In the wake of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that have swept the globe, I think we have to confront another kind of racism that exists within our society, fostered and maintained by prejudice and legal restriction. But first, let me tell you a story.
A week ago, a schoolfriend shared the news of the death of my dear sister on a facebook page dedicated to news of my home town in Nottinghamshire. The reactions were rather stunning. An outpouring of love and support from people who I mostly did not know, but had remembered her or knew her. It even connected me to a favourite teacher from my childhood who stoked my love of literature. I felt proud of my little home town and the good people who live there.
A few days later, the same page was alive with other news. It seems that some ‘Gypsies’ had set up camp on the edge of the municipal park- a large expanse of sports fields, lakes and childrens playing areas. One post announced this fact as if giving a public health and safety warning. It seems they had ‘smashed’ through a gate and ‘forced’ their way onto the park. We were to be assured that ‘remedial action’ would be taken, but in the meantime, we were ‘not to approach them’.
Cue an avalanche of bile and invective. I am sure you can guess the content, but here is a toned down version of what people were saying;
- These people will leave stinking mess that will require our taxes to clean up. They do not pay taxes
- They are violent thieves
- Lock up your sheds because crime rates were now going to soar
- How dare they move onto OUR park
- Let them buy their own land
- Why can’t they just live in a house like normal people?
- They should be arrested
- Every time they come near, all sorts of social problems come with them, including infestations of rats.
- The words used to describe them were; Gyppos, Tinkers, Pikeys, Scum.
There were some voices – quite a few actually – calling out these views as racist, including one person who had to insist, in the face of much opposition, that Roma people were recognised as a seperate race.
Whilst these comments were being made, the small group of travelling people moved on. They were only breaking their journey and letting their kids play in the park. They left no mess. As far as I know, there was no crime spree. Oh- and it turns out that they did not smash through the gates after all- they were already open.
All this left me angry and really troubled. Perhaps it was the proximity to Katharine’s death, and the fact that all this took place on a site that had so recently celebrated her life. Perhaps it was because I knew this would have made her very angry too. She would have rattled off a high speed sentence letting us know exactly what she thought of the people who had made those comments- I should add that I did not know any of them, and probably she did not either.
I was angry, but the reality is that those making these comments, and the man who first posted the ‘warning’, were only expressing a variation of views that are mainstream. Here is what the local independent councillors think about the whole thing.
All of which leaves me asking… why? How did it come to this;
Back in 2009, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a report entitled ‘Inequalities experienced by Gypsy and Travelling Comunites: a review.” You should check it out, even if you just read the executive summary, here. The report list gives this list;
• Gypsies and Travellers die earlier than the rest of the population.
• They experience worse health, yet are less likely to receive effective,
• Children’s educational achievements are worse, and declining still further
(contrary to the national trend).
• Participation in secondary education is extremely low: discrimination and
abusive behaviour on the part of school staff and other students are
frequently cited as reasons for children and young people leaving education
at an early age.
• There is a lack of access to pre-school, out-of-school and leisure services for
children and young people.
• There is an unquantified but substantial negative psychological impact on
children who experience repeated brutal evictions, family tensions associated
with insecure lifestyles, and an unending stream of overt and extreme
hostility from the wider population.
• Employment rates are low, and poverty high.
• There is an increasing problem of substance abuse among unemployed and
disaffected young people.
• There are high suicide rates among the communities.
• Within the criminal justice system – because of a combination of unfair
treatment at different stages and other inequalities affecting the communities
– there is a process of accelerated criminalisation at a young age, leading
rapidly to custody. This includes: disproportionate levels of Anti-Social
Behaviour Orders against Gypsies and Travellers, instead of the use of
alternative dispute resolution processes; high use of remand in custody, both
because of judicial assumptions about perceived risk of absconding and lack
of secure accommodation; prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers within
pre-sentence reports, the police service and the judiciary; and perpetuation of
discrimination, disadvantage and cultural dislocation within the prison system,
leading to acute distress and frequently suicide.
• Policy initiatives and political systems that are designed to promote inclusion
and equality frequently exclude Gypsies and Travellers. This includes political
structures and community development and community cohesion
• There is a lack of access to culturally appropriate support services for people
in the most vulnerable situations, such as women experiencing domestic
• Gypsies’ and Travellers’ culture and identity receive little or no recognition,
with consequent and considerable damage to their self-esteem.
Any community facing this kind of pressure will surely struggle; poverty and prejudice brutalises and traumatises us all. It starts with having somewhere to live. As the video above points out, travellers have visited the same camp grounds for many hundreds of years, but now they have been fenced off the common land, and their lifestyles have been criminalised. Council sites have closed up and down the land, particularly in the years of austerity.
When people have tried to buy their own land, they have faced a planning back lash- do you remember Dale Farm? Check this out…
As the report puts is;
Many Gypsies and Travellers are caught between an insufficient supply of suitableaccommodation on the one hand, and the insecurity of unauthorised encampments and developments on the other: they then face a cycle of evictions, typically linked to violent and threatening behaviour from private bailiff companies.
Roadside stopping places, with no facilities and continued instability and trauma, become part of the wayof life. Health deteriorates, while severe disruptions occur to access to education for children, healthcare services and employment opportunities. In order to avoid the eviction cycle or to access vital services, many families reluctantly accept the alternative of local authority housing. They are however, typically housed on the most deprived estates, sharing the wider environmental disadvantages of their neighbours and exposed to more direct and immediate hostility focused on their ethnicity or lifestyle. This also involves dislocation from their families, communities, culture and support systems, leading to further cycles of disadvantage
What (acting on our behalf) has our government been doing to address this social injustice? Well, not a lot;
The UK government’s record on Roma issues has been one of inaction and neglect. Plans, such as the coalitions 2012 strategy to tackle inequalities have been widely derided for having limited scope, little ambition and weak recommendations. The most recent inquiry failed to consider the shortage of pitches and site accommodation across the UK, which many groups representing Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities would consider to be one of the most pressing concerns…
…Successive governments have tried doing nothing, pilot projects have been attempted and mainstreaming the needs of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities has been the recent approach. But all have failed over the long term or led to very little improvement. Government needs to lead and to foster leadership in others – there needs to be coordinated plans and actions. As in most areas, resources will also be an issue, but a desire and an ability to affect change is critical. In doing so, the UK will address some of the longstanding issues for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people and make communities more equal and less hostile places.Article from ‘The Conversation’, here.
There are no votes in championing the rights of travelling people. Those politicians who have tried have an uphill task- so let’s help them. Let’s start to chalenge our own prejudice so in turn we can help others to do the same.
Perhaps we start here;