Photo by Garry Knight : https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/

Written By Mat Boden

People gnaw into fast food chain burgers all over world, everyday. They all know the food is unhealthy and made without love, to the minimum standards allowable. But, they fit a demand in a market.


In may 2015, thousands of McDonald’s workers gathered at the company headquarters to protest the refusal to pay a living wage. This is a company that creates obese children, sues environmentalists, and has been complicit in the deforestation of South America.


Despite all of this, they have multiple restaurants in every tourist location in the world.


It hardly seems something worth writing about – a thing we are all well aware of and begrudgingly turn a blind eye to. But it becomes more interesting when we contrast a global capitalist giant with another group of enterprising entrepreneurs – the artists referred to as “gypsies”. But to do that, I’ll have to explain some Romani history, first.


A short history of Romani discrimination

It is suggested that the Romani people originated from northern India in the medieval period, due to the invading army of sultan Mohmud Ghazinavi. They fled to middle Asia and Europe to escape the horrors of war, much like the Syrians today.


There are theories that the name Roma is routed with the Indian term “domba” which describes people of lower cast surviving by singing or music. The Romani people are virtually unique as a people to claim no homeland and the history of their settlements and society is sparse.


In 1758 Maria Theresa of Austria attempted, under a huge European undercurrent of anti-nomadism, to forcibly assimilate all the Romani communities in the lands under Habsburg dominion (today’s Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Romania), stealing their caravans, tents and carts, forcing communities into ghettos, banning travel and removing children from Romani parents.


The Romani people were considered a lower race in the eyes of Austrian Hungarian empire, and essentially filled the role of a slave cast until the mid 19th Century. But even after some moderate reforms the Romani peoples were still not safe, and during the second world war suffered wholesale extermination alongside (amongst others) the Jews.


The Roma today continue to be marginalised. An EU report from 2,000 explains  “the continued high levels of discrimination (in Romania against the Romani people) are a serious concern”.


A perfect example of the sentiments currently held in modern day Romania is a statement made by the then Bucharest police chief “Those scum Gypsies are responsible for all the wrong-doing in Romania.” Now, the Romanian government is planning to remove the use of the term Romani from public use, and evict Romani settlements all over Romania.


Okay, enough history. How do McDonalds and Romani people connect? If you’re a street performer, you may already know.


Photo by Garry Knight: https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/
Photo by Garry Knight: https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/

The Least Artistic of Performances

Being a public entertainer myself I’ve seen the evolution of London’s touristic spaces. 10 years ago there began a large spike in “brought” costumed statues performing on the streets. Before then, the tradition was that people wore homemade costumes, either focusing on performing talent or aesthetic skill (and sometimes both). This new school of statue chose instead to find a cultural anchor, like various Disney cartoon creations or a sci-fi reference (e.g the infamous Yoda).


Instead of focusing on creative personal expression or talent, these costumed characters only only focused on craft – they didn’t care if the show was good, only if it worked (i.e., if it made money).


Many pitches throughout the EU during this time became (and still are) massively oversubscribed by poor quality and often duplicate statues showing the same, simple floating illusion – Yoda on a stick, for example. Many prime areas once enjoyed by only a few performers are now fights for position. Clashes happen between silent looming statues and loudmouthed jugglers, struggling to cope with this new organisation.


News soon came in from London’s Metropolitan police officers and council officials that these statues are, in fact, a mafia running London’s biggest pick pocketing ring; that they work grifts (like “find the pee”), conning unsuspecting gullible individuals; and that worst of all that the big bosses import the statues in from Romania, house them in nothing short of slums and pay them nothing.


As this trend continued, the South Bank pitches regularly had large groups of what appeared to be homeless Romanis. A lot of them lived rough, and they would do shifts and save spots for themselves. Television programmes began to cover the embarrassment of having these vagabonds on display in public.


The costumes were dirty, the performers were unprofessional, enough was enough! Not at all like Britain’s good, English speaking, culturally-valid performers, right? The Romani Mafia are taking over our streets!


The City Steps in

So, the Southbank installed licenses to – in the words of the then street entertainment co-ordinator – “get rid of the gypsies”. The system was set up, none of the Romani performing community received licenses, so job done, right? Everything looked less desperate down on the South bank.


Some of the Romani living statues moved to James street, Covent Garden, “home of street entertainment”. The regular statues changed the “rules” there to protect their pitches, the police also intervened, until a licensing system was set in place that is now used to deny them access.


In the rest of London, many moves have been made to remove the Romani elements from the streets, including, as I witnessed the other day, the use by councils of the new Busk in London guidelines. Officials are telling gypsies (falsely) that they must be registered with Busk in London, insured or leave. As these are people from a poverty stricken background, who don’t, on the whole, speak great English and are fearful of deportation, this is an effective tactic. I even had a conversation with the head of Busk in london street liason team who exclaimed “yeah, me and the police went around getting rid of the gypsies”.


It’s prejudicial policing.


The thing I can’t understand is what makes the state and individuals dislike this – other than it being, at present, a shallow enterprise. It bears all the hallmarks of a savvy capitalist response to the environment. A product was produced that was truly scalable to any tourist location in the world, extremely profitable, and involved no skilled labour, it provided what the market desired. The product just like the McDonald’s big mac only providing what was necessary, no more. This was a great capitalist success story.


Why were they not hailed as a story of a poor impoverished group finding a niche and exploiting it? I will put it simply in my mind it was nothing more than narrow mindedness and prejudice.


I can hear the objections now “it’s because they are a Mafia and that’s not business, that’s just crime.” Or, “Well they treat their own workers like slaves – they are the real victims I think.”


From lots of chats with Romani people, they’ve told me that this is the deal they get asked in Romania if they want work in the UK. They get flown over, they get a place to stay, they get a costume, they keep 30% of their day’s earnings and the rest goes to the big guy. While this sounds horrendous to any street performer (“what, give away 70% of my earnings to some asshole?!”) it’s their choice to enter into that agreement.

Photo by Garry Knight: https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/


Cultural collaboration, not exclusion

I’ll conclude. McDonald’s are a huge multinational organisation creating incredible amounts of wealth. The Romani floating statue collective, for want of a better grouping term, are from the poorest most undermined peoples in Europe, and are creating wealth and futures for that community.


In my eyes, they share a lot of wrongs indicative of global capitalism as a whole. Both are an eyesore. Both are generic and culturally bland. But only one of them is actively doing physical harm to people.


I do feel a lot of our discourse as a community and as a country doesn’t include the Romani peoples as valued individuals with great innate potential, but as problems that have to be be dealt with, removed or hidden. Resources that could have grown and enriched the Romani performing culture have instead been squandered on enforcement.


There are no simple answers no absolute right or truth but I hope reading this my performing comrades form a more balanced and caring view of our floating pitch fellows, say hello, offer to help with costume ideas, make our historically mistreated friends welcome, let them know they are part of our community and who knows one day the world may awe at the Romani cultural powerhouse that develops.

Mat Boden is a guest writer who is familiar with the politics of busking and the buskers in the London area.