Do Romani lives matter?
Police officers are pinning a bare-chested man to the ground. One officer exerts pressure on the man’s legs, while another places his knee upon the man’s neck. A third officer attempts to handcuff him. Undeterred by the man’s cries of agony, the first officer keeps his knee on the man’s neck, grinding his face into the pavement. After five minutes, the man falls silent. The officer removes his knee but places his hands on the man’s torso. He now appears unconscious.
This is the final frame of a video filmed by a witness on their mobile. It made the death of Stanislav Tomáš in Teplice, Czech Republic, into worldwide news. Shortly after, Tomáš was taken to an ambulance where he was pronounced dead.
The video was recorded on 19 June 2021. Just six days before, Derek Chauvin, the police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, was sentenced to 22 years and six months in a US prison. As news of Tomáš’s death spread across the world, the similarities with the Floyd case were obvious: in both cases, a man had died after a police officer knelt on his neck.
Chauvin’s conviction had followed the enormous and ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which could yet fundamentally change the brutal way US law enforcement has policed black Americans over decades. But Tomáš was killed in the Czech Republic – and he was Romani. While the Floyd comparison prompted widespread international coverage, his story was soon forgotten.
However Tomáš’s death raises a long-neglected question: in the eyes of governments, law enforcement bodies and society at large, do Romani lives matter?
Shocking incidents of police brutality against Roma span from Sweden and Finland to Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Greece. It’s a shameful reminder of the entrenched institutional prejudice faced by Europe’s largest ethnic minority, who top the charts of social disadvantage across the continent. Despite growing swathes of the media, civil society, government – and even large corporations – falling over each other to claim that they champion diversity, there is a profound and enduring reluctance to embrace the cause of the Roma. To understand why, I travelled to the Czech Republic to speak with those seeking justice for Stanislav Tomáš and his family.
‘No Czech Floyd’
In the video of Tomáš’s arrest, Romani residents can be seen watching events unfold from an upstairs window. A woman says in alarm: ‘They’re smothering him!’. ‘Stay down, don’t get up,’ another [Romani] resident advises the arrestee.
In the weeks that followed, these feelings of alarm and sympathy crystallized into anger. From Pristina to Glasgow, Roma communities held vigils and demonstrations to remember Tomáš and protest against the Czech state’s response: total denial of culpability.
Czech authorities had quickly realized the potential implications of the George Floyd comparison following the release of the video. Police officers in Teplice were at risk of coming under the same international pressure that eventually forced Chauvin’s conviction for murder in the US. In a tweet posted on 21 June, the national police force stressed that Tomáš was no ‘Czech Floyd’, and denied any connection between their arrest tactics and his subsequent death.
Officers said they had responded to a street disturbance, and released a video showing two men, one of which is allegedly Tomáš, in an altercation. One of the men is seen hitting out at a parked car – though eyewitnesses said Tomáš was protecting a car from being damaged.
But in their efforts to demolish the parallel, the Czech police inadvertently reinforced it. The police officials’ subsequent claims – that an autopsy found Tomáš had drugs in his system, that he had behaved provocatively, and he had a criminal record – are the exact same arguments that were used in Floyd’s case.
Politicians were soon stepping up to reinforce the message of blame. Then-interior minister Jan Hamacek said the arresting officers had his ‘full support’, adding that ‘anybody under the influence of addictive substances who breaks the law has to count on the police intervening’.
Prime Minister Andrej Babiš tweeted that if ‘someone destroys cars… they cannot expect to be handled with gloves’. He went on to say that a ‘normal, decent person’ would not have ended up in this situation.
The discourse on Czech social media reflected a popular view of Roma as scroungers, who are encouraged to be irresponsible by the state. One joke circulated online in the aftermath of the killing played on the dual meaning of the Czech word dávka – either a ‘dose’ of a drug or ‘dole’ payments to the unemployed.
‘The joke says Stanislav Tomáš’s death is the fault of the welfare office because they overdosed him,’ Gwendolyn Albert tells me in disgust, over a still-water with lemon at a café in Prague. The American-born activist was the key point of contact for international Roma and human rights organizations following Tomáš’s death.
‘It’s horrible, callous, cruel,’ she says. ‘The police say he died of an overdose, and kneeling on his neck for five minutes is categorically ruled out as having anything to do with it.’
As with many of the world’s most impoverished and marginalized communities, levels of drug use are high among Czech Roma. Those campaigning on Tomáš’s behalf do not reject out of hand that he had taken drugs, but they fiercely contest this was the cause of death. Tomáš’s family made three requests for a second autopsy, but each one was refused.
For Albert, politicians’ bigoted interventions and popular prejudice reinforce one another. ‘It’s character assassination after the fact,’ she says of interior minister Hamacek’s outburst. ‘You already know the society you’re speaking to and you know you’ll get them on your side by saying it.’
Czech public opinion, after all, is strongly prejudiced against Roma. Although research has shown that attitudes are improving among young people in the Czech Republic, they are still more likely to believe co-existence between the mainstream population and the Roma is ‘problematic’ – compared to co-existence with the Jewish or LGBTQI+ communities, which they view positively.
‘In Czech society there is enormous pressure for social conformity,’ says Albert, who has lived here for the past 30 years. ‘It existed even before the Communist era – [and] totalitarianism did not help, it cemented that as the norm.’
Still, she says, there is some cause for hope. If the anti-Roma rhetoric was aimed at attracting votes, it failed: Andrej Babiš’s populist government was not re-elected.
Scene of the crime
Dubská, the street where Stanislav Tomáš died, is a 10-minute walk from the railway station in Teplice. The Roma community in this spa town 80 kilometres north of Prague is small and dispersed, but they have a noticeable presence among Dubská’s decrepit apartment blocks.
Romani children call out to one another playfully from a window, but otherwise the street is quiet. There are no flowers or candles on display outside the building where Tomáš died. Two non-Roma women are chatting in subdued tones outside a plush-looking doctors’ surgery. Much like the international media, the Czech public moved on long ago.
‘Stanislav Tomáš is not the only, or first victim, of the Czech Republic,’ says Josef ‘Jožka’ Miker, a Roma activist who was one of the first on the scene when word of the killing spread. A well-built man in his mid-50s, Tomáš tells me about another case, in which a 30-year-old Roma man died in police custody).
Jožka believes the historical context is key to contemporary racism. Lying just 40 miles south of the German city of Dresden, Teplice is part of the Sudetenland border territories. The Sudetenland, then German-speaking, was annexed in 1938 by the Nazis, whose genocidal campaign is thought to have killed 90 per cent of Romani people in what is now the Czech Republic.6 Most of today’s Czech Roma population are in fact of Slovak heritage: like Jožka’s, their families moved to Bohemia and Moravia in the second half of the 20th century.
But the Czechs were hardly innocents, Jožka says. ‘Czechoslovakia after the war and before the war was a terribly racist country,’ he says. ‘In our country, minorities are treated as second-class citizens.’
The Communist government saw the continued impoverishment of Czechoslovak Roma, after the war, as an embarrassment. In the 1960s, it began forcefully sterilizing Romani women.
I go to meet Jaroslav Roman, international secretary of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, to find out whether attitudes have changed. Unlike in many Eastern European countries, Communists have maintained a strong position in Czech politics, only losing their parliamentary representation in October 2021.
‘Our position is that we support the policy [that] they have to get integrated into the system, the laws are valid for everybody including the Roma community,’ he tells me. While he’s clear this should ‘absolutely not’ mean Roma giving up their culture, and calls for more social support, he still seems to see the Roma as somehow responsible for their own marginalization.
Any hope that the 1989 Velvet Revolution could bring about justice were soon dashed. ‘The situation of the Roma has declined by at least 80 per cent since the fall of communism,’ says Jožka. ‘Roma live in worse conditions today.’
Slum landlords and vloggers
The crumbling tenements of Predlice in Ústí nad Labem, a city not far from Teplice, are home to a large Romani population. I have come here to meet the activist Miroslav Brož, who with Jožka set up the Roma civil rights organization Konexe, 10 years ago.
He takes me to Exil, the only bar in his hometown where he says he can socialize without getting into arguments with racists. A bar and alternative music venue, it puts on Romani music nights alongside reggae and techno. Brož is not Romani – he has mixed Czech and Jewish heritage – but he’s well known in the town for his antifascist activism and decades of work with the Roma community.
A former social worker, Brož runs Konexe on a shoestring, in his spare time. He complains that applications for funding have been knocked back – with the Czech state preferring to channel money to large NGOs with compliant leadership and few grassroots connections. He scaled back his activism several years ago after suffering severe burnout, but was thrown fully back into the Roma solidarity arena in June last year, when he became the liaison for the Tomáš family.
As we wander round Predlice, Brož is greeted warmly by residents chatting on their doorsteps. The buildings are semi-derelict, but many are inhabited despite their lack of windows and basic utilities. Brož explains that in spite of the poor state of the housing Roma residents still pay some of the highest rents in Ústí. The Roma Civil Monitor project points to the inadequacy of the country’s statute book, saying that ‘the right to housing is not explicitly addressed in Czech law’ and that ‘tenant protections barely exist’.
Substandard housing is an issue for Roma everywhere, but deregulation and opaque ownership structures are particularly acute in the Czech Republic.
Albert, who alongside her work as an activist and translator, sits on the Czech Government Council for Romani Minority Affairs, believes housing discrimination exacerbates popular prejudice. Gentrification of the real estate market has forced Romani families to go to ‘anyone that will give them a lease – which is only people who have figured out how to exploit them’. Artificially inflated rents can be charged back to the state through social security payments and although it is the landlords who benefit, it’s the Roma who get demonized as scroungers. ‘They won’t do the sensible thing which is to define housing in such a way to make this abuse impossible,’ Albert says.
The Czech Republic has vowed to ‘integrate’ its Roma population. Yet it has introduced legislation which actively discriminates against its Roma citizens. While forced evictions affect Roma disproportionately across Europe, the Czech Republic has taken this to a new level. Since 2017, councils can designate whole areas as ‘benefit-free zones’. Politicians have claimed this was geared at tackling landlord exploitation, but municipalities have used the policy to reduce their Roma populations. Czech authorities also have a record of evicting Romani families with the supposed aim of refurbishing their housing – only to deny them the right to return when reconstruction work is completed.
At the time Stanislav Tomáš was killed, his sister Simona and their elderly mother – who is completely dependent on her daughter’s care – were living in Bílina, a small town near Teplice. Their apartment block was one of the worst in the town and although – like many Romani households – they had no hot water, they were paying an exorbitant rent. Though Simona was eligible for social security payments as a carer, she had never claimed them.
After Tomáš’ death, Konexe made sure that money donated by NGOs from abroad paid for the funeral, and the leftover sums were put towards helping Simona and her mother find somewhere to live.
But while Roma communities across Europe rallied in support, some people closer to home sought to take advantage. A recent phenomenon across Europe’s Roma communities has been the growth of vlogging, with Romani influencers gaining significant followings for Facebook Live broadcasts, in which they comment upon current affairs and solicit donations. One such broadcaster had asked for money to ‘solve’ Tomáš’s killing and support his family. Brož says this man effectively kidnapped Simona, driving her around in a car for days on end while broadcasting live. After arranging an expensive funeral with an invoice made out to Simona, the vlogger pocketed the donations and left the scene. It was left to Brož to pick up the pieces of this destructive episode and eventually rehouse the family.
At the big demo against climate change during Glasgow’s hosting of COP26 on 6 November, a feeder march from the south side is advancing through the city. At its core is a troupe of Romani dancers, who have teamed up with a local music collective to keep the crowds entertained. The Romani singer, Sonia Mikhalewicz, is in full song. When the police attempt to stop the sound system from crossing the Clyde to reach the rallying point at Glasgow Green, she shouts ‘let us through!’ in between verses in the Romani language. Eventually the police relent, and the beat goes on.
Mikhalewicz is an activist with Romano Lav (‘Roma Voice’), who offer a prime example of what well-resourced Roma-led organizations can achieve. It’s based in Govanhill, a district that has been central to Scotland’s immigration story ever since its sandstone tenements were built. Successive waves of Irish, Italian, Jewish and Punjabi arrivals have made it their home, and Govanhill now houses around 3,000 Roma.
Govanhill gets a bad press. Newspapers keen to capitalize on its location in Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s parliamentary constituency have amplified unsubstantiated rumours of widespread trafficking rings and child sexual abuse. In 2019 four criminal gang leaders were jailed for trafficking women from Slovakia. But police have found stories of Romani families selling their children for sex to be entirely unfounded. Such stories have nonetheless continued to gain currency. Some Glasgow taxi drivers refuse to pick up fares locally and last year Jayda Fransen, the former deputy leader of the far-right Britain First party, decamped to Scotland to stand against Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament elections.
But Fransen’s poor showing – she received just 46 votes – is proof that the hard work of community activists is paying off. Romano Lav receives funding from the Scottish Government and other public sector and charitable organizations, but it is ultimately kept on the road by a core of dedicated Romani activists – predominantly women. Its approach combines youth work and community support with a vibrant progamme of creative activities and an annual celebration of International Romani Day.
Romano Lav has a close relationship with the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, an organization set up to save the local swimming pool, that has since become a key institution for the south side. The partnership connects the Roma population to the wider community; residents meet their Roma neighbours as fellow Glaswegians and community activists – instead of perceiving them in the terms dictated by a hostile media.
This is the kind of common understanding that is essential to combatting prejudice and politics that thrive on division. As Gwendolyn Albert put it to me in Prague, as a small minority of national populations (Roma make up nine per cent in Romania, but as little as two per cent in the Czech Republic) Europe’s Roma need allies. ‘We have to cultivate non-Romani people who are going to bat for their equal treatment,’ she says.
Strong allies give Roma organizations a better chance to defend their rights – and win. Late last year, Floriča, a Romani resident of Govanhill, faced eviction after discovering that the man she was paying rent to was in fact a scammer who had broken into an empty flat he didn’t own. Scottish tenants’ union Living Rent joined forces with Romano Lav; activists formed pickets outside the offices of the Govanhill Housing Association and the social landlord found Floriča and her family a new flat.
Such victories will be crucial to building confidence and solidarity within Roma communities. But when people like Tomáš are dying on the streets, Romani activists do not want to limit themselves to the basic tasks which – in a just society – would be performed by the state. Meaningful solidarity means supporting Europe’s Roma to demand structural, and not just individual change.
The family of Tomáš continues to pursue justice, but in the words of Miroslav Brož, it is a ‘marathon’ effort. The ‘final’ police autopsy report in October insisted that there was no connection between ‘the police intervention and the man’s death’, blaming it instead on ‘methamphetamine intoxication’. According to Brož, the prospect of leaving him ‘lying any longer in a freezer box was unbearable’. Tomáš was buried in Teplice on 24 July.
His case, and the events around it, show why only systemic change can protect Romani lives. This requires the Roma cause to be championed by a broader base. Without this, the authorities will continue to stonewall, demonstrating that in the eyes of the European establishment, Romani lives do not matter at all.
On 23 November 2021, Members of the European Parliament gathered for a plenary session to discuss police brutality against Roma, set in train after months of pressure from MEPs following the killing of Tomáš.
The EU establishment’s resistance was on show from the off. Slovenia’s hard-right foreign minister Anže Logar opened the debate on behalf of the EU’s council of ministers. He framed it as a discussion of ‘the status of Roma in the European Union’ and made bland platitudes to ‘respect for human rights in law enforcement activities’. Far-right Italian MEP Sylvia Sardone lectured the chamber that ‘many Roma communities have no intention of integrating, and very often they live in camps where illegality is the norm’.
As Peter Pollák, a Slovak populist MEP from a Romani background, acknowledged, the Floyd comparison will not bring about justice without a popular mobilization to back it up. The only difference between the two killings, Pollák said, was that the Tomáš case ‘didn’t resonate with people throughout Europe in the way that George Floyd’s case did, with people shouting “I can’t breathe”’.
The first step toward true acceptance of Romani identity is for governments to acknowledge their failures. In the European Parliament debate the tired gospel of integration preached by some MEPs was at least starting to wear thin. ‘This idea you have to integrate them is as if they’re some kind of aliens from outer space!’ Cornelia Ernst, of Germany’s Die Linke party, complained. ‘I’m tired of that. These are people we live alongside.’
In the five months since Tomáš’s death, Romani men and women have made their voices heard louder than ever before – but the forces that have long failed them still refuse to listen. Will we?