Violent protests against the Roma population in north Bohemia come on the heels of a pair of incidents where Roma allegedly assaulted members of the white population in two towns in the Ústecký region.
With the situation escalating in recent days, a group of special state riot police has been deployed to the area.
Many say the flare-up of tensions is rooted in a long-boiling conflict between local residents and the Roma minority which has been migrating to north Bohemia in recent years. Experts say the ensuing crackdown and publicity will do little to alleviate the strain.
“There is polarization between the two populations. It’s the same as we saw happening in Great Britain,” said Laco Toušek, an anthropology professor at the University of West Bohemia in Plzeň. “It’s about poverty and social conditions. I don’t think the majority are racist; they just fear this disorder.”
Recent conflict has largely centered on the town of Rumburk, where 20 Roma men allegedly attacked six unarmed white men outside of a dance club Aug. 21. That came just weeks after three white people were seriously injured when a group of Roma men allegedly attacked them with machetes at a bar in Nový Bor. In response, thousands of white residents from villages in the region have taken to the streets, some going to Roma neighborhoods and chanting slogans like “Gypsies to work! Czechs, Czechs!” and “Where are you, you black swine?” while pelting windows with blunt objects and destroying property.
In the days following the attack outside the Rumburk dance club, Police President Petr Lessy dispatched 50 riot police to the area and said he was considering setting up a unit of about 200 riot police for the Ústecký region.
Police have intervened in several of the demonstrations, the largest of which was held in Rumburk Aug. 26, when 1,500 protestors appeared and then were dispersed after they tore down a fence at the residence of a Roma family. Afterward, some protestors tried to raid a Roma occupied home. So far, only five demonstrators have been detained, a response that Roma rights advocates say is inappropriately mild.
The blow-up has resulted from long-term tensions in the area, observers said, as historic isolation and marginalization of Roma have reached a boiling point with worsening economic conditions and rising unemployment, while the majority population have deeply embedded doubts about a minority that has had little success in integrating.
More locally, residents blame the steady flow of Roma to the area on the establishment of ghettoes by developers supported by state social housing subsidies, a fact that public policy experts acknowledge has led to the sort of isolated communities that perpetuate social inequality.
“The worst thing you can do is build these housing projects with people of all the same social status,” Toušek said. “You have to do the complete opposite and create heterogeneity.”
Local residents say this arrangement has caused a spike in crime rates in north Bohemia, some going as far as to say assaults carried out by Roma are a daily occurrence.
Police statistics show crime rates have gone up, but haven’t skyrocketed. In the first seven months of this year, there were 289 crimes in Rumburk, actually less compared to 314 during the same time last year. In Šluknov, another town in the area, there were 152 compared to 89, and in Varnsdorf, 275 compared to 203.
‘Scared to go out’
But the protest and prevailing mood in Rumburk following the attacks there and in Nový Bor paint an overwhelmingly negative picture of public opinion in that area regarding the Roma population.
“What you hear about the situation here is not exaggerated at all. To go out at night is a dangerous risk. You have to be careful with your things, or [the Roma] will steal absolutely everything,” said Petra, a waitress in Rumburk who declined to give her surname for fear of retribution. “People are going out with knives in their pockets. … I’m a young woman, and I am scared to go out.”
Rumburk Mayor Jaroslav Sykáček’s response has been to ask lawmakers to help tide the flow of “misfits” into the area with new legislation that limits the number of people that can live in one apartment. Such requests, however, come despite evidence that there has been only a trivial increase in the number of newcomers to the town, with only 16 new residents in 2010, and nine in the first months of 2011, according to a report from news site Aktuálně.cz.
Nationally, a public opinion poll taken in April by the Public Opinion Research Center at the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences showed that 81 percent of respondents identified coexistence with Roma as problematic.
“Roma always were the least popular group by far” in surveys conducted by the center, according to Jan Červenka, a researcher at the institute. This is a result of complicated and sensitive issues stemming from the troubled history of Roma in the Czech Republic and stereotypes about their behavior identified by survey respondents, like abusing the social system, some of which have some “smaller or greater justification in reality,” he said.
“Unfortunately, negative phenomena and incidents are much more newsworthy material and have a far greater impact on public opinion than positive examples of unproblematic co-existence,” Červenka added.
In the current situation, he said, the inflammatory rhetoric of political speeches that often refer to Roma as “maladjusted citizens” are more problematic than the media.
The policies proposed to address the situation will only widen the rift and do little to stop crime, Toušek said, as sending in riot police will polarize the two groups more, and local government responses like the Rumburk mayor’s proposal to ban sitting in public places only sweeps the problem under the rug.
“If you want to wipe out the [problematic] symbols [affiliated with Roma], you can do it this way, but you are not actually dealing with [the Roma],” Toušek said. “With crime, you have to do the opposite: Get everything out into the open, on the street, and create a community.”