What does Dale Farm teach us about ourselves?

Today has been a strange day. It’s been the day of the planned eviction of families from the part of Dale Farm for which planning permission has not been granted.  After the MPs expenses, the bank bail outs and the riots, we once again get a national event which lets us learn what kind of a society we live in.  I worked til late and then came in and caught up on the news (mainstream), then went to twitter and a few blogs to see what people’s reaction to the events was. Judging the reaction on social media we live in a society which is much more horrid and hate filled than many of us would want to admit.

Twitter is probably not the best tool for a nuanced debate about the rights and wrongs of the Dale Farm case. Twitter forces a distillation of thought and opinion, it is epigrammatic and so it intensifies emotions, whether good or bad.  So if you hate travellers, or gypsies, or gypos, or pikies, then that hatred will be concentrated in what you tweet. I turned to the #dalefarm hashtag just now and there were some messages of support at the top of the stream. The 4th one down from @stephen_gash was ‘Waste of Ammunition. Fix Bayonets?’, this was in response to a tweet which read ‘Why not just shoot the fuckers’. So somebody has advocated shooting women and children, and another person has replied, no doubt revelling in his sense of humour, that it would be easier  and cheaper to stab them to death. And this on a public forum.

I did not have to dig deep to find this kind of hatred, it is there seething and boiling away on twitter.  If you get a chance have a look at www.jewify.org. This site takes stories in the media mentioning ‘gypsy’ and ‘traveller’ and replaces that term with ‘Jew’. The effects are startling and you begin to get a glimpse of how travellers are truly the last group in our society who can be routinely abused, vilified and demonised without any fear of reprisal. Many of the tweets I read today were sick and offensive in the extreme. People agonised over the role of twitter in the riots and how it had supposedly contributed to that mass outbreak of criminality. But many of the tweets I saw today were not being used to cite illegality, they were actually illegal in and of themselves.  Inciting racial hatred online is a crime and people have been convicted of this. No doubt many would argue these tweets about shooting people or stabbing them to death are not really serious, they are just banter and only liberal loony left wingers could mistake this carefree knockabout gypsy baiting for being a genuine crime.  But even though the people tweeting this nauseating content will never face censure, their actions create a mood, set a tone, and create the conditions where others may decide to attack travellers as a result of being emboldened by this.

Other people on twitter have been using the Dale Farm story to show just how witty they are.  I have lost count of the ‘they are travellers FFS, why don’t they just go travelling’ tweet and all of its variations. This is truly hilarious, genuine wit on display, Oscar Wilde, had be been alive would have killed someone (maybe with a fixed bayonet) for a line as witty as that.

Many called for the gypsies to be evicted from the ‘green belt’ land and upholding the council’s right to take its land back, citing the argument that if they had bought a field and plonked a house in the middle of it, they would expect it to be bulldozed. Yes, nice argument once again, apart from the rather irritating influx of the facts of the case. Firstly the land is now privately owned by people on the site.  The issue is that no planning permission has been given for people to erect dwellings and live there. Secondly the council itself had the land concreted before the travellers arrived and used it to store derelict vehicles.  The idea that the travellers descended on a lovely patch of somebody else’s land, ripped the turf up and proceeded to illegal occupy it is simply not borne out by the facts. The part of the Dale Farm site which the council are looking to evict from is a scrag end of shitty land which nobody but the travellers would give a fig about. It was dirty and derelict when they took it over, and they have done some work and made it their home. They have stayed within the boundaries of the land they own and they have erected nothing but single storey dwellings. The travellers’ cultures, customs and way of life may not fit those of Middle England, but people (yes!! people!!!) are living on this site, children are growing up there, old people are waiting to die there,  and to set these people back on the road again after 10 years, with no alternative places for them to go, is the act of a society where gratuitous persecution has taken over from a considered and balanced attempt to find ways of addressing cultural differences.

Other  tweeters have grasped onto the impression that travellers pay no taxes and have used this to justify the evictions at Dale Farm. Once again a quick check of facts complicates this easily held prejudice.  Even Basildon Council has admitted that the residents are paying council tax, but the facts don’t have to get in the way of a good tweet. My view on this is simple. If any of the travellers are avoiding paying tax or indulging in any other illegal activity, surely having them housed on a stable site where they have an address and can be contacted will make it easier to investigate crimes than if they disperse with no fixed abode. And thousands of middle Englanders commit tax fraud every year but you don’t see bulldozers rumbling towards semi-detached houses in the leafy suburbs.   Philip Green the billionaire owner of Top Man has also been accused of not paying his taxes, to the tune of £300m , but somehow a wealthy businessman with an unpaid tax bill of stellar proportions is not such an affront to people as a few hundred quid here and there which someone dealing in scrap metal would have to pay to HMRC. It appears that travellers and rioters are both worthy of the same treatment here, namely ‘collective punishment’; taking the crime of individuals who belong to a group or community and making all members of that group or community pay for these crimes.  Just how the children and elderly people on the site could be guilty of not paying taxes is not clear, but the necessity of punishing them, for many, is a moral imperative.

As I said, Dale Farm teaches us some unpleasant truths about our society. The fact that many of us prefer to hate and condemn rather than try and understand. The fact that many reach for stereotypes and stock hate figures rather than trying to appreciate the nuances of a complex case. The fact we call ourselves an open and tolerant society but are prepared to turn the blindest of blind eyes when an ethnic group we can’t sympathise with crosses our sight lines.

Image is creative commons from the ‘Save Dale Farm’ Flickr account, Available from http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalefarm/6095686925/

Author: mjp6034

Education consultant specialising in educational technology and change management.

23 thoughts on “What does Dale Farm teach us about ourselves?”

  1. Does the repeated use of epithets like ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ applied to people the speakers and writers have never met and know little or nothing about constitute ‘hate’? Does applying the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ to a site clearance resulting from a planning dispute in England constitute ‘hate’ when most educated people actually know what ‘ethnic cleansing’ really means? Does throwing missiles at journalists and bailiffs constitute ‘hate’? Are the settled community of Cray’s Hill so invisible to some of the parties in this dispute that they are beneath ‘hate’? Do direct threats of violence and murder from the Traveller community constitute ‘hate’?

    Let us not pretend that this is angels versus devils. Many people have displayed the worst aspects of humanity regarding Dale Farm.

  2. That’s a lot of questions you have there Steve. But perhaps you read something else, got worked yourself into a bit of a ‘frenzy’ and then responded to my blog posting by mistake. The blog posting does not use the words ‘fascist’, ‘racist’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ once (check if you don’t believe me). Anyway, thanks for your valuable contribution to this debate, much appreciated.

    1. You may not actually use the term racist, but you do accuse people of inciting racial hatred.

      People are rightfully angry that a community of people who consider themselves beyond reach of planning laws are causing taxpayers such a vast amount of money by not accepting offers of alternative accommodation – egged on by the Gypsy Council and the opportunist activists who are now in the majority on the illegal side of the site.

      This anger is often misdirected and that is regrettable, but it does not change the fact that the travellers have failed to make the case, legally, that they have the right to build on this land, and in a country where everyone is under the same rules they must be evicted.

      I feel most sorry for the wider travelling community who will be tarred with the same brush as those at dale farm.

      1. Fantastic John, glad to hear that the travellers have been offered alternative accommodation, I must have missed this important information amongst all the hoohah. Please can you let us know where that alternative accommodation is? I saw some very credible news reports from Dale Farm which suggested that many of the residents have indicated they would be happy to leave the site if they had somewhere else to go. Maybe the council has lined up another place for them to go, but they just forget to tell them. It’s probably all a big misunderstanding or administrative error, but easily sorted out if you share your information with us.

      2. ‘Mary’ – the older red-head lady traveller who has often been the main rep of those on dale farm was on television yesterday evening saying that her daughter had been offered four bedroom council house – but that she had refused it.

  3. Well presented and balanced article. Many people who were tweeting today did not have their facts right.

    Many were prompted with hate and anti travellers views

  4. Excellent article. I agree with you about the Twitter hatred.

    On your influx of facts:
    Wasn’t it the locals who stirred BC into action because they didn’t want a larger traveller settlement nearby? And once BC were aware of the issue, weren’t they duty bound to act? Even if it was a brownfield site, should it automatically have received pp? Would granting pp retrospectively not lead to multiple similar settlements?

  5. Darren, I don’t have those exact facts to hand, but I imagine that the local people who are not travellers (the travellers are locals too, having lived in the area for 10 years), did put pressure on Basildon Council to not allow the site to expand. Basildon Council clearly thought they were duty bound to act to remove the travellers, but they have not been so quick to act on finding new places. Another site to replace Dale Farm has been found, but the council refuse to grant planning permission.

    On the issue of whether granting planning permission would trigger multiple similar settlements, there is perhaps some truth in this. But there are also some other facts to consider. Firstly, these travellers are of Roma descent, they are not the new age travellers who emerged in the 80s as people from the mainstream community took to the roads. Nobody is joining up to be a traveller, there is a finite number of travellers, and we either take steps as a society to find places for them to live, or we decide on another course of action.

    If we as a society decide we don’t want the travellers to live anywhere, in other words if we go from being NIMBY in a local sense, to NIMBY in a national sense then what will be the final solution to the traveller issue?. Are we going to make being a traveller illegal, so we can inter the entire ethnic group, or start a program of forced sterilisation to ensure they eventually die out. These are all strategies tried before in other countries and times.

  6. Whilst I do agree that the hateful comments and ‘jokes’ are not helpful, I do challenge anyone who thinks that travellers are a lovely friendly bunch to try having them in their community. We only have a relatively small number in our local community but it doesn’t go unnoticed. I’ve personally had my car severely damaged by some of them. The rubbish and mess and fly-tipping is terrible not to mention the problems encountered by local businesses. I’ve witnessed first hand one family having all their children’s hair cut in a local salon then threatening violence when the salon owner tried to call the police after they refused to pay. I’ve seen the fights in local pubs. The list of anti-social behaviour goes on, I assure you. It is naive to have such a romantic, rosy view of the traveller community. I don’t condone racism in any shape or form, and am genuinely appalled at some of the disgusting, hateful, and violent, comments people have been making. However, if anyone believes they are a harmless, friendly, and polite bunch of neighbours, perhaps they should offer to have them to live in their own back garden for a while. I’m all for embracing cultural diversity – I live on a street where there is almost every nationality you can imagine all living in close-quarters. However that definitely shouldn’t mean people should be given special dispensation to break the law and terrorise ‘outsiders’.

    1. I lived in a Wealden Village with a traveller community on a brownfield site and, er, the Problem families that caused the violence live up the road from me and were NOT of Traveller origin. Also, on My Milk Round, I delivered to an estate with a family of Irish traveller origin housed there. The Thefts and trouble I had for a brief time were undertaken from “middle class” kids on the next road.I also went to school with a group of Romany Gypsy origin, who were not bullies, or disruptive. So yeah, like every other community, a certain percentage are troublemakers. So yeah, like every other community, a certain percentage are troublemakers, while the vast majority are decent folk.
      What you said is like saying all Muslims are terrorists.

    2. One mistake which does not alter the essence of what you say: Most are not of Roma (Romani/Romany is the adjective) descent, although some are. They are Irish Travellers, a different ethnic group different language, different origins, different traditions, etc.

  7. Livvy, thanks for commenting. I guess when you do find a blog which argues that travellers are a ‘lovely friendly bunch’ you can go and challenge it as per your comments, but if you re-read my blog you will see that I made no comments whatsoever on the friendliness of the travellers, their willingness or otherwise to integrate with other local communities or their moral standing.

    On the issue of travellers committing crime, I fully acknowledge this does happen, and once had the wheels of my car stolen and they ended up on a local traveller site only 2 miles away from where I lived. So I guess I did have travellers living in my metaphoric ‘back garden’ for a while (I am guessing that when you exhort people to have travellers live ‘in their own back garden’ you mean close by in the same way rather than literally in the back garden, where they would struggle for space what with the garden furniture, the patio heater, and the trampoline for the kids.

    If some travelling people commit crime, then they need to be caught and punished as individuals, rather than the entire community vilified. Some people in this debate are very keen to argue that the law should apply to all with regards to planning applications which is a very reasonable argument. But then it appears that general legal principles such as you can only punish an individual who has directly committed a crime seem conveniently to go out of the window in respect to travellers where the only solution to crime is to move the entire community off the land and on to somewhere else.

  8. Absolutely spot on – thank you for writing this post. As I got rather tired of tweeting in response to some of the #dalefarm ‘twits’ yesterday:

    Ethnic cleansing is to do with land clearance, not genocide: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/194242/ethnic-cleansing

    The term pikey is legally recognised as racially offensive http://www.metro.co.uk/news/79744-pikey-is-now-a-race-hate-word

    ‘Travellers’ is the name of an ethnic group which is recognised as such in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. http://www.cps.gov.uk/publications/prosecution/rrpbcrpol.html

    90% of planning applications made by travellers are refused compared to 20% of those made by other UK residents http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/09/local-authorities-rights

    1. The thing about an on-the-surface compelling statistic like the 90% vs 20% one that you quote is that there is no context to it.

      To make it significant you would need to look in more detail at the types of applications made – my instinct would be to say that the bulk of traveller applications are for new self-build on previously undeveloped sites, whereas the bulk of non-traveller applications would be for things like extensions, garden fences, conservatories. I would be interested to see a like-for-like comparison, such as:

      – What proportion of new self-build applications on previously undeveloped sites get rejected, regardless of who requests them?

      – What proportion of travellers applications are represented by new self-build?

      – What proportion of what i’ll loosely call ‘upgrade’ applications are rejected, regardless of who requests them?

      – What proportion of non-travellers applications are represented by ‘upgrade’ applications?

      You can prove anything with stats, especially if you look at them uncritically and unthinkingly.

      1. I agree, in the newstatesman article there is little context and this is a weakness, particularly when the success on appeal figures are taken into account. The 90% figure comes from Commission for Racial Equality: “Over 90 per cent of planning applications for private (usually self- or family-owned) Gypsy sites are refused at first hearing, often following orchestrated campaigns by aggrieved (sedentary) local residents, though permission is overwhelmingly granted on appeal (CRE, 2006a; Williams, 1999).”

        They also report “The lack of suitable, secure accommodation underpins many of the inequalities that Gypsy and Traveller communities experience. Planning policy has shifted away from publicly owned sites, which local housing authorities administer, to self-provision by the communities themselves. Disputes arise though, often utilising explicitly racist
        discourse, when Gypsies and Travellers apply for planning permission to develop a
        site on land they have purchased privately . . . [there is] a considerable shortfall in the quantity of residential and transit accommodation available to Gypsies and Travellers who do not wish to reside in conventional housing.”

        It seems that this ‘conventional housing’ issue is what you are getting at with your comparison questions, which are perfectly reasonable, so long as you would take into account that the ‘type’ of planning application would inevitably be influenced by the cultural norms of the people making the application.

        In any event, the post above, and my responses to ‘twits’ yesterday are not about the substance of the planning dispute, it was about what you yourself have generously called ‘misdirected anger’.

        How can we have genuine, open and respectful public debate about the housing rights and needs of the traveller community when there is such a febrile atmosphere of hatred towards them?

        This also prevents genuine public debate about the concerns of non-traveller people living nearby sites because issues such as whether travellers pay tax, how much tax payer money is spent on evictions, how can I be racist when travellers aren’t a ‘race’, squatters rights etc cloud the issue.

        I really do find it fascinating that the Tories can receive mega bucks from property developers and then reform the planning laws to make it easy to build on greenbelt land and this does not catch the public imagination. But travellers, living on a scrapyard for 10 yrs, with more than a hundred children at the local primary . . . that causes people to publicly support ideas that travellers should be murdered / maimed.

        And as you touch on yourself, looking at issues (or statistics) in a way which is uncritical and unthinking is dangerous stuff

  9. just on a point of accuracy, Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies are separate ethnic groups, both with a heritage of travelling of course. Irish Travellers don’t have Roma (Indian, originally) ancestry.

  10. It’s virtually impossible to have sensible debate on the issues even when you are not making racist or prejudiced comments – supporters of Dale Farm, or travellers themselves have a stock response of labelling you as racist. prejudiced, guilty of ethnic cleansing, or as one example i got the night before last, a paedophile.

    Given the way discussions online go i’m not surprised that people do end up simply resorting to namecalling. Though i avoid doing it myself, i just don’t see the point. But i have tried repeatedly to discuss, maybe agree to disagree, but without fail everytime once there is a difficult question i am labelled a racist.

    That’s to put aside accusations of being a Tory, which are equally silly.


  11. Thank you for this great post. I have Romani heritage and although I was raised away from the Roma community am fiercely proud and protective of my heritage. Programmes like ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ really go no way to help the cause, and people are quick enough to pigeonhole as it is. Whether people are prejudiced or not, travellers have to live somewhere. This mass eviction saddens me – you’re damned if you try and settle (“We don’t want them bleedin pikies near us” etc.) and damned if you don’t (“Tax-dodging pikey scum” etc.).

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