The comparison has frequently been made between the experience of Roma in East-Central Europe and African Americans in the United States. Roma have likewise suffered from slavery, segregation, rampant discrimination, forced assimilation. They have also campaigned for their civil rights in nearly every country where they live. So far, however, these campaigns have had only limited effect. Although some Roma have achieved social, economic, or political success, the community as a whole remains on the margins.
In 1995, I participated in an exchange between Roma activists and African American veterans of the civil rights movement in Szentendre, a town outside of Budapest. The two groups shared many stories about their experiences and their respective histories. Often the stories moved in parallel though at a distance of some years. One African American participant, for instance, described the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins at Woolworth’s in 1960. A Roma participant from the Czech Republic told a story about his recent efforts to organize a sit-in in his hometown where several restaurants had put up signs near the entrances barring Roma.
“When I first proposed this sit-in, many friends told me that there isn’t any point in doing that,” he remembered. Indeed, only ten people showed up for the first protest to sit down at the tables and ask for service. Word spread quickly of the action. More people showed up for the second protest. “By the time of the third protest, even my father showed up,” the Roma activist continued. “And some white people came out to show solidarity as well.”
The organizer of the Szentendre exchange was Michael Simmons, who headed up the East-West program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). A veteran of the U.S. civil rights movements, Simmons was also a draft resister who went to prison for his stance. There, he became acquainted with Quakers and eventually began working for the AFSC on U.S.-Soviet relations. Gradually, the scope of the program expanded to include East-Central Europe.
He was also the first person to hire me out of college, and I worked as his administrative assistant in 1987. Later, in 1990, I travelled through East-Central Europe specifically to interview people and see what the East-West program should be doing in the region. On the top of my list of recommendations was work on Roma issues. The 1995 exchange in Szentendre was only one of a series of initiatives that AFSC did to foster a civil rights approach to organizing in Roma communities.
After leaving AFSC, Michael Simmons decided to stay in Budapest and continue to do human rights work. I caught up with him in Philadelphia where he had returned to take care of various personal matters. We talked about a wide range of issues, but I was particularly interested in his views on working with Roma 20 years later. He had grown rather pessimistic over the years.
For one, the situation of Roma had not significantly improved. “The situation of Roma is worse than that of African-Americans—not in terms of slavery or sharecropping, but in terms of the current reality,” he pointed out. “There are a couple reasons. One is that in this country, African-Americans were able to build an alternative society. It was possible to go from first grade to Ph.D. in the African-American community and never really have much contact with White people. You could meet all of your needs within the African-American community. Roma have nothing like that.”
For another, political organizing has not really penetrated Roma society. “People have Roma trainings, conferences and seminars, just as I was doing because I hadn’t known any better. But it means nothing,” he said. “And then Roma—I don’t want to say that they’re opportunist, because they don’t have any employment options—their goal is to get to some NGO in Budapest, or in Brussels, or now in Poland, the OSCE, Geneva, New York, or to get a scholarship to Cambridge or whatever. But there’s no indigenous organizing effort. There is no sense of a democratic community organization. There is no change on the ground. The condition of Roma today is the condition of Roma in 1989, regardless of the amount of money that’s been spent.”
We talked about his first visits to the Soviet Union, the rise of right-wing extremism, and why he moved to Budapest after telling me long ago that he would never live anywhere other than Philadelphia.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed, how do you feel about what’s happened in Eastern Europe since 1989?
To answer that I think it’s important to qualify the prism I look at things through, and that is human rights and progressive social activity, particularly at the grassroots. So if I look at it from that point of view, it’s between 1 and 2, believe it or not. I’m very disappointed quantitatively. What’s going on in the region is very depressing. And it seems to be getting worse,
In looking at the future, with 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic, what do you think of the prospects in the short term?
Let me qualify a couple of things before I give my assessment. One, I don’t know what impact this Euro-crisis has had on the societies in general. I tend to think they’ve moved to the Right, but that’s really more anecdotal than any kind of analysis on my part. Having said that, I think that in the short run it’s going to continue along the path that it’s gone. Again, I’m looking at this through my prism of human rights issues and progressive social movements.
Was there any point after 1989 when you were more optimistic?
Oh yes! The antiwar activity related to the war in Yugoslavia was to me a very dynamic movement, made up significantly of women, I might add. The issue of women and feminism was a very dynamic movement. If I look at the early 1990s, the beginning of the Roma movement, that was really optimistic and hopeful.
Now, tell me a little bit about how you got involved in Eastern Europe.
I was working with the American Friends Service Committee for what became the European program. I was the director. When I first started that job in the mid-1980s, it was mainly a bilateral, Soviet-U.S. intellectual exchange around issues of human rights and nuclear weapons. Then I began to turn that into a tripartite exchange, looking at the impact of East-West tensions on the Third World and including other actors.
I began to anticipate the end of the Cold War and was moving into Eastern Europe around 1989-90. I spent a significant amount of time in the GDR during that time and was doing things with the German social movement. I organized a trip of German peace activists from East and West to the United States. Then I began to move further into the region: Czechoslovakia, Poland. We developed ideas for the program coming out of your research. Then the war in Yugoslavia just aborted almost everything we planned on doing. And that became our work for a few years.
Your first trip to East-Central Europe was the GDR?
Yes. It was probably 1988. I was building on Quaker contacts that I had, people who were involved in anti-Cold War activities.
Can you remember back to that first trip you made, was there anything that stands out now as being a really important moment when you thought, “This this is changing the way I’m thinking about things”?
The GDR was much different than other parts of the former communist world in the sense that people in the GDR were not as prepared to repudiate their past as others were. In fact, people in the GDR felt that in the 50 years of communism, they built some things that the West could learn from. They were very much more conscious about subsidized housing, healthcare, education—issues like that. Because I started out there in Eastern Europe, I really thought there was going to be a much more dynamic movement that could actually impact Western Europe and even influence the United States. But the other thing about the GDR that really shocked me was how fast the skinhead movement just popped up. It just came out of nowhere. I can recall incidents of Africans on trains telling me to be careful. Random people I didn’t know were telling me horror stories.
Do you remember the first time you went to another country in the region and you thought, “Hmm, this is not the GDR, this is a very different kind of experience”?
It was probably 1990 when I went to Poland. That was at the tail end of communism and the whole Solidarity phenomenon. Poland was clearly the opposite of the GDR as it related to looking at the past. In Poland, I was struck by the power of the Catholic Church. The really strong anti-abortion campaign there blew my mind. I was just amazed at how ubiquitous it was: you saw these fetus posters everywhere.
A lot of people didn’t get involved in Eastern Europe until after the fall of the Wall. You have a somewhat unusual perspective having worked there beforehand. I’m curious what your feelings were leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and when you saw the other governments topple in quick succession.
I first went to the Soviet Union in 1986, and then I went back about a year later. In 1987, I wrote a staff report saying that the Cold War—at least ideologically—was over. I’m always going to take pride in the fact that I predicted that phenomenon.
In the late 1980s, the GDR government hosted this huge international anti-nuclear conference. There were literally people from all over the world: Wole Soyinka, Yasser Arafat, you name it, everybody was there. So, it seemed to me that these governments could in fact hold on. And then all of a sudden they just disappeared. And I realized that I really didn’t understand all the factors that were operating. I clearly didn’t understand that without the Soviet Union, it was impossible for Eastern European Communism to maintain itself.
This was pretty dramatic stuff, and you were in the middle of it. How did you feel?
Oh gosh, I felt like John Reed must’ve felt. I mean, it was just exciting. Some of the people that I’d brought from the GDR to the United States, based on their experience here, went back and helped to form a group called New Forum, which was one of the key groups that led to the dismantling of the GDR. I was thoroughly excited by the phenomenon. The Yeltsin phenomenon, that second coup attempt in the Soviet Union: that was one of the most thrilling things that I have ever witnessed. I wasn’t a part of it, that would be an exaggeration, but to be a witness to it…! I remember the night of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and you and I talking about it even as I was watching it on television. I call myself Forrest Gump for just having passed through that period of history. It was very sobering also, because I realized that Americans like myself, who either self-identified as Marxist-Leninist or tended to support the Soviet Union, I saw how politically immature we had been about events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Was there a point during the work, or even before you started AFSC, when you saw the difference between the ideology and the reality of Communism over there?
Yes, from my first trip to the Soviet Union. It was so disappointing. I went there clearly thinking of myself as a Marxist-Leninist who definitely supported the Soviet experiment, if you will. While I did not make any public criticsm of the Soviet Union, after my trip I would raise issues in discussions with my African American friends on the Left. My friends accused me of becoming an anti-communist—it was that bad. Which is not to say that I flip-flopped. But I just was unwilling to ignore what I saw, and the shortcomings were glaring.
The Soviet Union had a long history of “solidarity trips” for African Americans and other people of color in the US. They had various solidarity organizations that sponsored these trips. However, the American Friends Service Committee had always had the USA-USSR Friendship Association as its partner organization. Moreover I think that I was the first African American participant in an AFSC delegation to the Soviet Union. It became clear to me that the Friendship Association had not engaged African Americans in a non-racial political context. For example, on an overnight train ride to Vilnius we broke into small mixed groups, and I was the only American in my group. While the other groups were talking about human rights, glasnost, nuclear weapons, my Soviet group was asking me about jazz and basketball. I virtually had to fight against this intellectual racism every time I was in the Soviet Union. I often say that I came with visions of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, and I left with visions of Stepin Fetchit.
Another disappointing part of my experience was that because conversations on Communism were clearly being de-emphasized, solidarity with the Third World became less significant. I had conversations with them about why they were supporting Ethiopia in the struggle with Eritrea. The responses I received indicated a lack of morality with a pure geopolitical rationale. Overall I found their attitude about solidarity with the Third World very cynical.
I remember trying to go to the Patrice Lumumba Institute, and it was such an effort because my hosts did not view it as important. Yet every single African American I knew that had been to the Soviet Union had been taken to the Institute. But since I was not in a “colored” delegation they were befuddled. In fact they had to check with their colleagues in other Soviet organizations to find out where the Institute was located.
The other thing that surprised me was the level of anti-Semitism I found. I had always felt that the U.S. charges of anti-Semitism were propaganda. But, again, I befuddled my hosts when in Minsk, Belarus, I asked to see a synagogue. After two days they “found” one. The place that they took me to was a small flat with about three men who appeared to be in their nineties. My host had no idea how much of an indictment this was.. They would have done better by not showing me anything.
Did you feel that attitudes about race changed in a significant way after 1989?
Absolutely. It was so stunning how superficial the anti-racism of the Communists was, how superficial all this so-called “solidarity” was, that they really cared as much about Africa as the United States cared about Lithuania or Estonia. I’m not naive enough to think that the racism wouldn’t emerge eventually, but this was like overnight! I’d never been worried about being attacked on the streets when I first started going over there. And then people started warning me about going here, going there, and it was really disconcerting.
After 1989, did you encounter any of this directly?
I didn’t, no. But I kept hearing stories from Africans. It was mainly Africans because as a group they were the only non-Europeans I encountered. I should add that, by and large, the experience of African-Americans in Eastern Europe is not the same experience that Africans have in Eastern Europe. A very clear distinction is made. I am sure that the reason for this is that folks assume that African Americans have money. But no, I never had any problems personally. But I just kept hearing stories from people who were generally concerned about my safety—not all of whom were Black, by the way.
One of the major programs at AFSC you worked on was Roma, and comparing the situation of Roma in Eastern Europe with the situation of African-Americans in the United States. Have you had any further thoughts about the similarities and differences?
Oh yes. The situation of Roma is worse than that of African-Americans—not in terms of slavery or sharecropping, but in terms of the current reality. There are a couple reasons. One is that in this country, African-Americans were able to build an alternative society. It was possible to go from first grade to Ph.D. in the African-American community and never really have much contact with White people. You could meet all of your needs within the African-American community. Roma have nothing like that.
Also, throughout the African-American experience in America—even during slavery—there was intimate contact between Blacks and Whites. And by intimate, I don’t mean sexual—although there was that, too—but just in terms of Black folks cooking the “master’s” food, taking care of babies, nursing babies, and so on. That was the phenomenon of the “house negro” popularized by Malcolm X. After slavery, there was always the interaction of maids and chauffeurs and so on. Despite the paternalism of these relationships, it nevertheless created a level of empathy in the culture—even if it was racist empathy—around the treatment of African Americans or the things that one would say in a public space.
But if you’re in Eastern Europe, even today, Roma are invisible. They don’t clean hotel rooms. They don’t carry your bags. They don’t drive taxis. They aren’t the orderlies at the hospital. They don’t even have what I call the “colored jobs” in the United States. The result is that they don’t have those dysfunctional “positive” relationships with the majority culture that are so common in the United States.
So, all people know about Roma are pathologies. People in Eastern Europe only have negative points of contact with Roma, and in the vast majority of cases they don’t even have direct negative contact but they just heard that somebody else knew somebody who had. Even in the most enlightened venues—both informally and socially—when it comes to Roma, people just say anything. They’ll say that Roma steal, they steal babies, they’re lazy, the women are promiscuous, and they don’t want to be educated. All that stuff! And some of these people are making a living advocating for Roma! There is no check in the culture. Even the most progressive people often express these views.
They express racist attitudes that people in the United States might hold but would never say except in the most trusted circumstances. But in Eastern Europe, it’s cool and nobody is shocked. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in events in Eastern Europe where human right activists will say something xenophobic about Roma. That creates a set of problems for Roma that African-Americans just didn’t have.
And that’s just how they’re perceived. There’s also unemployment. Just as the skinhead phenomenon went from 0 to 60, the employment situation for Roma went from 60 to 0. I read a study a while back—I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I know I’m in the ballpark—that said that in 1990, 89 percent of Roma in Hungary were employed but two or three years later,, 89 percent were unemployed. They were literally thrown out of workplaces.
Let’s go back to the skinhead issue for a little bit. As you said, it seemed like it came out of nowhere, and it’s still around.
Yes, though it’s taking on new forms. In Eastern Europe, unlike Western Europe, you don’t have a strong Islamic presence. So the skinhead movements in Eastern Europe over the last few years have really focused on gay/lesbian issues and to a lesser public degree anti-Semitism.
Because the gay/lesbian movement has become more assertive, there was more of an opportunity for skinheads to flex their homophobic muscles. As recently as 2006 the Pride parade in Budapest was a joyous affair with the spirit of New York or San Francisco. But from 2007 until now the right wing has virtually taken it off the streets, and folks are relegated to a confined area for their own safety. And Roma remain the target of skinheads throughout the region. In Hungary, the skinheads also focus on the corruptness of the socialist government, because it was really corrupt.
Why do you think that there’s been this resurgence of rightwing populism, especially in Hungary? Where does this come from?
The socialist government was really corrupt, and then they got caught on some tapes plotting out their corruption. The skinheads created their own version of Occupy Wall Street. This went on for over a month, people taking over the streets. In the region, if you look at the repudiation of the Left, represented by the communist governments and all, the Right has tended to take over the political space for opposition. The rightwing has also begun to react to the new world order, though that’s not the word they use for it. They say, “The EU or the UN or the United States — they can’t tell us what to do.” They also use age-old issues like minority rights. In Hungary’s case, there is this pan-Hungarian phenomenon, which is more of an ideology than a reality, because they treat Hungarians from Transylvania, Ukraine, and Slovakia as interlopers when they come to live in Hungary. . But they have this bleeding-heart thing for them in the abstract.
The thing though that I’m beginning to come to grips with in that region is the day-to-day impact of Communism. I come from a tradition where, if you’re pissed off with the authorities, then you organize to change things. But this is not the default position of people in Eastern Europe, Roma or otherwise. There tends to be a dependency on the law without any of the social activism tied to the law that is critical for real social change. People have a sense of a futility. I come from a tradition where if the law isn’t serving your purpose, then you change the law. Their position is, “The law isn’t serving us well, but that’s the law.” People are only now beginning to react to the two-tier European reality, of Eastern Europe being told what to do by Western Europe. There’s a lot of nationalism around the EU and the euro, with rhetoric like “the laws made by these bureaucrats in Brussels.”
I want to get to the big change in your life, which was of course your move to Eastern Europe. I remember you telling me that you would never leave Philadelphia.
Yes, I thought that I really couldn’t live outside of the country. Initially, the reason why I moved there was because we had some personnel problems in our Budapest office, and then fundraising became more difficult as the war in Yugoslavia wound down. When my supervisor suggested that I go there to work and live, I totally rejected it. To make a long story short, we negotiated something where I would go there for six months. I would work there for six months and then come back on speaking engagements for six months. So I went. And when I got there I said, “This is great! Expense account, I don’t have to worry about any bosses…”
Keep in mind that I had been going to Hungary for over 10 years. So I was generally familiar with the landscape. I definitely felt that I knew more than I actually did know. But in retrospect I didn’t know anything. I had a very shallow understanding of the Roma movement. But I was really excited about working more hands-on in the region. I really got involved with what I thought at first was a Roma movement. Then I was very involved with issues like violence against women. Being in Budapest was significant because it’s the way station for post-communist human rights activity. It was such a dynamic experience for me that I just fell in love with the place less than a month after I got there. Even with that exhilaration, though, I never thought that I would relocate there. I thought the most I could do was two years maybe, but I never thought I would live there.
What made you change your mind?
That had to do with my falling out with my employers a year later. They told me to go back to Hungary, pick up my stuff, and return to the United States. And I just said, “You don’t tell me when to travel.” I stayed in Hungary to spite them, to be honest with you. Of course there were other things going on. When I organized the conference on sex trafficking in the Balkans, I tried to create a new paradigm by empowering the local NGOs to have more input on the regional level. The regional pattern had been that International Organization on Migration (IOM) and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would sponsor regional meetings and invite local NGOs. For my conference I developed a regional planning committee and invited IOM and OSCE staff. This enabled the local NGOs to challenge them on their shortcomings in supporting grassroot organizations. However, after I left AFSC I didn’t have any resources to follow up on it. I did try to do what I could do with virtually no resources. I didn’t have resources to travel; I didn’t have resources to do anything. Then my attitude became, “Well, I’ll just stay for a while and see what happens.” And it wound up being home. But it was purely serendipitous that I live in Hungary.
It could have been Bulgaria or Poland or…?
No, I’m not sure about that. Moscow I knew I didn’t like. But I loved Budapest the first time I went there in 1991. My second city of choice, if I had to pick one in the region, was Zagreb. But back in those days, Budapest was very seductive to me–unlike Prague, which most Americans tend to fall in love with.
And what was it like no longer being a representative of an international organization?
Well, the most significant thing was that I didn’t have the resources I used to have, so it limited what I could do. Also, I don’t want to leave my companion Linda Carranza out at all, because had it not been for Linda, I probably would have come back early. I can’t imagine I would’ve stayed if it had just been me. Linda had come to Budapest as a third-year NYU law student to do an internship at the European Roma Rights Center and then got a permanent job at another NGO. Linda and I started a human rights salon in February 2005, and that really began to generate all sorts of activity. One, in terms of our social circle, we started meeting new people. What started off as just having a few friends over to watch a video on the U.S. civil rights movement became, up until two years ago, the largest monthly human rights meeting in the region; I don’t think even universities got the crowds we got. There wasn’t a social cause that at one time or another hadn’t contacted us. So in terms of my activities, it was basically the same work. And because of my reputation, my work was region-wide: Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia. By work, I mean primarily speaking and organizing small seminars.
Eastern Europe was the big story in 1989 and 1990. Because of Yugoslavia, it was in the headlines in the 1990s. But things changed by 2004. How did you feel following issues that are obviously of critical importance in the region but no longer on the radar screen, so to speak, of people in the United States?
It felt weird, but it didn’t matter to me because my life was in Europe. My living in Hungary began to cut me off from my political associations—well, all of my associations – in the United States. So it really didn’t matter to me how people that I knew, or on the larger level, how U.S. policymakers viewed the region. In fact the more I got to know about the region the more I was stunned about how ignorant policy makers were about the region. It’s clear to me that they couldn’t possibly know what’s going on in the Muslim world based on what they don’t know about Eastern Europe. Because I’m sure that they have more respect for these Europeans than they do for these Muslims. As for me, I have all these ideas of how I would, and hopefully will, intermingle social activism in the United States with social activism in Eastern Europe. But in terms of what people thought about it, it was insignificant to me. And there are a lot of people who criticized me, and still do, for being over there.
Because they feel that…?
They feel that I should be in the United States doing social justice work and I can’t argue with them. My only argument is to say that there are a lot of people in the United States who can do what I can do. But I am the only one I know in Eastern Europe that does what I do.
Tell me about some of the ideas you have about intermingling social activism here and in Eastern Europe.
Specifically organizing. The problem in Eastern Europe—and I see it most particularly in the Roma and women’s movement—is this notion of change coming through conferences, international organizations, and legal strategy, devoid of community organizing leading to a social movement. I’m a broken record saying to people, “Look you got to to have a social movement.” I tell people that I was arrested 10 or 11 times during the Civil Rights Movement. Now keep in mind that I was arrested after April 1965. That means that the 1964 Civil Rights Bill had been passed, and the Voting Rights Act had been passed, so that I was “breaking” laws that we’d already won! So, obviously the law is not enough. You have to have an organization that can challenge the authorities.
What’s going on in Eastern Europe right now is just what pains me the most: human rights is a job. It’s a good-paying job if you get hooked up with the right folks, whatever area of human rights you’re working in. That’s how people see it. Tragically, that’s also how the Roma see it. So that people have Roma trainings, conferences and seminars, just as I was doing because I hadn’t known any better. But it means nothing. And then Roma—I don’t want to say that they’re opportunist, because they don’t have any employment options—their goal is to get to some NGO in Budapest, or in Brussels, or now in Poland, the OSCE, Geneva, New York, or to get a scholarship to Cambridge or whatever. But there’s no indigenous organizing effort. There is no sense of a democratic community organization. There is no change on the ground. The condition of Roma today is the condition of Roma in 1989, regardless of the amount of money that’s been spent—and I would argue, by the way, that the Soros Foundation is one of the chief culprits in this.
At the end of communism, Western Europe said, “What is our most embarrassing human rights reality in our region?” The answer was, “It’s the Roma.” So, they started throwing money at the problem. There are now so many institutions — the Roma Education Fund, the European Roma Rights Center, the Open Society Foundation, Central European University Roma Access Program — and it’s just opportunism. The other thing is that people have taken a piece of the Civil Rights movement to justify what they’re doing. Folks would say, “If we had a Martin Luther King, then we could do better.” And I say, “Well, you are Martin Luther King.” I have heard so many speakers preface their remarks with, “like the Black people in America….” But these folks have not read one book about the civil rights movement. I really don’t know what they mean when the say Roma need a Martin Luther King—to do what? It is some of the most useless rhetoric I have ever heard.
I’ll give you a classic example. We’d done some work at this Roma school in a village about 2 hours away from Budapest. In this community, this non-Roma started the school. The school had to meet in the afternoon, because they didn’t have a building. But in this town there was a former Catholic school building that wasn’t being used. I went down to the community and spent the afternoon talking with them, and they asked me, “Can you go to the Archdiocese in Hungary to get them to allow us to rent the school?” The Catholic Church wouldn’t even allow them to rent the school! Of course the reason was that they were Roma. They were told explicitly that the church wouldn’t rent to them because “the Gypsy kids would destroy the school.”
I gave them a little speech. “Look, this is something that you can do,” I said. “You should take the lead. It’s not about us going to Budapest to make contact with the Archdiocese. You can get as few as five people. You don’t even have to get 100. The more the better, but it doesn’t have to be a lot. Make some signs up, picket the church. We’ll get the media there the day that you start to picket. Then, we’ll use our contacts throughout the world.” And by “our,” I meant not just me and Linda, but all the people we know. “You put pressure on the Catholic Church,” I told them, “and I guarantee you that not only will they rent it to you, they’ll give it to you for free.” They refused to do it. They wanted us to go and meet with the cardinal or whomever. And I refused.
I was at a “Roma meeting” once with no Roma. There were about 50 people in the room, everybody getting paid for doing work on Roma, and all during the meeting people kept saying, “like the Black people, like the Black people.” I got so enraged. I finally said, “This is not ‘like the Black people.’ If you had a meeting about Black people with no Black people, we would have blocked the goddamned doors and y’all wouldn’t have had a goddamned meeting.” As you might imagine, I don’t get any paid consultancies in Budapest because I’m always criticizing these people.
That’s the culture of the Roma movement. Then there’s the women’s movement. In Eastern Europe, as you may know, the state funds NGOs. So even in sex trafficking, when I was doing all that research and work, the goal of local NGOs was to get that money. But people allow the source of the money to determine their behavior. Now, I’m not naive about things like that. But there’s a point when you have to take a principled stand. The worst experience Linda and I had ever had in my political life—and I’m working on 50-plus years—was being on the board of Amnesty International in Budapest. The level of opportunism, the level of manipulation from London, and the acquiescence of the activists in Hungary, it was just crazy. And then because I don’t speak the language, I’m thoroughly compromised, because that is so important when you’re trying to do the work I’m talking about doing. So it just leaves me totally outside.
If the 20th century has taught us anything, it is that people who are oppressed are going to resist eventually. As thin as that may sound, that is my hope. When you go over there, you’ll hear the “Decade of the Roma,” which is about coming to an end. Over the past eight years, the “Decade of the Roma” has created more and more jobs to monitor the Decade of the Roma, and nothing has changed for Roma. Even the stereotypes haven’t changed. The restaurants in Budapest still discriminate against Roma, Roma still live in squalor with no possibility of quality housing, education, or employment. With these results the amount of money spent in the name of Roma is a disgrace. And I’m not just going to sit there and watch the Roma get thoroughly ripped off.
In that same village I was talking about earlier, the utility company realized that some Roma had been stealing electricity, but they couldn’t track down the culprit. So the authorities came up with a group punishment. They were locking up people so indiscriminately that if we left here tomorrow to go to work and you stayed here, and they came here looking for me and couldn’t find me, they’d lock you up and convict you. They were locking up 13-year-old kids. We got called up again, so I went there and met with this group of women who had just spontaneously formed and were ready to fight. They were poor, and they were just mad. At this meeting, there were men in the room, but these women ran the whole thing. I talked to them about various things, without going into all I talked about. When I got back to Budapest, because I don’t speak Hungarian, I went to the major Roma NGOs in Budapest to say, “Look, I need a lawyer who will go there on a Saturday to do a workshop on ‘know your rights’: don’t go to the police station by yourself, when you go take notes, and so on.” Man, I couldn’t get a goddamn human rights lawyer to go there and do that. Then I just tried to get folks from the same organizations to print up a document with basic information with basic know-your-rights points and have people put them on the door of their refrigerator, and I couldn’t get people to do that either!
What’s called the Roma movement is bullshit. It’s not the Roma movement. That’s like calling you and me “activists” because we worked for AFSC. The fact that I worked for AFSC didn’t make me an activist. Me leaving my job from AFSC didn’t stop me from working on human rights. But when these people lose their jobs, that’s it, they don’t do anything. That’s a big frustration. I’ve been working on Roma issues for 20 years, and I don’t have one thing to show for it. Keep in mind I’ve worked in virtually every country in the region including Albania and Moldova. I’ve been all over the region working on Roma issues, and it’s all the same. I’ve had more success working on some other issues. But on the Roma issue, I realize that I did not know what I was dealing with, and by the time I realized it I didn’t have any resources to do anything about it. But it’s my fault. I’m not blaming anybody.
The thing that probably sums it up the best is something that happened with a series of seminars back in 2001. I had organized a weeklong seminar where I brought various folks from the African-American community with their particular specialties, and OSI pulled together 25 “Roma leaders” from around the region. Before my meeting, the European Roma Rights Center had had its annual human rights seminar. Some of the people that had attended that seminar came to my seminar as well. And then Thoai Nguyen from AFSC organized a third meeting of eight people that was going to participate in the UN Conference Against Racism in South Africa. Out of those meetings, most of the people went to at least two of those meetings, and some of them went to all three. So, because of the overlap, rather than training 50 people you wind up with 25-30 going to all of the trainings.
When I raised this with people I was told that the requirement for participation in these meetings was to speak English. The point of this anecdote is: if you’re going to make that a requirement, then every goddamned grant should have a line item for learning English. Where the hell else are they going to learn English? They are still fighting for the right to get a basic quality education. In the national language.
A couple years ago I saw a documentary video about an incident during World War II. It was a forced march of Roma and Moldavians to the Soviet Union. It was the dead of winter, and things were so bad that there was cannibalism; it was just the most horrendous of conditions. The talking heads in the movie were people that survived this, people who were 90 years old, 100 years old, 102. Now, for years I had always been complaining about how the Roma are always depicted as these hopeless, helpless people. Then it hit me. Watching this video, I said to myself, “Wait a minute, the Roma have been in Europe for roughly 500 years. They’ve been kicked out of everywhere, kicked about by everybody, and still they survive in spite of the fact that, unlike virtually all oppressed people, they have no international solidarity. Rather than tell the pity-the-poor-Roma story, let’s create a narrative of resistance.” I am sure, just like with African American history, that there dynamic stories of resistance that exist in Roma culture. Why isn’t that the narrative of the Roma movement rather than projecting an image of hopelessness?
When I was growing up, if you called an African American “Black,” you had to be ready to fight. I don’t care if you were an adult or a child, you had to fight. Now if you call somebody a “Negro,” you got to fight. So we took the word Black and we chose to define it and not have the oppressor define it for us. I told folks in the Roma community, “You need to go to a silk screener, put ‘I’m Gypsy and I’m proud’ on a T-shirt, and create a whole movement around that.” Then they need to interview their parents, these folks who can’t read and write. Find out how they survived through the centuries of oppression. All the Roma who make it to the seminars, trainings, and conferences are educated. They are lawyers, sociologists, political scientists, and historians, and many are in grad school. I said to them, “You come from a people of resistance. In spite of racist oppression your families are still producing university graduates. There’s nothing wrong with being a Gypsy.” And most people call themselves Gypsies anyway, once you get beyond the elite. There are all kinds of ways they can play on that stereotype: The only thing dirty about being a Gypsy is how the White folks treat us. The problem is that the petty bourgeois intellectuals have too much invested in this helpless/hopeless narrative. But there’s a story of resistance in that culture. I have no idea what the story is, but it’s just got to exist. What the movement is creating is a culture that’s ashamed of its roots. Their parents are illiterate, so they’re embarrassed. But they survived! I mean, somebody who can make it to 80 years, illiterate, and be able to send their child to college, I mean, hell, I take my hat off to them!
I have appreciated the African American experience ten times more from being over there. There’s a lot of stuff I took for granted in the United States, just in terms of the poverty that my mother and father experienced in the early part of the 20th century, and they still gave me a sense of dignity.
It’s also a question of expectations. It’s only been two decades of struggle in Eastern Europe. If we’re looking at African-American history, it’s more than a hundred years – Civil War, Reconstruction, decades of pushback — before the first signs of a civil rights movement.
I agree. In fact, that’s what I’ve said. I just wrote a friend of mine saying basically the same thing. The thing that is so frustrating is that all the models have not even been tried. I don’t know if you’re familiar with W. E. B. Du Bois and his formulation of the Talented Tenth. That’s what they claimed to be doing right now.
I wrote an essay exactly about the fallacy of the Talented Tenth.
If you go up to New York and talk to the Soros people, they talk the Talented Tenth shit. The one thing about the so-called Talented Tenth is they really were committed to, as we call it, uplift the race. It was social service. It was the paternalism of the petty bourgeois Black folks and poor Southerners, but still there was a concern for racial uplifting. But this version is just: “I got me a good gig.”
Right: individual advancement.
Now, if you look at the publication of the European Roma Rights Center and go through the last 20 years, it’s just one sad story after another. There is no story where people fought and won something. And then if there’s a lawsuit won, the Roma don’t even know that they have these rights. They don’t even know, because it never gets back to the community.
When a real Roma movement does get developed, the first step is going to be to fight Roma opportunists before they can even get to the non-Roma, Similar to civil rights activists of my youth, they’re going to have to start fighting each other, because they have these gatekeepers that have a vested interest in basically managing their suffering. I am so curious about what people are going to say at the end of the Roma “Decade”, because it was so transparent that this was bullshit. There’s this one project in Bulgaria where they integrated this little school district. What did Roma have to do to integrate? They had to completely deny their Roma reality. It would have been like me painting myself to look like you and leaving everything that’s uniquely African American at home.
When education was the big deal, they would bring over these lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to meet with other lawyers in Eastern Europe. I said, “No, let’s have a conference where we bring together people who have been organizing around quality education in the community to meet with Roma parents who have been organizing around quality education. Don’t just bring these lawyers over.” And of course that never happened. Anything related to the grassroots is just negated.
One advantage that African Americans had that Roma don’t is that they have no source of employment. So that leads to opportunism. Roma start an NGO, and the NGO becomes a family operation. Even NGOs that do some good things, it’s basically a way for their family to eat. It’s just a social service. I don’t want to act like social service is not needed, but that’s as far as it goes. There is no focus on human rights. And the human rights situation is just getting worse. Jobbik went into this Roma village about a month ago, and it was damn near close to a pogrom. I forget the precise ratio, but they brought in 5,000 people basically to terrorize a population of 1,000. And the non-Roma response was so tepid. Most people act as if human rights is conditional on some behavioral change on the part of the Roma.
The EU gives out money for trainings. There are trainings everywhere every summer in the region. You can’t find a young, educated human rights activist that hasn’t been to a training. But it’s just training. There’s no money built into the training for follow up. I always tell people, “Just imagine in 1945 or 1950, if the Quakers brought together some White people from Mississippi and some Black people from Mississippi, and the thing is ‘successful’. If you don’t help this White person with some support system, what are they going to do when they go home?” That’s the most intractable situation in the United States.
Over a three-year period Linda and I were invited to lead anti-racism. tolerance trainings organized by a Romanian NGO. After the third year it became clear to us that the trainings were a waste of time. You bring together Latvians and Russians, Albanians and Macedonians to talk about majority/minority conflict. Even if it’s successful—and most of the time it wasn’t—so what? Suppose you do change some of their minds—in the space of 10 days—on racism and stereotypes, and they express respect and tolerance for the people they came there hating. When these kids go back home they’ve just become the freaks! We expect them to just convince all of their friends and family to love their neighbor? The kids might have a good time at the training but without any resources invested into follow-up it’s just a waste of time and money
In Hungary, as you well know, there are people 16 years old who are crying about 1848. And the treaty of Trianon is like the national obsession. I come out of a culture where—except for the Civil War—we don’t hold grudges. We don’t hate Japanese because of World War II or Pearl Harbor. We might hold grudges in the moment, but as soon as we win—or in the case of Vietnam, lose — then all grudges are forgotten. I went to school right after World War II with Germans, and we didn’t tease them. Look, a European comes to the United States – say, a German, French, or Albanian—and in six months to one year, they become White. They’re not Albanian, they’re not German: they’re White. A German can live in France for like 50 years, his neighbor still says, “That German guy down the street.” So there’s this whole other mindset that I had no idea about.
Increasingly the region is disaggregated. It’s beginning to fall apart. There is no sense of a Europe. If there’s a Europe, then it’s Western Europe. I travel on trains in Eastern Europe and when we get to a border, I’m basically ignored because I’m an American. But when my Eastern European friends go across national lines, the border officials say, “How much money you got? What hotel you staying in? Show me your invitation letter. Open that bag.” To see White people treated like that was a shock to me!
This Bosnian artist, Leila Cmajcanin, was invited to do a show in Germany. And you know it was hard for her to get a visa, but she got it and she went there. She didn’t say what her piece was going to be. She just put her stuff upstairs, and in the lobby downstairs she sets up a table. And when the exhibition opens, she’s behind the table. On the table are pieces of paper in Bosnian, and everybody who comes in has to fill out this piece of paper, which is a visa, in order to get into the exhibition. And all the questions are in Bosnian. And she will only speak to them in Bosnian. And when the curator comes she not only makes him fill it out, she makes him wait the entire day! So she gives no preference to the elite. Visitors were like, “This is not acceptable! This is not fair. You must speak to us in German or English!”
That’s a wonderful story. Increasingly, these societies are becoming stratified, as you imagine they were going to become. Being a Marxist, one would see that. You’ve got this yuppie class that has decent jobs and access to international travel, and that’s all they want. They want to be able to go buy some stuff, come back home, have a good job. Some folks want to go to the West, but there are a lot of folks who are content and happy to be Hungarians or Serbians or whatever, and they have no social consciousness. These student populations are just politically dead. I look at Latin America, I look at Africa, I look at Western Europe—I’ve never seen students as apolitical as students are in Eastern Europe. They’re just passive.
In Poland there’s this phenomenon called Kritika Politiczna, or Critical Politics, started by young people, and it’s spread throughout the country. And they’ve started to set up branches in other countries. And it’s completely new. There’s also Palikot, a new party that made it into the last election in Poland, with feminist, LGBT and transgender candidates.
If we could, Linda and I would setup an international institute to bring scholars over, do research, do some lectures, and also send some people to the United States and bring some people here to work with organizations for a minimum of six months and ideally a year. And by “organization,” I don’t mean some internship at the NAACP. I mean really grassroots folks who are organizing. I always tell folks, “Start small. Start wherever you’re at: in your school, in your job, in your neighborhood. And believe me, the momentum will take you out. And when you’re poor and you have no resources, you’re going to lose more than you win. Just understand that, so that when you do lose, you don’t get discouraged. And keep in mind that winning for you may be what other people call a loss.” I can’t tell you how many times I organized an event, and I knocked on doors, handed out thousands of leaflets, went by everybody’s house the night before, and the night of the meeting only three people showed up, and two of them thought it was a party! When that happens—and it’s going to happen—you can’t get discouraged. You have to go back to the drawing board, figure out what you did wrong. When people of my generation tell these Pollyanna stories about the 1960s, folks end up thinking, “Well, I just can’t do anything.”
It’s not that people don’t understand that they are oppressed. First of all, we all find an accommodation within our environment, whatever the environment is. Second, most of us don’t think we can change it. So our goal is not to change it for them. It’s to get them to see that they can change it.
In spite of all the problems, I have learned that social change is a process and not an event. Moreover, the process of liberation is as important as being liberated. I can teach some skills, but they have to do it. So, in spite of the problems I have discussed I am optimistic. To quote Martin Luther King, “the arc of the universe bends toward justice.” If the 20th century taught us anything it is that people who are oppressed will resist.
Philadelphia, September 13, 2012