travellers, the state and the meaning of solidarity

5 11 2011

Richard B. argues that traveller support must now become a part of our movement

Only those leftists unable to think anything beyond ‘anti-cuts’ could have missed what has happened in Essex these past couple of months. The few select days of continuous media coverage were of the kind usually reserved for foreign wars and natural disasters.

Despite these momentary manifestations of traveller resistance which flashed across our screens, it is worth noting that the small-scale siege which set alight the largest traveller site in the country is not a new occurrence: a site at Hovefields, just up the road from Crays Hill, was evicted only in February; the residents of Dale Farm itself have been resisting the legislative lunges of Basildon council for six years; settled communities have been defending travellers from eviction since at least the 1970s, and indeed it is arguable that the majority of contemporary traveller culture is a response to the ideologies and developing technologies of governmental attack.

Daniel Harvey’s article in The Commune (October 2011) displayed a total ignorance of the history of traveller solidarity and traveller culture. But it is in ignorance for which he is – at least partially – not to blame, for the fault lies as much with our movement in general. For the majority of us, in truth, have not even considered traveller resistance and suffering, despite the fact that this is on our own doorsteps, littered as they are with anti-cuts, anti-capitalist, even anti-apartheid sentiment. Somehow, despite this, we have managed to obscure ourselves from the very real suffering in front of us.

Our gradual task then should be to reassess the role we as a – growing – anti-capitalist movement can play in alleviating the immediate suffering of traveller communities. As with all solidarity politics, this begins by listening for calls to action, and only secondly identifying our own strategies of solidarity and autonomy within the settled community which could be of benefit to the resistance of traveller communities.

In order to listen well, one immediate act should be to rectify the confusion in our collective politics, and in the following text I hope that I can begin to lay down some openings for how this might be achieved. First, by noting the complexity of traveller culture and history, and to place ourselves in its context, and theirs in ours; and secondly by discussing some of the reactions to traveller solidarity which the siege of Dale Farm elicited from the liberal and radical left.

There is a long-standing debate about the heritage of travellers, gypsy and Romani communities, about to what extent these communities can be amalgamated and distinguished, and whether legislative edicts against travellers going back as far as the 15th century should be placed within a living history. But this much is certain: in the 20th century, anti-traveller legislation expanded to the point of mass execution, and the remnants of it remain in the attitudes of Britain’s law-makers, politicians and adjudicators.

Partly this can be explained as a shift in the role of rural England in the post-war economy. As the rural terrain of England was transformed from a complex and diverse economy into a single entity focused on industrial food-production, the residential use of the countryside was abandoned. Developed on a scaffold of cheap oil and technology with high capital costs, agricultural labourers were thrown off. Much of this seasonal, migratory labour force included travellers, who, were increasingly expelled from rural sites and encouraged to be assimilated into urban, settled life, replete with wage servitude and the niceties of consumer society.

The 19th century legislation against common lands, their enclosure and transference into the hands of private capital, was bolstered in 1960 by legislation against any landowner allowing caravans to occupy a site unless the state had issued a licence first. The obvious repercussions of this legislation for traveller communities caused a severe backlash, leading to an amendment in 1968 forcing councils to provide some sites for traveller communities.

Annie, a middle aged woman from Essex who I met at Dale Farm, has been involved in traveller support since the 1970s, when she taught in a school with a traveller-majority population on the south coast. Back then, she and a few others would turn up as legal monitors when sites were evicted, which involved the wide-spread beating of traveller men by the local police, and the arson of caravans by bailiffs. She attests that matters have improved since those days, thanks mainly to the ongoing work of groups like the Gypsy Council and the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, organisations which have also been fundamentally involved in the resistance at Dale Farm.

The 1968 legislation was a real victory, but the small number of sites provided by councils meant that traveller communities increasingly decided to stay put for longer periods of time, as there were simply not enough sites to provide for all travellers throughout Britain. A good example of the Cottingley Springs caravan site in Leeds: in 1969 Leeds provided a site for 15 caravans, while there were 225 traveller caravans in the city. Of the estimated 300,000 traveller, gypsy and Roma in Britain, half are currently living in bricks-and-mortar homes essentially against their will.

The Dale Farm site

It was under these conditions that Dale Farm grew up. The Dale Farm site itself evolved, as is well known, from a scrap yard. In 1974 the concreted ground was rented by Basildon council as a disposal point for thousands of scrap cars. Following the 1973 oil crisis, larger, more energy inefficient cars were abandoned in their droves as consumers turned to small hatchbacks. The car refuse of Crays Hill piled up, and cheap labour was brought in to extract some small surplus value from the detritus. Traveller communities, benefiting from a national network of itinerant labourers with some capital resources (thanks to the lack of mortgages and large fixed capital expenses), have been, at least since World War II, an important component of the scrap metal trade, and it was this connection which initially brought traveller communities to Dale Farm. Families chose to live beside the main source of income, and a large traveller site accumulated to the west of the scrap yard, that which is now the legalised site at Dale Farm (although this too will soon, potentially, be under threat).

As the auto-industry found its feet again thanks to decreased real wages and labour conditions, the Dale Farm scrap yard turned over to a deposit for the mountains of hardcore waste from the road-building projects which ensued. By the early 1990s, as the M1 and other abysses of dystopian energy policies pock-marked the south-east of England, the rubble filled a thirty-foot pit. As the economy slowed down again with the booming of the market bubble in the south-east, the scrap yard emptied out, and in 1994 the traveller communities at Dale Farm bought the land for their own use.

The decision to buy the land came as a response to both governmental policy and changes in wage form. Ever resistant to wage-labour, traveller communities were nonetheless still at the mercy of decreased pay, and the lack of financial security created an incentive for travellers to buy land as much as it did for settled communities to take up mortgages, in order to provide a semblance of social security in the wake of demolished state pensions. At the same time, government policy was increasingly shifting against traveller communities and the traveller rights won in 1968. In the same year that the Dale Farm site was bought, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed, a piece of legislation which simultaneously dismantled any obligation by councils to provide caravan sites, while also criminalising road-protests and ravers. The result was the semi-permanence of Dale Farm, at which caravans and trailers rest beside brick-work chalets and large iron gates.

In 2005, Basildon council, having refused planning permission for the traveller chalets – a decision always entirely within its power – began the process of eviction proceedings under the Town and Planning Act 1990. Planning law allows councils to make decisions regarding lands that they do not own; for this reason the citing of Dale Farm as land within a ‘green belt’ has allowed Basildon to deny the travellers’ rights to build on their land, despite their ownership of it.  Meanwhile, of course, the quasi-urbanisation undertaken by the traveller community, of course, has nevertheless always been, and will always be, outmatched by the complete forces of urbanisation  bleeding outward through the pre-fab concretisations expanding throughout Essex, from the commuter town of Wickford to the holiday homes of Southend-on-Sea.

Indeed, now that Dale Farm has been surrendered to the ongoing trauma of destruction by hired digger and drill, and the complacent criminality of professional bailiffs boosted by a nationally-recruited core of militarised police, the surplus power of the state is turning its eyes onto Brentwood, a traveller site in the constituency of none other than Eric Pickles MP. This is the same Minister for Communities and Local Government who, back in December, launched the Localism Bill, which, among other reactionary gloss and thunder, proposes to rid councils of their pesky obligation to identify sites for traveller communities while also easing the aggravating restrictions on business  developing on green belt sites. The Localism Bill and the National Planning Policy Framework, the consultation of which ended last month, are now poised to overthrow the restrictions on rural development brought in after World War II, while still disallowing traveller communities from settling when they choose to. In short, the current administration desire to maintain the countryside only for bourgeois pleasure and business, while still ostracising those who want its use for residence and proletarian life.

Racism

It is in this manner that the proto-fascist tendencies of the government shine through: not so much an explicit policy of racism, but in the mundane forces of court procedure and planning law by which traveller communities are disempowered, dispossessed and impoverished, while the land they require (and have acquired) is essentially gifted to rising oligarchs.

Given the obvious themes of race, class, labour, and state oppression in the above impressionistic sketch, it seems difficult to believe that the response of liberals – never mind our maligned left – could be anything less than militant. But whereas in the US there is an awareness of the continuity of the institutionalism and structural substantiation of racism, in the UK racism is a word reserved for particular historical events, with the result that any accusation of racism is commanded to match itself to previous more notorious manifestations of racial struggle. Thus accusations that Basildon council was acting on a racist ideology in its attempts to cleanse the rural idyll of travellers was met with the same disdain as the claim that the post-riot broom-wielding bourgeoisie of Hackney and Clapham were racist: the liberals proclaimed that we are crying wolf, that the word should not be taken in vain so easily, that the real racism is overt verbal denigration and the Holocaust: anything else is merely accidental. And yet still, we would expect liberals to support traveller communities in their efforts agaist racial oppression. Romani and gypsy communities suffered the Holocaust (the O Porrajmos); and the denigration of ‘pikeys’ is arguably more wide-spread than any other racial slur.

But Ed Miliband, now no more than an op-Ed incarnate, supported the eviction, even egging on the mechanisms of Basildon council to speed up in dispossessing travellers of their land. Liberal Democrats failed to hoist their civil liberties flag to any notable extent; Liberty failed to even comment on the human rights violations. Away from these discourses, no doubt being scoffed at by any engaged revolutionary, the Socialist Workers’ Party (still the largest nominally ‘revolutionary’ organisation in the UK), limited its solidarity to the presence of one member, and the inclusion of a thousand Right To Work placards and assorted ephemera at a demonstration on September 10th. Needless to say, the slogan ‘Right to Work’ has never seemed quite so out of place, in the middle of a mass protest in solidarity with a community infamously resistant to contemporary forms of wage labour.

Yet with the vestiges and inspirations of the alter-globalisation movement still flickering somewhere, activists from Bristol, Brussels, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Gothenburg, London, Sheffield, and elsewhere lent their time and labour in the aid of those travellers planning to resist the imminent eviction. Importantly, this was not a blank canvas of ‘activism’ upon which a group of bright young things descended in the hopes of some brief glory, as Daniel Harvey’s article might have us believe. Instead, supporters from Essex and Cambridgeshire have been visiting Dale Farm for several years, helping build scaffold defences alongside a few hopeful residents, a number which increased with the steady  influx of new supporters in the past few months. In that time, organisational meetings including both residents and supporters have been frequent and regular, leading to the most genuine and intimate solidarity between two communities that I have witnessed. Despite the doubts that I have heard voiced by many on the left (both anarchists and socialists), it should be emphatically reiterated that the solidarity between residents and supporters has been genuine, heart-felt and inspiring, both communities learning from eachother. As testament to this, here is a transcription of a speech by one of the residents, Clem, broadcast at the Anarchist Bookfair three days after the eviction began:

“When ye came to Dale Farm you came just to support the cause, because you knew it was wrong. But we fell in love with each and every one of you. We did, we fell in love with ye. The best thing about Dale Farm which I’ll take away with me, was meeting all of yea, and that’s from my heart. Me and my mum had a conversation, and she went back to our great ancestors, and nobody has ever stood up in history for Travelling people. And Dale Farm comes along, and we had people, really good settled people that stood up for us. And that, my mum said, made history. She said ‘You’ve lost your homes, but it made history.’”

It is this form of solidarity, one which is based on relations, not merely slogans and sympathy, which will make a material difference to travellers throughout Britain. The threats of the current government are manifold – but these will not be fought by ideological critique alone, and there are those who will suffer its policies who aren’t workers in any particular sector, public or private. An entire cultural group who have always experienced precarity, racism, the predations of gentrification and rapacious industrialisation are being forced into a choice of either assimilation into consumer life (and the destruction of their ethnicity) or even further impoverishment. To not aid their resistance would be to void ‘solidarity’ of its meaning.

To find out more about the budding traveller solidarity network, see http://www.travellersolidarity.org

 

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4 responses

5 11 2011
Kronstadt Red

‘…A community infamously resistant to contemporary forms of wage labour’. Priceless.

6 11 2011
nothingiseverlost

This piece definitely makes a convincing moral case for traveller solidarity, but it doesn’t really consider strategy at all. There are no end of worthy causes who we should certainly be showing solidarity with, but in most of them we have no real power to affect the situation. Can we hope to have a real impact on how the state treats travellers? If so, how? If not, does it make sense to make this kind of activity a major priority?

6 11 2011
Adamski

The line about leftists unable to think beyond anti-cuts at the start perhaps doesn’t entirely capture the politics.The anti-cuts movement has to move beyond economism and take up issues such as racism, attacks on squatting, right to demonstrate etc etc

The Stop the War Coalition, as an example of a mass campaign, had a 3 point programme 1. Stop the War 2. Defend Civil Liberties 3. Oppose racist and islamophobic scapegoating. It didn’t reduce itself to simply opposing the war, It was recognised that in waging war our rulers would use war as an excuse to attack civil liberties and that the war would generate a racist backlash against muslims.

In the same manner an anti-cuts movement should not reduce its programme to stopping the cuts but recognise the links between the austerity offensive and attacks on freedom, attacks on civil liberties, and racism.

Just as the last Tory government saw along side the economic war an authoritarian populism & attack on travellers, the criminal justice bill, attack on alternative lifestyles etc. It is imperative to make the link between the cuts and austerity and a wider social war I think?

6 11 2011
Jake

This was at least for an extremely informative piece Richard, puting the whole issue in its broader historical context and making a political as much as a moral case for supporting the travellers. It is my experience too, that casual racism against ‘pikeys’ or ‘gippos’ is one of the most persistent forms of racism in the UK, to the point where its not actually considered racism by many.
At the same time I don’t think it invalidates the actual experience of Daniel Harveyand his mates. There is possibly some naivety in the way he sometimes generalises on the basis of his encounters. But equally, those encounters were real and will have been had by other people who then just disappear from the solidarity movement. So the points he makes are absolutely worth addressing, especially regarding the attitudes of locals. After all, he is coming from the perspective of someone who did show solidarity and is therefore part of the movement – not someone criticising from the sidelines like the leftists/liberals that Richard rightly calls to account.




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