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‘NA ROMSKÝCH ŽIVOTECH ZÁLEŽÍ’: the death of a Romani man in police custody exposes failures to protect Gypsies

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The death of Stanislav Tomáš has drawn comparisons to George Floyd after Czech police kneeled on his neck for several minutes.

25 Jun 2021

Diyora Shadijanova

CW: Graphic descriptions of police violence, anti-Romani racism

When George Floyd was murdered in May 2019, the world stopped in horror. The shockwaves from the horrendous way Floyd died – suffocated by the knee of a police officer to the neck – are still reverberating around the world today. But lessons have not been learnt; this week, graphic video footage circulated of Stanislav Tomáš, a 46-year-old Romani man from Teplice, Czech Republic, lying prone on the ground, two police officers resting their full body weight on his neck and knees. Newspapers reported that Tomáš died in an ambulance shortly after being subjected to this treatment for several minutes. 

No sooner did news of Tomáš’ death begin to circulate, than a wave of pro-police statements, steeped in anti-Romani racism, hit the Czech media.. Police claimed Tomáš was a drug addict who died in the ambulance purely due to the drugs in his system, well before any official autopsy results were released to the public. That didn’t deter the Czech deputy prime minister, Jan Hamáček, who praised police action in a tweet, writing: “Those breaching the law under the influence of narcotics must reckon with police intervention.” 

The drugs narrative persists; a court-ordered autopsy later reported Tomáš’ cause of death was ‘probably a drug overdose’, despite Tomáš’ family disputing the police claims that he was on drugs – instead saying Tomáš was a reformed addict excited to start a new job as a security guard. Even if drugs were found in his system, the dismissal of the role the violent police restraint played in Tomáš’ death is one we’ve seen time and time again to shift blame on marginalised victims of state violence – one of the main defence witnesses for Derek Chauvin tried to claim that drugs were the cause of George Floyd’s death, not Chauvin’s knee.

It’s also the same formula that Czech police used to justify the death of another Romani man in 2016.

On 18 October of that year, police were called to investigate a disturbance at a local pizzeria in the small town of Žatec and ended up arresting 27-year-old Miroslav Demeter, pinning him down under a pile of officers.Whilst Demeter was immobilised, a patron knelt down and punched him in the head. Video footage shows Demeter call out and then fall horribly silent. Later resuscitation attempts by paramedics failed to revive him and he was pronounced dead .

Again, police alleged Demeter’s death was caused because he was under the influence of narcotics. The owner of the pizzeria where he died also sought to defame him, alleging Demeter was physically attacking customers despite his own CCTV showing nothing of the kind. And, in a terrible parallel with Tomáš’ death, another politician – in this case the Mayor of Žatec, Zdeňka Hamousová – claimed that the “policing [response] was adequate within the limits of the law, and not at all brutal”. To date, Miroslav Demeter’s death has gone unpunished.

“The dismissal of the role the violent police restraint played in Tomáš’ death is one we’ve seen time and time again to shift blame on marginalised victims of state violence”

When Romani people experience – sometimes fatal – violence at the hands of police, they face a wall of blank faces, from all sides of the political spectrum. We have faced right-wing persecution for decades; however, we have also faced left-wing indifference for the same amount of time. Gypsies are not the ideal victim and anti-Romani racism means that, for far too many people, claims of dead men being under the influence of drugs is more than enough justification for their deaths. 

This is not a new horror for me. I am a Gypsy woman. I am from Eastern Europe. I am a victim of the same police abuses that Romani people have faced long before the massacres at Auschwitz. This is yet another tragic entry in the annals of our blood-soaked history of slavery and slaughter that’s largely ignored because we are not sympathetic victims. We are not people society feels sorry for. We are the people who watch our elders spat at, shoved, heckled when they walk down European streets with a dikhlo and brown skin.

Not enough has been done to protect Romani people. This is not a fight Gypsies can win alone. Not when we can be murdered on the streets by police officers with no repercussions. We have a blueprint for the sort of action that can follow when someone from a marginalised group dies after a police officer kneels on their neck – now the question is, how do we use the example set by Black Lives Matter to build coalitions of support in the same manner? We need your help. State violence against one oppressed group is never limited to them alone. 

“It is an injustice to Travellers and Romani people to always lump us into one neat little abbreviation, because nobody cares enough to recognise us as individual ethnic groups who endure individualised abuses and oppression”

We must also start having difficult conversations about experience. In England, Romani identities are erased and intertwined with Irish Travellers. We are similar but not the same. Irish Travellers, at times, benefit from a white-passing privilege that Gypsies do not. The persecution Romani people face in Europe – particularly now, as right-wing ideologies take root across the continent – is specific. Last month, human rights groups warned that during Covid-19, members of the Romani community have been exposed to increased policing and police violence, particularly in countries like Slovakia and Romania. Roma in Europe are fleeing on rafts to countries like Mexico to seek asylum. 

We are the largest ethnic minority in Europe and yet our faces are not on any media supposed to represent us, unless it is a hit piece on ‘immigrant Gypsies coming to steal jobs’ – despite apparently also being ‘work-shy scroungers’.

There must be an understanding of the differences between Travellers and Gypsies before any kind of European-wide activism can take place. It is an injustice to Travellers and Romani people to always lump us into one neat little abbreviation, because nobody cares enough to recognise us as individual ethnic groups who endure individualised abuses and oppression. At times, the nature of our fights diverge. We must always stand beside each other, but recognise that simultaneously we are communities with separate cultures and identities.

After the tragedy of Tomáš’s death and testimonies about thousands of other cases of violence which go unheard outside of Gypsy circles, we must stand together, as we did after the death of George Floyd. Following Stanislav Tomáš’ death, Gypsies in the Czech Republic have laid banners at the site of a vigil for the dead man, reading “NA ROMSKÝCH ŽIVOTECH ZÁLEŽÍ” – ‘Romani Lives Matter’. Only with the support of non-Roma can we make that statement hold the weight it needs to finally end state violence against Romani people. 

We must combat these waves of domestic terrorism perpetuated by police officers against Gypsy people. Because when they come for one marginalised group, they come for us all.

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