I watched Panorama tonight- telling the story of the mass eviction of a community of Travelling families from the site at Dale Farm.
If you are unaware of the background to this story, it involved the establishment of a settlement on privately owned land- leading to around 800 travelling people setting up permanent living arrangements- caravans, mobile homes. However, the site was established without planning permission, in the shadow of a sleepy affluent English village. Ten years of negotiations, court battles and exchanges of vitriol and hate followed.
On the one side, the outraged locals, who pointed to high crime rates, threats of violence and unruly behaviour. These folk have the rule of law on their side- and the local County Council. On the other side are travelling folk, whose leadership (if the Panorama film is to believed) is provided by a number of matriarchs. The Travellers are supported by an assortment of activists, from all ages and works of life.
It ended predictably- riot shields, rocks hurled at police, diggers smashing barricades. The Travellers lost their homes and were forced back out onto the road.
Stories like this polarise us too. Power wielded against the marginalised in the name of the rule of law will always feel (to me) WRONG. But neither can we blame those whose job it was to enforce the will of the court- who had to face their own trial of violence.
The issues for me are much longer standing. We have well over a thousand years history of regarding Tinkers/Gypsies/Romanies/Travellers as dangerous thieving, untrustworthy and less than human. There is absolutely no doubt that this has resulted in prejudice and even direct persecution.
That is not to say that there is no criminality within the Travelling community- but they follow a way of life that has been criminalised.
One of the most striking aspects of the Dale Farm situation is that Travellers have so few alternatives to illegal sites. There used to be law on the statute which obligated each and every local authority to provide designated travelling sites. These sites (where they remain) are not without their problems- but do at least offer safe places for families to settle for a while, and receive health and education. However, this law was repealed in 2004- by the then Conservative government, responding to another middle England tabloid backlash against New Age Travellers.
Many councils closed their sites.
The end result is that at any time, there are estimated to be around 3500 caravans with no legal place to stop. The options they face are to abandon their way of life and move into social housing (which many have done) or continue with a life that constantly skirts the edge of legality.
As a matter of interest to those of you from a particular Christian background that there has been a charismatic revival sweeping through the Travelling community over the last few years. There is more about this in this book.
As revealed in the Panorama programme, these communities are not without their problems- but nevertheless are communities characterised by very strong social norms, and sense of identity.
Something to celebrate perhaps, rather than to try to squash?