seriously jeopardizes those values.

The problem of ostracizing a certain section of the population, however, does not end in Nový Bydžov. The ideological prevalence of anti-Gypsyism, together with anti-humanism, Europhobia and Islamophobia, is becoming ever more clear in our republic. In addition to the mayors' conference in Nový Bydžov, another possible piece of evidence for this is the recent attempt by Czech Education Minister Dobeš to appoint Ladislav Bátora, a former candidate for the ultra-right National Party (Národní strana - NS), to the post of first deputy minister, as well as the hysterical defense of Bátora by Czech President Klaus, a defense such has never been seen not only in the history of the Czech Republic, but in the history of the state of Czechoslovakia. Thanks to these political attitudes and the often one-sided stereotyping of societal diversity by the most frequently-consumed Czech media, hatred of the Roma community achieved unbelievable dimensions by the end of last year. This must be prevented. It is not possible to just stand by as the internal societal mood of the Czech Republic comes closer and closer to that of 1930s Germany, where it resulted in something everyone is convinced should never be repeated.

We have decided to call you to action, to call on us all and on all our friends to mobilize for active participation in the demonstration against the DSSS march and to express our emphatic disagreement with the growing right-wing extremism in the Czech Republic.

As the news server Romea reports, "strong tensions can be felt among residents of the town."

Regional police say they will increase their patrols in the town in order to protect people's property and ensure order.

The Nový Bydžov is not alone! Initiative, a group which is organizing the counter-demonstration, has called on the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner to actively participate.

The organizers write: "Our gathering is being organized under the rubric of the newly-created Nový Bydžov is not alone! Initiative, whose members include Roma people living in Nový Bydžov and activists who have long been involved in human rights, often working in NGOs focused on Roma rights or other human rights topics." They emphasize the non-violent nature of the planned counter-protest.

If you are in the region, please join all those of good will and take a stand against hate this coming Saturday. More information on the protest here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Small Town Mayor's Racist Rhetoric Ignites a Wildfire of Anti-Roma Mobilization in the Czech Republic

My heart is with the Roma community in the Czech Republic. I say this in light of the recent alarming events I have been following from thousands of miles away. What has been happening in one small town has statewide implications.

In November of last year, the Mayor of Nový Bydžov, a Czech town of approximately 7,000 residents, issued a statement in which he globally libeled all Roma people in the town; an event that was perceived by many as a declaration of a "war on Gypsies."

In his open letter, Mayor Pavel Louda proclaimed the town is divided into one group of decent, working residents and the other, a group of those who "hang out on the benches on the town square" and "shout in the streets, threaten people, including with knives, and commit theft and rape."

Louda's statement was a reaction to several assaults and the rape of a 21-year-old woman committed by perpetrators who were allegedly Roma. As a response to these crimes, the Mayor declared that he "will introduce repressive measures, even if my colleagues and I end up on trial because this absurd state of ours considers us to be discriminating against the poor Gypsies."

A petition demanding better security was circulated by the locals and signed by 3,257 residents. The author of the petition, Petr Suchánek, thanked the signatories in his letter, published on the city hall's webpage, adding that the criminal charges filed against the Mayor, accusing him of being a racist, are nothing but "spit in the face of all decent people."

Louda appealed to the State for help in beefing up the town's security. The Mayor has also hired a private security firm to provide law enforcement in the town. As of January 1, there are now 24 police officers instead of 15 available in the vicinity of the town. As of March 1, the town has increased the number of police officers on patrol by fifty percent from 4 officers to 6. The town has also begun raiding gambling businesses and publicizing the ethnicity of those found there along with information on whether these individuals are on welfare, implying that those caught gambling will be instantly barred from qualifying for social benefits, including unemployment, food and rental assistance.

In late January, representatives of the Roma community met with the Mayor to offer cooperation in dissolving the racial tensions in the town. As the news servers Romea and reported, Josef Čureja, a Roma representative designated to be one of the Mayor's main contact persons in the community, stated: "We are doing everything we can so that everyone in Nový Bydžov can once again live contentedly and without concern - so that coexistence can again become normal. We simply want to put a stop to all of the goings-on that have taken place in town during the past few years."

Čureja also added that it destructive for the majority population to see the Roma as incapable or unwilling to work or as people who only spend their money on video poker. "We are not all the same, and that's why we are glad we met the mayor," Čureja said.

In early February, two human rights organizations, European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) and Equality, sent a letter to the Mayor of Nový Bydžov, urging him to discontinue his anti-Romani rhetoric and calling on him to support a peaceful resolution of interethnic conflict.

"The situation between Roma and non-Roma in Nový Bydžov, triggered by a crime of rape that occurred at the end of 2010," states the ERRC letter, "is very tense and puts many individuals at a threat of verbal and physical violence."

"Your recent statements and the measures you are proposing," the letter continues, "may be in violation of a number of national and international law provisions, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which bans racial discrimination by public authorities and the Czech Criminal Code which bans incitement to racial hatred at Article 356."

Since the Mayor's statements have been made and widely publicized by the Czech media, neo-Nazi groups, with The Workers' Social Justice Party (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti - DSSS) in the lead, have begun to plan and advertise a meeting and march through the town of Nový Bydžov on March 12.

Louda was quoted in the Hradec Králové regional edition of the daily Mladá fronta Dnes (MfD) as saying the event looks like it will become an organized war between all the anarchist and violent groups in the country. "Unfortunately they have made us their battleground," the mayor said.

Clearly, there is great fear of the violence this March 12 could spark. A neo-Nazi march through a neighborhood with a large Romani population turned ugly two years ago in the town of Litvinov. To prevent the neo-Nazis from marching and intimidating local residents, two peaceful protests are planned on March 12.

The Nový Bydžov is not alone! Initiative (Iniciativa Nový Bydžov není sám!) who are the organizers of the upcoming non-violent anti-racist rallies told, "We condemn all criminal acts, but we reject the principle of collective guilt being exploited as part of anti-Roma rhetoric."

The larger implication of what has been happening in Nový Bydžov has to do with a meeting which occurred on February 14. On that day, a group of 51 mayors from around the Czech Republic convened to demand greater powers from the government. A declaration released after the mayors' meeting was signed by a total of 61 representatives of towns and villages which allegedly have "difficulties with Roma people."

As reported by Romea, "the declaration includes demands for the option of canceling people's social welfare benefits should they abuse them."

"The municipal representatives," Romea reports, "are also demanding the government seriously concern itself with the powers available to towns and villages regarding the services they provide to citizens whose permanent residency is registered with a different municipality."

The English version of the declaration can be found here.

Roma and pro-Roma activists reacted to the declaration swiftly, circulating a petition opposing what they consider to be segregationist policies proposed by the mayors. The Czech version of the petition can be found here.

"We, the Roma and citizens living in the Czech Republic are offended by the idea of the decision-making power of the state being transferred to towns and municipalities. The rights of the Constitution must be guaranteed to all citizens of this country regardless of our differences," the petition, which I helped translate into English, says.

As reports:

The initiators of the petition are opposed to "the legislative anchoring of the option to subject the benefit of aid to those in material distress to attachment as if it were income (preserving minimum support). People should not be subjected to further social isolation." The next point stresses that they are against introducing the sanction of banning residency, as freedom of movement has been established as a principle throughout the EU.

In the petition, Iveta Bílková, Ladislav Bílý, Ondřej Giňa and Miroslav Kováč also protest against the anchoring into legislation of the option of canceling welfare benefits. "We, the Roma and citizens, are fundamentally opposed to the government's tolerance of the segregationist proposals made by some heads of cities and municipalities, such as the policy of pushing members of minority groups out of municipalities or to their peripheries. We demand that the laws, rights and freedoms be upheld for all citizens regardless of their gender, race, skin color, language, creed or religion, political or other beliefs, national or social background, ethnic or minority status, wealth, ancestry or any other status. Municipal governments cannot be the guarantors of what the state by its very nature is meant to guarantee," the petition concludes.

In his letter to the Czech Prime Minister Nečas, Čeněk Růžička, Romani activist and chair of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust in the Czech Republic (Výbor pro odškodnění romského holokaustu) bids the government to halt any discussion of proposals to cut social welfare benefits and introduce sanctions banning residency.

He writes: "We, the surviving relatives of the Roma victims of Nazism, equipped with the experiences of our parents and of our other Roma relatives who were concentration camp prisoners . . . request . . that you stop any discussion of proposals to introduce these sanctions and anti-social measures."

These policies, he writes, "would provoke tragic changes in the lives of impoverished Roma people and others who are socially deprived" as well as radicalize the Czech society against Roma people.

Kováč, one of the initiators of the petition opposing the mayors' declaration, has called the proposal the "modern-day birth of the 'Final Solution' to the 'Gypsy' question." He calls on others to stand up against the racist policies targeting the Roma urging, "do not make history repeat itself. . . and join us!"