Red petals and candles on a river, some of them follow the flow, others stop by the verges: this is the most important celebration on International Roma Day, a day in which Romani people remember their history in Europe.
The petals of the roses symbolise the Roma Diaspora, some petals stop as some communities have done, some carry on. The candles mark the Roma dead in the battle against prejudice and discrimination, a battle that sometimes feels it cannot be won.
Today is the day that the community and non- Roma people take a moment to reflect on the situation of the biggest ethnic minority group in Europe, one that has a history here spanning hundreds of years.
Just a few weeks ago we witnessed three incidents that reminded us of the everyday discrimination that Romani endure across this continent, two of them were in football, the best known in Spain, one of them in Rome we find it difficult to speak about, we still need time to reflect on it.
In Madrid, drinking beer in the famous Plaza Mayor were a group of fans of the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, next to them Romani women begging. Nothing new here, those women are there every day and the plaza is a landmark for football fans who come to the city before matches. But on that day in a degrading and humiliating move coins were thrown to the women, the fans asked them to dance or do push ups to “earn” the money.
This horrible show, so evidently against human dignity, was recorded and went viral in a few hours.
The reaction was surprising. In Spain, a country where Roma people are generally neglected, condemning anti-Roma discrimination also went viral for a few days too. For a short while politicians, the public and football stood with he Roma community in objecting to the incident. The Dutch were embarrassed; Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised to his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy in person. Sports Minister Edith Schippers called the actions of the fans “really too disgusting for words”.
Other voices emerged alerting the country that what happened is just the tip of the iceberg of degradation the Roma face on a daily basis.
It goes without saying but the element that made the episode go viral was football. Football is generally a means to promote inclusion, in theory at least the principles of co-operation and teamwork overcome our differences, so in theory this would be the last place for discrimination. But the reality is different.
We have a few Gypsy heroes in sport but in the experience of the Roma, racism, sexism and exclusion are no less pervasive there than in other parts of their daily lives; the incident in Plaza Mayor was as merely a reminder of the brutality we face.
As a woman I also see another story. The images of a group of white men taking advantage of the desperate situation of Romani women, living in poverty, for no purpose other than their enjoyment perpetrate a mentality that is widespread, I, the man, am free and see no wrongdoing in asking a woman to humiliate herself for my amusement.
We hope that what we have seen will not be erased from people’s minds as a passing incident, what you have seen is what Roma community groups are fighting every day. This is the river in which we are floating in; just like the roses, we will not stop.