Mon, May 08, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Gypsies look to black civil rights struggle as a model


Silvia Batyi scrubs her carpet in the Jozsef Attila settlement, an impoverished Roma neighborhood in Miskolc, Hungary. Two hundred Gypsy families live in Miskolc in squalid houses without running water.


For the Gypsies of Eastern Europe, like Agnes Krappai, life never seems to improve. She lives in an impoverished section of Miskolc, Hungary, in a house with no running water. Her neighbor washes a rug in the street, coaxing water out of a hand-pumped well.

"It's a constant crisis, if there is such a thing," Krappai says.

But now, some leaders of the Gypsies, or Roma, are looking to a new model to try to achieve equality: the civil rights struggle of black Americans.

More and more, the Roma are going to court to secure their rights, and doing so where they think it will have the best chance for success -- among the new East European members of the EU and those trying to join, which are seeking to impress Western Europe with strict interpretations of their new anti-discrimination laws.


The Roma strategy was rewarded last October, when a Bulgarian court for the Sofia district ruled for them in a school segregation case.

"This is Brown v. Board of Education in Europe," said Dimitrina Petrova, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center, recalling the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned school segregation.

An appeal is under way, but the Bulgarian government has already begun enacting changes in state education policy, and the Romani Baht Foundation, the Bulgarian rights group that argued the case, said it planned about 50 more school segregation cases in the fall.


In 2002, the foundation filed suit against a coffee shop in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, for refusing to serve Roma. The foundation won, and has since filed suits against nightclub owners, hospitals and other companies, charging that they refuse to hire or serve Roma. The cases cited anti-discrimination laws enacted to prepare Bulgaria to join the EU.

European law is based on civil law, meaning that a court decision does not automatically become the law of the land -- and that court victories achieved in campaigns of strategic litigation do not necessarily have far-reaching effects.

For the first time, there is now Roma representation in Brussels. After Hungary joined the EU in 2004, it elected two Roma to the union's Parliament.

Still, there is no unified Roma movement and no leader like Martin Luther King Jr to help create one, nor galvanizing figures like Malcolm X or Rosa Parks.

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