NO INNOCENT BYSTANDERS: ACTION AND INACTION IN “MURDER AND TRADITION”

Caren Gussoff Sumption

“Murder and Tradition,” by American Sinti writer Jessica Reidy, is a scathing indictment against the actions — or, bluntly, the inaction — of witnesses to the deaths of two pre-teen Romani girls in 2008. On its surface, the poem reads as an elegy to the girls, Cristina and Violetta Djeordsevic, but beneath, the piece rages, churns, and mimics the deadly currents at Naples’ Torregaveta beach that pulled the girls under. Reidy’s diction and imagery irresistibly draw us towards fury, as the poem dismantles the idea of the “innocent bystander,” and implicates the inherent violence of the passive observer.

While the poem stands alone and achieves its aims, contextualizing this specific event illuminates the deep depths of historical violence against Romani people, and how inaction makes a witness both a permitter of violence and the violent actor. 

The day after Cristina and Violetta’s deaths, photos of locals continuing their beach activities as the corpses lay nearby sparked initial outrage and rebuke. This temporary, performative shock faded as onlookers’ lassitude was explained away not as anti-ziganism (anti-Romani racism) but by “bystander effect,” a social psychology theory popularized by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, and by helplessness (a Fotogramma agency photographer, present at the scene, asked, “…what were they supposed to do?”) [1].

The poem’s opening sets up the paradoxical absurdity of victim blame as a means of exonerating onlookers. It begins by naming Cristina and Violetta, then immediately labels them as “Gypsy girls.” By pairing the girls’ names with the exonym “Gypsy,” Reidy deploys the reflective power of the literal and suggestive planes to expose this paradox. On one hand, Cristina and Violetta are specific individuals, worthy of remembrance. But they are also depersonalized Gypsies, their individuality camouflaged inside the complex, problematic stereotypes of Gypsy.

Depending on a reader’s background, Reidy’s use of “Gypsy” in the opening line may seem innocuous. To many non-Romani, “Gypsy” persists as a legitimate descriptor. Other readers, with some knowledge of Romani culture, may interpret the use here as subversive, a tactic of reclamation. While there is a component of the latter, Reidy’s decision to use the slur over the preferred “Rom,” “Roma,” or Romani,” is strategic.

            Italian news agencies reported that Cristina and Violetta went into the water of their own accord, ostensibly to cool off, as that July 19 was hot and dry. It was also reported the girls did not know how to swim, and “blamed the Gypsies” [2] for entering the water anyway. The deaths were, thusly, ruled accidental, and officials “waved off the darker plots”. [3]. Again, to those outside Romani culture, this scenario is plausible: unsupervised children are, often, heedless of danger. That these girls were specifically “Gypsy girls” — part of a population described by a popular contemporary European politician as “…feral humanoids…” [4] —  compounds the conclusion. Here, Reidy interrogates such reports and conclusions. As the girls were known as Gypsy girls, Reidy’s narrator states, “Those Gypsy girls would not have swum / where modesty forbade” [5]. Cristina and Violetta, as 13 and 11-year olds, would have been very aware of restrictive Romani conventions dictating public female behavior, even unsupervised and oblivious of the beach’s currents. Authorities invoke the “Gypsiness” of the girls, even as they disregard their Romanipen — the cultural laws and rules essential to  Romani identity and self-definition. By ruling this an accident, the girls are simultaneously blamed for and separated from their identities.

If the girls are “Gypsy girls,” then their Romanipen cannot be summarily dismissed. They would not have taken the immodest step of baring their bodies in public or of swimming with a crowd of strangers – especially strangers outside their community. The only way these Romani girls could end up in the water at a public beach is that they “were led into the sea, and screamed / until they drowned”[6]. Either this was murder, or these girls were not Gypsy.

Reidy’s accusation here does not depend on finding a perpetrator. Both in the context of the situation as a moment in history and in the greater history of anti-Romani racism, premeditation or intention are irrelevant. The culprits are, as they have always been, passive onlookers and their lethal nonfeasance.

We expect a witness will offer assistance — if not us, then someone else present. Professor and historian Dennis Klein asserts, “The presumption of bystanders’ responsibility has…crystallised into the predominant opinion…Bystander intervention is now axiomatic, a paragon of civic behaviour…” [7]. Conversely, one could reasonably assume that willful non-intervention — not acting when action is possible and warranted — implies complicity in the violence.

Bystander effect assumes that, within an individual, there is an implicit desire to help others, a postulate contingent on the bystander weighing a victim’s humanity on par with their own [8]. Rom are one of the largest and most vulnerable minority populations in Europe. In 2016, the European Union published research demonstrating that “…80 percent of Roma are at risk of poverty, nearly half do not finish school, roughly a third lack running water and a third are unemployed” [9]. In Italy, Romani people are forced to live in segregate, substandard camps. Here, again, Reidy displays a paradox: to go along with “pardoning” the onlooker — or to dismiss with a shrug, asking “What could they have done?” — requires ignoring the history of violence against Romani people.

If we cannot ignore this history, then we cannot excuse the “70 indifferent bathers [who] ate sandwiches, / unwrapped their sweets, chatted, sipped / soft drinks beside the sopping corpses” [10]. We cannot ignore that the lifeguards, a role in which public safety is entrusted in whom public safety is entrusted, only “…laid them on bright towels / in the sand” [11] after the “Waves rolled the bodies in” [12]. It is telling to note that Reidy characterizes the water — in which the girls drowned — as a better steward of the girls’ bodies, treating them with a gentle care, connoted by the choice of the verb “rolling.”

Passivity is a decision, and decisions bear consequences; inaction must be incriminated just as much as action. It is, literally, a slippery slope, and Reidy’s structural enjambment accentuates how quickly passivity transforms into activity. Traditionally, rejet allows readers to savor the tension between lines. But here, we accelerate from Violetta and Cristina’s first appearance in line one to Italian citizens burning the Romani camp. The same locals who did nothing for the girls, did nothing as “…the “Gypsy camps” in Naples, [were] torched the previous week.” [13]. Their inaction confirms that, to them, Romani people are not their equals, and therefore not entitled to assistance — or even to equal protection under the laws which protect their own lives and property. Such bystanders may not be the ones who “soak handkerchiefs in kerosene, lob the bottles at grieving families” [14], but their disregard and passivity is “the light / by which gadjé strike their match” [15]. Their doing nothing does something: it fails to save two little girls and it burns camps where people are forced to live. It refuses to see the Romani as human, much less as equal, and thus cannot stem from anything other than anti-ziganism

There is no plausible deniability. To claim credible innocence, the Romani people must, literally and figuratively, be erased. The poem’s last line, with its images of fire, does double duty to foreground this horrifying conclusion. Though this crowd uses the improvised explosive known as the “Molotov cocktail,” the image evokes the faceless, torch-bearing mob of classic literature, hunting the monster, the witch, or the escaped slave. It also challenges any skepticism that such actions are relics of an ignorant, superstitious past by invoking the Final Solution of Nazi Germany. To burn the Romani camps, and “…thus disperse their need” [16] — and in so doing destroy any evidence of their existence — is the only means by which the bystander can claim inculpability. To be innocent requires a complete erasure of Romani people from the face of the earth. Reidy’s charges stand: the world may sun themselves next to the corpses of little girls and exonerate themselves of responsibility. But the arguments for this innocence are built on scaffolds of lies and contradictions that poorly mask the violence within. There are no innocent bystanders.

[1] Eccleston, “Italian Media Appalled by Neapolitan Tragedy.”

[2] Reidy, L. 13

[3] ibid

[4] Kingsley and Dzhambazova, “Europe’s Roma Already Faced Discrimination. The Pandemic Made It Worse.”

[5] Reidy, Ll. 11-12

[6] Reidy, Ll. 3-4

[7] Klein, “The Rise of the Bystander as a Complicit Historical Actor.”

[8] ibid

[9] Kingsley and Dzhambazova

[10] Reidy, Ll. 6-8

[11 Reidy, Ll. 5-6

[12] Reidy, L. 4

[13] Reidy, Ll. 9-10

[14] Reidy, L. 17

[15] Reidy, Ll. 15-16

[16] Reidy, L. 18

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Eccleston, Jennifer. “Italian Media Appalled by Neapolitan Tragedy.” CNN. Cable News Network, July 23, 2008. http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/europe/07/21/gypsy.reaction/index.html.

Kingsley, Patrick, and Boryana Dzhambazova. “Europe’s Roma Already Faced Discrimination. The Pandemic Made It Worse.” The New York Times, July 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/world/europe/coronavirus-roma-bulgaria.html.

Klein, Dennis. “The Rise of the Bystander as a Complicit Historical Actor: Psyche Ideas.” Aeon. Psyche, November 11, 2020. https://psyche.co/ideas/the-bystanders-rise-as-a-morally-complicit-actor-in-history. Reidy, Jessica. “Murder and Tradition,” in Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity, edited by Fox Frazier-Foley and Erin Elizabeth Smith, 155. Knoxville, TN: Sundress Publications, 2016.

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