Go, move, shift!

IssueOctober 2011
Feature by Charlotte Potter-Powell

As I write, we are on the eve of a last-ditch high court judgement on the long road to eviction at Dale Farm. At a time of great tension, outside activists like myself are deeply committed to resisting the eviction, yet in the media and in parts of the wider Gypsy and Traveller community, divisions have opened between direct activists and those pursuing legal approaches to preventing the eviction.

When I first visited Dale Farm, I asked myself whether activist visitors’ efforts to resist the eviction might make an inevitably bad situation worse. Many Travellers are terrified of what will happen at the hands of bailiffs on eviction day. Could direct action inflame the situation even more and contribute to traumatising a generation of Dale Farm children? I decided that a persecuted community could best determine what form of solidarity they needed. The Travellers I spoke to were desperate for our help in stopping the eviction, and asked us again and again how many people we could bring to Dale Farm. Their direct request for solidarity contrasted with Basildon Council’s bizarre and patronising suggestion that we act “in the Travellers’ best interests” by allowing Basildon Council to get on with an eviction.

However as eviction day has crept closer there have been suggestions that activists have outstayed their welcome on site and exploited residents to support their own political agendas; and counter suggestions that those negotiating with the council are facilitating an “orderly” eviction. I believe both of these positions to be unjustified, and clearly much common ground remains. However, tensions have played out in the media, on site and even within the Gypsy Council itself, the national body representing Gypsies and Travellers. On the left we’re very used to internecine squabbling frustrating our efforts to work together. But perhaps these tensions also reflect deeper questions about what forms of social “integration” might be possible or desirable for Gypsies and Travellers.

This is a community who have faced 500 years of endemic racist persecution. In recent decades a travelling lifestyle has been made almost impossible. Gypsies and Travellers have been forced to settle on sites, while also benefiting from new educational and health opportunities offered by a stationary lifestyle. Yet there aren't enough sites, and many that have been provided are on unwanted marginal land under flyovers and next to rubbish tips: enforcing and bearing witness to a segregation that much of settled society seems keener to maintain than Travellers themselves. In the mainstream media Gypsies and Travellers are presented for our amusement or outrage, always as “other” and usually as antisocial “problem” communities. In the face of such stereotypes, Travellers like Candy Sheridan of the Gypsy Council powerfully demonstrate that Gypsies and Travellers can act within the law and even use it to fight for their rights. There is a risk that association with illegal direct action and that other invented stereotype, the “hate-filled anarchist rioter” does nothing for the public perception of Gypsy and Travellers.

At the alternative pole, radical activists want to use civil disobedience to combat what they believe to be a racially-motivated application of planning law. The Commission for Racial Equality identified that 90% of Travellers’ planning applications are refused, compared to 20% of the settled community. Rural England is becoming a monoculture in which the rights of the relatively wealthy to maintain their house prices and live in a picturesque fantasy of rural life, trump the basic right to a home of anyone who is poorer or has an “unconventional” lifestyle.

Who’s assimilating whom

Michael Rosen has pointed out that when the powerful talk about assimilation and integration, they assume that it’s the poor and the powerless who should be assimilating to a culture that they, the powerful, dictate. Maybe we need to turn this on its head. Maybe the powerful and wealthy of our country need to learn to integrate and live next to the rest of us, including next to Gypsies and Travellers. Maybe Gypsy and Travellers’ demand for a home that meets their basic need to live together in community is one that we can all sign up to. Interestingly the Gypsy Council is involved in the International Alliance of Inhabitants, a global solidarity network that includes cooperatives, slum dwellers, and indigenous populations and has as its objective “the construction of another possible world starting from the achievement of housing and city rights.” They stand for zero evictions, of anyone anywhere. This position holds out promising future possibilities for solidarity across ethnic, political, class and national boundaries.

I feel privileged to have been welcomed and integrated into a proud Traveller community. I have the impression (as an infrequent visitor) that organising a united resistance between Travellers and outside activists who work to a very different non-hierarchical organising model is not straightforward. Open meetings have helped find a way forward, but perhaps the experience of living and working together has been more important as Travellers have welcomed activists into their homes. On the day of the anticipated eviction these distinctions were broken down even further. Traveller women brought cooked breakfasts, tea and hugs to activists locked on at the gate. As the day wore on they climbed the scaffold tower along with settled activists and some donned the activist “uniform” of masks and boiler suits. Local churches offered respite and hospitality; and in the courts, Candy and her team won an injunction that brought celebration to the site. Reflecting on my initial questions about taking direct action at Dale Farm I think again about trauma, and how the impact of a traumatic event can be aggravated by the experience of powerlessness and of other people standing by and allowing it to happen. The resistance at Dale Farm has enabled Travellers and their supporters to stand together in proud defiance whether in court or on the barricades. A new Traveller friend told me “we’ve never seen anything like it before. The taboos have come down. We’re both veterans of Dale Farm now.”