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Ivanka Mariposa Čonková: Victory over racism, or, How the neo-Nazis lost face in Ostrava

Ostrava, 31.10.2013 19:21, (ROMEA)
Romani activist Ivanka Mariposa Čonková at the counter-demonstration against neo-Nazis by Romani people in Ostrava on 28 October 2013 (PHOTO: Gustav Pursche)
Romani activist Ivanka Mariposa Čonková at the counter-demonstration against neo-Nazis by Romani people in Ostrava on 28 October 2013 (PHOTO: Gustav Pursche)

The 28th of October this year happened in a spirit similar to that of 24 August, when several towns in the Czech Republic simultaneously faced open displays of antigypsyism, neo-Nazism and racism in the form of marches that transformed into attempted pogroms against Romani people. This past Monday, the towns concerned were České Budějovice, Ostrava, and Plzeň.

In all three places the racists' efforts ended in debacles, and those whose moral convictions and personal courage predominated over their fear of the danger posed by the racists had reason to celebrate. Support for Ostrava (and not only for that town) was also expressed by those attending an international conference in Prague of the United for Intercultural Action organization. 

Those attending the conference moved from the outskirts of Prague to the center and convened a "happening" on the Old Town Square with a simple message:  Ostrava - Stop the Nazi March! At that same time, a complete and totally exceptional reversal was underway in Ostrava, which in recent months has become a breeding ground for the most aggressive neo-fascists, neo-Nazis and racists (not to mention the ordinary citizens of Ostrava who have been thoughtlessly following these "heroes").

The "Colorful Ostrava" (Barevná Ostrava) assembly, initiated by the "Let's Block the Marches!" (Blokujeme!) platform, through its own courage and internal mobilization, managed to defeat racism and establish rules for fair play in which the fight for human rights, including the right to life, became real in all its dimensions and forms. A procession of people roughly 50 meters long marching through Ostrava was living proof of that!

Ostrava lives today with a heavy fate, namely, unemployment and the constantly increasing threat of more job losses. Capitalism is governing brutally there and openly admitting to its exploitation of the poor. 

The town's residential hotels are being supported hand in glove with the ongoing support for the trafficking in poverty they represent. The town itself is a broken-down, enormous open space.

Aggressive racism supported by the neo-Nazi movement in the Czech Republic and from nearby Poland has been born in this big, cheerless, isolated town. Ostrava has become yet another car in the racist train that has been crisscrossing the Czech Republic since mid-May of this year. 

"Only civic activity in the streets can stop this," said one speaker at "Colorful Ostrava", unintentionally repeating one of the fundamental aims of the "Let's Block the Marches!" platform, which is to activate civil society to take anti-racist direct action in the streets and in other forms of public space. In Ostrava on Monday this succeeded to the greatest extent so far, with the largest representation of Romani people at such an event in recent history. 

The assembly initiated by "Let's Block the Marches!" was designed mainly by local organizations (ProAlt, the Don Bosco Salesian Center, the Diocesan Charity, Life Together and Blokujeme - Ostrava!), supported by political parties (the Christian Democrats, the Equal Opportunities Party, the Green Party, the Pirates, and the Romani Democratic Party) and mainly had the massive support of local Romani residents. As the name "Colorful Ostrava" indicates, its mission was to increase desire for diversity - not just ethnic diversity, but diversity of characters and temperaments, not for a world of black and white divisions where people don't know how to talk to one another. 

Even though the main organization team was comprised of non-Romani residents of Ostrava, the vast majority of those attending the assembly were "blacks", and the number of "whites" who turned out to support them was very low, revealing a lack of active citizens able to stand up for the rights of others and take a personal stand against neo-Nazism. It is therefore even more necessary that we appreciate the minority of majority-society people who do take a stand against racism together with Romani people on our side of the barricades to show us that a colorful world is possible.

Instead of just one anti-racist assembly on Monday there were two, for justified reasons. During the first racist demonstration in Ostrava this year, those living in the Halfway House on Sokolská Avenue faced verbal assaults, and if police had not protected them, physical attacks would have taken place.  

That same scenario could have taken place on Monday, but members of the "Let's Block the Marches!" platform had the foresight to distribute their forces on the basis of that experience, with some activists assembling in front of the Halfway House building. Thanks to this tactic, physical attacks on the families living there were prevented because police did not permit the aggressors to access the area. 

In the recent past this has also been the case during demonstrations in the towns of České Budějovice and Duchcov. Physical occupation of spaces has helped protect not just people's dignity, but possibly their very lives. 

The other assembly on Svatopluk Čech Square in Ostrava began at 14:00. In between speeches, a musical duo (guitar and violin) of two young women pleasantly tempered the atmosphere of the gathering and represented support from the majority society.

Another important component was the closing blessing and subsequent religious service in the church. When the assembly was officially ended it was not safe to leave the area, so we remained together for some time.

The occasional tendencies of the racists to march on that very square in order to "improve the situation in the town" prompted discomfort among many of us, but our alliance in the peace-loving atmosphere was stronger than their efforts. We all suspected that there was an  internal desire to stop this endless train of racist marches, and when it manifested itself, we saw with our own eyes what "Opre Roma, Opre!" (Rise up, Roma!) means.   

The peaceful assembly set off from in front of the church on a spontaneous march toward the Halfway House on Sokolská Avenue. The slogan "We have the right to live!" flooded the streets of Ostrava with healthy pride and self-confidence.

The aim of the march was to reach the Halfway House and express support for its residents, whom the owner of the building had forbidden to leave the premises. "We are here with you!" the procession chanted, and those inside the house exchanged greetings with us by waving.

By then it was already nightfall and the racists whom the police had dispersed before our arrival were gathering again. This time they were across the street.

The procession of anti-racists and Romani people was separated from the neo-Nazis by just a cordon of police officers and the road itself. Even though the atmosphere reached the boiling point, the members of the Romani procession were pleased with the freedom they had been able to demonstrate and did not want to spoil their victory over racism by letting themselves be easily provoked.

Carrying a banner that read "Stop the pogroms", the crowd slowly marched back to the square where we had begun, and now not only were our Romani fellow-citizens waving to us from the windows, but everyone else around was too - people in cars, on the sidewalks, and in the trams. The feeling of joy and satisfaction increased. 

"We managed to gather and march, without anyone having to hire an expensive bus, out of the conviction that this witch-hunt against Romani people must end!" people said to one another on the way back to the square. The meeting came to an end there.

What was and what will be important

The people who witnessed these surprising events in Ostrava will definitely never forget them. Those who have been striving for almost half a year to wake up civil society and get it to say "No" to racism are glad to see their efforts have not been in vain.

Let's recall the demonstrations earlier this year in České Budějovice, where Romani people did not allow themselves to be pushed back into their homes, but defended them and stood outside on the streets in front of them. Let's recall Vítkov, where Romani people went to the square and, to the great dissatisfaction of [DSSS party chair] Mr Vandas, discredited his assembly there. 

We must also not forget the development of Romani people's anti-racist activities in Duchcov, where they are still facing harassment by the DSSS party's "fighters". Let's also recall Krupka, Plzeň, Přerov, and all of the co-workers and fans of the "Let's Block the Marches!" platform, which is challenging every member of this society to unite for civic mobilization, to find enough personal courage to stand up against racism.   

This is the only way we will stop neo-Nazism and racism on the streets of our towns, and perhaps even in the hearts and minds of those who promote it. In all of these towns, Romani people, with active support from majority-society individuals, overcame their fear, left behind the role of victim, assumed the role of active partner, and gained a personal experience with human rights which has educated and prepared them for the rest of their everyday battles with discrimination.

It is possible that the self-confidence acquired in Ostrava on Monday will not disappear like steam from a kettle, but will be transformed into active, long-term citizenship. It is also possible that the words of one of Charter 77's declarations will be fulfilled:  "Romani people themselves will determine the degree and the manner of their own integration!"  

Written for the server RomaReact.org

 

Ivanka Mariposa Čonková, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
Views: 649x

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Tags:  

Extremism, Neo-Nazism, Civil society, Ostrava, Racism, Roma, Šikana, Unemployment, Aktivismus, Let's Block the Marches



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