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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Roma and the police at a pilgrimage site in Slovenia

Nickie Phillips

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My study of a police program which aims to foster better relations between police officials and the Roma minority in Slovenia continues, along with with Emanuel Banutai, Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Criminal Justice and Security at the University of Maribor, and Susanne Duque of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  The Roma, who make up approximately 2 percent of the population in Slovenia, have historically been discriminated against and treated poorly by social and political institutions, not unlike in many places in Europe.  The program started in 2005 as a joint training program in which police learn about aspects of Roma culture and language from Roma leaders and discuss policing Roma in the context of human rights and democracy.  Since then, it has had the fortuitous effect of forging a wider relationship between Roma leaders and police officials in a way that has encouraged dialogue in preventing violence and conflicts between Roma and non-Roma and among the Roma themselves. For three days last week, Emanuel and I observed the police in Brezje, in the northwest Gorenjska region, work with Roma who had arrived from around the country, Italy, and Austria, as part of an important annual Catholic pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin (Marija pomagaj).  The Roma set up camp in Brezje, and nearby in the village of Ĉrnivec, days ahead of time, enjoying family, friends, paying homage to the Virgin Mary, and even having pig roasts.  This is in contrast to other Catholics who arrive only on the day of the main mass, August 15.  The annual Roma camps cause resentment among local Slovenians who feel imposed upon by the huge influx of people camping in public parks, where normally camping is prohibited, and even on private land.  Souvenir stand owners complain of Roma having “long fingers” (stealing).  In addition, conflicts between Roma clans become exacerbated as rivals are in close proximity to each other in the camps.  This year, though, was calmer than most, by all accounts.

During the three days, Emanuel and I were able to roam among the camps and talk to Roma about their experience of the pilgrimage and their perception of the police on bike, car and foot patrols keeping order and keeping the peace.  We met up with the police inspector who heads the effort to improve police ties with the Roma, who shared with us the details of two behind-the-scene conflicts he was working on: angry local people who felt some Roma came too early to the event and camped in the wrong places based on a prior agreement, and the brewing retaliation by one clan whose member was stabbed recently by a person from another clan.

Due to the efforts of the police program over the last five years, the police inspector has come to be regarded as a mediator and spent many hours during the pilgrimage talking with all parties involved in these flashpoints.  In addition, the police chaplain, the only police official who is permitted to officially cooperate with the church (Slovenia has a strict notion of the separation of church and state) was on hand to problem-solve with him.

In the end, no violent incidents occurred at this year’s pilgrimage.  This is in stark contrast to a decade ago.  In talking with Roma campers, we learned that violence was common at the pilgrimage, and one Roma woman even recalled a small battle between two clans that involved a couple hundred people.   Such incidents created a reputation around Slovenia that these Roma pilgrimage events were mayhem.  A Slovenian journalist covering this year’s activities could hardly believe it was running as smoothly as the police told him it was.  A Roma woman said that things were much calmer in the last couple of years and that she did not mind it that the police dropped by just to talk.  A Roma man told us that chatting with police was unheard of twenty years ago, when under the former regime police treated the Roma roughly.

During the three days, we also connected with church officials who we learned had their own initiative.  A priest from the Dolenjska had become concerned about the plight of Roma and two years ago devoted his ministry to them.  He was also camping with the Roma, bathing like them in cold water from buckets, a fact that impressed many young Roma.  For the last two years, the church has provided the Roma with their own procession and short mass the day before the main one, in a Romani dialect used in the Dolenjska region.  They also provide prayer cards and a children’s book of Bible stories in the dialect.  Before this, the priest explained that nothing was done for the Roma and they existed very much on the fringes of the Brezje pilgrimage’s main events.

My favorite event from the pilgrimage was the “blessing of the cars” in which the priest walked from campsite to campsite in his liturgical robe, giving willing participants a prayer for safety and dousing cars and vans with holy water.  From a police studies perspective, what was significant for my colleague and I was the safety message that the priest recited to each group after the prayer.  He reminded everyone to avoid speeding, particularly when children were in the car, and to use seat belts.

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As the blessings went on, several children began to follow the priest and he had them help carry his holy water and dousing wand between prayers.  After blessing every Roma vehicle in the camp, one of the children called out “Rashe! Rashe!” (Romany for “priest”) and pointed to two parked police vehicles.  “We haven’t blessed these cars!” The priest, seeing no police officers around to ask, decided to indulge the children and quickly blessed the police cars saying afterwards that this means “These cars won’t come hunting for you because you won’t be doing anything wrong this year, right?” he said.

In increasing daily and positive interactions with the Roma people, both the police and the church have made inroads in reducing some of the friction between Roma and largely non-Roma institutions (there is only one Roma identified police officer and one Roma priest in Slovenia).  Police, Roma, and church officials agree that bitter feelings, conflicts and violence have decreased between Roma and non-Roma and competing Roma clans.  However, societal attitudes do not change overnight.  During our visit, one police officer communicated resentment toward police initiatives hoping to create dialogue with the Roma, saying “I have a strategy for Roma—a left and a right” (meaning a left and right punch).  In fact, though the national police are quite supportive of the Roma initiative, the real thrust of the program’s existence is due to the passion of the police inspector heading the program and the female officer who works with him.  Likewise, in the church, a single priest seems to be the vanguard in bringing the institution more intimately into the lives of Christian Roma.  If for some reason these committed individuals are no longer present, will these initiatives survive?

Further, as a scholar devoted to critical perspectives, I wonder whether the nationalist—and European Union-- framework of “Roma inclusion” can ever truly be reconciled with the radical freedom and non-nationalist identity Roma historically have championed.  These are topics to continue to explore during interviews this week with police officials and Roma leaders in Ljubljana and the Prekmurje region, hoping to come closer to assessing the institutional staying power of the police-Roma initiative in the years to come.

Staci Strobl