Last weekend, a protest was held in Waterford city against a family of Roma who were accused of several crimes by the people of Waterford. A section of the protesters quickly turned into a mob though, and began to break the windows of the family's house while making racist chants. Gardaí were forced to move the family to a home in the nearby town of Tramore, although there are allegations that the family had been served an eviction notice at their Waterford home.
The protest occurred roughly a week after a Facebook page called 'Waterford Against Street Crime and Organised Begging' was set up. The page now has nearly 7,500 likes and its founder, PJ (not his real name), spoke exclusively with Campus.ie about his reasons for founding the page and his own reaction to the protests.
Why did you set up the page?
PJ: Well, I set it up out of frustration. I've been working in the security industry for over five years. I've witnessed a lot of criminal activity and anti-social behaviour, committed by both the Roma gang and just in general around the city.
And the response was pretty strong straight away?
Yeah, I don't know was I surprised or not surprised, because I'm aware the vast, vast, vast majority of people around Waterford city, anyone who's in Waterford city regularly, had become sick of the begging which is becoming increasingly aggressive and also the unsavoury characters walking around the town clearly under the influence of drugs.
Was there ever any opposition to the page before last weekend?
(Pauses) Some people picked it up because the title included 'Organised Begging' and some people jumped to the conclusion and picked it up as a racist page or that it's against the Roma community, which it's certainly not. It's just against organised begging which I think anyone in their right mind would agree is wrong.
There are comments on the page that could easily be construed as racist though.
I do agree with that, I was a bit overwhelmed at first with the amount of comments. I simply could not keep up with moderating it. I've since endeavoured to delete any racist or silly sort of unhelpful comments.
Do you feel anyway responsible for the protest last weekend?
(Long pause) I feel when I set up the page people had stopped talking about it on any major level. Once I set up the page that mentioned organised begging it got attention again. There was a huge number of comments about peoples' personal experiences with this gang, what they've done to them personally and what they've witnessed them doing. I think when people started reading other peoples' comments and realising they weren't alone, I think whoever set up the protest might have seen an opportunity to gather a huge amount of people. So yes, I feel that without setting up this page it probably wouldn't have created such interest. But I had nothing to do with setting up that protest and I don't condone it.
Can you tell me a little about the gang themselves?
It's mainly the females that beg. They operate generally from 12 to 6 p.m, same time, same places, day in, day out. The guards have zero interest in dealing with them. Due to my profession, I've had to deal with them on several occasions. I've had my face spat on while asking them to move away from premises they were begging in front of. They've been caught stealing numerous times.
The males then seem to be less involved in the begging side of things, and more into shop lifting. I've posted CCTV footage of three of the males stealing a phone from a local business. The males began beating people up every Saturday night for the past number of weeks, which I really think was the straw that broke the camel's back for the Waterford people.
Regarding the protest, how did they come about?
As far as I'm aware, one man decided to set up this so-called protest on a whim without any organisation, without any thought of what might happen and without any real goal in mind. It was just to get a gang of people and march on somebody's house.
That was not anything to do with myself, or anything to do with the Waterford Against Street Crime page. I didn't promote it, I didn't condone it and I was actually away that weekend. I didn't see any posts that were about it until I got back. I just want to make it clear that I had nothing to do with marching on somebody's home and I feel it was a very ineffective form of protest as it garnered huge sympathy for a criminal gang.
And what method would you prefer?
What I had in mind was just a peaceful protest that would meet regularly to just deter, and we'll say accompany, people that are begging to not give them an opportunity to get up in peoples' faces, especially the elderly. What I was hoping to do was get a volunteer civilian police force to patrol the city, not just for the Roma gang but for the drug abusers and for any suspected criminal activity. We could be on the street in uniform, just to observe, an observation unit it was to be called.
Could you see such an observation unit veer into vigilantism a little bit too easily?
No. I was to have strict guidelines and rules for anyone that was interested in doing it. As I said, our intention was to be an observation unit, 'observation' being the key. Our biggest weapon was going to be the cameras on our phones. Obviously, if you didn't have a cool head then you weren't welcome.
How do you feel about the response by the Gardaí to the crimes before the protest?
Disgraceful, I suppose, is one way of putting it. One of the men who was attacked recently outside his home was told that there were no witnesses, that seems to be a common line from them.
Why do you think that is?
I don't know, I don't know... Allegedly, these people have several identities. It's very hard to deal with them legally...I think it's too much hassle to deal with them to be honest.
If there is to be another protest, however, will you be involved with that?
I don't know. You need to control who shows up to these things and what their interests are. Are they interested in making Waterford a safer place or are they interested in breaking a few windows and taking advantage of the situation and the strength in numbers? It was just mindless violence (last weekend).
If you keep this up, if you keep up the page, how do you feel about becoming a type of community leader? Especially when you consider how strong the reaction has been.
(Long pause) I don't know. I was aware this might put me in a position, and without sounding arrogant I feel I've good experience of Waterford city and in the security industry. If I didn't feel ready to become some sort of a leader then I wouldn't have set up the page in the first place.