Did you mess with a Segregationist today?
24 August 2015
Something happened in the early summer of 2013, and by the time I started my job here a few weeks later, it had already become legendary. George Soros visited the ERRC. Impressing Mr Soros is important; his Open Society Foundations helped set us up and continue to support us. I imagine everyone was told months in advance he was coming. My messiest colleagues probably cleaned their desks. Some people surely spent a few extra minutes picking out their clothes that morning. What I know for sure was that someone laid out plenty of thick and thin, bright-red ERRC reports on the meeting-room table. These caught Mr Soros’s eye. He picked up a particularly thick one and looked at it. And then he said it: “Who reads these?”
No one I have spoken to remembers quite who answered or how.
Mr Soros’s question is a pithy version of something we are being asked all the time. What are we doing – no, what are we accomplishing – for Roma rights? For example, we have been given support for the past two years to implement results-based management. As a result, most of us are now fluent in the language of inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts; the best of us can even ask “who are our boundary partners here?” without cracking a smirk. My general rule for whether I use a word or a phrase is to ask what George Orwell would have thought of it, and I think he would have hated these. But I make an exception for these words. I like them, because they provide a clear way of asking what we’re getting done, how we’re doing it, and whether it’s worth it.
But for those times when “what’s the theory of change” just sounds clunky, I’ve found another way, thanks to some blogs I caught recently written by radicals scolding their comrades. One told fellow Canadian activists to consider shelving civil disobedience and being pleasant and approachable instead, because it achieves more tangible results. Another told fellow lefties, who I guess have spent as much time having sex as we have writing reports, that “[t]he revolution will not come on the tidal wave of your next multiple orgasm had with your seven partners on the floor of your communal living space. It will only happen if you have an actual plan for destroying systems of oppression and exploitation.” And the one that spoke to me the most introduced the Rich Uncle Pennybags test: “does your next proposed political action hurt Rich Uncle Pennybags? Does it threaten his station at all? Could it meaningfully reduce his advantage?”
The Roma rights movement is not left (or right) wing, but we have the equivalent of Rich Uncle Pennybags: the Segregationist. And the test of whether we – those of us working at the ERRC – are accomplishing anything is whether we have done anything to hurt him, to threaten him, or to reduce his (or her) advantage.
The right answer to Mr Soros’s question would have been “the bastards in the ministry [of whatever], the ones responsible for this”. And the follow-up question: “And was that bastard shaking with panic when he read this?” With reports, they had better be damning, and come with a pretty strong threat. Of course my job mostly involves finding ways to sue the Segregationist. Lawsuits are scary, which is why I’m glad I have this job. But even then, they are only scary if done properly. It’s a science we are constantly perfecting.
Why “Segregationist” and not “Racist”? Because there are a lot of people out there who are responsible for the oppression of Roma whom you would probably not call racist. They might never say a bad word about Roma (at least that we would hear). But these are the people who are committed to keeping Roma separate. They derive a series of spoken and unspoken advantages – privilege – from the fact that Roma remain oppressed, and they are attached to them. They will fight for them. They think they are natural. These are the people running segregated schools because they “know” anything else would mean violence or bad scores or, just, trouble; they are police officers who can let off some aggression in a police raid in a Roma neighbourhood, or round off their monthly quota of fines by heading to a Roma village; they are the bureaucrats who puff themselves up with the gate-keeper’s sense of importance, asking for papers they know Roma don’t have and then huffily turning them away. They are the people we have to undermine.
So to my colleagues who are tired of hearing me say “what’s the theory of change” or “what’s the outcome we’re aiming at”, here’s the test: did you mess with a Segregationist today? It’s a good test for litigation. When you file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office about police brutality against Roma, is the Segregationist (a police officer) scared? Maybe, but he probably knows that the Prosecutor is also a Segregationist, and will do nothing. Try the harder job of suing Ministry of Interior under the anti-discrimination law for maintaining and institutionally racist police force, loading your pleadings with damning data about police raids on Roma villages? The same for housing. Which one do you think will mess with a Segregationist mayor bent on evicting Roma to ethnically cleanse a neighbourhood or town: a defensive claim to stop the eviction, or a proactive lawsuit to legalise the Roma settlement she wants to evict? When it comes to reports, they should be loaded canons that litigators, or activists, or parliamentarians are ready to fire at Segregationist fortresses; and the Segregationists hiding behind those walls had better know it. If someone from the ERRC travels to meet with a Minister, the Minister should leave that meeting knowing she’s in trouble.
Unfortunately, you can’t mess with a Segregationist every day. We have travel-expense reports to file, or emails from friendly, non-segregationists to answer, or blogs to write. But we can mess with a Segregationist pretty often. File that lawsuit – not the easy one, but the frightening one. Hand the minister a document that’s a threat, not a paperweight. Write a press release that declares war. That’s what we’re paid for. That’s what a good day at the office looks like.