Dialogue with the police?

02 April 1998

Dimitrina Petrova

Among my greatest satisfactions, and one which none of my later defeats could diminish, was to read, several years ago, a copy of a letter sent to the Chief Prosecutor of Bulgaria by a Romani man, a victim of police brutality, which ended ‘with the following threat: „Honourable Mr Chief Prosecutor; if you do not act upon my complaint promptly and adequately, I will turn to the Human Rights Project.”

The Human Rights Project (HRP) operates a small battlefield located in Bulgaria. Flying over it, we poor souls, soldiers under the Human Rights banner, would unmistakably discern the well-known requisites - the trenches, bunkers and elevations, of another operation typical of our movement. During the past several years, the HRP has been fighting against police violence; defending Roma who have suffered inhuman and degrading treatment at the hands of the police. This fighting unit has utilised such arms as reporting on abuse, litigation, letter campaigns, pressure on authorities, etc. Savelina Danova; the chief commander prosaically named executive director of what unimaginatively, describes itself as a non-governmental human rights organisation, shares in this issue of Roma Rights some of the strategems and maneuvers of her unit, in a text disguised as a patient account of a process of communications across the front line. I was amused to read her report, because it contains some clues as to how to win this war by fighting it in a different way.

When the military paradigm held sway, HRP achieved several important victories. Here is one example: earlier, the law and the police had been synonymous to most Roma: Both had been invading their lives as an undifferentiated flash of evil, whether as a hostile knock on the door or a paper in the mailbox: the law and the police almost inevitably meant trouble. HRP operations caused a certain chance of mind: here and there, a growing number of Roma have begun to think that the law is not always against them. At times, the law can even protect you, if you know your rights. It can even protect you from the police. In fact, especially from the police.

One formative event among similar events that triggered the change of mind of Roma was a court victory. A Rom beaten by the police during a punitive expedition in June 1992 in which dozens of other Roma were also beaten, suddenly undertook to sue the perpetrators. Everyone in the surrounding Romani community thought this was insane, and that the police would seek revenge. They were right on both counts. The plaintiff was indeed a little insane, insofar as the mysterious thing we call „courage” contains a dose of madness. Me was certainty different from the dozens of other Roma who had also been beaten by the police but would not agree to work with the HRP to sue those who had always acted with impunity. And two years into the lawsuit, the plaintiff was indeed arrested and beaten by the police in retaliation. The few human rights soldiers from other units at the time were also quite sceptical of the utopian moves of the HRP. The Romani plaintiff was meanwhile ostracised by the community and even by his own family, who had begun to consider him an irresponsible father and husband, plus of course a trouble maker who could bring only more misfortune to the eternally cursed Romani people.

When finally, during the third year of litigation, the impossible happened and the victim won the case against the Ministry of Internal Affairs, both the Romani community and the even more lethargic legal profession began to wake up. The weakest individual, a poor Gypsy from the ghetto, had defeated the strongest institution of the state, The Roma and the lawyers in post-communist cultures, being as distant from one another as any two fragments of a society can be, nevertheless have one feature in common: both are quite closed, defensive and conservative communities, unwilling to be affected by the advice of outsiders. It took both groups some time to realise that somebody or something had dragged them into a new relationship; that in the years to come many Roma would hire lawyers to sue authorities and some would win; that new processes had begun: the emergence of a Romani civil rights movement and the formation of public interest law. To the unit acting under the code name Human Rights Project, it was simply a victory, the result of a carefully calculated strategy.

If words could sue for damages to their meaning, the word „strategy” would walk out a winner from many lawsuits. Everyone talks about strategy nowadays. Any vague statement about the future is pretentiously termed „strategy”, and the word quickly loses its ancient Greek soul. Strategy, according to our unit’s credo, was a premeditated victory, so pointed, concrete and real that once it is there, no one can miss it. In the struggle for Human Rights, one has „strategy” if one knows how to make things happen which would either not happen by themselves, or would take much longer to come to being.

The international human rights movement today has no strategy. It flows down a stream. Some individual human rights projects did have and some still do have a strategy, but the movement as a whole is entering a twilight zone.

Visitors to the HRP from the organs of national security once asked: „If this here is a Human Rights Project, and if „Project” implies the accomplishment of a certain goal, when will the Human Rights Project be completed?” I personally have always pretended not to be preoccupied with this question. At the time it was asked I had a perfect excuse to ignore it: I was responsible for that particular unit in that particular part of the warfare, and my attention was due elsewhere. I did not intend to engage in intelligent discussions with cops, and in my heart I felt like a soldier, ready to attack, outsmart, and win battles. This is how limited my vision was. At that time I thought that later, in the shade of victory, I would formulate my answers for the right audience. I would interview the generals on both sides. I would enrol in a course of topography. I would contemplate the big picture. No philosophy yet. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

[I can hear a very weak sound of rustling leaves, and wonder if the owl is perhaps stretching out and preparing to fly. In anticipation of the flight, I keep wording this metaphor as I keep fighting.]

What made the HRP want a dialogue with the police, given that it could go on fighting and winning more and more lawsuits against it? Is such a dialogue legitimate? How does it affect litigation and the interests of the victims? Dialogue itself may be as ancient as Socrates, but there is something in the post-Cold War context of dialogue with abusive authorities that makes it a curious undertaking from the point of view of a more fundamental, philosophical question about Human Rights after communism.

Can the battle for Human Rights continue to follow the heroic archetype of killing the evil Dragon? Where are the Dragons these days - except, of course, in the vapid, two-dimensional world of Hollywood movies, in which the latest incarnations of the Dragon continue to be blasted by the latest versions of a world saviour? What should we do, as citizens who do not want to be accomplices in injustice, when the Dragon has metamorphosed into something much less personal and more complicated? Is the Dragon neatly seated in the form of a policeman, speaking his mind across the table? Or is he spread around in persons and institutions, personifications of the law, routinely humiliating the most voiceless citizens, the outcasts, the members of the underclass, the pariahs, and of course, in Europe, the Gypsies? Not just some psychopathic members of otherwise virtuous law-enforcement platoons, but hundreds of men in uniform participate in the Dragon. How many policemen in countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Ukraine can swear that they never hit a Gypsy?

In fighting police brutality, we have relied upon two methods. First of all, we have collected and disseminated information about violations of Roma rights by police. We have described the most disturbing cases of abuse in our reports. Secondly, we have sued police officers and institutions and have assisted others in doing the same; in the best of cases (and more such cases will likely come), law enforcement officials were sent to prison. Now that these two methods have been usefully explored, we look forward to a third method: dialogue. Once the Roma and the lawyers have begun to form an alliance, it is time to invite to the table the missing party: the police. We are prepared to start a discussion, a genuine dialogue, with the police. This will be a kind of human rights education, provided that all parties will be both trainers and students.

In order for the dialogue of human rights advocates, Roma and police officers to begin in earnest, the human rights advocates involved need to build a new attitude, which would take them beyond the soldier mentality while preserving its best lessons. Having expressed the grievances of the Romani victims, we must listen to the other party.

Audi et alteram partem: „Police violence against Roma does not exist here. Such stories are the fabrication of human rights amateurs. How did this particular Roma die in custody? Oh, he fell off the chair and died. The other one? Assaulted the police, had to be shot in self-defence. [...] Well, in fact yes, we admit that there are some isolated cases in which individual policemen abuse Roma, but this unfortunate fact should not be used to besmirch the reputation of the police force. […] Why don’t you ever ask the right question about the reasons why Roma are illiterate, jobless, irresponsible, and offensive? [...] In fact, it may actually be the case that violent methods against Roma are employed more often, since Roma themselves are more likely to be violent offenders than any other group. They do not understand any other method of persuasion. [...] Why don’t they change? Why don’t they want to live like the rest of us? Why do they beat their own children, keep them from going to school and send them instead to the corner of the street to beg? Why don’t they save, instead of spending everything in lavish rites? And why, after all, such a high proportion of criminal offenders are Roma?”

Many seasoned human rights soldiers who have accepted the liberal doctrine of rights have no patience with these all too familiar questions. They have learned to treat such clusters of typical questions as little more than indicators, helping them to position someone in the opposite, non-liberal, racist camp. Yet most of us are unable to answer such questions convincingly.

The more we grow up and out of the simple black and white militant paradigm, the more difficult the issues raised by the above questions appear to be. We will have a hard time beginning this dialogue, because we will have to listen and understand the police; and we are of course worried by the moral abyss of “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner”.

At the beginning of this century, physicists were forced to abandon the idea of precise special location of a micro-object and to step into the new paradigm of quantum mechanics. By a crude analogy, we may need to think in a new way about the parameters of evil. The human rights movement is not addressing the challenges of the moral quantum mechanics of our time. The legitimate fear of moral relativism prevails. And indeed, dialogue with abusive authorities brings us near entrapping compromises and unholy alliances.

But if ‘racist questions’ are dismissed, human rights education of and with the police stands no chance. Our other methods of reporting and legal defence will have very limited impact. Police will continue to beat and sometimes kill. Roma will continue to regard police violence as normal. Therefore, in our dialogue with the police there will be no censorship of racist questions. The hero-victim-villain trinity is now problematised and all personae dramatis need to be redefined. What does the human rights hero do when the Dragon is so elusive? Neither attack nor indoctrination can help. Instead, we need imagination powerful enough to enable us to overcome the antagonisms, without hurrying to vest them in concepts like good and evil. This does not mean, however, that we will not struggle to end human rights violations, or to raise human rights standards both in law and practice. It means that we will have to abandon the self-righteous role of embattled idealists and begin to act as representatives of the public interest, no less legitimate than the police and the other institutions of the state. In Hungary, for example, according to a recent survey publicised by the Constitutional and Legislative Policy Institute (Budapest), three out of every four policemen stated that they believe society expects them to be tougher with Roma. Is the public interest expressed here? And what do we respond?

In the beginning dialogue, our role will be to attract and increase positive energy for change. We will try to discover the places where the development of individuals, institutions or social groups towards a culture of non-violence can be provoked. In the course of this dialogue, our task will be to redefine the „enemy” as a part of our own culture, and thus to domesticate, disarm and integrate the Dragon.


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