Czech Republic: Local government, state police harshly criticized over anti-Romani demonstration
The leadership of the South Bohemian Regional Police is claiming to have managed last Saturday's intervention against the street battles at the Máj housing estate in České Budějovice well. Local government is also convinced that it did the same.
However, many people including several of the officers involved have criticized the tactics and unpreparedness of the South Bohemian Regional Police leadership. The town hall also made a mistake by not attempting to ban the event, even though they had reason to so.
Arrests now number 40
An anti-Romani assembly was held on two squares in the town this past Saturday, and after the demonstration was over, an unannounced march headed for the Máj housing estate, which is home to around 350 local Romani residents. During the subsequent conflict between demonstrators and police a total of 10 people were injured.
Police arrested 40 people on suspicion of assaulting public officials or committing misdemeanors, but have not charged anyone yet. Detectives and experts on extremism are reportedly evaluating video footage of the event.
That number of persons suspected of illegal behavior is not necessarily the final one. The leadership of the South Bohemian Regional Police convened an extraordinary press conference to announce that information.
The protest last Saturday was permitted by the České Budějovice town hall. "Organizers are required solely to announce an event before it takes place, we cannot ban it," Mayor Juraj Thoma said prior to the demonstration.
Police say the town hall proceeded correctly. "I consider the operation to have been completely and demonstrably successful. During the demonstration on the square there was not enough reason to end the event prematurely. Then there was a risk of physical contact between the two groups, but we kept them separated and did not permit them to reach one another," South Bohemian Regional Police Director Radomír Heřman said.
The same goes for the unannounced march. News server iDNES.cz reports that some residents believe it would have been possible to stop the demonstrators when they were still far enough away from the Máj housing estate, thereby preventing the harsh clashes with police on the grounds of the estate that lasted several hours. However, Martin Souček, the head of the Riot Police Services Department, believes the shifting of the demonstrators away from their announced venue was not in and of itself a reason to end the event and said that for strategic reasons it had been decided the march would be stopped when it reached Milada Horáková Street at the housing estate.
Police legitimize racism
"While they were standing on the square, the demonstrators were already chanting, among other things, the phrase 'black swine'. That is the precise moment when the town hall, led by Mayor Thoma, should have dispersed the event, to say nothing of the unannounced march during which some demonstrators gave the Nazi salute and shouted other racist rubbish. Police at that moment should have dispersed the march, or at least arrested suspects. If the police did not do that, then something is not in order here. The police are here to make sure the law is upheld, not to bless lawbreaking through their own inactivity. Through these actions, the police are directly legitimizing racism. That is a bad tactic indeed," said František Kostlán, Vice-Chair of the Czech Helsinki Committee (Český helsinský výbor) and a member of the ROMEA association.
Kostlán believes there was also a reason for the entire event to have been banned beforehand by the town hall. "There is a handbook on the Law on Assembly that was published by the Czech Interior Ministry in 2009 explaining how the law makes it possible to ban an event if it can be presumed that racist shouting and violence will be perpetrated there. Moreover, a court judgment makes it possible for municipalities to research the real reason an announced event is being held. Local government does not have to satisfy itself with the reason listed in the announcement. The town hall in České Budějovice also had the recent precedent before it of what had taken place the weekend before in Duchcov, where Nazis and other racists also attempted a pogrom on the Roma," he said.
Mayor Thoma has also criticized the police actions. "The organizers here were those who organized the Duchcov march, members of neo-Nazi fighting units and a party that bragged on social networking sites prior to their engagement in České Budějovice that they were coming here to fight 'with gypsies and police', that's literally how they described it on Facebook. The entire event was induced primarily by those people, who are from outside our community and who came here just to fight. A single incident on a playground would never unleash such an explosion of violence otherwise," the mayor said.
Thoma said he does not understand why police let the demonstrators relocate to the Máj housing estate. "Given that the marching crowd was giving the Nazi salute with their right arms lifted and shouting Nazi slogans, I would have grabbed them in the town center. The police chose to use certain tactics, but I am convinced that at the moment someone is marching in a parade through the center of town with his right arm lifted shouting 'Heil Hitler!' the police should grab him," Thoma said.
Police on the ground deserve thanks
The organization of the police intervention has also been anonymously criticized by the officers themselves. "The coordination from our leadership is poor. What applies at one moment is no longer valid five minutes later. No one from the South Bohemian Regional Police leadership is here. We have to obey their orders, but in the end we are the idiots that let people get all the way onto the streets between the [housing estate] buildings and then had to push them back out again," a police officer told news server iDNES.cz on Saturday.
"At some points I was almost sorry for the guys who had to face those aggressive neo-Nazis. From one side bottles and rocks are flying at them, and from the other side the so-called 'decent residents' of České Budějovice are shouting vulgar curses at them. The police on the ground who were at the scene and did what they could unequivocally deserve our thanks," Zdeněk Ryšavý, Executive Director of the ROMEA association, told news server Romea.cz.
Ryšavý said he believes the problem is that the commanders of the "foot soldiers" completely failed to manage the entire situation. "They underestimated the entire demonstration, there were not enough officers on the scene and the necessary equipment wasn't there either. The police management failed when they permitted the unannounced march to get all the way to the housing estate. They were already shouting racist slogans on the square, and when the march left the square they were giving the Nazi salute and some extremists were covering their faces. What was the police leadership waiting for? If they are excusing their decisions now by calling them strategy and tactics, they need to admit their strategy and tactics failed. If the police do not intervene harshly against these aggressors, if they do not punish them severely, the aggression will escalate," he said.
At the Máj housing estate, which is home to 22 000 people, tensions have been predominant since Friday, 21 June, when a conflict arose between children and then adults at a playground there. Police had to intervene on that occasion as well.
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