Monday, 29 August 2011

Save the Dale Farm travellers

This weekend, over 100 people travelled to Dale Farm - where Britain's largest traveller community is facing eviction. They have set up "Camp Constant" as a site from which to support the travellers and to offer non-violent resistance. In this, they deserve support, and the distortions of the media need to be challenged.

Dale Farm is in Crays Hill, Essex, and comprises nearly 100 separate properties. Most are owned by Irish Traveller families, whilst a few belong to Romani Gypsies. The 45 properties at the front of the farm are not at issue, but the 52 at the back have houses built upon them that do not have planning permission. As such, Basildon District Council has given the families on those plots until 31 August to abandon their homes or faced forced demolition and eviction.

In legal terms, it is planning permission that is the crux of the matter. The land itself is owned by the families and so the only question should be what structures go on said land. But there are other interests at work. Hence why the Daily Mail brands this "Britain's biggest illegal gypsy camp," for the crime of creating homes on the site of a disused scrap yard, yet (as one example) gives an entirely extraneous mock castle which was built in secret the benefit of the doubt by putting "illegal" in inverted commas. But the problem is evident far beyond one newspaper with previous form.

The Commission for Racial Equality (now the EHRC) has found that 90% of requests for planning permission are rejected, compared to 20% more generally. This figure arose in a report (PDF), in which councils admitted that hostile media coverage played a significant part in community tensions, alongside residential complaints.

In the specific instance of Dale Farm, you can see the effect this has had on residential attitudes. Nearby resident Mike Beiley declares that "they seem to think our rights don't matter," but the only substance to this statement is its worth as a tabloid cliché. If the ten-year campaign to see the travellers evicted is a fight for "rights," then there is something seriously messed up with the campaigners' priorities. As the Bishop of Chelmsford put it, "if evicting children is the answer then we must be asking the wrong question."

It is also telling that the residents have been campaigning to get rid of the travellers for ten years, and the dispute over planning permission "has taken 10 years of failed negotiations and legal process to reach this point." The Department of Communities and Local Government talks of "severely damaged community relations," without heed to the source of it amongst those wanting the travellers gone for a decade and the tabloids which whip up a frenzy about travellers and gypsies on a regular basis. Then they go on about "unauthorised development on greenbelt land," ignoring that the area was a scrap yard before they developed on it, rendering the official classification redundant.

The moves to forcibly evict the residents of Dale Farm cannot be justified. Despite owning the land, residents have offered to give it up and provided suggestions for suitable alternative sites. These have been rejected. The legal process has been exhausted. Now, what remains is the direct action resistance of the travellers and those who support them.

As Gypsy campaigner Grattan Puxon put it;
There is bound to be violence because bailiffs themselves are using violence to bulldoze their homes. We hope that people will respond to that peacefully and use a human shield, but people should understand that the violence will come from the bailiffs in the first instance.
This will be the enforced violence of the state and capital, in all its glory. But this kind of force needs to be met with resistance. Solidarity to the residents of Dale Farm, and to all who are able to stand side-by-side with them.