The news media and law enforcement agencies have
caused untold hurt, frustration, and fear among many law abiding Travellers
and Gypsies throughout the United States. In a Dateline [NBC
television news] program, a child about nine years of age was shown in
her white confirmation dress in church. The narrator described her incorrectly
as a child bride. A report from Kansas City tells how police entered a
Traveller-owned trailer park and threatened the occupant of one trailer
with the Rico Act in what appeared to be for no other reason than to intimidate.
In South Carolina law abiding Travellers had their
names and driver's license numbers placed on a list of potential criminals,
and it was distributed to various law enforcement agencies. In that same
state, a town ordinance declares: "Gypsies: Prohibited in County" (License
Ordinance 1994 Town of Batesburg Leesville, S.C., p. 18). In Missouri and
elsewhere Travellers have reported being off the road and into ditches
by police and warned to get out of the area.
While there are Travellers and Gypsies who do commit illegal acts, it
is a gross over generalization to include all members of these groups,
including the law abiding, as criminal. In their book, License to Steal:
Traveling Con Artist: Their Games, Their Rules -- Your Money, Dennis
Marlock and John Dowling readily admit that
Most Gypsies ... have indeed assimilated but without giving
up their ethnic identity, their language, or their heritage. They have
joined the labor force, own homes, send their sons and daughters to college,
vote, pay taxes, and serve in the armed forces.
The authors then proceed to complete their book about Gypsy
crimes. The fact is that every ethnic group has its shady personalities,
but that does not result in the listing of any and all members of a group
as having criminal intent. A Major Rowland who is cited as an "expert"
on Traveller criminal activity estimated that less than 10% of the Travellers
in his area are engaged in criminal activity.
The lumping of all Travellers and Gypsies into
the category of those having criminal intent is understandably a concern
for the majority of Travellers and Gypsies throughout the United States.
would be outraged if all African Americans in a community were classified
and listed as potential criminals. The A.D.L.
would be screaming our ears off if a local community or state were to warn
its citizenry and law enforcement officers to be on the look out for criminal
Jews. La Raza
would be appalled if a crime alert to citizens stated "Alert: Mexican Thieves
on the Prowl." But when it comes to Travellers and Gypsies, even the A.C.L.U.
seems to look the other way.
It is obvious that if you are a Traveller or "Gypsy," the media and
some law enforcement agencies are doing whatever is necessary to scuttle
the American dream for select groups on the flimsy and bigoted notion that
all members of the group represent a criminal element in society.
Some law enforcement officials may argue that the term Gypsy
refers to a wanderer and does not indicate any particular ethnic group.
However, Gypsy does indeed denote an ethnic group in common parlance.
Yet another definition of Gypsy as used by some is that of dishonest Romani.
Here there is admission that the term relates to an ethnic group, but it
is argued that Gypsy only defines those individual members who are
engaged in criminal activity. According to Marlock and Dowling Gypsy refers
to criminal Romani as Mafia refers to criminal Sicilians. However, the
application of this comparison does not hold since Mafia has never been
a synonym for Sicilian.
In a police flyer issued in Winter Park, Florida,
citizens were warned "CRIME ALERT, GYPSIES HAVE RETURNED." It could just
as easily have stated: "CRIME ALERT, SCAM ARTISTS AND THIEVES REPORTED
IN AREA." Still another option might be to merely state: "CRIME ALERT"
and then explain that there have been incidents that should serve as a
warning about whatever illegal activities seem to be on the increase. There
would be no need for the use of such terms as Travellers or "Gypsies."
Not only would this remove that stigma that all Travellers and Gypsies
are criminally intent, it would be generic enough to include people who
carry out such activities but who are not associated with or members of
any particular ethnic group.
There are a number of people engage in scams, thefts, and burglaries
often described as "Gypsy crimes," yet these people are in no way associated
with these groups. For example, not all palmists, astrologers, or fortune
tellers are "Gypsies." In fact, most are not "Gypsies."
Other scams attributed to Gypsies include insurance fraud, credit
card fraud, and illegal exploitation of the welfare system. By any measure,
these are committed more often by non-"Gypsies." Nor are most people who
use aliases to thwart the law fall into this ethnic group.
Once a mind set is developed that all members of
a particular group are prone toward being criminals, all sorts of misunderstandings
can result. For example, it has also been suggested that Gypsies and Travellers
have the same name so as to confuse law enforcement and other social service
agencies. In many ethnic groups, it is not uncommon to name a child after
a parent, grandparent or some other distinguished person. To suggest that
a particular group gives the same name to a number of children in order
to deceive is a bit much.
The time is long overdue for setting for eliminating overgeneralizations,
and for the cessation of needless harassment. There is simply no need for
stigmatizing an entire group because some of its members are crooks. It
is time for the media to act responsibly. It is time for law enforcement
to remove law abiding people from their list of potential criminals. It
is time for state and local governments to clean up their act by eliminating
bigoted laws and ordinances.
On the flip-side, the Rom and Travellers might
consider how to best provide for their future as distinct ethnic group
in a society where literacy is essential and where ethnic tolerance is
limited by xenophobia and stereotyping. They must recognize and learn to
deal with what can and cannot be done to combat the continuation of negative
stereotyping and denigration that finds its way into the media and minds
of non-Gypsies. There are a number of highly educated Rom who are proud
of their heritage and who resent negative anti-Gypsyism. They should take
a leadership role in working within the infrastructure of Romani culture.
The same applies to Travellers.