Denunciations as Civic Acts: The Romanian Middle Class and its Battles for Justice

Author: Manuel Mireanu

This text deals with denunciations from people in the city of Timişoara, Romania. It focuses first on Cristian Brâncovan, a so-called “national champion of justice”, who has been leading an online campaign against pickpockets since 2016. He is photographing suspects, publishes their photo on his Facebook page, and occasionally harasses them in the street. Most if not all of his suspects are of Roma origins. Second, the article focuses on anonymous denunciations that the police pick up and use to legitimize arrests, evictions and harassment. I argue that such practices of denunciation, including Brâncovan’s campaign, are an instrument through which the Romanian middle class upholds its need for an ethical form of politics. In this way, denunciations reinforce the state’s repression against marginal groups. Denouncing is seen as a civic act, one by which the denouncer fulfills their duty as a citizen and contributes to public order and security.

Introduction

In February 2017 thousands of people in Romania joined a national wide protest against corruption. This protest was dubbed “Rezist” and it was mainly aimed at the corrupt political class, and specifically at the Social Democrat Party. People were demanding the upholding of the rule of law, and an end to corruption practices and large scale theft. In Timişoara, one of the major Romanian cities, one young man was enthusiastically organizing the local protests, speaking out against local thieves and their alleged connections to the “big thieves” in the Parliament. His name was Cristi Brâncovan, and for him calling out corruption during the “Rezist” protests was merely the extension of his one year old campaign against Timişoara’s pocket thieves. In April 2016 Brâncovan, armed with a megaphone, went to the tram station in one of the central marketplaces of the city, and spent few hours warning the passersby that the trams are filled with pickpockets. His speech pointed out that Timişoara is “an unsafe city”, where the authorities and the Police do nothing to stop the serious situation caused by the thieves. He alleged that the pickpockets have “thousands of victims in one month” (Stoian 2016). Brâncovan also called upon the authorities to intervene, so that people would not reach the point where they would “do justice for themselves”.

I argue in this text that the practices of denunciation performed by Brâncovan and others are an instrument through which the Romanian middle class upholds its need for an ethical form of politics and thus reinforces the state’s repression against marginal groups. The denouncers claim a specific form of justice that oppresses whoever does not conform to the Western civilized standards of normativity. The collaboration and complicity of the people of Timişoara with the authorities highlights the fact that denouncing is seen as a civic act, one by which the dweller of the city fulfills her duty as a citizen.

Enikő Vincze (2012) argued that after 1989, the subjectivity of the Romanian citizen has been reinvented in parallel with the buttressing of state authority. This reinvention developed both through nationalist discourses and through European and civilizational discourses. These two discourses complement each other in the “Rezist” protests. These protests denounced corruption as a pathogen, as a crime that needs to be punished in order to clear the nation of its reactive, communist and non-Western elements (Crimethinc.com 2017). The protests legitimize the repressive forces of the Romanian state in the name of civic attitudes guided by middle class values (Poenaru 2017). As one observer put it, “the fight indeed is not against corruption, but on the ownership of the instruments of justice, from one group of interests to another” (Platon 2018). This new civism in inscribed in a larger effort to reinforce the state’s authority in its repressive rather than social dimension.

The first section introduces the concept of denunciation and its stakes. The second section outlines the Romanian context – its neoliberal governmental policies, its burgeoning middle class with its ethical concerns that translate into the criminalization of the poor, and how all this is coming together in the city of Timişoara, which is today the epicenter of Romania’s middle class civism. Subsequently, the following sections present the two empirical vignettes: the case of Cristi Brâncovan and its campaign against pickpockets, and the activities of the Timişoara Local Police that reflect anonymous denunciations.

These two empirical illustrations are not meant to be exhaustive case studies. They merely show two sides of this phenomenon: on the one hand a visible figure of the hero who takes it upon himself to find the evildoers, and on the other hand the less visible but similarly powerful collective persona of the anonymous public, whose discourse and actions are made visible by the press releases of the Police. I chose to show all this in the city of Timişoara first of all because it is where the phenomenon of denunciations is most visible in Romania, and secondly, because among Romanian cities it is the one with the best reputation as an “European” city. Methodologically, this article investigates the actions of the denouncers and analyses their discourses solely through the traces they leave in the online media, and especially in the press reports of the Timişoara Local Police. I focus on the period 2016 – 2018 because it is the time when the denunciations became more frequent and their effects more visible. It is also the period that coincides with the rise of the new Romanian middle class through the anti corruption campaign and the “Rezist” protests.

 

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