‘I’m not racist, but you wouldn’t want them living near you, would you? They bring house prices down.’
I’m on the train to London after spending four days with travellers in Basildon, and this is the attitude of the first person I encounter since leaving the site.
An IPSOS MORI poll conducted in 2004 showed that a third of the UK population admitted to being prejudiced against gypsies and travellers. This man freely admits to being one of them.
Unfortunately such prejudice translates in to real-life material discrimination. According to a pack handed out at the Dale Farm protests, 90 per cent of planning applications by gypsies and travellers are rejected, as opposed to 20 per cent elsewhere.
Dale Farm is one such site where the planning laws are used to discriminate against travellers. Although Amnesty International and the UN have both warned that eviction plans may flout international human rights laws, Basildon Council is ploughing ahead anyway, using the equivalent of a third of its budget to do so.
The land the travellers inhabit is tucked behind three side roads. The land is owned by
travellers. Some of them have lived there for decades. Before the travellers inhabited it, it was a scrap yard. The irony is that if the council gets its way, it may become a scrap yard again.
The Dale Farm site - before the travellers bought it - was a scrap yard. Photo by Jonnieo.
The campaign against the travellers has been spearheaded by a man who residents refer to as ‘our racist neighbour’. During my visit he was arrested for attempting to burn down a structure on the site. A stockpile of firearms was seized from his house. He has also reportedly sprayed sewage close to the encampment. Yet newspaper sources have for the most part given a sympathetic hearing to him.
The same can’t be said for the residents who risk losing their homes – including children who risk losing their access to education. Nor do the people from outside the camp who have agreed to help resist the eviction get a good press. While I am there the local newspaper writes about ‘anarchist thugs’ coming to Basildon. During a lengthy conversation with a journalist I turn the questions on him and ask him about the coverage so far. ‘To be honest, the story’s mostly written before we get here,’ he tells me, ‘and writing about thoughtful bookish types standing up for human rights doesn’t sell newspapers the same way as stories about anarchists and violence.’ It is no surprise that mainstream media access to the site has been restricted to allotted times.
I also speak to people who have experienced other evictions. I hear stories of children being dragged from caravans, abuse from bailiffs and belongings being destroyed. ‘In many ways this is a story that has been repeated for centuries,’ one veteran tells me, ‘but it is different in two ways. Firstly, the scale of the site, and secondly the strength of resistance. I think the bailiffs are going to find it very difficult indeed.’
Just how difficult they find it will be revealed all too soon.
Dale Farm Travellers: dalefarm.wordpress.com
Tim Gee works with campaigning organizations to support collective campaigns. He is active with the Climate Camp and numerous grassroots community campaigns. He is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, 2011.