Czech local politicians hold stormy meeting with non-Romani and Romani residents where long-refuted antigypsyist hoaxes and stereotypes resurface
The Czech town of Přerov experienced a stormy discussion Wednesday afternoon during a public hearing over incidents that have transpired between two Vlax Romani families there. The discussion addressed not just safety in the town, but also pensions and welfare benefits.
Several hundred members of the public attended the hearing in the Municipal House. Both ethnic Czechs and ethnic Romani people attended.
Members of the "majority" criticized both police officers and politicians for their allegedly "lax" approach to the recent incidents, despite the fact that the police responses deployed not just local officers, but also state riot units who used tear gas. In addition, "majority" residents said they disliked the fact that authorities allowed the Vlax Romani "king" and representatives of the Romani families involved in the brawls to address their disputes by inviting them to the town hall to deal with the recent conflict.
The public hearing was convened by the town leadership after representatives of the Romani families involved in the recent dispute met on Monday at the town hall to declare that they were settling their conflict. Several days prior they had met with the Vlax Romani "king" at the instigation of the Regional Coordinator for National Minorities and the town leadership, and he appealed to them to end their dispute.
Who are the Vlax Roma?
The Vlax Roma are one of the groups of Romani people living in the Czech Republic. They speak Vlax Romanes, which is greatly influenced by Romanian. They come from the Moldavian and Wallachian regions of Romania. Approximately 10 % of the Romani people living on Czech territory are Vlax Romani, approximately 25 000 people. Until 1958 most of the Vlax Roma on the territory of the former Czechoslovakia lived a travelling lifestyle.
Many Přerov residents, however, dislike this approach, despite the fact that it was exactly that meeting that has calmed the entire dispute, for now, and despite the fact that the police investigation into the incident is ongoing, as was reiterated several times during the meeting. The fact that a truce was brokered does not mean impunity for the brawlers, in other words.
"Majority-society" residents said during the stormy discussion that the laws should apply to all. "If we had done this, you probably wouldn't have invited us to the town hall for cake, would you?" the non-Romani residents asked rhetorically.
One non-Romani man asked whether a police intervention "against the minority" would be of equal intensity to an intervention "against the majority". "Are you adopting parallel laws?" other non-Romani residents asked, alluding to the fact that the Vlax Romani "king" had come to the town hall to address the conflict.
The town leadership, however, stands by its approach. "Two individuals in an altercation at a party is something different from two Romani families quarrelling. Each family has 20 or 30 members and it is difficult to prevent them all from acting. If we speak with representatives of the families, it can affect the behavior of the rest of their members," local councilor Petr Vrána said.
"We have done our best to address this situation by undertaking the strongest possible measures. We had to make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable and has criminal law ramifications. I do not believe it was done incorrectly. This was the solution that we considered the best," said Mayor Petr Měřínský.
Renáta Köttnerová, Coordinator for National Minorities and Romani Affairs at the Olomouc Regional Authority, also pointed out that even though other Romani residents of Přerov have also condemned the conflict, they are being tarred with the same brush as the families who were involved in it. "On social media this is not discussed as 'Family A and Family B made a mess and have to be punished'. All Roma are being blamed there, even those uninvolved in any such problems," she said.
Ivan Gábor, a Romani community member, pointed out that there are 4 500 Romani residents in Přerov and that the conflict had involved just six people from two families. "Today, here, at this public hearing, we are discussing the fact that six people from two families out of a total of 4 500 Romani people in Přerov had an argument. I can't imagine what would happen if 12 people from three Romani families were to have an argument," he said, only to be interrupted by a non-Romani woman who shouted: "Přerov would be burned to the ground!"
In response, Gábor said: "Yes, because you all would set us on fire!" He then repeated the question of what would happen if an altercation involved 12 Romani people.
"What would you all want to do then? Do you want to eject all the Roma beyond the town limits and make them live in tents?" Gábor asked.
"Majority" society reiterates antigypsyist hoaxes and stereotypes, Köttnerová and Romani residents refute them
During the public hearing, the feeling that Romani people are being let off the hook by law enforcement compared to members of the "majority society" was voiced constantly, in different exchanges. The representative of the Municipal Police, however, clearly stated that all lawbreakers are treated in the same way irrespective of whether they are from the "majority" society, the Romani community, or the Vietnamese community.
In the heightened atmosphere, some residents criticized the country's social welfare system. "Majority"-society members reiterated the stereotypical opinion that Romani people do not work and just live off of welfare.
The Romani residents present did their best to refute that idea. A young Romani woman pointed out that Romani people are discriminated against on the labor market.
"My Mom lost her job, she had never been a social case," the young Romani woman said. "She is having a very difficult time finding another job and she has been to dozens of interviews."
"I agree with the idea that the social welfare system is poorly set up because for some people, it pays not to work, but on the other hand, even if a Romani person does his or her best, they still have no chance," the young Romani woman said. "Majority"-society residents also voiced opinions based on evident hoaxes during the discussion.
One non-Romani woman, for example, alleged Romani children get free lunches at school while ethnic Czech children do not. Köttnerová responded by informing her that the project for subsidized lunches in the schools is designated for all children from families in social destitution.
Another debate revolved around pensions. A hoax that has been refuted several times was voiced, alleging that Romani people who do not work receive old-age pensions calculated on the basis of the average wage.
That untruth was refuted by the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry as far back as 2010. In order to be eligible for an old-age pension, people must fulfill two criteria: They must have paid into social insurance for the necessary length of time, and they must be of retirement age.
According to the law, the relevant length of insurance can be achieved by engaging in gainful activity. The amount of the pension, which is comprised of a base rate and percentage rate, depends on how much money a person earned and how long he or she contributed to the system.
"If somebody has not worked the required number of years, he or she is not eligible for a pension," Köttnerová said during the discussion, only to be immediately shouted down by some "majority"-society members alleging her statement was not true. The incidents that have sparked this most recent flareup of antigypsyist emotions in Přerov all transpired last week.
The incidents involved disputes near a confectioner's on the main square and incidents on Žerotínovo Square and in Bratrská Street, where one Vlax Romani family threw things from their windows at members of another family on the street one night, damaging several cars. Dozens of police officers, including state riot units, intervened in both cases.
According to police spokesperson Miluš Zajícová, nobody has been charged yet, but seven people are being investigated. "On the basis of our findings we are also reviewing comments posted to social media, and if we ascertain any illegal behavior there we will proceed to address it in accordance with the law," the spokesperson said.
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