Europe’s Romani Population Can’t Breathe

Last month, a Czech police officer kneeled on the neck of Romani man Stanislav Tomáš until he stopped breathing. Fifty years since the first World Romani Congress, Europe’s Romani people urgently need a new movement against discrimination and deprivation.

Romani people protest the killing of Stanislav Tomáš at the hands of police in Teplice, Czech Republic, June 26, 2021. (Gabriel Kuchta / Getty Images)

Last month, a harrowing video emerged of a police officer kneeling on the neck of a 46-year-old man. He pleads and writhes for six long minutes before suffocating to death. Despite the striking coincidence in circumstance, the victim was not George Floyd. He was Stanislav Tomáš, the most recent Romani victim of police brutality in Europe — this time at the hands of Czech police. Official responses have ranged from the shocking to the silent. Czech authorities immediately defended the police’s actions, tweeting “No Czech George Floyd” and claiming that their actions were proportionate to his apparent criminality. Meanwhile, grassroots solidarity protests have arisen across Europe to demand justice.

The killing of Stanislav Tomáš is not an outlier. It is a tragedy nestled within a general trend of structural socioeconomic discrimination and violence inflicted by a populace whipped into fascistic frenzies. This is now common across the entire continent. Stanislav’s case is tragically typical: a murdered Roma man from a community that struggles from discrimination in access to education, employment, sanitation, infrastructure, and housing — effectively ghettoized. Stansilav was purportedly homeless at the time of his death.

From Italy’s Matteo Salvini calling for “a mass cleansing, street by street, piazza by piazza” to the anti-Roma pogroms already taking place in France, North Macedonia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, a contemporary far-right international has been waging an escalating, popular war on Roma across the continent since the collapse of communism. This is inextricably linked with the almost universally dire economic condition of the Romani people. With the withdrawal of welfare safety nets and states implementing a regime of welfare chauvinism, Romani communities are deemed a lumpen, unproductive surplus population. As has been noted elsewhere in interdisciplinary academic circles, we have seen a biopolitical shift from the “making live” hegemonic within pre-neoliberal global political economy, to the “letting die” of surplus labor in contemporary capitalism. The empirical example of the condition of the European Roma population evidences this shift.

Devastatingly, we are yet to see any coordinated, political mass movement of scale among Europe’s Roma population in response to this trend. But Romani people, spanning the entire continent, require a collective political movement with the purpose of mobilizing and organizing fellow Roma for the defense of their communities. This must be based on demands for collective emancipation from the combined threats of mob violence, police brutality, and mass poverty.

There have been many instances of organizing among Romani activists throughout history, even in the darkest and most hopeless of places. One movement in particular, however, has proven capable of mobilizing the Roma masses toward collective action. This unlikely, unique, and underappreciated movement was named the World Romani Congress (WRC).

First Congress

One weekend in April 1971, a motley crew of delegates representing twenty-three nations spanning four continents on both sides of the Iron Curtain met in Cannock House, then a small suburban boarding school in London. This meeting was convened to affirm a common identity among one of Europe’s largest and oldest diaspora: the Romani people. Funded and facilitated by the movement for nonaligned nations, with India and socialist Yugoslavia taking leading roles, it had to contend with a lack of common culture, a shared language of many variants that only half of them could speak, and a very elusive wish for unity.

By the end of the weekend there was an agreed common flag, an anthem, a national day, and a shared political project for self-determination and collective civil rights. However, this was not a copy-and-paste national liberation project that adopted the nationalist templates of the enlightenment. It consisted of a declaration of nationhood without borders, making no claim to a national territory.

This radical, seemingly impossible ideal was conjured in the aftermath of total war — a devastating war of aggression that was propagated by a fascist international coalition with the goal of eradicating Romani people, along with Jews, the disabled, and many others, from the face of the Earth. It was estimated by Adolf Eichmann, the administrator of mass murder, that over five hundred thousand European Roma were killed at the hands of the Nazis and collaborationist governments during the “Porajmos” in World War II (“the devouring,” in Romanes, refers to what most know as the Holocaust). This figure is slightly speculative: not a single Romani individual was called upon to testify during the Nuremberg trials by the Allied powers. The WRC was convened with the knowledge of this history, and that the Porajmos provided an eschatological moment for a break with this historical procession of catastrophe.

It is no surprise that the foundation stone of the WRC was laid in the internationalist ideals of nonaligned socialism. After a brief initial moment of hope, the drive for Romani emancipation in the USSR was quickly snuffed out by the Stalinist program of Russian homogenization. Meanwhile, the capitalist countries had long developed a knack for Roma persecution and dispossession to facilitate rapacious rent-seeking capital — Britain being no exception.

The symbolism of the nation-building project was closely associated with socialist Yugoslavia. Early variants of the WRC flag adopted the Yugoslav red star, now a red wheel. Slobodan Berberski, an early and active member of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, was elected as the first WRC president, and the WRC anthem “Jelem Jelem” (“I walked, I walked”) was written by Balkan Romani partisan Zharko Jovanovic with explicit reference to the crimes of the fascist-collaborationist Ustaša.

Berberski laid out the WRC’s objectives in his impassioned opening speech upon accepting the presidency:

Our people must combine and organize to work locally, nationally and internationally. Our problems are the same everywhere: we must proceed with our own forms of education, preserve and develop our Romani culture. . . . We have been passive long enough and I believe, starting today, we can succeed.

The project was fundamentally about reasserting the agency of Roma through forging a political community. The long-term ambitions of the first WRC were also clear: to embark on “amaro Romano drom” — a Romani road to emancipation.

Another founding member, Grattan Puxon, had a rich history of organizing travelling communities in Britain and Ireland against evictions. Grattan foresaw the road to emancipation through the forging of a new mimetic yet subversive nationalism. This nationalism centered round the concept of “Romanestan” rooted in whatever communities Roma people find themselves in: from Šuto Orizari to the mahalas of Mitrovica and the former Dale Farm site in Essex, England. This (inter)nationalism contains the positive nation-building components necessary to make gains in the realm of legal protections for state-recognized minorities, yet at the same time preserving the negative space to be filled by a radically diverse, ancient diaspora without baking in the dangerous exclusivity found in the nationalisms of the enlightenment. This is in stark contrast to the extreme othering and exclusivity essential to the nation-building of European fascism.

Defining Ourselves

The institution that Baberski and Puxon helped establish has inspired thousands of Roma to break traditional caricatures, self-define their communities, forge a new (inter)nationalism, and mobilize education projects, and has shone unprecedented light on the plight of Roma human rights. Today, however, it has been said that the WRC, now coming to its Tenth Congress, has become co-opted and toothless in the face of escalating threats of mass poverty, state persecution, and mob violence, including the tragic murder of Stanislav Tomáš.

In April 2021, Puxon argued in an interview with the Roma Education Fund that the European Romani movement has become fragmented and disjointed, with little cooperation or active coalition building. Elsewhere, he noted that the old institutions that his generation helped build, like the WRC, have lost their militancy and no longer have their roots in the communities that they claim to speak for. In a recollection of the events of the First Congress, he stated:

Within the fulsome recognition [of the Romani right to self-determination] lies hidden a subtle downgrading of what the Congress intended. . . . As if for 24 hours [on International Roma Day], an amnesty applies, and officialdom sets aside black prejudice.

For communities like Stanislav’s, there can be no amnesty without justice and no celebration without liberation.

The aims and objectives of the WRC were established at a time when, across the balance sheet, European Roma benefitted from basic social safety nets and more or less universal access to services, education, housing, and employment. Romani communities have been a catastrophic casualty of the neoliberal turn and the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). As a World Bank report cited in Istvan Pogany’s The Roma Café noted:

Roma are the most prominent poverty risk group in many of the countries of [CEE]. They are poorer than other groups, more likely to fall into poverty, and more likely to remain poor . . . poverty rates are more than 10 times that of non-Roma . . . nearly 80% of Roma in Romania and Bulgaria were living on $4.30 per day . . . in Hungary, one of the most prosperous accession countries, 40% of Roma live below the poverty line.

Roma communities are confined to residing in precarious marginality, unable to pay rents and meet the costs of privatized services, whilst being completely excluded from whatever scraps of public provision that remain. Despite the formal establishment of universal human rights, in a review of the Legal Situation of the Roma in Europe, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly concluded that

Discrimination is widespread in every field of public and personal life, including access to public places, education, employment, health services and housing. . . . The economic and social segregation of Roma are turning into ethnic discrimination.

Today, cultural engagement remains a luxury for the vast majority of Roma communities. Instead of primarily focusing on facilitating opportunities for cultural engagement, the WRC should orientate itself toward the purpose of internationally organizing local communities to fight for material and economic rights: to good quality housing and/or land access with environmental security for travelers, education, sanitation, access to basic services.

This should be in conjunction with legal and political education so communities can carry this fight through the long march through the courts and, wherever necessary and possible, in nonviolent resistance. Contemporary strategy needs to be orientated around survival and defense. Puxon was himself an active participant on the barricades of the Dale Farm evictions resistance in Essex in 2011. He is a practitioner of exactly the kind of community organizing that the WRC should be coordinating today.

The WRC made spectacular gains for the international Roma community. It forged a progressive (inter)nationalism grounded in anti-fascism; inspired thousands to pick up the flag and self-identify as a community of multiplicity and diversity; raised the profile of the Roma as a large minority diaspora entitled to legal protections; and embarked on many public education programs to develop culture and reinforce a sense of agency. However, at the current historical juncture, Romani populations find themselves under a concerted, aggressive siege from violent state forces and far-right mobs hell-bent on the collective punishment and eradication of a perceived surplus population.

In Stanislav’s home country, the Czech Republic, the unemployment rate of the Roma community is between 80 and 85 percent. The majority of those with employment are in precarious work at low wages. Unsurprisingly, this has led to indebtedness at highly unfavorable rates, causing mass exclusion from social housing. Evictions have ensured effective ghettoization into holobyty — barely habitable dwellings that often lack basic amenities. It is here that progressive nation-building finds its limits. Puxon’s Romanestan is in a state of emergency. It’s time for a change of approach.