Roma communities under fire from the far Right in the Czech Republic need pan-European support.
Hitler’s genocide against the Roma, which started with the roundup of Sinti in Germany in 1933, is commemorated annually on 2 August. A day of action in London begins with a protest outside the Czech Embassy. The background to the protest lies in recent events in northern and southern Bohemia where, since the end of May, violent anti-Roma demonstrations have occurred on a weekly basis. The level of hate is such that the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, has made an urgent call on mayors in the towns in question to take all necessary steps to end the violence. (Read an IRR report: From pillar to post: pan-European racism and the Roma.)
Far Right: intractable problem
Czech politicians thought they had solved their far-Right problem with the banning of the Workers’ Party (DS) in 2010. The breaking up of neo-Nazi cells linked to Blood & Honour and Combat 18 in 2012, and the twenty-year sentences handed down to four young neo-Nazis for the 2009 Vitkov arson attack (during which a 3-year-old Romani girl suffered 80 per cent burns) were further proof that the state had acted decisively against the far Right. But the DS merely re-grouped as the Workers’ Party of Social Justice (DSSS), and the neo-Nazi scene mushroomed on social networking sites. The number of White Power-style rock concerts also escalated, with worrying indications of German, Slovakian and Czech neo-Nazi collaboration.
Social media and the professional promotion of hate
Today, anti-Roma sentiment has gone sky-high, thanks to the exploitation of social tensions by far-Right groups. IRR News spoke to Markus Pape, a human rights activist and journalist in the Czech Republic. He considers the current situation as nothing short of the ‘professional promotion of hatred via social networks’. Weekly protests are called for not by any one far-Right group in particular, but under generic titles such as ‘Meeting of Dissatisfied Citizens’ or ‘Protest Action Against Inadaptable Citizens’ or ‘Against Discrimination Against Decent Citizens’. Each time the pattern is more or less the same. Some local tension or violent confrontation involving Roma and non-Roma is elevated via social media into a national cause célèbre. Such incidents are held up as examples of the victimisation of the law-abiding decent white majority by the lawless anti-social Roma, variously described as ‘unadaptable people’ or ‘Black Pigs’.
The pattern that has emerged continues like this. The far Right seeks permission from the police for a lawful assembly. This is agreed. But, then, speeches inciting hatred are made by neo-Nazi firebrands. Hundreds of neo-Nazis break from the approved route of the march and, bypassing police cordons, they make their way to Roma neighbourhoods with the intent to create as much fear, violence and destruction as possible. Riot police using water cannon, tear gas, smoke grenades, stun guns and rubber bullets clear the streets. Weapons such as baseball bats, knives, rods and other workmen’s tools, as well as Molotov cocktails, are seized from those arrested. Police are currently investigating video footage of a rally at Duchcov where a neo-Nazi with a weapons-related conviction, Jan Dufek, allegedly called for the murder of the Roma.
From Duchcov to České Budějovice
It all started in North Bohemia in the town of Duchcov, with the first demonstrations called to protest the assault on a young married couple, for which five Roma were charged but the entire Roma community were collectively blamed. Then, following a tense playground confrontation between Roma and non-Roma parents in České Budějovice, the largest city in south Bohemia, anti-Roma racism spread like wildfire. It was in České Budějovice that the police lost control of the first rally on 29 June. As hundreds of fascists, shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ and giving the Nazi salute, broke away from the official rally in the city centre, they descended on the Máj settlement, a huge housing estate with a large Romani community. There, armed with Molotov cocktails, stones and broken glass, the neo-Nazis went on the rampage. It took the riot police several hours to control the violence, using dogs, tear gas and smoke grenades.
Racialising social problems
No one should doubt that the Máj housing estate has significant problems. A large number of those accommodated at Máj are unemployed or socially vulnerable in other ways. But the disastrous impact of the market economy on the housing sector in eastern Europe has added to problems on this housing estate, the largest in the town. Privatisation of social housing and a property boom have led to the buying up of the most desirable properties in the centre of České Budějovice, forcing poorer families out and into housing estates such as Máj, where no-one wants to buy property. Máj accommodates roughly a fifth of the town’s population. According to one former town councillor who lives on Máj, ‘ the economic and social situation of many people living there is truly desperate’.
The far Right is seeking to racialise poverty and social exclusion and the social consequences of a lack of decent affordable housing. Its aim is to foment a race war against the Roma. 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. ‘Yes, these anti-Roma riots do seem to have been primarily the work of a small group of neo-Nazis, albeit with the support of older hard core Nazis, whose identities have not yet been made public’, Pape told us. But the far-Right’s attempt to racialise social problems is gaining traction. ‘They succeeded to get their message out to a wider public and literally make a substantial section of the local population go mad!’
Marginalising community voices
What is particularly disappointing is the way the media are marginalising precisely those community voices whose perspectives need to be heard. Grassroots initiatives like the Konexe civic association and the Hate Is No Solution Initiative need financial and moral support to continue their sterling work. (Please see details of how to donate below). It is they who do the daily graft of bringing marginalised communities, Roma and non-Roma, together. And they do not shirk the difficult task of standing alongside the Roma when they face physical violence. It was Konexe which organised the assembly and cultural programme Čikhater Het/Z bahna ven II (Out of the Mud II) together with the local Romani community at Máj, which the anti-Roma demonstrators sought to break up. According to a press statement issued by Konexe, ‘It’s like a war. The children are the most afraid, they don’t understand what is going on at all.’ One Romani woman asked Konexe, ‘Do they really want to slaughter us.’
Combating the far Right or combating extremism
The next few months will be critical ones in the Czech Republic where the new government has just announced its Cabinet. What seems to be happening is that populist politicians are attempting to turn a re-invigorated debate on how to deal with the far Right into a dead-end discussion about the so-called ‘Roma problem’. They seek to pin the blame for the resurgence of the far Right on the high level of welfare dependency in the Roma community, arguing that ‘unadaptable’ (i.e. criminal or welfare-dependent) lifestyles provoke far-Right reaction. As the former interior minister František Bublan put it during a TV debate: ‘It is known that the Romani sector of our population is a bit more aggressive, is better able to take advantage of the social system than the rest of the population. That is what prompts the hatred we see now in České Budìjovice.’ Bublan is amongst a number of politicians appealing to popular prejudices against welfare recipients. As we go to press, Otto Chaloupka, a South Bohemia MP notorious for his hateful statements about Romani people has proposed redrafting the Czech laws regulating ‘civil coexistence’ (which seem to be similar to UK race relations laws). Chaloupka claimed on his Facebook page that good community relations are threatened by ‘people who do not want to work’ and who are motivated by an ‘all-too generous’ welfare system to follow an ‘idle lifestyle’.
What needs to be avoided is a situation whereby a programme targeted at far-Right extremism is dissipated into a generic fight against extremism, opening up the way for the legitimisation of anti-Roma narratives. As we have already seen in the UK and Germany, such programmes assume that violence is not the modus operandi of the far Right, but that fascism is a response to a number of factors such as jihadi terrorism, ‘too much immigration’, ‘too much visible difference’ or too many ‘self-segregating’ communities living ‘parallel lives’. Already Czech activists are coming under pressure from town hall leaders not to join the street rallies organised by groups like Hate is Not the Solution or support Antifa groups. When Markus Pape announced preparations for a human rights event in České Budějovice, on the third weekend of far-Right provocations, he was rewarded with a telephone call from the Lord mayor, who asked him to cancel it, saying that it was provocative and might lead to violence.
We asked Markus Pape how standing up for human rights, including the right to live free from attack, could be regarded as provocative. ‘The mayor knows that the majority of his citizens hate Roma,’ Markus Pape told us, adding that ‘he needs somebody to blame’. ‘He would never stand up against racists in the street on his own. Many people here believe that best solution would be a limited right of assembly for everybody, since they are afraid of more violence and bigger demonstrations and even greater damaged property. Most people here believe that such problems should be solved by the police and not by citizens.’
STOP PRESS: We have just heard that neo-Nazis have applied to march in Vitkov on 3 August. Vitkov is the Czech town most associated with anti-Roma racism, as it was here that the fascists firebombed a Romani home on 18 April 2009 in the attack which left 3-year-old Natalie with 80 per cent burns and handicapped for life. Natalie’s mother said today that she and her daughter will be on the streets of Vitkov to oppose this latest expression of hate.
Please send donations to Konexe via bank transfer using the reference (‘Roma empowerment instead of hate rallies’). Account Name: o.s. Konexe. IBAN: CZ43 2010 0000 0025 0027 1703. BIC NO: FIOBCZPPXXX. Bank Address: Fio Baka, a.s., V. Celnicki, 1028/10, Prague 1, Czech Republic.
Read details about upcoming commemorations of the Romani victims of the Nazis, here
Read an IRR News interview: ‘Anti-fascism – extreme necessity‘
IRR News story: ‘German counter-extremism programme – a “spying charter”‘