A few weeks ago I was enjoying a warm afternoon at the park with my friend, Lynn and her daughter Mary. As we twirled lazily on the swings I saw a man striding across the playground towards a young woman pushing her infant on the baby swings. The way he moved, with his head thrust forward, arms rigid at his side, sent a tingling shiver of unease up my spine. Lynn and I exchanged looks as he approached the woman. Silently calculating the way women often do when they detect a threat to children.
We watched as he talked, aggressively leaning into the side of her face. Finally she turned to look at him. They argued for several minutes, until the baby sat unmoving in her swing. He grabbed her wrist and I could see that he wanted something from her hand. He wasn’t very big, perhaps smaller than the girl, but even from a distance I could smell his meanness.
“Momma, I wa-ant to go”, Mary whined while tugging on her mom’s sleeve. Without looking away from the couple Lynn said in her firmest mom voice; “We’re not leaving.”
I don’t know if the man heard what she said or maybe just her tone, but at that moment he turned to look at us. He must have been surprised to see the hard glares of two women who were ready to kick his scrawny butt. His hand dropped away from her arm and a few moments later he stalked back across the playground, his head down - hands balled into tight fists.
When I heard of the proposal by Italian government officials to fingerprint Roma people (aka Gypsies), including Roma children in order to “crackdown on crime,” I had the same premonition of danger as that day in the park.
The Roma have faced persecution and ethnic cleansing for centuries. During the holocaust alone it’s believed that hundreds of thousands perished in death camps. Today, they are widely dispersed throughout the world as a result, but across Europe they still face heavy discrimination and social exclusion. This past May the poor encampments where the Roma live near Naples, Italy were attacked by an angry mob and set fire in response to the rumor of a crime.
Many of them have never been permitted to become citizens in their country of residence even though their families have been there for generations. Italy’s current government has openly said they hope to identify anyone “who does not have a valid document” in order to expel them from the country. It sounds eerily familiar to 1935 when the Nazis stripped the Roma people of their citizenship along with the Jews.
Many of us probably feel that what happens in Italy is none of our business. I say, so what if it’s none of our business? When a government takes measures to criminalize an entire ethnic population, especially children, we make it our business.
Tell your friends, call your 2nd cousin twice removed in Rome, send emails to your favorite columnist asking that they write about the issue. Let’s send a message that Americans are watching. We’re not looking away, not this time.