Hot Summer 2013
The group of active citizens and activists who have spoken out against antigypsyism in the past and organized blockades of neo-Nazi marches in Romani localities in which many Romani people also participated is still active today. The hot summer of 2013 presented opportunities for those of us who were already prepared, as well as for persons newly engaging in these activities, to take a stand in this “open struggle” on the side of the Roma.
29th June, Čikhatare het/Out of the Mud, Duchcov
13th July, Slova pokoje/Words of Peace, České Budějovice
3rd August, Blokujeme/Let’s Block the Marches, Vítkov
17th August, Blokujeme/Let’s Block the Marches, Duchcov- exhibition
24th August, Blokujeme/Let’s Block the Marches, Duchcov and Ostrava – exhibition
Events such as cultural assemblies featuring music performances have become a new form of demonstration here. There is no tradition of such events in either the Czech or Romani environments, and they have often not been well-understood by the media. Their purpose is to transform the energy of these situations, to create an oasis, to declare that we can all live together joyfully, without fear. It’s impossible to be joyful when you’re afraid. We have overcome our fear, together with Romani people in the communities, by being there with them at the same time the neo-Nazi marches have been passing through the streets. Naturally we have counted on the protection of the police, who by law are required to facilitate and protect the assemblies we announce to authorities. If the police ever were not to deliver that protection, then everyone present would be at risk. That means participating in our assemblies requires bravery and conviction.
The way we work corresponds to the principles of activism, in the sense that it is strongly based on appeals, it involves civil society, it is public, it is urgent and it is voluntary. We work without a budget, dependent on volunteer work and financial gifts from angel investors. A specific aspect of this Czech movement against antigypsyism is the strength of its community work and the activation of local Romani communities on the basis of the crisis at hand (see, for example, the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.). We travel to the Romani community one or two days in advance of an event, we discuss the possible options for the demonstration and for protection with local residents, and we leave the day after the event has occurred. Another reason many local people attend our demonstrations is that they are actively involved in this program, leaving behind their roles as victims and overcoming their fear. We repeat this system of communication with the Romani community in each locality, but every time we encounter different responses and results. Each place has a different reference point for the antigypsyist context and poses different questions, but all of these places have two aspects in common: State social policy and grudges held against Romani people by the majority society.
With the exception of Czech President Miloš Zeman, no other political figure has made any kind of bold statement against antigypsyism and these recent fervent manifestations of it in this country. The artistic, intellectual and moral authorities are silent. There is no systematic work on antigypsyism in the schools, and the Czech Republic has never conducted a nationwide anti-racist campaign.
Four towns in particular have fallen victim to this “Hot Summer”: České Budějovice, Duchcov, Ostrava and Vítkov. Each place has a different population density, each has a different proportion of Czech to Romani residents, each is in a different area, and each place is different in terms of morale. The grudges held against Romani people by members of the majority population are higher in these places than elsewhere, with the exception of Vítkov, which the racists probably chose because of the stigma of the 2009 neo-Nazi arson attack on a Romani family there, not because it is a place where anti-Romani sentiment has somehow objectively increased.
Duchcov was the hotbed where things first went up in flames this summer. Members of the Romani community assaulted a Czech couple there, and video footage of the incident taken by police cameras was leaked online and spread worldwide. That launched a whirlwind of collective blame, harassment, and racist remarks. The local Romani community came to life during this crisis, undertaking elections and choosing representatives. Local Roma want to actively fight the antigypsyism being perpetrated by the mayor and the rest of the population of Duchcov. The community is under some slight police pressure to stay hidden away at home during the racist demonstrations. That strengthens their fear and very often they succumb. As of mid-September 2013, the strongly antigypsyist DSSS party is a strong public presence in Duchcov. Now Romani residents of Duchcov are succumbing to harassment by their landlords, municipal officials, and the police. One Romani woman was recently told she could not get on the public bus.
In České Budějovice the Romani community is strong and is led by a Romani Coordinator who works for the municipality. It was an enormous surprise when the wave of such strong antigypsyism arose in this town, which has often been presented as an example of good integration. This is strong proof of the fact that antigypsyism in the Czech Republic is not a function of Romani people’s socioeconomic situations. Intolerance against us Roma exists in and of itself, without any actual cause for it being given from our side.
In Vítkov, the Romani community is much more spatially dispersed than in Duchcov. Fewer Romani people live there, as most of them have gradually been moved out of town. Vítkov is the symbol of the most tragic neo-Nazi attack in recent Czech history. An arson attack was carried out there which an entire Romani family only barely survived. One daughter, Natálka, will live with the repercussions of her injuries for the rest of her life. The second and third- degree burns she suffered over 80 % of her body are the living proof of the brutality of neo-Nazism in the Czech Republic. The fact that the “Czech Lions” (Čeští Lvi) chose Vítkov as a place for an anti-Roma march was a great insult to all activists, to humanity in general, and to all Romani people. Local Romani residents joined the anti-racist demonstration that responded to this insult. That demonstration was officially convened by the Equal Opportunities Party (SRP), a Romani-founded party that has not yet made it into parliament. The Blokujeme! (Let’s Block the Marches!) Platform joined that demonstration and provided production and technical services for it. This was the first event that really confirmed that the platform existed. Just 10 days before the event, the Konexe civic association called more than once on all citizens, organizations and politicians to actively reject the anti-Romani demonstrations, and the platform came together, comprised of the Hate is No Solution (Nenávist Není Řešení), Konexe, Romea TV, Slave of Race (Otrok Rasy), and Society of Roma in Moravia (Společenství Romů na Moravě) groups, as well as individuals from various activist and civil society associations.
Ostrava is the roughest town of all when it comes to the aggression of the extreme right at demonstrations there. It is a strongly industrialized, sprawling town led by a maniac who is a 100 % capitalist. Exploitation of the poor is his political direction. Romani people there are subjected daily to very harsh, racist verbal assaults. It is an unpleasant atmosphere full of prejudice. Enormous scandals are underway there with respect to housing. Romani people there are also divided among themselves into various groups. Some of them live under the domination of individuals from within their own community. For the time being, the harshest demonstration by the extremist right has taken place there.
In each of these towns, the Romani community has needed to actively cope with the situation. The community has never deviated programmatically toward violence, but has held discussions with representatives of churches, municipal leaderships, and their fellow non-Romani residents. This need to discuss matters works as a release for the accumulated frustrations of the majority population. Romani people are maligned and verbally insulted during these discussions, but they manage to put up with this humiliation and to go the distance during them. For the time being, no one has participated in these discussions who would really be an adequate partner for them. There have either been so-called “pro-Romani speakers”, speaking to the hearts and souls of other Roma and pro-Roma activists (preaching to the choir), or speakers in the role of victims defending themselves. That is not a pleasant position to be in, and very often it is a dangerous one, because it deflects attention away from the issue of racism onto socioeconomic problems. Discussions are necessary, but in a situation where pogroms against Roma have been planned, they are dangerous. There is a need to boldly, radically condemn this racism, not to facilitate arguments over whether the aggression aimed at Romani people is justified or not. We encounter this kind of shilly-shallying in the Czech environment very often. Not only is it proof that the Czech population is uneducated, it is proof of a deeply rooted racist hatred which the Czech population is not even aware of.
We must find an answer to the question of how this society will become more aware, more humane, and more responsible. The government will not give us that answer. We must find it in ourselves, whether we are activists or not.
By Ivanka Mariposa Conkova
translated by Gwendolyn Albert