Roma deaths are newsworthy in their own right

We should not feel the need to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement to bring the plight of Roma to the world’s attention.

People protest during a rally against police in Teplice, Czech Republic, 26 June 2021. Hundreds of people remembered slain Roma, Stanislav Tomas, who died in the city a week ago shortly after being arrested by police. The originally planned commemoration turned into a march to the police station. Police officers intervened on 19 June, because of a fight between two men who were also damaging other people's cars. When the patrol arrived at the scene, one of the men was lying on the ground with apparent injuries, according to police. When the officers approached him, he became aggressive and attacked them, police said. Footage of the arrest shows police officer kneeling at various times on the man's neck and back. A forensic autopsy ruled out a connection between the deaths and the police intervention, but the autopsy report points to drug impairment, a police spokesman said earlier. Officers insist the death was not related to the intervention. The Council of Europe and the Czech branch of the human rights organization Amnesty International have called for a thorough investigation of the incident. EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK
People protest against police brutality in Teplice, Czech Republic, on June 26, 2021. People took to the streets after a Romani man, Stanislav Tomas, lost his life after a police officer knelt on his neck and back for minutes [File: Martin Divisek/EPA]

On June 19, a Romani man called Stanislav Tomáš died in the city of Teplice in the Czech Republic after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.

A video of the incident, showing Tomáš scream and writhe under the police officer’s knee before ceasing to move, has spread across Czech social media networks, raising questions about the proportionality of the force used by the police.

In response, the Czech police quickly embarked on a character assassination campaign against the dead man. They accused Tomáš of being a repeat offender and a drug addict. They shared on social media a video in which he appeared to be under the influence of drugs prior to his violent arrest. They also said a court-ordered preliminary autopsy proved his death was not linked to the police actions, but to drugs.

Questions have been raised by international rights organisations about the narrative put forward by the police, and there are concerns over the independence of the autopsy report. Nevertheless, Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamáček has publicly thanked the police for their actions and expressed support for their conduct. Tomáš is not here to tell his side of the story.

An independent inquest is the least the family of the deceased deserves.

The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) has penned an open letter to the Czech Prime Minister and the Ministry of the Interior requesting this, and pressure brought about by media attention could help them achieve this goal. So far, The Guardian, The Washington Post and the BBC have reported on the case, which is more mainstream media attention than violence against Romani people often receives.

News reports compared the death of Tomáš with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, which triggered Black Lives Matter (BLM) and racial justice protests across the United States and beyond. Some reports even referred to Tomáš as “the Czech George Floyd”. It is reasonable to assume that the elevated consciousness of racially motivated violence brought about by the BLM movement and obvious parallels between the case of Floyd and that of Tomáš motivated these respected news outlets with wide readerships to cover this story.

In recent history, Romani deaths have rarely been considered newsworthy.

The December 2020 death of a Romani woman named Anna in the official Roma camp of Scondigliano in Napoli, for example, received almost no media attention. According to the Italian Roma Rights Group Movimento Kethane, Anna started to feel unwell shortly after she returned to Secondigliano from a nearby hospital, where she had given birth to her sixth child via Cesarean section. The camp had been declared a “red zone” meaning no one was allowed to leave after many of its inhabitants tested positive for COVID-19.

Anna’s sister tried to assist her out of the camp to seek treatment every day for a week while her condition deteriorated, but they were denied exit by the two police officers guarding the gates. On the last day, after the officers once again refused to let them out, Anna collapsed at the gates, lifeless. Movimento Kethane and Roma activists have been attempting to draw attention to the case, but only a few local newspapers covered it.

The lack of media coverage of Anna’s death was not an anomaly.

Mainstream news outlets have largely ignored the devastating effects of the pandemic on Roma, the group facing the greatest structural inequality in Europe. Enforced containments of Roma camps across Europe due to COVID-19 left many Romani people unable to meet their most basic needs and enabled excessive policing. Many Roma living outside official camps have struggled to make a living under strict lockdowns, but received no support from governments. Nevertheless, mainstream media paid little attention to their plight.

Mob violence and hate crimes against Roma are also on the rise across Europe. Romani people are experiencing routine discrimination, enforced displacement, violent assaults and even pogroms due to their ethnic identity. They are also facing structural police violence and abuse across the continent. In recent years, the ERRC has documented police forces colluding with far-right groups during ethnic pogroms, torturing Roma in custody, killing them in their own homes, and embarking on punitive raids on Roma-majority areas.

But reliable data on anti-Roma violence is hard to come by for a number of reasons. Trust in authorities is low within Roma communities, so cases are often left unreported. Police violence against Roma is rarely prosecuted or officially acknowledged. The European Union is also careful of collecting ethnicity data, which would expose the massive scale of abuse and discrimination facing Europe’s Romani communities. Cases like Anna’s do not show up in any statistics. It remains to be seen whether that of Stanislav Tomáš will.

All this resulted in the media, and consequently the public, turning a blind eye to the suffering of Roma. Silence and apathy surround inhumane treatment. Therefore, there is much reason to be pleased about the attention Tomáš’s case received from the media – even if it only happened due to the obvious parallels between his case and that of Floyd.

It is, however, also necessary to critically examine the damage that can be done by attempting to merge the Roma struggle for equality and justice with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Stanislav Tomáš cannot be “the Czech George Floyd” because he was not Black, he was Roma. Suggesting Black and Roma struggles are one and the same is not only counterproductive, but also offensive to both communities.

Co-opting Black Lives Matter for Roma runs the risk of taking up space where Black lives are discussed. Any progress achieved by the movement is the work of Black activists, and Black people have paid for it with their lives.

The comparisons are also dehumanising for the Roma. They are nothing but a more sophisticated version of the “imagine it happened to a non-Roma person” trope, which we still resort to all too often, because things that happen to Roma seem to make no impression on Europeans. We cannot rely on attacks against Roma being comparable to ones that have happened to members of a different ethnic group in a different geographical and political region for them to be considered newsworthy. Roma lives need to be considered newsworthy on their own.

However, this does not mean Roma communities cannot or should not benefit from the significant gains made by the Black Lives Matter movement in raising awareness about racially motivated violence.

Thanks to this increased awareness, the global community is now more primed than ever before to acknowledge, and reckon with, the violence and discrimination Roma communities face in Europe. We need to seize the moment and bring the plight of Roma in Europe to the world’s attention. But we should not feel the need to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement to achieve this.

Stanislav Tomáš was not “the Czech George Floyd”. He was a Romani man who died under the knee of a police officer. Roma deaths are newsworthy in their own right.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.