Czech Republic marks five years since the anti-Romani unrest in the Šluknov foothills
Do you remember the summer of 2011, when the Czech Republic was shaken by anti-Roma unrest that seemed to come out of nowhere? "It's not against the Roma," the main actors involved, who came from the ranks of local politicians, said at the time when asked to describe what was happening.
The stated aim of the protests was first and foremost to advocate for "zero tolerance" against crime and welfare abuse. Ultimately, however, the main target of the vast majority of the demonstrations became Romani people living in residential hotels in the town of Varnsdorf, where they had been gradually concentrated by the invisible hand of the market for several months, just like in other towns of that forgotten region.
For weeks the demonstrations on the streets of small towns in northern Bohemia dominated the front pages of the newspapers. The Government of Prime Minister Petr Nečas feverishly discussed how the state authorities should proceed, and the Czech Interior Minister traveled with his deputies to the region for nighttime meetings.
The officials decided to set up a special police unit to patrol the events on the streets of the towns concerned. By the time it was in place, the unrest had long since calmed down.
In the spring of 2013 the situation repeated itself in the town of Duchcov, followed shortly thereafter by České Budějovice, and was echoed by violent demonstrations in Ostrava of a kind never seen before. In the Šluknov foothills at that time, however, all was calm and still is - so let's take a look at why.
The so-called "machete attack" in Nový Bor
According to the media, the main trigger for the unrest in the Šluknov foothills was a conflict between locals in the town of Nový Bor. A group of five men walked into a local gaming room to resolve with its staff the fact that one of them had not been paid his winnings from a slot machine.
Acting under the influence of drugs, the men perpetrated what came to be known as the "machete attack", during which a former local neo-Nazi was seriously injured. Surprisingly, no larger demonstrations or further violence happened in Nový Bor immediately afterward.
One year later, the perpetrators were convicted and sentenced to many years in prison. To this day it is still unknown where the weapon that was used came from.
No actual machete was ever found by the police investigation. The court has ruled out a racial motivation for the crime.
In Nový Bor itself, the only response to the attack was a peaceful demonstration at the scene of the crime. Then, in August, an ordinary brawl between local youths in the nearby town of Rumburk was described to the media by the mayor, in collaboration with local police, as a racially-motivated attack by 20 "evil" Romani people against four "innocent" whites - and that was the last straw that brought thousands of people into the streets.
Some of those people surrounded buildings where local Romani families lived and began throwing branches and rocks at the windows of people who had absolutely nothing to do with the violent incident. Police were unprepared and it would not have taken much for a real pogrom to have ensued.
Who pulled the strings in Varnsdorf?
The next scene of such demonstrations was also not a place of conflict. The demonstrations began to be held in nearby Varnsdorf, a border town where one factory after another had gone bankrupt after 1989.
People who wanted to work there had to either move elsewhere, work under the table, or commute to Germany. Most who could not find work were dependent upon welfare, and they were far from just Romani people.
For some time, Romani people from elsewhere had been moving into facilities in Varnsdorf that used to serve as workers' dormitories or local hotels, but they had no chance of finding local jobs. So some local politicians managed to heckle their own frustrated locals into blaming their problems on these other, equally frustrated newcomers.
Suddenly topic number one in town was not the bad policies of the Regional Authority, or the national Government, but "the others". After many months it was finally confirmed that the motor behind the protests was a competitive fight between local politicians (mainly from the Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD) who paid a member of the Social Democratic Youth, Lukáš Kohout, to work like the Pied Piper on residents' frequently justified dissatisfaction with Government policy and transform that dissatisfaction into a popular uprising.
Beefing up the police
Today it is difficult to say what measure contributed most to calming the situation in the region. Was it the Government establishing Special Forces Units for the entire Ústecký Region in May 2012?
Ever since then almost nothing has been heard about these units - the most recent news was when they aided with cleaning up the aftermath of the flooding in 2013. Despite promises by the Police Presidium, their numbers have never even reached the originally planned target.
In 2015 those units had less than 100 employees, which means that in the case of a genuine emergency, they would only be able to deploy several dozen officers to a single location at one time, and such numbers are essentially meaningless if one is trying to calm public unrest. If the Government were to shut down those units tomorrow, the average resident there would barely notice.
Was the improvement due, perhaps, to the project to improve cross-border collaboration between police units managed by the Regional Police Directorate in Ústí nad Labem and those in Chemnitz in neighboring Germany? The implementation of that project, which focused on combating extremism, was subsidized by the European Union in the amount of almost half a million euro.
The application for that money was made back in 2009, and the project lasted until 2013. It was mainly the German side who had a preeminent interest in making sure, after the "battle of Janov" in the autumn of 2008 at a housing estate in the Czech town of Litvínov, that the spark of mass neo-Nazi violence not make it across the border from the Czech Republic.
Czech media begin to ignore Roma
What is the interethnic situation like today? Although the former director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, Martin Šimáček, warned against such a development at the time, most of the residential hotels in Varnsdorf are now closed and the tenants of those facilities have moved into apartments on the outskirts of town or to other towns altogether.
Due to the high number of refugees seeking shelter in Europe and their demonization across the board by many Czech politicians, the main target for racism in the Czech Republic is no longer Romani people. In fact, the Czech media have all but stopped reporting about Romani people.
On the crime pages, cases of brutal violence are reported, almost all of which are being committed by white people. We can recall, for example, the brutal murder of a 15-year-old girl by a group of youths in Jihlava in March 2013, or the shooting rampage at a restaurant in Uherský Brod in February 2015, or the recent murder of a woman at a department store near the Anděl metro stop in Prague-Smíchov.
Prosecutions of those involved in the unrest
Kohout, who has a prior record as a large-scale con artist, was convicted last year by the District Court in Děčín to seven years in prison, but the Regional Court recently partially agreed with his appeal and reduced his sentence to six years. For at least five years, therefore, Varnsdorf doesn't have to be concerned about his capacity for unleashing further unrest.
However, even he has never been prosecuted for his extensive incitement of the public to hatred during the summer of 2011, nor have those who paid him to do it. In local politics, in the meantime, there have been frequent "castling" moves on the chessboard.
Petr Jakubec, who had to withdraw from public life for some time because of the role he played during the unrest of 2011, has now become a local councilor once again in Varnsdorf, as well as a regional-level assembly member. Jaroslav Sykáček, after taking a break for a year, was re-elected Mayor of Rumburk but was not, of course, re-elected Senator.
The person whom the courts prosecuted most extensively for the events described above was former Vice-Mayor Darko Šváb. He was charged at the end of 2013, among other things, for blackmailing members of the municipal police.
Šváb spent several months in custody so he would not be able to influence witnessess. According to testimony by local police, in June 2012 he incited them, under threat of punishment, to take local "troublemakers" out of sight of CCTV cameras and tell them the following: "That the town has lawyers to represent [the police] in case somebody causes us trouble. If we didn't want to do that, [he said] we had no business being on the police force," patrol officer Habr told the District Court in Děčín this June.
The former vice-mayor categorically rejects that he is guilty of anything and considers his prosecution a conspiracy against him by his political opponents. State Prosecutor Jan Veselý told news server iDNES.cz recently that he is counting on at least 10 more hearings in the trial.
A first-instance verdict, in that case, would not be heard until next year - five years after the crime was committed. That, too, tells us something.
Chronology of the main events of unrest in the Šluknov foothills in 2011
4 August – Lukáš Kohout, a member of the Social Democratic Youth in Varnsdorf, announces that a "happening" against "inadaptable" residents will take place on 19 August there.
7 August – The "machete attack" in Nový Bor takes place.
18 August – Kohout's "happening" is cancelled at the last moment because the police and town hall apparently received signals that neo-Nazis were planning to attend.
19 August – Roughly 100 people assemble on the town square anyway.
21 August – In the early morning hours a fight happens among young customers from the Modrá hvězda discotheque on the streets of Rumburk. It is later proven in court that the trigger mechanism for the conflict was that a group of "whites" assaulted a Romani youth over a petty dispute between two drug dealers about money. When other Romani people tried to grab one of the assailants, a "white" drug dealer threw a rock at the car of one of the Romani youths. The owner of the car chased the drug dealer and the "whites" all took cover in a particular building. One of the Roma kicked in the doors and beat up the drug dealer so badly that he ended up in hospital. In 2012 the court ruled that the conflict had not been racially motivated and sentenced the Romani participants in the conflict to suspended prison sentences. Their white counterparts were never even prosecuted.
On the afternoon of that same day, the Mayor of Rumburk, the owner of the building in question, and several members of the police begin to spread the rumor that the incident was a racist, targeted attack by 20 Romani men against four non-Romani "youths". The newspapers begin to spread that version of events without fact-checking the claims with any of the Romani people involved.
22 August - Police charge the first of those arrested in the Rumburk case and allege that the attack was racially motivated. That same day a group of four ethnic Czechs brutally attack a Romani man from Rumburk with a baseball bat in front of his pregnant girlfriend. Only the Lidové noviny newspaper reports the incident.
23 August - Police reinforcements travel from Prague to the Nový Bor area and the Šluknov foothills with the aim of calming the exacerbated situation and preparing for the demonstration that has been announced for 26 August by a brand new group calling itself "Citizens' Resistance Rumburk" (Občanský odpor Rumburk - OOR). However, the local ČSSD organization had already announced an event for that same time and place, so the party takes over the initiative and organizes the demonstration itself with the aim of calming emotions and scoring political points.
24 August - The media report that four Romani men have assaulted a 25-year old non-Romani disabled man in Varnsdorf. The muggers are alleged to have taken his fanny pack with his documents and money. The allegations are never subsequently confirmed.
25 August - The police charge another four participants in the Rumburk brawl, three of whom are juveniles. The Mayor of Rumburk, on behalf of the ČSSD, convenes a demonstration against violence. Fliers are distributed to households calling on people to refrain from committing either physical or verbal attacks. The aim is to calm emotions. However, Czech Senator Miroslav Antl writes a commentary on the events with the headline "Roma are attacking..." and a pro-Russian news server publishes it. In Rumburk, Czech Interior Minister Jan Kubice, Police President Petr Lessy, and Czech Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková meet with representatives of the local administration.
26 August – The media reports that "at the request of the White House in Washington, Kelly L. Kopcial, the human rights officer at the Embassy of the USA in the Czech Republic, visited Rumburk and met with Vice-Mayor Ladislav Pokorný about the causes of the situation that has arisen there." That afternoon, at the instigation of the local ČSSD cell, a demonstration is held under the slogan "Against crime and violence in the Šluknov foothills" on Lužické Square in Rumburk. Banks, the post office and retailers close an hour earlier than usual and cover their display cases and windows with pieces of cardboard and wood.
The 15-minute assembly is attended by around 1 500 people. In addition to Jaroslav Foldyna and Jaroslav Sykáček, the crowd is addressed by Josef Mašín, a member of the OOR initiative. Mayor Sykáček (ČSSD), who is also a Senator, is whistled off the stage after his first few words and leaves town accompanied by security. After Mašín's speech and the official dispersal of the demonstrator by its conveners, a group of local racists takes the helm and the mob of 1 000 sets off on an unannounced march through the town, giving the Nazi salute and chanting racist slogans such as "Gypsies to the gas". A group of about 200 individuals separates from everybody else and goes through the town looking for buildings inhabited by Romani people. The mob ultimately gets into a violent clash with police, who arrest five persons on suspicion of misdemeanors and two on suspicion of felonies. A total of 295 police officers are deployed, one of whom suffers slight injuries. Police confiscate weapons such as an air gun, an axe, a baton, a baseball bat and a machete.
On that same day in the afternoon, Kohout holds a demonstration "against inadaptables" in Varnsdorf. Approximately 200 people attend, including about 10 local neo-Nazis and, surprisingly, Ivan Veselý, a Romani activist who was a friend of Kohout's at the time. Police ultimately remove Veselý to safety out of concern that the infuriated mob might lynch him on the spot.
27 August - A public assembly by local residents is held at the Panorama cinema in Varnsdorf together with local political leaders. During the stormy discussion some locals complain about Romani people and about the town hall's policies, as well as demanding the resignation of Mayor Martin Louka.
Meanwhile, in Rumburk, on Lužické Square, an unannounced assembly is held that afternoon in the pouring rain by several local Romani residents of the Šluknov foothills to protest the recent attempted pogroms.
30 August - News server Romea.cz publishes video footage from the demonstration in Rumburk and the attempted pogrom that proves the racial subtext of the attacks on the buildings inhabited by Romani families.
2 September - At the House of Culture in Rumburk, a working meeting is held among mayors from the Šluknov foothills area with legislation experts from the Czech Interior Ministry to discuss proposed changes to legislation. The result of many hours of negotiations is a document called the "Šluknov Foothills Ten Commandments".
That same day a neo-Nazi group called "Free Youth" (Svobodná mládež) holds a demonstration together with Kohout called "Let's clear out everybody damaging Varnsdorf". The assembly and subsequent march through the town toward the Romani-occupied residential hotel facility at the former Sport Hotel is attended by around 600 persons, 15 of whom are neo-Nazis. A total of 348 police officers are deployed.
3 September - Again in Varnsdorf, during an unannounced demonstration convened by the Autonomous Nationalists and the "Free Youth" and attended by 1 500 people including 15 neo-Nazis, the first clashes happen between demonstrators and police after the demonstrators do their best to reach the Sport residential hotel and are thwarted. Police arrest eight persons for misdemeanors and four for felonies (violence against an official, property damage, and racially-motivated crimes). The police say that "there was apparently a higher degree of communication and coordination, the various groups attempted to overcome the police barricades and other measures installed in the at-risk localities." A total of 388 Special Forces Units were deployed for this event.
5 September - Kumar Vishwanathan, a Czech activist, educator and social worker of Indian origin, visits Rumurk and Varnsdorf and offers his aid to the local authorities in working with the Roma. He stays for several days at the T. G. Masaryk residential hotel, which is in danger of attack.
6 September - A delegation from the Ústecký Regional Authority, led by Governor Jana Vaňhová, meets in Rumburk with the mayors of the towns and villages in the Šluknov foothills area. The Regional Governor expresses the concern that "the violence will spread from the Šluknov area into the 63 other excluded localities in the Ústecký Region and the more than 22 000 people living there will become obsessed with it."
9 September - At the Rumburk town hall a coordinating meeting is held with representatives of the Police Presidium, the Organized Crime Detection Unit (ÚOOZ) and the Regional Directorate of the Police of the Czech Republic to prepare the town leadership for a demonstration announced there by the Workers Social Justice Party (DSSS), which is supposed to be held the following day in three places simultaneously - Nový Bor, Rumburk and Varnsdorf. Hard-core members of the neo-Nazi movement from Brno, Ostrava, Prague, the Ústecký Region and neighboring Germany were said to be planning to attend the demonstration. The Rumburk town hall issues a statement to residents asking that they not attend the demonstration. Some local Romani residents leave town.
That same day, Kohout holds a "March through the town for less crime" in Varnsdorf which is attended by around 300 people. Police arrest Kohout, but the police van in which he is to be taken away is surrounded by the livid crowd who, chanting "Don't take Kohout away from us!", proceed to demolish the vehicle. A total of 250 Special Forces Unit members have been deployed for the event and must use force to disperse the 50-member group of the most furious demonstrators.
10 September - An assembly is held near an endangered residential hotel in Nový Bor by a newly-created initiative called Violence is No Solution (Násilí není řešení - NNR) in order to counter-protest the gathering of approximately 500 DSSS members at the local train station. The subsequent march through the town takes place without any major scuffles.
In the meantime, police hermetically seal off all communications between Rumburk and Varnsdorf and randomly check vehicles at all entry points, finding many potential weapons in people's cars - axes, baseball bats, collapsible nightsticks, an electric stun gun, hammers, knives and shovel handles. A youth from Hradec Králové fires a gas pistol at a police officer searching one of the buses. A round-up conducted by police officers in the village of Svor against a bus full of neo-Nazi adherents traveling from Germany leads to the bus being pulled over. The German passengers run into the forest and don't stop until warning shots are fired. The bus and its passengers are then accompanied by police officers back to the border crossing.
The rally by the DSSS party in Varnsdorf is attended by approximately 1 500 people. After a speech by party chair Tomáš Vandas, the mob of roughly 400 locals and neo-Nazis sets off on an unannounced march towards the Romani-occupied residential hotels. The first incident happens on Dělnická Street, where the mob attempts to cross the police baricades and enter the Sport Hotel, which is occupied by the Romani community. After police intervene, smaller groups of roughly 30-40 persons, most of them neo-Nazi adherents, separate from the main assembly and continue toward the residential hotel on T. G. Masaryk Street. The subsequent assembly in front of that residential hotel is attended by 300-400 persons, according to police estimates. Some shout racist slogans and call on the Romani residents to leave town. There are two attempts to break through the police cordon using bottles, fireworks, rocks and trash cans. The subsequent police intervention causes smaller groups to break off again and either head for local pubs or hang around in the town. According to police, who deployed 400 Special Forces Units total, including mounted police and water cannon, "war then broke out on the streets of Varnsdorf between demonstrators and police officers", violence that lasted "long into the night". During the escalation of tensions in the neighborhood of the residential hotel on T. G. Masaryk Street the police officers and the tenants were in danger of being surreptitiously physically assaulted by the frequently aggressive individuals from the mob. Police reported that these individuals "sophisticatedly took advantage of the compact front line of the crowd, using it as a human shield from behind which they committed their physical assaults against the Special Forces Units. They threw objects, used handheld slingshots, and rolled or threw municipal garbage containers at the officers, but they also engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. Their aggressivity and speech was all aimed at inducing active physical clashes targeting the officers." Police arrested a total of 35 persons, 20 of whom were neo-Nazis. Three police officers were injured, one of whom was struck on the face behind his shield by a flying piece of metal and had to be hospitalized. Several civilians were treated at the surgical clinic in Varnsdorf. Once the march was over, the neo-Nazis continued to attack the Romani-occupied buildings.
In Rumburk in the meantime, Vandas made a public appearance. Police report that his speech was "an attack, but a correct one, realistically describing the situation and speaking to people from the heart, and it was not racist". A handful of anti-Fascists counter-protested the event, carrying banners reading "Violence solves nothing" and "Black, white, together unite". Their chants provoked Vandas into a petty verbal exchange. The roughly 300 onlookers then dispersed calmly. The anti-Fascists then met with Mikuláš Vymětal, an evangelical vicar from Prague, and prayed for the demonstration to proceed peacefully. After listening to several speeches, about 50 adherents of the anti-Fascist initiative set off on an unannounced, peaceful march through the town.
12 September – Czech President Václav Klaus announces that police should use force to disperse the anti-Romani manifestations in the Šluknov foothills. He literally says: "Here the state must ruthlessly intervene, intervene by force, to end these riots. That is quite obvious."
In Varnsdorf, Kohout holds yet another unannounced demonstration "Against police brutality" in front of the police station. Approximately 300 people attend and 260 police officers are deployed.
17 September - In Varnsdorf another meeting is held by the town leadership with the public at the Panorama cinema. The discussion is stormy and the Varnsdorfians' spite has been increased, not just by the local government's failure to resolve the situation, but by the police intervention and rising crime rates in the town. That afternoon an assembly is announced by Kohout as a "religious gathering" and attended by 600 people. The mob attempts to access to Romani residential hotels. A total of 565 police officers prevent them from doing so.
19 September - Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas pays a surprise visit to the Šluknov foothills, visiting the Větrník Mothers' Center in Rumburk and then spending an hour in discussion with Deputy Interior Minister for Police Vladislav Husák, Regional Police Director Jiří Vorálek, and other police officers from the local department "and was pleased to receive the information that people in the Šluknov foothills do not have extremist or racist tendencies, but are just desperate over the problems caused by the Romani community, no solution for which seems to be in sight". The PM then met with mayors from the area and described the Government's vision for how to calm the situation, saying that money would be allocated for the creation of hundreds of new community service jobs within the next three months.
24 September - In Varnsdorf approximately 300 people demonstrate together with 20 neo-Nazis for the local government to resign and police deploy approximately 500 officers. The "Hate is No Solution" initiative, supported by the anarchists, holds an "International Children's Day" in the courtyard of the Sport residential hotel, where dozens of children play for hours, protected by 500 fully-armed police officers.
2 October - Kohout holds a demonstration attended by around 200 people, supervised by 255 police.
15 October - In Varnsdorf, Romani activist Ivanka Čonková and Andrea Žampachová from the association Re-akce, together with the local theater, the MASKA and MAS Šluknovsko associations, and the town hall, hold a "Festival of Joy" on Edvard Beneš Square to bring local residents together again. A children's dance ensemble from the Sport residential hotel is among the performers.
At the same time, in the town of Šluknov, Kohout convenes a demonstration that is attended by more than 300 persons - most of them Romani. Kohout first plays a recording of the national anthem and then begins a speech against "inadaptables", which the Roma respond to by vulgarly cursing him, whistling at him, and beginning a personal discussion with him, to the applause of local residents. Kohout immediately disperses the event and calls off the announced march. Local Roma accompany him out of town in their own cars. Since this event he has never managed to gather a crowd again.
19 October - Czech President Klaus visits the region. "I see an absence of a clear program, and that cannot be designed by anybody other than the Government of this republic, and I consider this to be a failure, of all the Governments during the last decade - they made crowd-pleasing gestures, they appointed special rapporteurs right and left, they established agencies, but they were escaping from solving these problems, making false gestures that have led nowhere," the President said.
As for the "Šluknov Foothills Ten Commandments", only one of its points was ever met, namely, an amendment to the law on lotteries. On the basis of that amendment, municipalities have been able to adopt ordinances regulating gambling. The towns of Jiříkov and Šluknov banned gambling entirely, while Rumburk and Varnsdorf have restricted it to certain localities. Rumburk, moreover, has concluded an exclusive contract with the Forbes Game firm on providing gaming facilities there. All other gaming rooms have been closed and as of the end of 2012 Rumburk had just five casinos and gaming rooms on its territory. The departments of health care and social affairs in the towns of Rumburk and Varnsdorf have also both tightened their monitoring of those receiving welfare so they will not spend that money in the gaming rooms. If welfare recipients are found gambling, their next welfare installment is disbursed in the form of coupons, not cash.
Environmental inspectors have introduced stricter audits for collection centers of second-hand raw materials, especially those that buy metals at night in
contravention of the law. The staffers of the business license authorities in Rumburk and Varnsdorf have audited bazaars, gaming rooms and pawn shops in collaboration with the police to see whether stolen goods are being sold there. Police in the Šluknov foothills have performed several raids against drug dealers, confiscated several small methamphetamine production facilities, and closed five large-scale production facilities for marijuana.
By the end of 2012, all of the police departments remained open and fully staffed in the Šluknov foothills, and in Varnsdorf a Special Riot Unit with 70 members was put in place.
Various studies have been written about the unrest in the Šluknov foothills in recent years. Documentary films have also been made, such as David Vondráček's "In the Wild North" (Na divokém severu) or "Scene of Unrest" (Místo nepokoje) by Adam Gebert. Frequently, however, these works revive myths that have long been refuted. The best piece of scholarship to date on these events is a study about the impact of the unrest on the minds of Romani children in Varnsdorf by Zuzana Brodilová.
This article draws on media reports, the author's personal archive, and background materials from the Czech Interior Ministry, as well as a Bachelor's thesis by Radka Šedová, "Media representations of Romani people: Case study of the media coverage of the unrest in the Šluknov foothills" (Mediální reprezentace Romů: případová studie mediálního pokrytí nepokojů ve Šluknovském výběžku).
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