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 Denik.cz 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 Romeal.cz, "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 Romea.cz 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!"