Poland: Anti-Roma mob attack legitimised

September 2, 2010 — Review

Written by Joanna Tegnerowicz

In July 2010, an angry crowd launched a terrifying attack on a Roma family in Limanowa, southern Poland. But why were no arrests made? And how come no one has condemned the violence?

In October 1990, a crowd set fire to thirty-six Roma homes in the Romanian town of Mihail Kogalniceanu. No one was arrested and the town’s mayor, Mr Ionesco, stated that ‘I would like to emphasise that this was not directed against the Gypsies. We have no problems with their race. We only have problems with the criminals.’ Similarly, when twenty-two Roma homes were set on fire in Bolintin Deal, also in south-east Romania, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office announced that the houses had been set on fire simply to ‘chase away criminals’ as no one had problems with the 400 ‘assimilated Roma’ living in the town.[1]

There are troubling similarities between the ‘punitive’ pogroms which took place in Romania in the 1990s and recent events in Limanowa, a small town in southern Poland. On the night of 23/24 July 2010, an angry crowd armed with stones and, according to some accounts, petrol bombs gathered outside the appartment of a Roma family and attempted to drag out the Daga (Donga) family.[2] The attack on the family was only prevented by the swift actions of the police. Estimates vary as to how many town residents were involved. Some media reports indicate forty, others one hundred. Riot police had to be brought in from Cracow to disperse the crowd.

In the days that followed, it became apparent that the police did not intend to bring any prosecutions against any of the residents involved. A popular local information website has been at pains to describe the Daga family as a danger to the community.[3] And, following from this, media reports have featured a strong sub-text that suggests that a potentially fatal attack on a Roma family does not constitute a crime in Poland. Not one person was arrested, although some thirty people were asked to produce their identity papers and later questioned. On the other hand, the authorities considered taking repressive measures against the Daga family whose past behaviour was variously described, by both journalists and spokespersons for the local authority, as pathologically inclined. The mob violence, on the other hand, was portrayed as an understandable and justifiable event, engendered by the despair of the locals, terrorised by their neighbours whose delinquency drove them to extremities. A journalist from the regional newspaper Gazeta Krakowska summed up the popular consensus by describing the attack as an ‘act of despair’.[4]

The local authority, amidst threats from local residents of further violence,[5] have decided that the only way to prevent further attempts at mob justice is to evict the family from their accommodation and resettle them in a ‘container’[6] on ‘some solitary spot’. The express intention is to prevent the Dagas from having any neighbours.[7] According to a number of reports, the local authorities may well abandon this plan in the face of criticism from the Daga family and Roman Kwiatkowski, President of the Society of Roma in Poland (Stowarzyszenie Romów w Polsce).[8] But should one believe these reports? It seems that it is only technical problems that have temporarily halted the mayor’s attempts to evict the family with the aid of a private security company. First, the container which a company had offered to sell to the authorities does not conform to state regulations and secondly, it is difficult to find a place for the container, mainly because ‘no one wants to have the Dagas for neighbours’.

Establishing narratives that legitimise vigilantism

How did it come about that the criminal actions of town residents came to be rewarded by the punishment of the victims who are to be evicted from their home and socially quarantined from their neighbours? In order to understand this, it is necessary to unpick the various explanations put forward by the local community via the media.

It is clear that the family had in the past been involved in a number of disputes with their neighbours, during some of which threats and violence had been used. Town residents made a series of allegations against the family to news reporters which taken together combined to make a convincing narrative of a family prone to social delinquency and unacceptable behaviour. However, a closer reading of the community’s complaints reveal a number of narratives, some of which conflict and others of which could have been open to other readings by journalists if they had been prepared to take as their starting point the simple fact that nothing, absolutely nothing could ever justify what could almost be described as an attempted lynching.[9] It seems that the media were totally blind to the fact that a crowd of locals wishing to settle accounts with a family by physically attacking them proved a much greater danger to the latter than the family itself to the local community.

One of the first stories to emerge was the claim that a member of the family had insulted a pregnant woman who was frightened of the family’s dog and that the dog ‘jumped’ on the woman. (Some reports go further and suggest that the dog was deliberately set on the woman). But an article published on the local website www.limanowa.in (26 July) suggested that the incident which seemingly so outraged the local community, had not been reported to the police. In fact the internet story clearly indicates that on 26 July the Limanowa district governor asked the woman to lodge a criminal complaint against the family.

Other press stories also disintegrate under scrutiny. A local resident is quoted that he witnessed one family member insulting a policeman with a ‘shower of vulgar abuse’. But the policeman only ‘patted him on the shoulder and asked him to go home’. ‘I can’t understand why police officers tolerate these humiliations,’ the local resident said. But is it really credible that Polish police officers would put up with such ‘humiliations’ and that in the face of police passivity only the town residents could stand up for the routinely degraded guardians of the law?

Another media narrative is also shot through with inconsistencies. The claim was frequently made in the media that other Roma condemned the Daga family and this claim was then used to support the argument that the attack was not racially motivated, as, in the words of Limanowa mayor, Marek Czeczótka, ‘Limanowa has no problems with Roma’ because, unlike the ‘overly demanding’ and ‘combative’ Daga family, ‘many of them behave as they should’.[10] To prove this argument the statement of one Roma resident, Dorota Wieczorek, who says that the Dagas had threatened to kill her family, is cited.[11] However, if the Daga family were ostracised by the entire local Roma community, why did one witness to the violence remark that ‘the Romas are likely to drive to Koszary[12] in order to bring reinforcements’[13] and other witnesses express the fear that ‘Roma yobs’ may arrive in order to defend the family?[14] It is impossible to know whether the reported Roma consensus against the Daga family is true or whether it has simply emerged as a convenient fiction vital to the town residents’ self-righteous narrative.

One story that cannot be contested is the fact that Roman Guzik had in the past been attacked by members of the Daga family with a rubbish-bin and an axe.[15] It cannot be contested because, as Mr Guzik readily admits, the family members who committed this attack were subsequently prosecuted. Yet this does actually contradict another of the town residents’ narratives – the one that dwelled on the police’s passivity and the failure of the criminal justice system to render justice against the family’s past alleged wrongdoings.

Sidelining anti-Roma sentiment

Would the justification of mob violence against a family be imaginable if such accusations were made against a non-Roma family?

Almost all those who have publicly addressed the events in Limanowa, have spoken very indulgently about the local community where the attack was launched and very severely against the Daga family. Father Stanislaw Opocki, responsible for the pastoral care of the Polish Roma, appears to argue that the only successful outcome to the vigilante actions would be a successful prosecution against the family. ‘I feel for the inhabitants whose peace is being disturbed,’ he remarked, adding that ‘The prosecuting organs should deal with this case. Even poverty does not justify troublemaking and sowing dissension.’[16] Elzbieta Mirga-Wójtowicz, a Roma and the Malopolska province governor’s Plenipotentiary for National and Ethnic Minorities, attempts to be even-handed, stating that ‘probably both sides of this conflict are to blame,’ but adding that it may be true to say that the family is ‘in some sense [...] pathological’[17] But Ms Mirga-Wójtowicz goes further than most in her attempt to contextualise the family’s alleged past behaviour within the facts of their extremely difficult living conditions. She points out that the twelve members of the family live in a flat of just 36 square metres. It should be emphasised that social workers who had visited the family had expressed the opinion that their biggest problem was their inadequate living conditions.[18]

Even when it comes to the reporting of the mob attack, one gets the impression that no one dares to express any compassion for the Dagas. A journalist from the private TV station TVN 24 devotes much attention to the fact that a burning bottle was allegedly thrown out of a window by a member of the family when the crowd had gathered under its apartment building.[19] The TVN 24 report gives the impression that the actions of the crowd were harmless in comparison with the act of a ‘besieged’ family in throwing a burning bottle.

Establishing the racist context

With very few exceptions,[20] those who have publicly commented on the events at Limanova have argued that the attack has no ethnic or racial background. But is it really possible that such a chain of events would have happened if the Dagas had not been Roma? Are such collective ‘punitive actions’[21] undertaken against non-Roma ‘pathological’ families? In the 1990s, Romanians also rejected out of hand the idea that anti-Roma pogroms were ethnically or racially motivated. When one reads Polish media reports on the events in Limanowa, one is left with the impression that, because the attacked family is seen as prone to delinquency, anti- Roma sentiment is automatically ruled out as a motive for the mob violence. Commentators do not remember, or do not want to remember, that in the past, racist lynchings, like the ones in the US South, or indeed the pogroms in Romania, were often carried out against those members of minority communities who were viewed as ‘causing problems’ or engaged in criminal behaviour. In the US South, victims were accused of having committed inadmissible violations against the white community. The fact that a lynching or other mob violence was meant as ‘punishment’ for (real or imagined) violations of social norms does not make it any less racist.

The events in Limanowa should be interpreted in the light of the knowledge about the very frequent and deeply ingrained hostility towards the Roma in Polish society. According to the results of a recent opinion poll conducted by the Polish Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), 47 per cent of Poles said that they dislike the Roma.[22] Negative stereotypes against Roma are also strong, as demonstrated by an earlier CBOS opinion poll. Some 42 per cent of Poles held the view that the Roma possessed inherent criminal tendencies and 75 per cent agreed with the statement ‘the problems of the Roma would disappear if they began to work’.[23] In the light of such data, the popular consensus that the attack in Limanowa had no ethnic motive needs to be revisited. Let us ask once again: why do such incidents never happen to non-Roma families in Poland?

Fast and fair? A report by the Parliamentary Ombudsman on the UK Border Agency, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, February 2010.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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