A caravan painted, “LADY WITH DIFFICULTY BREATHING”, ablaze during the eviction. Credit: Demotix/Graham Lawrence.
This weekend marks the anniversary of the Dale Farm evictions, when 80 families were forcefully removed from their homes of over a decade.
What was the evicted families' crime? Being part of an ethnic group reviled by governments and communities all over the world.
The site of Dale Farm was inhabited by travellers for more than a decade. Since 2001 the conservative-led Basildon Council had been trying to evict them. While half of the site received planning permission in the 90s, the rest of the contested land was classified as green belt and planning permission was refused. The council poured as much as £18 million into evicting the travellers, of which £10 million was for police presence.
While covering the evictions, Sky News built a tower on the outskirts of the compound, broadcasting the travellers' misery to millions of watching bigots. I appeared on their programming that day, being surrounded and assaulted by a gaggle of riot cops. Later I was arrested for wearing a scarf over the bottom half of my face on a cold day.
On the morning of 19 October 2011, months of campaigning and legal back and forth came to an abrupt, violent conclusion. I felt sick as I watched more than 100 riot police marching towards our inadequate defences. A sad fence, reinforced with pinned together crates and boxes, cracking under the pressure of their batons and smashing shields. The sound of a friend being tazed, the first of many times police physically hurt him. A woman running from the armoured intruders, in her pyjamas, holding a crying child.
These things happened in a matter of minutes, but I see them in slow motion. Why was the home of a community be violated in such a way?
Our surroundings seemed particularly incongruous to such violence: small chalets and caravans, adorned with catholic icons and kept with careful pride. This was not the scene of degradation described in the press. The Sun erroneously described a “stench of human excrement” and “bags of human waste”. In reality children and animals roamed around safely. The peace and calm was quickly smashed when the police entered, discharging their weapons with wild abandon.
It was the end of my time there. Three hours later I was led away in handcuffs; I did not return.
I was unprepared for the personal tragedies at Dale Farm. For ten years the residents had been subjected to enforcement notices, council harassment and numerous failed appeals. A caravan painted with dripping red letters, “LADY WITH DIFFICULTY BREATHING”, appealing to authorities not to cut the electricity off from a woman relying on it to survive. In 2008, after a promising finding that the council’s direct action against the residents was unlawful, the High Court overturned the ruling. The harassment, including attempts to physically remove the residents, continued.
At Dale Farm I learned that personal health is a privilege for the settled. Ill health is rife in the traveller community: life expectancy is shockingly low compared to that of settled people, the lowest of any group in the UK. Travellers are not afforded the same health provisions as the settled community.
When Basildon Council decided to displace the families living on the site, they removed access to GPs and health facilities that rely on having an address. On the day of the eviction ambulance crews were on standby for any injuries that might occur. Staff hung around laughing and joking with bailiffs whilst leaving an elderly woman to suffer in her soon-to-be demolished house. This woman, after having been turned away from the local hospital, was treated like her life did not matter. An elderly person suffering from cancer had to be protected by activists and family.
That day, health practitioners were allied with those who were causing physical and emotional damage to the vulnerable, dressed in high vis like law enforcement professionals. They did not act like doctors sworn to protect and help those in need.
The eviction of Dale Farm exposed a pernicious vein of anti-traveller racism in the UK. Criticised for their “way of life”, being insular and not part of established settled communities, many settled people view travellers as a threat. The same slurs are levelled towards travellers as other minorities.
Those at Dale Farm had been settled for a decade, preserving their culture but being able to access health and education in ways previously unavailable to them. Yet this was not considered enough. Instead, the narrative was switched. Having argued that travellers need to homogenise, to become more integrated into settled communities, Basildon councils and settled residents then decided they needed to move on.
“Not in my back yard!” became a mantra. Travellers must disappear because their culture is different, threatening whether it is settled or on the move.
This bigotry isn't just disgusting from a theoretical perspective, it's dangerous and personal, destroying physical and mental health, homes and peoples lives. While at Dale Farm, I consider myself to have witnessed a incidence of ethnic cleansing. Whilst I was only an indirect victim of the state violence unleashed upon these families, I remain marked by what happened there.
If the trauma of an eviction like this stays with a person acting in solidarity, I wonder how the trauma of multiple evictions hovers beneath the surface of human beings who are not wanted anywhere. I consider the difference between the Dale Farm evictions and the ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica, Bosnia – where thousands of Muslims were murdered and thousands more deported – one of scale rather than intent.
Basildon Council pushed forward the Dale Farm eviction on the grounds that the site was built on green belt land. In reality, the land they lived on was a former a scrap yard, used by the council no less. There were no tumbling green fields.
In the years following the eviction I have suffered nightmares, deep depression, anxiety and an angry fear of police so uncontrollable that I've been unable to continue with eviction solidarity work. But to have stepped away is a privilege that traveller communities don't have.
A few days after the eviction, when many of the solidarity activists who had lived at Dale Farm in the months preceding the eviction returned to our various homes and cities bruised and emotional, all of us mourning a place that had been home for a time, another crushing moment occurred.
At the Anarchist Bookfair a group of us rallied to increase the profile of the then newly formed Traveller Solidarity Network, a direct action group which aims to challenge ethnic and class discrimination and to promote travellers rights and eviction solidarity. Speaking publicly at the meeting, over a fuzzy phone connection, one of the elder travellers was asked: “Where have the displaced families moved to?”
She told us they had been scattered, split up, their families separated by a violently racist state. The meeting descended into tears, more than 20 adults crying. We cried because the government won, and destroyed that beautiful thing- a real community. A community that had let us in, had taken care of us as best they could and offered a kindness and humanity that Basildon Council could never understand.