Feature for Morning Star by Romany Journalist Jake Bowers
Today is Romany holocaust memorial day, yet ask most lifelong anti-racists what the significance of August 2nd is, and they will be puzzled. For our history, just like our plight, remains one of Europe’s dirty secrets. So come with me, if you will, on a journey into the past of Europe’s 12 million Romany people because we desperately need your help to secure a better future. Because history does not always exactly repeat itself, but in 2021 it is starting to rhyme.
On this day, in 1944, 4,300 Romanies were murdered at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. They were taken during the night from their barracks to the gas chamber by SS guards. The mass killing was a reprisal on the community who led a desperate uprising at the death camp. Just months earlier on May 16th Romany prisoners of the so-called Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp) having heard of the imminent liquidation of the camp, stood up against the Nazi guards armed with only hammers, pickaxes and shovels. As a result of their defiance, no Roma died in the gas chambers on that day. The Romany revolt against the Nazis is the only recorded uprising in Auschwitz and is now commemorated as Romani Resistance Day.
We still do not know how many of us died in the holocaust. Unlike the Jewish community many of our ancestors could not read or write, so few independent records were kept. Estimates range from 500,000 to 1,5 million people, their lives and stories are often lost within German statistics of those “remaining to be liquidated.” Like the Jewish community we were the only other racial minority specifically subjected to the Nazi final solution and a similar percentage of the Romany and Jewish community was eradicated. But there the parallels end, because what the intervening decades have taught us is that some inequalities are sadly far more equal than others.
So today we will weep for those we lost, but tomorrow we must again pick up the shovels. Across Europe a mudslide of racist violence is once again engulfing our people. From Hungary to the UK, right-wing governments are once again scapegoating our people and the results can be lethal.
In the Czech Republic, Romany man Stanislav Tomáš died in Teplice on June 19, 2021, after a Czech police officer knelt on his neck for six minutes. In images comparable to the murder of George Floyd in the US, the video went viral, prompting Romanies across Europe to protest police violence.
The Czech Republic authorities deny any wrongdoing and the police were praised by the interior minister for their good work. After the Council of Europe called for an independent investigation, the Czech president said he had no reason to doubt the results of the internal investigation, which found the police officers’ behaviour to be correct.
In New York, Berlin, Brussels, Glasgow, London, Vienna and in countless cities across Eastern Europe where Romany populations are big and growing, Romanies are demanding justice for Stanislav and themselves. Directly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement a Roma Lives Matter movement has seen thousands of Romany people demand better treatment on the streets.
For many of us, the end of the holocaust did not lead to a turning point in our treatment and life chances. Those that had survived the Nazis were soon forcibly settled and assimilated into urban deprivation by Stalinist regimes. In recent decades, the forced sterilisation of Romany women, poverty and over-representation in state care and special schools for Romany kids and deeply ingrained prejudice has kept us moving. Such racism has led to a huge wave of Romany migration to western Europe. This has led to a doubling of the British Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population to at least 600,000 people.
But Britain is no safe haven. The hostile environment experienced by Britain’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community for over 500 years has recently been cranked up. Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill not only limits the right to protest, but also seeks to completely outlaw nomadic Gypsy and Traveller culture across the UK. If passed it will:
- Entirely eradicate nomadic life in Britain,
- Give police the power to seize Gypsy and Traveller homes
- Fine Gypsies and Travellers up to £2500
- AND imprison those needing to follow a nomadic way of life because of a lack of safe legal stopping places
So, on July 7th over 1000 community members gathered in the shadow of the statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and suffragette Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square to kickstart the Drive 2 Survive campaign that will roll from Westminster to Appleby Fair in August (the world’s largest Gypsy horse fair) in Cumbria to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in October 2021. Much as Gandhi, Mandela and Fawcett used direct action to fight for equality, Gypsy and Traveller community members will resist the outlawing of our cultures. Our communities have unified to fight the bill, but we desperately need your help to stop it.
‘As nomadic people that have roamed the lands we have lived on for our whole recorded history, to suddenly be told our way of life has no place in society is totally wrong and hurtful’ says Irish Traveller activist Chris McDonagh.
‘We all live in a country that is supposedly proud of its acceptance and equality for ALL ethnicities and minorities, but we now see this is a lie. We are people and we deserve to live our lives as we always have. We deserve to exist.’
The Drive 2 Survive Campaign first aim is the scrapping of part 4 of the Bill that creates a criminal law of trespass and dramatically increases police powers over anyone residing on land that they do not have permission to be on. We believe that the draconian powers within the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that already lock nomadic Gypsies and Travellers into a cycle of trespass and eviction do not need strengthening but repealing.
Priti Patel cannot ignore the fact that police powers are already too excessive. It’s not just Gypsies, Roma and Travellers that are resisting these new powers, but representatives from the National Police Chiefs Council. In evidence to the committee stage of the Police Bill, the community and the police were united in calling for a better way of resolving the conflict around a lack of stopping places
The community takes the threat of the new legislation so seriously that it has organised the first Romani Kris, or council of elders in decades to debate and decide a unified response to Patel’s Bill at Appleby. Hereditary Appleby Fair organiser Billy Welch sees a direct parallel with the state violence Romany populations were subjected to before the holocaust, because before the death camps came the outlawing of nomadic life across the Third Reich.
“The people I represent are anxious about these proposals and with good reason. They are reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the start of the process of ethnic cleansing in which Gypsies were forced off the road by fines and imprisonment. Their horses and vehicles were confiscated, which eventually led to them being sent to death camps or murdered on the side of the road. There are still many Gypsies alive who lost their families in that holocaust, and they have not forgotten – this is how it began. All of what was done them was legal in the eyes of the Nazis, but history teaches us clearly that just because something is legal, doesn’t make it right.” – Billy Welch
This summer we will show the Conservative Party that we will not go quietly into the history books, in fact, we will not be going at all.
To show your solidarity with the Drive 2 Survive Campaign:
Come to Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria between August 12th and 15th.
Attend the National Drive 2 Survive Rally at the time of the Tory Conference in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester at 1pm on Saturday October 2nd 2021.