The evictions of travellers at part of the Dale Farm site is now over. The media show has been packed away and moved onto the next ‘sensation’, Basildon council have won their 10-year battle, and who knows, perhaps they will now turn the ‘liberated’ part of the site back into a scrap yard!
We were treated in the few weeks running up to the evictions to almost nightly snippets of noisy shouting protesters and travellers ranged against long-suffering councillors, police and bailiffs wearily trying to uphold the country’s planning laws in the face of this baying mob. We even had the odd (no pun intended) local resident complaining of the noise and unsightliness of the site (obviously the scrap yard that stood there previously with its mountain of cars piled on top of each other was a vision of tranquil beauty!)
But away from these distorted and heavily biased media snapshots of the dispute, what was the reality?
Life for travellers, never particularly easy, has been growing harder and harder over the last 40-50 years as legal sites have been cut drastically and councils, judiciary and police have virtually kept them on the road non-stop, swooping instantly to move on any group that tried to set up camp on spare or disused land.
The lifestyle of the travellers has undergone massive changes as many have settled permanently or semi-permanently on the few legal council sites, but there is not enough space on these, so the traveller community some years ago hit on a solution: to become landowners and settle on the land they purchased.
The experience that the, mainly Irish, travellers have accrued from this tactic is less then positive. While buying land has certainly been no problem, putting it to the use they want, and need, has been extremely problematic.
The legal campsite at Dale Farm in 1999 was next to a scrap yard. The problems only started after the travellers bought the scrap yard, cleared it, laid concrete for caravans and chalets and allowed other traveller families to move in. In short, they turned a dump into a place fit for human habitation, improving the lives of the travellers on the legal site at the same time, since scrap yards have their share of rats and are not exactly ideal playground for kids.
In doing this they fell foul of planning laws because this was, incredibly, designated ‘green-belt’ land. The ‘belt’ must have been thin indeed as the ‘legal’ part of the Dale Farm caravan site, which was right up to the scrap yard, wasn’t affected, while the scrap yard apparently wasn’t regarded as constituting any environmental or visual threat to the landscape.
The travellers’ disdain for petty planning laws that had no basis in common sense raised a scream of protest from the council, and anti-Irish rumours and hate messages spread among the non traveller community surrounding Dale Farm. Racism was used, as it always is, by those in authority to divide working-class people against each other.
Here at Dale Farm was a community creating its own solutions to a problem. Its members had empowered themselves and set the terrible example of ignoring the silly pronouncements made by the petty-bourgeois representatives of bourgeois rule in Basildon. The council responded by digging its heels in, clearly feeling that no price was too high to pay for victory. Indeed, while the true cost of the whole ten-year battle is still unknown, some observers have estimated that the final cost of the eviction could be as high as £18m.
There are several lessons to learn from the attack on Dale Farm.
1. That the bourgeoisie will very often spend what seem to be extraordinarily large amounts to win a battle once started.
2. That they will always try to divide their enemy, and racism is a common weapon in this ploy. The people living around Dale Farm were, by and large, turned against the Irish travellers by an onslaught of hysterical propaganda that played to carefully inculcated prejudices about race (Irish vs English), class (‘respectable’ vs ‘disprebutable’), employment status (‘hard-working’ vs ‘feckless’) and culture (‘civilised’ vs ‘barbarian’).
Right up until the day of the first evictions, attempts were made by the council and the police to divide the travellers from those who had come to defend the travellers’ right to be at Dale Farm. Basildon Council leader Tony Ball was quick to blame supporters for police violence, moaning sanctimoniously that “These are utterly disgraceful scenes and demonstrate the fact that some so-called supporters were always intent on violence,” while the local Tory MP, John Baron, chipped in with: “The protesters have made their point and now they should leave – and the travellers could help by telling them to go.”
Quite why the travellers should tell people who had come from all over the country to stand with them in their struggle for justice to leave, this pillar of the establishment didn’t say, but the attempted resort to ‘divide-and-rule’ was unmistakable.
3. Another lesson that we really should have learned by now is to expect a high level of violence from police against certain types of protest – and to recognise the collusion between these uniformed thugs and the media workers who cover up or distort their crimes.
Working people in strike situations are a common target for police attack, as are the Irish, black and muslim communities. Demonstrators whose cause the state has chosen to vilify (anti-capitalist, anti-war, anti-police violence etc) and virtually any person who ends up in police cells overnight all run the risk of organised police violence.
The media play a despicable role in twisting the truth, almost always presenting anti-police violence as preceding and initiating police violence, although it is usually the case that violence directed at the police is a response to premeditated police violence.
The final invasion of Dale Farm was just such an event. The electricity to the whole site had been cut off, causing discomfort to all and danger to those of the elderly residents who relied on electric-powered medical equipment. The travellers were then attacked from the rear of the site early in the morning while the police engaged them in talks at the front gate.
One of the things that had been specified by the judge who gave the green light to the final eviction was that no walls or fences were to be broken. With the benefit of hindsight, we can only conclude that this instruction was given in order to gull the travellers and their supporters into believing that the eviction could only be attempted via the front gate.
In the event, however, the police broke down a back fence to gain entry to the site. When resident Norah Egan challenged the trespassers, pointing out that they had been forbidden from such actions, they threw her to the ground and hit her with a baton. She was taken to hospital with back injuries and bruising around her throat.
The police (no bailiffs were present at this ‘operation’) then formed a line with shields and batons raised, moved at a jog towards the mass of people gathered at the gate and attacked them. They had even brought tasers with them, one of which was used at close quarters against a man who all witnesses agreed wasn’t even fighting back.
In the end, the eviction was effected very quickly, with those on the receiving end surprised by the intense brutality of the police onslaught and overwhelmed by the force of sheer numbers. Later on, the bailiffs moved in with police ‘protection’. Norah Egan, who had returned home and was recovering in the chalet where she lived, was attacked again as they smashed their way in to physically evict her.
The victims of the police attack who weren’t in cells or had left already were given refuge by their neighbours in the legal part of the site, but vindictively the police went through that part of the site as well, driving them out and away from their homes.
4. The last, and perhaps, the most important lesson to be gleaned from Dale Farm is that the working class cannot ever trust the bourgeoisie or their lackeys. They will say anything, do anything to maintain their grip on power, for they do not ‘serve and protect’ the people, but serve only the ruling class and protect both the private property and the right to exploit of the billionaires.
This lesson must be learned quickly by the people camped out at St Paul’s Cathedral. Trust nothing that is said to you by representatives of the state, especially if it comes from the mouths of members of the judiciary, and always be on your guard for the wedges they will try to drive between you.
> Victory for the media in the Dale Farm case – June 2012