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Right-Wing Extremism

Street party vs. hate: Czech Roma under threat

At street protests in Czech cities, neo-Nazis shout hate slogans to spread fear amongst the Roma population. They seem prepared to use violence. But Roma in the town of Duchcov have responded with peaceful measures.

Little Robert and his friends have the streets to themselves, for the time being. The seven-year-old lies on the black asphalt as his sister traces his small body in chalk. They add a smiley face to the figure.

Two older boys hastily scribble Roma flags onto the street - blue and green, with the red chakra wheel in the middle - and write "We are here too" beside it. With this, the children are trying to somehow ward off the approaching calamity.

Four marches in three months

Just an hour and a half later, some 50 neo-Nazis and 250 Duchcov residents march over the chalk figure. Their slogans echo among the crumbling facades of the buildings in this neighborhood where many Roma families live. "This is our home" and "Bohemia for Czechs," the neo-Nazis chant.

Little Robert (not his real name) is furious about the march. He would like to do more than draw chalk figures on the street. "At least throw a skinhead to the ground and give him some kicks," says the seven-year-old. Really? "No, put him in handcuffs, so he can't move." This is already the fourth anti-Roma march he's had to witness in his neighborhood in the past three months.

We're also here, Roma children write in chalk on the street. (Photo: Martin Nejezchleba)

"We are here too," Roma children wrote

The protests in Duchcov were triggered by an attack in the Roma district in mid-May, when some drunk people brutally beat a man and a woman. The Czech neo-Nazi website Free Resistance used security camera recordings of the attack to stoke anti-Roma sentiment and call for nationwide protest.

Criminality in poor areas is something many Czechs are worried about, and the Roma are being held collectively to blame. "Will we just continue to look on?" was the rhetorical question posed in the right-wing online video.

Persecution becoming commonplace

Around 2,500 people in eight Czech cities answered the call, and marched alongside the neo-Nazis. Their derogatory motto: "Together against the Gypsy terror." In the industrial city of Ostrava in the east of the country, demonstrators clashed with police on the streets. Police used teargas and batons to prevent right-wing radicals from entering the largely Roma neighborhood.

Roma children with painted faces

Street party to counter the pogrom atmosphere: refocusing attention on the positive

In Duchcov, around 60 residents and volunteers gathered to oppose the neo-Nazi march. A makeshift podium, built from pallets, was erected in front of the entrance to a home. A banner hung beside it, bearing the phrase: "Black, white, let's join forces."

Performance artist Ivana Conkova is also trying to quell the atmosphere of persecution by supporting the Roma. The 28-year-old works alongside a few other volunteers in the citizen initiative Konexe, organizing actions every weekend to counter the anti-Roma protests. They're also intended to distract the Roma, helping them keep their composure and preventing them from hiding away in their homes.

While the mob chants "Let's go get them," Conkova plays, sings and dances along with the residents - at least, that's what they try to do. Conkova calls the small street festival an "oasis of peace." Her brown eyes look tired: she's been keeping up her fight against racism - with no financial support - almost every weekend.

Row of police in riot gear. (Photo: Martin Nejezchleba)

Police are there to keep order and hold back the mob

"We want to offer the children a different, positive experience," Conkova says. Visibly tense adults shift about on white plastic stools, drinking Turkish coffee. A young woman paints the children's faces. They don't look like they want to sing and dance. Violin, cello and guitar music is soon overpowered by the drone of a helicopter.

The protest march is only a few hundred meters away. A chain of police in riot gear is there to prevent the protest from reaching the Roma. Conkova's hoarse vocals aren't enough to banish the Roma's fear and anger.

Biding time, cooking potato soup

Jitka Bartova is having none of it. Duchcov's mayor is staying home this Saturday, cooking potato soup. But the middle-aged woman with sparse red hair says she can understand why citizens are upset, and why they have decided to join the skinheads in surrounding the Roma neighborhood.

"Frustration is growing among many people," Bartova says from her sunny terrace, located just a few blocks away from the demonstrations. She points out that the difficult economic situation and high unemployment mean more and more "whites" are struggling financially.

Duchcov Myor Jitka Bártova. (Photo: Martin Nejezchleba)

Mayor Bartova has expressed understanding for citizens' frustrations with the Roma

"And then they see a smiling Roma letting a social worker fill out welfare forms for them. The feeling is growing inside of people that nobody is looking out for them," Duchov's mayor says. She describes the Roma street party as a provocation.

At the first anti-Roma protest in May, Mayor Bartova gave a speech in which she appeared to publicly express sympathy with the demonstrators. A few weeks ago, the Czech domestic intelligence agency assessed the phenomenon of ever more Czechs heeding the neo-Nazis' calls to take to the streets as a serious threat to the republic's security and democracy.

Breakdance instead of battle

Czech human rights organizations have for years been highlighting discrimination against Roma in schools, or on the housing and job markets. Such discrimination can be deeply ingrained in the system. The town of Duchcov, for example, sold off the partly-dilapidated buildings in which the Roma live to fly-by-night private housing companies. A large part of the welfare payments the Roma receive ends up flowing directly to real estate sharks, through inflated rents.

Neo-Nazis and residents protest against Roma in Duchov. (Photo: Martin Nejezchleba)

Ever more "regular" Czech citizens are participating in anti-Roma protests

Back at the street party, just before 4 p.m., something happens that Conkova says always happens when the anti-Roma chanting becomes too oppressive. Those present turn away from the podium to look at those who want to get at them.

"Pressure is building," one person says. "Time to take things into our own hands." Conkova, too, is tempted to stand in the way of the mob. "Roma have to step out of the victim role," she said.

But in the end the Roma decide against open conflict. We don't want to provoke them, they say; we have to protect the children. We're here to celebrate.

The children take this literally, running back to the stage. Deafening pop music blasts from the speaker. Robert and his friends finally find an outlet for their rage: breakdancing.

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