It all happened so fast. The time between walking past the group of teenagers, and ending up in the car of some random stranger, clutching a handkerchief to stop the blood squirting out from my split eyebrow, couldn’t have been more than 2 minutes.
When I got back to our hosts’ apartment, I went to the bathroom mirror to assess the damage. “Yup, they got me pretty good” I thought. The left side of my face was completely swollen. I had been clocked hard.
I was pissed.
I was pissed that the attack was unprovoked. I was pissed that I couldn’t outrun them. I was pissed that I didn’t get any good punches in. But more than anything, I was pissed that the teenagers were gypsies.
After spending three weeks in Roma communities investigating their culture, their hardship, and their problems, the gang had just fulfilled the worst of gypsy stereotypes. In that moment, it felt hard to sympathize for them. I remember thinking that a punch in the face was all the thanks I got for my efforts to understand their culture, and bring attention to gypsy inequality. I understood why so many Romanians are afraid of them. I also felt disappointed and let down.
Admittedly, some of my initial reactions were a bit irrational. I was caught up in the emotions of the moment. Now that I’ve had a few days to cool down, it’s dawned on me how important that encounter was for our coverage. It was a final piece in the gypsy puzzle that Morgan and I were missing — a true indicator of just how far things need to go before racial tensions in Romania are alleviated. We had seen gypsies as the victim, as poor and destitute, but we hadn’t experienced them as the perpetrator. Now we had witnessed the full spectrum of the ‘gypsy problem.’
This isn’t to say I’m generalizing one teenage gang to an entire population. In any community, there are few things more dangerous than a group of 17 year olds with few opportunities, little inspiration, and no oversight. They were out looking to have some fun, and we happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The same thing could just as easily have happened in Highland Park, Los Angeles.
But almost every ethnic Romanian we talked to had stories of similar encounters with gypsy gangs. It’s clear that the vagrancy issue is widespread, and that has huge implications for gypsy integration.
There may only be a small percentage of gypsies involved in crime and delinquency, but their actions work to inhibit the rest of the population from showing its merits. While I was able to get over the fact I was attacked, I can just as easily see how the experience could permanently sour someone’s perceptions of gypsies. After all, I came close. And with repeated exposures — as in the case of our couchsurfing host Mikhail Popescu — I can only imagine it would become more difficult.
I think part of the problem is that its often easier for us to latch on to negative experiences than positive ones. Just look at a typical television news program, which is dominated by negative stories. Usually, they’re the stories that are sensational. They grab our attention. I believe a similar phenomenon occurs with gypsy street gangs. Even though they represent a small proportion of Roma, their actions paint a distorted picture of what a proud people with a vibrant culture are like.
In an already complicated web of cultural differences, their actions add yet another barrier a divided nation has to navigate on the road to racial integration.