Run a Workshop
This is based on talks given during the TSN info tour in March 2012. We have limited this version to the information and analysis rather than the more practical aspects of the discussion. The film below was made by the Traveller Solidarity Network and was shown during the talk. For a full version of the notes we used on the tour, or advice on how to put together a talk, email email@example.com
The communities we work with
It is important to distinguish between Romani Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, something the media often fails to do. As a network we try to support and work with all of these communities, not in order to homogenise them, but because though different they often experience similar forms of oppression. In our politics we think people being persecuted in the same ways should organise together, a view shared by many travelling communities.
Although there are no solid statistics, it is estimated that around 300,000 Romani Gypsies, Roma and Travellers live in the UK. This includes:
- English Romani Gypsies, who are part of a European-wide Romani community, who originally migrated from India in the 11th Century, around the time Normandy barons were forming much of what we recognise as the UK.
- Scottish Romani
- Welsh Kale
- Roma from Eastern Europe, many of whom are refugees
- Irish Travellers / Pavee, who are a distinct ethnic group originating in Ireland (though many families have lived in England for centuries). They have been living nomadically for hundreds if not thousands of years.
- Scottish Highland Travellers
- Fairground and show people, circus people, bargees and others on the waterways.
- New Travellers, settled people who adopted travelling lifestyles in the 1960′s onwards.
There are many people today who do not fit neatly into any of these boxes; they may have a shared heritage between more than one nomadic ethnic group or between travelling and settled groups. People from these communities may not all still live a nomadic lifestyle, and may differ in how they prefer to define themselves.
Though many people are here because of what happened at Dale Farm, it is important to say that it was not a one-off, and was just the biggest recent example of what travelling communities experience. There have been many evictions since that have gone unnoticed and we don’t have the resources to support all the sites. There are evictions of Travellers who are travelling, and there are also evictions of sites where people are living a semi-settled life such as at Dale Farm.
Many Romani Gypsies and Travellers have been forced to buy land to settle because of laws that prevent people from stopping on the road and remove traditional stopping places. The reason Travellers need planning permission is to use land for residential use and to build small toilet blocks. However planning laws are racist and make it very hard for Romani Gypsies and Travellers to have their applications accepted. According to the Commission for Racial Equality (2004), 90% of planning applications made by Travellers are initially refused compared with 20% overall.
There has been an English Gypsy and Irish Traveller site at Dale Farm since the 1970s which has planning permission. The families evicted last year bought the adjacent scrapyard ten years ago, and have involved in a legal battle over planning permission throughout this time. This culminated on the 19th October 2011 in a forced eviction based on the ’94 Town and Country Planning Act.
As the persecution of Travellers has otherwise gone largely unnoticed by the settled community, including activist communities, the reasons for the high profile of Dale Farm needs some examination. This is partly due to the huge scale of the eviction, which displaced 86 families, but also stands out as the first time there was any significant mobilisation of the settled communities to stand with Travellers. There has been support from local people and other settled people for years, and there was a constant presence on the site for the final two months, including during the eviction. Some activists in the network have been involved in Traveller Solidarity for years, whereas for many of us Dale Farm was the beginning of our work with Travellers, having come from different political backgrounds. The struggle created strong links between those activists and Travellers, links which have allowed us to develop as a network to support sites throughout the country. Eviction resistance and direct action were the core of the relationship between Travellers and activists. Though like many other groups we work to support sites in various other ways, it is also very important to us to stand with the affected communities at the point of eviction. We should also take care not to paint a picture of Travellers as passive victims -what made headlines was the strong media campaign mostly from the women at Dale Farm.
Eviction and Racism
Romani Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities experience many forms of racism. This includes social forms of racism, such as name-calling, violence and being barred from pubs, as well as structural racism such as being prevented from accessing public services and other public facilities because of entrenched prejudices and a failure to accommodate different ways of life. These are compounded by media stereotyping, such as in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and much of the coverage of Dale Farm. People try to legitimise this stereotyping by referring to specific examples in order to generalise about entire communities, a classic racist tactic.
As an anti-racist movement we tend to focus on calling out racism where we actually see it. There are a few frontlines in anti-racist organising, we confront the EDL on the street and leaflet about the BNP, but many activists’ engagement with anti-racism is mostly about demonstrating against fascism.
In contrast to this, many of us on the left share an analysis of the causes of racism – we see them in economic deprivation, housing crises and lack of access to other public services. These root causes are created by the state and economic system, and are rarely things that anti-racist campaigns succeed in confronting. There is a gap between our analysis and our actions as anti-racists.
This is why we see evictions as a key focus for our network. Evictions are state sponsored physical acts of racism that we can fight to stop. They are the actual manifestation of racism at its most serious – in physical attacks on a community, the destruction of their homes and the denial of their right to the most basic services….water, electricity, education, health care. While many government acts disproportionately affect ethnic minorities, evictions are directly racist acts,
the point of execution of state power and culmination of racist policies and agendas, which we can directly resist. Traveller evictions are the front line of an anti-racist movement.
The eviction at DF has left people living in appalling conditions. Despite the fact that people evidently have nowhere else to go, a second eviction is expected during 2012. There is a national shortfall of 20,000 pitches in the UK, and instead of addressing this, new legislation further criminalises Traveller culture.
The Localism Bill, passed in November 2011, covers much more than just Traveller communities and includes sections on planning, decision-making structures in Local Councils, and housing. All of these issues are wrapped up in a false rhetoric of decentralisation, and giving power back to communities. Although there are many problematic aspects to the Bill, not least the discourse that it hides behind, we are going to focus on its effects on Traveller communities. By ensuring that decisions about sites can only happen on a local level (a system that has always failed to provide sufficient sites), the Localism Bill leaves us with no national strategy for the housing rights of Travellers.
Under previous legislation, Councils had a duty to identify sites that Travellers could live in, though this rarely ended up with actual provision. We should have shifted from this to the allocation so that Travellers actually got somewhere to live. Instead of this, Councils no longer have a duty to identify let alone allocate sites, resulting in almost no obligations towards these communities. Already, in the year before the Bill was actually passed, councils foresaw that they would be able to set their own targets and a large proportion significantly decreased their plans for provision. This is disastrous in a climate in which many councils are reluctant to provide for Romani Gypsies and Travellers.
The practical effects of the Localism Bill are that it is easier to evict unauthorised sites, as they can be evicted without hearing retrospective planning applications. If a Traveller family, having just been evicted, buys some land and moves on to it, applying for planning permission for residential use, they can be evicted without their planning application even being heard.
The Localism Act is therefore a two-pronged attack on Travellers, making it both harder to get planning permission and easier to enforce against those who don’t have it. Tony Ball has said there are ‘too many Travellers in Essex’. The Localism Act will result in Councils passing on responsibility by claiming there is no need for sites, furthering the cycle of evictions.