Published in a recent edition of the The New York Times
was a men- tion about the New Jersey state legislature's imminent repeal of the so-called "gypsy law." Purported to be
New Jersey's "last-known vestige" of official discrimination, the gypsy law was an
80-year-old statute permitting municipalities to regulate "roving bands of nomads,
commonly called Gypsies." Coming from the state legislature that first enacted Megan's Law– this all seems
a bit ironic.
The gypsy law, enacted in 1917, allowed local governments to make laws and
ordinances to license the various forms of transportation used by gypsies, like
horse-drawn carts, as well as their businesses, any goods they sold, places where they were
entertained and where they could rent property.
"The law was unquestionably discriminatory and an insult to many New Jersey
residents," said the author of the repeal legislation, Assemblywoman Nilsa I. Cruz-Perez,
a Democrat from Camden. Cruz-Perez, a native of Puerto Rico, was the first Hispanic
woman elected to the New Jersey Legislature. When learning that the gypsy law was still on
the books in 1997, she was "shocked."
From fire to frying pan
Yet Cruz-Perez and her legislative colleagues had no trouble enacting Megan's Law
in 1996 (it was approved
by an overwhelming margin). And they probably expressed elation in 1997 when
President Clinton effectively made it the law of the land.
Megan's Law, named for the young victim of a paroled rapist who was living
anonymously in a suburban neighborhood, is a statute that subjects anyone convicted of
even minor sex offenses to a whole gamut of discriminatory restrictions including
compulsory registration and humiliating and potentially dangerous public exposure– typically
after they've served the majority of a lengthy mandatory minimum prison term. In many
communities across America where homosexuality may be publicly tolerated but strongly
discouraged, a gay man caught with 1960s physique magazines or a queer educator considered
to be "corrupting young people" may find their lives governed by their local
version of Megan's Law.
But back to the gypsies. Generally of Eastern European descent yet sometimes
endowed with Asiatic traits, these nomadic peoples can trace their ancestry back more
than 1,000 years to a caste in northern India that speaks the Romany language. Gypsies
have been much maligned in Western societies. Decent citizenry were fond of painting
gypsies with a broad derogatory brush– often demonizing them as thieves or child seducers with
a perceived "evil eye." Decent folk tended to express fear, hatred and outrage whenever
the "dirty vagabonds" appeared in their communities. Gypsies (usually single adults cast out of
a gypsy clans for breaking some Magyar taboo) who actually decided to live in
established communities were often singled out and victimized by random acts of vandalism or
The gypsy law must have been particularly onerous. "Can you imagine, arriving in
a town, and having to tell village officials why you're there, what you plan to do, where
you plan to stay and when you're leaving?" asked Cruz-Perez.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a member
of President Clinton's Holocaust Memorial Council, welcomed the
New Jersey legislature's belated action. "I think the very fact that such a stain has been expunged is cause for
celebration," The Times quoted him as saying.
Added Foxman, "There is no question in my mind that there are other similar
discriminatory laws in states across the country, but hopefully, this will spur people to do
some research, dig them out and get rid of them." Perhaps someone could point Foxman in
the direction of say, Megan's Law? **
Editor's Note: from The Guide, March 1998
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