Solidarity on Glasgow’s south side

Conrad Landin reports from a vigil in memory of Stanislav Tomas, a Roma man who died following a brutal arrest by police in the Czech Republic.

Credit: Conrad Landin

Glasgow’s south side is no stranger to the colours of the Romani flag. Home to thousands of Roma from Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic, the working class district of Govanhill celebrates International Romani Day each April with a carnival atmosphere.

But the blue, green and red banners struck a more sombre note on Thursday, as Roma activists and residents gathered to demand justice for Stanislav Tomas, who died last weekend in the Czech town of Teplice following a brutal arrest by local police. A video of the incident shows an officer kneeling on Tomas’s neck for four minutes, inattentive to the 46-year-old’s lack of consciousness. Though the death has garnered little mainstream press attention so far, the officers’ actions have provoked comparisons to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.

Czech authorities have poured scorn on the comparison, saying there has been ‘No “Czech Floyd”’ in a post on Twitter. Police insisted the arrest was ‘carried out in accordance with the law and had no connection with the death of the deceased’. Police have claimed that a doctor present at the time of Tomas’s death said it was probably drug-related, and have since said that an autopsy eliminated the possibility that death was caused by police actions.

A demand for justice

In Glasgow’s Queen’s Park, the vigil – organized by the community group Romano Lav – was led by three Roma women who urged local and international communities to reject the police narrative, and fight to keep Tomas’s death in the public consciousness. Sonia Mikhalewicz, a Roma resident of Clydebank, to the west of Glasgow, said Tomas had been ‘murdered by police… same like George Floyd’. She said: ‘We demand justice for Stanislav Tomas and his family, and for all Roma in the world. The police say he was on the drugs. That does not authorize them to take a life, because nobody can take a life, no-one in the world. It is only God who can take and give a life.’

I really can’t imagine a situation where the police are punished for what happened

Rahela Cirpaci, a Govanhill resident of Romanian Roma origin, concurred. She told the small crowd: ‘Even if he was on drugs, why does that matter? Does this give the police the right to smother him alive?’ She said the police statement amounted to a ‘pathetic attempt to legitimize police brutality’ against Roma.

‘Stanislav’s death was clearly a product of this deep-rooted racism,’ she added. ‘We all need to work together and demand this murder is investigated. If we do not take matters into our hands, then no-one will.’

Jana Pushkova, a Czech Roma resident of Govanhill, was pessimistic about the outcome of an investigation. ‘Purely from my opinion, from my experience, I really can’t imagine a situation where the police are punished for what happened,’ she said, speaking through an interpreter. ‘What we’re seeing in the Czech Republic is also drawing a parallel with what happened in America with George Floyd.

‘I feel this is something that was definitely intentional. The police in the Czech Republic have a feeling that they are protected… in these types of actions.’

Roma communities face discrimination across Europe. In a 2018 survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, over half of Roma people who responded from the Czech Republic said they had experienced hate-motivated harassment over the previous 12 months – the highest of the nine European states surveyed.

I feel this is something that was definitely intentional. The police in the Czech Republic have a feeling that they are protected

Pushkova said she felt ‘at home here [in Glasgow] because I don’t feel the same threat of racism as I do in the Czech Republic’. Though community relations in Glasgow’s south side are relatively harmonious, that has not stopped racists – often from outside the area – from attempting to stoke tensions. In May’s Scottish Parliament elections former Britain First deputy leader Jayda Fransen stood in the area against Scottish National Party First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Outside a polling station on election day, the far-right Fransen squared up to Sturgeon, who roundly told her: ‘You are a fascist and a racist and the south side of Glasgow will reject you.’ 

Fransen received just 46 votes. Just a week later, the area made national headlines again when a massive demonstration – mobilized by word of mouth – successfully secured the release of two Indian-national residents threatened with deportation by the Home Office. Achieving justice for Stanislav Tomas will require action across the globe, but Glasgow’s south side will be sure to play its part.