Daniel Harvey writes on the travellers’ fight against eviction. A reply to the piece appears here.
Two of us made our way for a brief stay at the traveller encampment at Dale Farm. This is the ‘illegal’ settlement of more than 80 families of travellers on a disused scrapyard supposed to belong to the greenbelt.
The travellers bought the land ten years ago, but could not get planning permission from Basildon council. The council has refused to provide any alternative plot, making it clear that they want them out of their area permanently and are willing to spend the millions of pounds necessary on making this happen.
A legal fight has now ensued over the council’s right to evict, which as of the time of writing, has led to a temporary reprieve, and inflated costs for the council: an extra £1.5 million for every day of delay. Whether or not the community is expelled is in the hands of a High Court judge, who narrowly rescued the camp as the bailiffs neared.
On our way to the camp, we tried to make direct contact with the locals. We asked for directions from everyone we passed, although we we already knew them by heart, and we found that for the most part the local hostility was not as great as we had expected. One gentleman stopped to talk to us – he told us about his time defending West Berlin from the USSR, “I love guns” he told us, but in the end he thought we could agree to differ. A pharmacist told one of us to move on in no uncertain terms, but for the most part there was a sullen sort of restraint in their dealings with us. We asked a woman through her speaker system, standing outside the tall iron gates outside a large house, and actually, her civility made it through the paranoia – “are you activists?” she asked, we answered, and she came back in a knowing sort of tone, “oh I see”.
We met a young man, a local builder, walking up the path just leading up to the camp and he stopped to talk to us about the problem of the travellers. We might have came across as a bit mad to him – he asked us more than once why anybody would come all the way from North London for this. He stuck to the legalistic line, it was nothing about them, the travellers – it was just about “fairness”. His dad had had his house refused planning permission for an extension, so why should they get away with building on the greenbelt? After a lot of discussion it did come down to a different sort of defence, “well you try living near them” and he related how stones were thrown at him when he and his dad had tried to speak with them.
But divisions also existed within the Dale Farm camp. Walking up through the gate and along a path, we found Camp Constant, a small enclosed activist ghetto with its own gate. Inside you see that strange (for some, familiar from Climate Camp) sub-culture, with lots of colourful trousers, dreadlocked hair, and lashings of straw, which was thrown on the ground everywhere. When we introduced ourselves and said why we has came, one of us came out with a statement about challenging racism, and we were asked by one person whether we really meant what the nice words said – with the obvious implication of insincerity.
We moved a few big objects up to the barricades at the front of the camp, but we quickly found out that the defences were a bit inadequate, to say the least. Nobody could really expect them to last against bailiffs with £18 million pounds of funding. The many children who hung around pointed at us, and had a bit of a joke at our expense. Afterwards we decided to go to the shops and were given a lift by two women travellers who were in their early twenties. They seemed ambivalent about it all – they asked us why we came, but they didn’t talk about the eviction very much. On the way back through the gate, one of them pointed at the sign “we won’t go!” hung there – “it shouldn’t say that” she said, it should say “we want to go!” We couldn’t find out how deep that feeling was in the camp.
The slightly perfunctory nature of the defences was illustrated when we volunteered for guard duty out the front. It turned out we were rather over-eager in checking who was driving in and out, and we struggled to think why exactly we were stood there. Even so, the three activists in charge of defence seemed on the ball with their walkie-talkies. They regularly changed the frequency even though they knew the police and bailiffs wouldn’t find it hard to tap in when they wanted to.
The next day there was a meeting which no travellers attended, apart from one older gentleman who came in half way through and joked with everyone, but was obviously nonetheless a bit of a frustration to all the planning being done by activists. In terms of organisation, the obviously senior people in the group, the younger men who had been at the camp ‘forever’, as they put it, told everyone what tasks needed doing, and people volunteered. There wasn’t any real attempt or talk about reaching out to the travellers or interacting with them. We were told by someone at the start not to go up to people and talk to them, and they obviously had either given up or were unwilling to draw them into their own area.
On the whole, it’s difficult to really take lessons from all of this. We felt that the anti-political tone of the activists at Dale Farm, which translated over into a reticence about talking politically at all, and in ‘imposing’ themselves by meaningfully interacting with the people they were defending, seemed rather inadequate. It should obviously be said that they have done well to delay the eviction enough so that the legal route now seems to show at least some potential for a reprieve.
But support for travellers raises general political problems. Challenging the separation between local working class people and the travellers, as well as between ourselves as political activists and both of those groups. Moreover, among the wider working class there is a deep reservoir of feeling against travellers, and challenging this is difficult without being tarred with the brush of do-gooder liberals imposing their ‘politically correct’ norms.
Challenging this ingrained form of racism above all requires honesty. We have to show how political solidarity can transcend negative stereotypes, even if these really do have a basis in fact – I don’t doubt the honesty of the young man who talked about the stoning and aggressive behaviour towards him and his dad. Challenging racism has to mean absorbing the negative attitudes and behaviour on all sides and showing a way past them.