Analysis of Czech Police strategy for anti-Roma hate marches during 2013
When at the end of May the traveling circus of this year's series of hate marches first broke out in the northern Bohemian town of Duchcov, the Czech Police behaved as of "ordinary citizens" had never before joined such neo-Nazi actions before. For experts on this issue who witnessed the unrest in the Šluknov area in 2011, the memories are fresh.
All during 2012, the Czech Interior Ministry's department on extremism and the Security Information Service (Bezpečnostní informační služba - BIS) kept announcing that the neo-Nazi scene was significantly disintegrating. Then in the spring of 2013, police were confronted by youths whom they did not recognize taking to the streets, people who had no compunction about breaking the law and violently clashing with riot officers.
This article analyzes how the police have handled the more than 30 such marches this year and how they have gradually changed their strategy. To begin, it is necessary to remind the reader that command over police interventions in this area rests with regional-level police structures by law.
The Prague Police Presidium only rarely intervenes with those regional-level structures, whether by giving them direct orders or authorizing a "second command" to take over operations in a certain locality at risk. This year, however, such an intervention did occur at least once.
At the start the police strategy was to facilitate the right-wing demonstrators' exercise of their freedom of speech, to intervene decisively should the law be broken, and to leave demonstrations that had been officially dispersed by the relevant local authorities alone once they were over so their participants could peacefully go home (without being prosecuted). The police also worked with local authorities to pressure those targeted by these marches, the Romani residents of the streets being marched through, to either hide in their homes or leave town altogether during the marches.
The vast majority of Czech local politicians, unlike their counterparts in better-established democracies, did not participate in any of the local counter-demonstrations to protect the people targeted by these marches, even though those being targeted included elderly people, pregnant women, and young children. They received a clear order to leave everything to the repressive units of the police.
More than once this year, even in cases where local officials properly dispersed these gatherings, police took no action to prevent the demonstrators from then continuing on a violent spree through the town. The police also evidently preferred working when the demonstrators were all in one bunch than when they were dispersed throughout the streets; a certain role may also have been played by the fact that the demonstrators often included parents who had brought their children with them.
The main punching bag for the anger felt by the leaders of these police interventions became a small association called Konexe, which skillfully did its best to non-violently prevent the neo-Nazis from actually carrying out assaults. Konexe announced and then organized its own counter-demonstrations at potential sites of conflict, forcing the police to "blockade" the targeted localities, which were always predominantly inhabited by Romani families, against the neo-Nazi onslaught.
This purely civic activity by the Konexe association, which in the West would be considered praiseworthy, became the target of frequent public libel both by police and by the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion. This may be one reason Konexe was subsequently unable to convince donors to award it grants to expand its empowerment work activating citizens to demand their rights.
The breaking point for police strategy this year was a "wild" march in the town of České Budějovice, the second one there this year, which took place on 6 June 2013. After their experience with the first march on the previous weekend, when "upstanding" citizens applauded the serious injury of a riot officer with a large rock, and when the Regional Police completely lost control of what was happening in the streets, it was clear to the Police Presidium that the "usual" tools would not stop citizens from supporting street violence.
The Police Presidium decided to split command of the operations in the locality with the Regional Directorate for the next demonstration. The area commanded by the Presidium deployed special emergency divisions including muscular guys "dressed like Nazis".
These undercover personnel quickly pacified persons strongly suspected of having committed felonies not just that day, but also during the previous demonstration, arresting them, and taking them to the local police department. The fact that the police officers were not visibly identifiable has become the subject of an investigation by the Inspector-General of the security forces.
This "second command" over the intervention closely collaborated with the Konexe association, which had convened a counter-demonstration, to such an extent that during one phase the counter-demonstration was completely in charge of the streets that previously had been considered the main source of the whole problem. The tactic succeeded, the streets were calm, and the commander of the operation could deploy his forces where there was a genuine threat of danger; this intervention contributed to local police beginning to realize the seriousness of the situation and their own responsibility, including the possibility of eventual sanctions for their own previous professional failures.
After the collapse of the Nečas cabinet and the installation of Czech PM Rusnok's interim administration, newly-appointed Interior Minister Martin Pecina took over the role usually played by the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner in this area. The then-Commissioner, who had often been unnecessarily overly loyal to the government, had not managed to establish herself as a person of authority with local politicians.
Minister Pecina traveled to the towns threatened by these marches himself to oversee effective round table negotiations with locals. Primarily thanks to the work of his Deputy Minister for domestic security, tense relations began to relax in several places.
In Ostrava, of course, the minister selected local loan-sharks and traffickers in poverty as his partners, which angered local citizens, including impoverished Romani ones, even more. On the day of simultaneous hate demonstrations in at least six towns across the country, 24 August 2013, the police - mainly those in Ostrava - overestimated their own strength.
A wild mob of demonstrators with a strong numerical advantage perpetrated a devastating assault on completely disoriented police units, who had to deploy tear gas to rein in the rioting. The result of this botched intervention was dozens of injuries and significant damage to municipal and private property.
The local police did not learn their lesson in time for the demonstrations at the end of September, when they failed to protect a properly announced counter-demonstration in the Ostrava quarter of Zábřeh and left it at the mercy of an aggressive mob of hardcore neo-Nazis who were evidently willing to injure others. Only after that experience did the Ostrava criminal police begin to initiate more widespread prosecutions against the people who had thrown rocks and other stuff at police officers, evidently with the aim of harming them, during previous events.
After the Ostrava Police, twice in a row, had done a better job defending the free speech rights of those disturbing public order than protecting public order itself, they made it possible during the next events at the end of October for the counter-demonstrators to spontaneously march through the streets to express their solidarity with the impoverished families living in a residential hotel that had been attacked by neo-Nazis during the previous two riots. The concern that the neo-Nazis and counter-demonstrators would clash proved unfounded, and no crimes were committed; in fact, the predominantly Romani counter-demonstrators effusively thanked the deployed police officers once their brief march was over.
This year's season of anti-Romani demonstrations and civic resistance to them then culminated in a very strange intervention by police in Prague. Roughly 500 peace-loving opponents of neo-Nazism were surrounded on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, in the same place and using the same tactics as the communist police who surrounded student demonstrators in November 1989.
This time, of course, the police did not proceed to violently intervene against the people they had penned in. After an hour of waiting in freezing temperatures, the march was able to set out once more along its properly announced route and to calmly disperse when it was over.
Root causes of erroneous police strategy
It boggles the mind why police have never performed a similar intervention to immobilize the spontaneous, wild marches by racists in the Czech Republic. Could it be that they fear the neo-Nazis more than they fear left-wing activists?
At first glance, the main reason would seem to be the too-high probability that a certain percentage of police officers are also neo-Nazis in this country. They simply will not intervene against their brothers to the degree necessary.
A deeper explanation is provided by the statistics from the most recent report on the latest developments in combating extremism released by the Czech Interior Ministry. Completely peaceful, properly announced events convened by anti-racists continue to be discussed by that report as manifestations of left-wing "extremism".
By viewing such counter-demonstrations through this lens, the ministry on the one hand deters them and on the other hand "shows through the numbers" that extremist danger does not only from neo-Nazis and the "normal" citizens' penchant for them - and ultimately sends the message that it is spending time looking at the left as well. If this approach continues, the new government should not be surprised to see that yet another series of neo-Nazi marches will make even greater demands on the police budget next year and could even overwhelm rank and file police officers' state-remunerated resistance to them.
This frequently confusing police strategy only makes sense if it actually involves the side aim of increasing police numbers; according to the latest news, in the aftermath of the last government's radical savings measures, the incoming cabinet wants to hire 1 000 more police officers and deploy them to crisis areas. Whose success is this?
At a time of economic crisis and gradually deteriorating security, only close collaboration with the targets of these marches (who are primarily Romani people), with the nonprofit sector and with political leaders (at municipal, regional and state level) can convince society that support for populism and racism might actually lead to the extinction of democracy and freedom. In that spirit, police have now invited the leaders of the Konexe civic association to discuss this year's anti-Romani marches with them on Monday 25 November.
From 5 - 6 December 2013, the Czech Interior Ministry will also hold a conference for municipal representatives on the right to assembly. This effort is also in response to the wave of assemblies that authorities and police had to grapple with this year.
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