Barbarism With and Without a Human Face: Dale Farm, Brighton and Liberal Racism.
“Leaving with supporters today is about our own dignity and our appreciation of the support we’ve received. We’re leaving together as one family, and we are proud of that- you can’t take away our dignity.” – Dale Farm resident Mary Sheridan
Two days ago bailiffs and police moved into Dale Farm to brutally remove residents from the site they have lived on for ten years, smashing the wall of a legal plot with sledgehammers and tasering protesters. As protesters attempted to block the eviction, climbing towers and locking themselves to structures, police moved in ahead of bailiffs, though they are not meant to take part in the evictions directly.
Resident Kathleen McCarthy, described scenes of “police brutality. I’ve seen residents with blood dripping down their face, and another who has been put in hospital by police batoning. The way in which the police are acting has shocked and outraged everyone here. We hope the world is watching.”
At a cost of nearly £20 million Basildon council has finally managed to remove families from 52 plots, legally owned but build upon without planning permission. Built, it shown be remembered, on land which though technically considered green belt was formerly a scrapyard. All while Basildon Council, so keen to preserve green belt land, is selling off vast swathes of green space within the town.
Basildon Council, and the local conservative MP John Baron, have and no doubt will continue to claim that there is one law for everyone, that the Travellers broke that law and it is entirely right and proper that they enforce it. But does that simplistic analysis really hold up to scrutiny? Are they really upholding an impartial and just settlement?
In fact, according to the Commission for Racial Equality, 90% of planning applications by Gypsies and Travellers are initially rejected, while for all planning applications the rejection rate is just 20%. And yet, in changing the law over the provision of Traveller sites the secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles, stated that “there is a widespread perception that the system is unfair and it is easier for one group of people to gain planning permission, particularly on sensitive Green Belt land”. I suspect Mr Pickles did not mean that it was easier for large corporations to gain permission that Gypsies and Travellers, though if we had he would have been correct.
Companies like Tesco regularly ignore planning restrictions and apply retrospectively for permission. Do we see councillors up in arms about such action? does the media whip up frenzies of anti-corporate hysteria? Of course it does not. The law is not an absolute unbending object that is adhered to at all times by individuals, corporations or government. Nor should we necessarilly assume that it should be a single body which applies to all in the same terms. To do so would be to ignore the structural differences in power, in cultural and in impact on wider communities which exist.
As Kate Evans explained on Comment is Free on Wednesday “To be considered suitable for residential use, land has to lie within the development limits of an existing conurbation. And houses prices are incredibly inflated, which means that once a plot of land has planning permission for a house, its worth increases exponentially. It then makes no financial sense to site caravans on it. So, because houses are expensive, I can’t buy residential land to live on, even though I don’t want a house.”
The Travellers on Dale Farm who have now been evicted had offered to negotiate with Basildon Council. They had stated that if alternative provision could be provided in a location both deemed acceptable they would be willing to leave the site. Despite the vastly larger cost of forcibly evicting the site, including significant policing costs, as compared to the creation of a new site the council refused this offer. The Travellers are now evicted with no where to move to. In another six months we may well see another repeat of the same process in a new location.
Previously, targets were imposed centrally on the number of sites councils had to provide. ODPM Circular 01/2006, the guidance produced by the previous government, had been (albeit slowly) improving the situation as regards provision of sites. Under the Localism Bill Eric Pickles has scrapped the central targets and allowed councils to set their own, claiming that “top-down site targets have not delivered”. The Community Law Partnership disgaree stating that “In many ways these targets were bottom-up targets since they were, of course, derived from the Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments” and that under ODPM 01/2006 there had been “a slow but sure increase in the provision of sites”.
Indeed, the ability to set their own targets allows councils to simply refuse to provide any sites at all. Councils already claim to have no Travellers or Gypsies for whom sites are required, even whilst evicting Travellers at the same time. Given the ability to set their own targets it is highly likely provision will fall even further. Basildon Council’s intransigence on the issue of Dale Farm may be seen, perhaps, as a signifier that they intend to take a particularly hard line on the issue and as a warning for the future.
Readers of this site, will, I suspect, be depressed but not be surprised to hear Tories act is this manner, to ignore the needs and interests of minorities and to pander to a base level of discrimination and media bigotry. We expect the right to act in this way. It was only a few years ago that we saw the Conservative party present a whole election on an overt platform of nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Gypsies and Travellers, however, seem to be one of the last groups in society of whom it is socially acceptable to be overtly racist. And that bigotry seems to extend to not only a small minority but to the bulk of the population. Polling suggests that perhaps as much as 90% of the population supports the forced eviction of the community at Dale Farm, whilst a Mori poll in 2008 revealed that fully one third of the British public admitted to being prejudiced against Gypsies and Travellers. Given the (slight) stigma which attaches to public admitance of prejudice, and people’s own inate desire to justify and excuse their own behaviour, the actual figures for the number of people prejudiced against them are likely to be higher still.
Founder of the Gypsy Council, Grattan Puxon believes that “racism against Travellers has definitely got worse over the past 40 years. In some bits of Europe, this is due to the fall of Communism and rise of nationalism, but in the UK, it’s probably linked with anti-immigration feelings.”
As Slavoj Zizek has argued, the rise of anti-Roma and anti-Gypsy feeling across Europe should rightly be seen in the context of a wider phenomenon of liberal racism. On the one hand we see the rise of an overt, often violent, racism which makes no attempt to hide its nationalist and at times fascist intentions. The relative success (for a few years) of the BNP and now the EDL in the UK, the rise of Le Pen in France and so on. On another front we see centre-right politicians like Nicholas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi happy to publicly attack Roma, to dismantle their camps and deport them, or accuse them of causing their countries crime problems.
On the other hand, however, we have not a real defence of difference from liberals, but merely a tolerance of the Other — the Other can exist, but only so long as it doesn’t affect them. The idea of multiculturalism and acceptance is one thing, having to actually live with it and have it infect your bourgeois existance is quite another.
“Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by such populist racism. However, a closer look reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect of differences share with those who oppose immigration the need to keep others at a proper distance. “The others are OK, I respect them,” the liberals say, “but they must not intrude too much on my own space. The moment they do, they harass me – I fully support affirmative action, but I am in no way ready to listen to loud rap music.” What is increasingly emerging as the central human right in late-capitalist societies is the right not to be harassed, which is the right to be kept at a safe distance from others.”
“After righteously rejecting direct populist racism as “unreasonable” and unacceptable for our democratic standards, they [liberals] endorse “reasonably” racist protective measures”
So we see, against the unacceptable anti-Traveller position of Basildon Council Tories, the ‘acceptable’, ‘tolerant’, racism of a supposedly progressive and liberal council like the Green administration in Brighton.
Travellers are still evicted from the land on which they have settled, but with a nod to the need to provide them with permanent and secure sites someone else (and at some later date). (Brighton Council are in the process of evicting two Traveller sites at Braypool playing fields and 19 Acre Field. A number of ditches are also being constructed around green spaces in the city to prevent settlement in those areas.)
Brighton Council’s website: “Nomadic groups have existed in this country for hundreds of years, but as urban areas have expanded, the traditional stopping places for Travellers and Gypsies have diminished. This has pushed them closer to the settled community and into higher profile areas. In addition, their traditional employment is in decline.”
Travellers have a long and perhaps interesting history, which we respect, but only as an intriguing outside curiosity, not as something which should come into our city. Travellers are different from us, they have their own employment and aren’t naturally part of our city, so the message seems to be.
Worse, speaking to the BBC, Green councillor Pete West told of the council’s desire to take a “firm but fair approach”. The council had “pragmaticaly” “tolerated” the current site but now Travellers will have to move them on (despite the lack of any alternative site as yet).
“It’s driving them into the city and using parks more and more, which is not acceptable for the local population”. The Travellers are not welcome in ‘our’ city, they are not part of ‘our’ community, they can exist, and go about their own culture, so long as it is kept away from us. The language of their traditional encampments being destroyed and them therefore being driven into the city is utterly dehumanising.
“Romaticised but despised”, as Garth Cartwright described Gypsy and Traveller culture, we allow ourselves to appreciate them from afar but support the most brutal display of state violence to uphold the law when our own peace seems threatened, directly or symbolically, even at a distance. To prevent the violent racism of the right, we aim to appear respectable, and moderate, and to institute a respectable and moderate racism of our own.
To end again with Zizek: “This vision of the detoxification of one’s neighbour suggests a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face.”