Czech Govt Agency for Social Inclusion's dilemma: What to do with haters of "HateFree" who work with Romani children?
"Come take a look" says Romana Hanzlová as she welcomes me into the Lampa center in the town of Mimoň. The club is pleasantly furnished with a ping-pong table around which several people are sitting, the atmosphere is friendly.
I am there because the periodical Národní listy (National News) recently published a photograph of the couple who run Lampa with the following description: "Aleš [sic] Hanzl and wife, BPI [Bloc against Islam] in Mimoň. We will introduce other BPI members in our next edition in mid-May."
I am interested in how working with socially excluded Romani people, which is what Lampa does, can be combined not just with activism against refugee reception, which is what BPI does, but also with participation in an organization where some of the members are openly racist. We immediately clarify our positions.
Background to the local disputes in Mimoň
Hanzl says he and his wife began working in Mimoň and Ralsko in 2011 and that the disputes there began after he criticized the local political leadership for paying too much to repair a playground, something he considered it his civic duty to do. According to others involved, the disputes began somewhat earlier.
The original issue is said to have been Lampa's after-school group, which was being run with a religious subtext. Then-Vice Mayor Oto Váradi recalls that the first conflict began after complaints from parents that Lampa was running a religious after-school group for children without securing their parents' consent to exposing them to that kind of material.
Váradi says he asked Mr Hanzl to submit his documentation of parental consent for the children to attend the after-school group. After Hanzl refused to do so, the town closed the after-school program.
Hanzl, however, claims he could never have showed the parents' consent forms to anybody, saying: "The Vice-Mayor was forcing us to break the law on the protection of personal information. We justifiably refused to do that."
The couple are also members of the Methodist Evangelical Church in Jablonné v Podještědí, a state-registered church. Hanzl rejects the accusations that the children who attended his after-school program had bad dreams because of what they heard there.
Instead, Hanzl says he believes the town wanted to get rid of his after-school program because it was taking up resources that could have gone to another after-school program teaching dance. Varádi's version of the story, however, is confirmed by local Romani activist Emilia Horáčková and by the former local consultant for the Agency, Bronislav Podlaha, who clarifies: "The dispute about the evangelizing after-school group was launched by the fact that Lampa was simultaneously conducting a campaign that involved false statements, insults and slander against the local authority, the Agency, the local Tosara association, and personally against Vice-Mayor Varádi, Mayor Králík, Emilia Horáčková, Daniela Cincibusová and myself. Despite our repeated attempts to reach some kind of agreement with them, they continued their hate campaign," he recalls.
That was in the summer of 2013. Podlaha adds that as far as the dispute about protecting the personal information of the children and parents attending Lampa's after-school program goes, the program was not considered a social service, as is evident from its registration, and was being run in municipally-owned spaces that were being borrowed free of charge for that purpose, which means the town had the right to set conditions for the use of the space, and any doubts in that regard could have been elegantly resolved by having parents sign a statement agreeing with their personal information being given to the local authority.
Hanzl did not file his report of suspicion of criminal activity regarding the town's overpayment for work on the playground until February 2014. "Naturally I was a target of his hatred because I was the Vice-Mayor of Ralsko. I was never personally charged with anything, however, and no trial has ever taken place involving me," says Oto Váradi, who was a member of the SNK European Democrats when he was in office.
Ex-Mayor Miroslav Králík was a member of the Czech Social Democratic Party when he was in office. As a consequence of the court proceedings against him, the coalition of the parties governing Ralsko changed, with people switching to the center-right TOP 09 party and a new local coalition arising in which neither the European Democrats nor the Social Democrats are involved.
Králík was convicted on those charges last year and is appealing, but the District Court in Česká Lípa ultimately fully acquitted him in November 2015 in a different case regarding the commissioning of legal services by the town at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013. That chapter has been brought to an end, but the rest of the story is rolling right along.
I explain that I will be writing an article and what it will be about. "We ran around Dresden with [Romani activist] Ivanka Čonková too, you know," Ms Hanzlová explains as proof of her claim that she is no xenophobe.
When members of the Konexe organization in the Czech Republic traveled to a demonstration in Germany against neo-Nazis, Hanzlová says she was there with them. She also says she is not planning to join the Bloc against Islam and that her husband, Jiří Hanzl, is planning to join but hasn't done so yet.
We agree on the time of our next meeting. I then spend a bit more time listening in the club as they discuss who will be coming there and what will be done that day.
Národní Listy: The chair of the Lampa club and his wife are members of the Bloc against Islam
Even though both Ms Hanzlová and her club make a pleasant impression, the situation in Mimoň is not as idyllic as it might seem. In the past there have been several disputes here that have created bad relationships among those engaged in working on Czech-Romani coexistence.
Members of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion's Local Partnership here once voted to exclude Lampa from involvement altogether. One consequence of that dispute was a change to the local leadership of the neighboring town of Ralsko.
Today the situation seems stabilized at first glance. After all, the newly-elected local political leadership says it has no problem with the Lampa association.
The management of the Agency for Social Inclusion has changed as well, and a new local consultant, Jiří Gajdoš, has arrived on the scene. After he did so, the Agency reversed the previous decision to exclude Lampa from the Local Partnership and is currently collaborating with them once more.
According to the previous local consultant to the Agency, Bronislav Podlaha, the Agency has now brought Lampa back into the Local Partnership because the group is on good terms with the new local political leadership. "They're back in because of changes in local politics, not because everybody believes it was wrong to get rid of them," he says.
Lampa works with Romani people directly in Mimoň and Ploužnice. "Currently we are employing two Romani women full-time and we are extremely satisfied with their work," Mr Hanzl brags, going on to mention Lampa's collaboration with the organizations Lumen Vitae, Gypsy Legend, Smysl života (Life Purpose), and the Česká Lípa Club.
"We also work with Liberec Emergency Aid and with the Food Bank at a charity level," he says. What about the photograph in Národní listy publicizing the couple's membership in the Bloc against Islam, though?
Emilie Horáčková, a local Romani activist who has been in a dispute with the couple ever since Lampa began running its after-school program (more on that below), has a clear opinion of the matter: "I know what [BPI leader] Konvička's opinions are and we keep fighting against them. We Roma have not yet recovered from the Holocaust or the Second World War, we have internalized the meaning of those events. Nobody here is speaking up against the wave of hatred rising against refugees today, but I see those children and their mothers fleeing the war and my heart aches for every one of them."
When Horáčková read that the Hanzls had joined the Bloc against Islam, she was shocked. In her opinion anybody involved with that organization must believe all Romani people are the same because "for racists a black mug is always a black mug."
For his part, Hanzl clams to just be "considering" joining BPI and says he hasn't yet applied. He does sympathize with the movement, however, because he is convinced that anybody defending Islam is defending an ideology that is worse than Nazism.
"I am against pedophilia, polygamy, rape, murder, slavery, and zoophilia... All of this is being introduced by Islam and supported by the EU, by the Czech Government, and by the neo-Marxists together with the left-wing extremists, in contravention of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms," Hanzl says.
Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion has "no opinion" of the Bloc against Islam
Given the revival of Lampa's membership in the Local Partnership, we were interested to learn what position the Agency takes on the anti-Islamic engagement of a person who also works with local Romani people. Local consultant Jiří Gajdoš is very careful in his statements, justifying his caution by saying that he is not involved in the town of Ralsko as a private individual, but as a representative of the Agency.
"I cannot present my personal opinion and I don't want to, I believe that would be unprofessional. I have reservations about the group which Mr Hanzl is allegedly planning to join. For the time being, however, Mr Hanzl has not broken the rules of the Local Partnership in that respect, so I don't have anything to say about it," he says, referring us to the leadership of the Agency itself.
Hanzl has meanwhile published a link on his publicly accessible Facebook profile of an interview with Deputy Ombudsperson Stanislav Křeček and the following commentary to go with it: "[The Czech Government's] HateFree [campaign] is causing a hateful atmosphere in our society thanks to its biased, unbalanced activities. It's doing the exact opposite of what it is paid to do."
Jiří Hanzl: "HateFree shows all the signs the NSDAP did"
In the comments posted beneath that link, Hanzl continues to assert that "HateFree shows all the signs of the NDSAP" (the Nazi Party) and makes this slightly confused argument: "HateFree, through its activities and statements, is part of the extreme left. The information it transmits is strongly biased. Because it isn't balanced, it is bound to spark a reaction from the extreme right. Because of this, our society is radicalizing. What's more, some of its activities - for example, its activities aimed against heterosexual people as a group - border on illegal. Also, according to HateFree, the Nazis were responsible for the victims of Nazism, not Nazism itself. By saying this, the campaign is promoting Nazism. Its activities and news reporting should be solidly objective, but they are not."
After reading this comment we had two questions for the director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, Radek Jiránek, one about Hanzl eventually joining the Bloc against Islam and another about his public remarks regarding the HateFree campaign. Jiránek referred us to the Agency's press spokesperson, Lucie Nemešová, saying he would send us a written answer through her.
His answer to our first written question was this: "The Agency for Social Inclusion is actively striving to establish conditions supporting social inclusion on the basis of participation by local actors in the process of the Local Partnership. If we were to discover that the nature of the private activities of a member of that Partnership directly contravened the Agency's principles, then we would raise that topic at the next Local Partnership meeting in the presence of the member concerned, or we would convene a special meeting, depending on the gravity and nature of the behavior."
The second question, about the HateFree campaign, was answered not by Jiránek, but by HateFree campaign director Lukáš Houdek. He made the general observation that Hanzl seems to be repeating the rhetoric of some anti-Islam movements in the Czech Republic.
"He's not actually making a coherent argument here, just voicing impressions that are not based on any truth. Generally speaking, his remarks are at the very least sad because his association is attempting to aid socially excluded Romani people and is focusing primarily on children," Houdek said, adding that it is paradoxical that while Hanzl seems to be standing up for the Roma, a group of people about whom a great deal of hatred and myths have been spread, he is at the same time stirring up hatred against another marginalized group of people through his comments about Islam and Muslims.
The Bloc against Multiculturalism
Neither of these answers gives much of an indication as to how the Agency basically intends to deal with the fact that it is collaborating with a person who is opposed to the very values on which the Agency was built. However, according to Martin Rozumek, director of the Organization for Aid to Refugees (OPU), dealing with such dilemmas is what the Agency has been tasked with doing.
"It would be difficult for me to have somebody from the Bloc against Islam as a co-worker, because for the entirety of its existence that group has been based on exclusion and intolerance - right now it's exclusion of the Muslims, but next it might be the Jews, or people living with disabilities, or left-wing activists," Rozumek said. The OPU director believes this is a "very dangerous trend that non-state and state institutions must face together."
What's more, the Bloc against Islam does not just object to receiving refugees, but opposes multiculturalism generally. On its website, the group states that it will halt the "promotion of multiculturalism and similar ideologies in state-funded schools" and that it will make sure "the state will support only arts and culture that will lead to a growth in national pride."
Individual members of the Bloc also make statements that are more or less racist against Romani people as well. For example, Eva Hrindová, a member of the BPI's Action Council, recently shared a collage to her Facebook profile that cannot leave anyone in any doubt of the fact that she views all Roma as "parasites".
- Czech daily: Police investigations of hate attacks are remarkably ineffective
- Czech Republic: 2 000 demonstrate against racism in Prague after neo-Nazis graffiti "HateFree" cafés
- Czech Republic: Analysis finds online hate rising, adult males perpetrate the most
- Czech NGO report finds Muslims and Roma most frequent victims of hate violence
- Czech Interior Ministry appealing municipal decision on gallows at anti-refugee hate demonstration
- Czech Green Party chair describes hateful verbal assault on Prague public transport
- Czech Republic: New campaign combats hate online
- Czech academics: Promoters of hate want to trample on the anniversary of 17 November
- Czech Republic: Hateful demonstrations against refugee reception in several cities
- Czech Republic: Activists sentenced for stunt to draw attention to a suicide say police made hateful, racist remarks
- Czech census: Online form will be in Romanes too, listing nationality is important
- Renáta Plachetková: EU citizens without settled status as of 30 June in the UK will be deported
- Deadline for applications to Romani Studies at Charles University is the end of February
- Jan Dužda: Vaccination is the most effective weapon against COVID-19, Czech authorities need to campaign about its effects and importance
- Czech Public Defender of Rights meets Romani community member Štěpán Kavur of the Buči association
- EU Commission: States have to show improvement for Roma if they expect to draw funding
- Alena Gronzíková: Czech landlords will not rent to Roma even with good references and steady incomes
- Romani doctor in Czech Republic will get vaccinated and is disturbed by COVID-19 disinformation
- Czech court gives suspended sentence to adults who assaulted young Romani children physically and verbally in a park last year
- Czech Republic: Further action needed to integrate Roma children in schools and prevent discrimination against LGBTI persons
- COMMENTARY: Czech TV show portrays Roma as nothing but criminals
- Romani community in third-largest Czech city donates truckload of vitamins to hospital in gratitude for their work during COVID-19