A Voice For the Voiceless
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Zach Scott and the Dale Farm Housing Association
“So Zach, you’re leaving us? When ya coming back to help us out some more? We could use you sticking around a bit longer.”
Completely lost in my thoughts while walking through Dale Farm, I raised my head quickly to see in what direction the voice had come. After glancing over my shoulder, I saw Kathleen sitting complacently in front of her chalet, enjoying a cup of tea on another overcast English day.
At the age of 62, Kathleen has seen more than most people dream about. Born in Limerick, Ireland, Kathleen came to England when she was five years old. Until stopping at Dale Farm five years ago, Kathleen had traveled her entire life, moving at first from town to town with her parents and then later with her husband and seven children.
Today, Kathleen, like many other men and women living at Dale Farm, is old and ill. Her traveling days long since past, Kathleen has grown used to life at Dale Farm. Unaccustomed to the modern amenities that most of us take for granted before she settled at Dale Farm, Kathleen has grown used to having running water, electricity and a washing machine to clean her laundry.
Even if her health permitted her to travel, Kathleen readily admits that she would be woefully unable to resume the traveling life she once gladly led.
Kathleen represents the most distressing aspect of the whole eviction saga that has been built up around Dale Farm in the past six years. Now adapted to their surroundings, unable to travel due to health restrictions and living in chalets instead of mobile caravans, elder Travelers are currently situated in an extremely tenuous position.
If, next spring, the High Court agrees with the Basildon Local Council and decides to enact forceful eviction proceedings against Travelers at Dale Farm, what will happen to Travelers like Kathleen?
Since accommodation sites for Travelers have not been developed, any forceful eviction would place Travelers on the roadside or any open space where they can relocate for a few days before being moved on again.
Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that all of the elder Travelers will survive.
As local and regional politicians argue about the correct number of Traveler plots that need to be developed within Essex County in order to accommodate the existing Traveler population, the human element of the plight of Travelers like Kathleen has been lost.
It is tragic indeed that local officials, so determined in their desire to see Dale Farm lay to waste, can’t seem to understand that if they let Travelers remain at Dale Farm, the site’s properties would count toward the East of England Regional Assembly’s proposed quota for Traveler pitches, reducing the already low number that would need to be developed.
In despicable fashion, Basildon Council members have scoffed at this idea, stating publicly that they already have enough Travelers in their district and that other districts and counties need to bear their share of the “Traveler burden.”
Would elected officials refer to population “quotas” in their districts for any other minority? What right does a local council have to decide who lives where and in what number?
Filling my bags as I prepare to leave with the numerous gifts that Travelers have given me as tokens of their appreciation for my work this summer, I feel vexed.
Have I done enough? Could I have done more? Has my contribution been significant at all?
Perhaps the true measure of my work here isn’t that I have dramatically altered the confrontation surrounding Dale Farm, but, rather, that I have worked hard for something I truly believe in and that, as Kathleen stated, my work has been appreciated and valuable
“Well, what did you think? Any good? Think this fellow is going to be able to do anything for us?”
After loosening my tie, heaving a long sigh and sitting down next to Richard inside his caravan, I collected my thoughts about the meeting I had just attended before saying anything.
Read a recent story about me in a local British newspaper. Photo Credit: Echo
I had just returned to Dale Farm from a meeting with the East of England Regional Assembly’s planning manager to discuss the organization’s efforts at identifying the total number of sites that Essex County needed to construct to accommodate its existing Traveler population.
Initially, I had viewed the meeting as significant demonstration of the British Government’s determination to adequately asses the living needs of Travelers. I became even more enthused after the planning manager told me that the initial estimate the Assembly had come up with for Travelers sites in the county was 1220 pitches, including 157 in Basildon District.
My emotional bubble soon burst, however, when the planning manager informed me that it would not be until mid-2009 that the Assembly’s findings would be presented for approval to the Government.
Unfortunately, by mid-2009, Dale Farm may no longer exist.
Even more discouraging was when the planning manager informed me that the Assembly had little to no power it could wield in order to persuade local councils to grant temporary planning permission for Traveler sites before its findings were approved by the government.
When the meeting had finished, I left wondering why I had even come at all. Not only is the Assembly’s timeline for the completion and implementation of its Travelers’ housing needs assessment too long, but it offers no intermediary mechanism that can be implemented to stop forceful evictions which may occur before legislation on the number of Traveler pitches is established by the British government.
The most frustrating aspect of the meeting, and that of the saga that has been built up around Dale Farm, is that the British government, either at the local, regional or national level, has failed once again to either empower or create institutions that can effectively intervene to curb the inordinate amount of power that local councils wield in issuing evictions of Traveler sites.
While surveys enacted by bureaucrats are a positive sign and demonstrate that the British government is taking a serious look at Travelers, they fall maddeningly short of issuing any of the requisite powers needed to stop forceful evictions that may occur on Traveler sites before mid-2009.
As long as surveys are issued that lack the political clout necessary to grant temporary cessations in eviction proceedings, local councils will continue to move unabashedly toward removing Traveler sites from their districts.
Thus, Traveler communities are left in the inauspicious position where they started: alone and forced to band together and rely upon one another for collective security.
Looking up to see Richard staring me patiently while he awaiting my response to his question, I could only give him a brief description of what I thought about the meeting.
“Richard, it looks like it is going to be business as usual.”
“Zach, come here for a minute. I want you to read this letter for me. It came in the post today, and I don’t know who’s it for.”
After taking the letter from Mary Anne’s outstretched hand and reading the first sentence, I paused and wondered if I should read the letter out loud to her.
“Well, what does it say? Did the post make a mistake and drop it off at the wrong address?”
“No,” I stammered, trying to think of how best to describe what I had just finished reading, “I don’t think that the letter was addressed to anyone in particular. I think the postman just left the letter in your box because it was the closest on his route.”
“And, what does it say? Is it bad?”
“Yes, its bad,” I replied irritably, “very bad.”
“Well, I want to hear it anyway. Come in for a nice cup of tea and read it to me.”
After sitting down in Mary Anne’s kitchen and taking a few sips of the tea she had prepared, I cleared my throat and began to read the letter:
To the Leader of the Gypsies –
We believe that you and your mongrels are coming to Mores Lane. Be warned, you ain’t wanted. On Saturday, there will be over 200 of my friends at my party and there is enough political power, and if needed the muscle, to run you lot back to the sewers where you came from.
Mary Anne’s reaction after I had finished reading the letter was not what I had expected. Instead of disgust, there was an almost quiet expression of tolerance on her face as she took one last drag of her cigarette before squashing it calmly in her ashtray.
A few incredibly long seconds passed before either of us said anything. Mary Anne was the first to speak, staring out the window at her grandchildren playing in front of her chalet as she began.
“Zach,” she started off, taking her gaze off her grandchildren and looking at me straight in the eye, “I will be 71 in two weeks. For as long as I can remember, we Travelers have been receiving threats like the one here in the letter. While the threats might have been more violent before with fighting and all that, we have become accustomed to people wanting us gone. It is almost like we expect to get letters like this now and then.”
We talked a little more after that, but the words Mary Anne first uttered after I had read the letter stayed with me for a long time after leaving her chalet.
While it was a major achievement that the July 6th eviction was postponed until at least next spring, letters like the one I read to Mary Anne serve as a bleak reminder of how much work still needs to be accomplished in order to end the discrimination that Travelers face in England.
Most distressing of all is that there seems to be a quiet resignation among many Travelers at Dale Farm toward there relegated position in society. Statements such as, “we’re Gypsies, we can’t get no work here,” are common replies when I ask men why they have to travel abroad to find employment when they live in one of the most developed countries in the world.
There is an embarrassment of policies that the British government needs to enact in order to ensure that discriminatory practices against Travelers are removed. If officials, both local and national, continue to avoid the myriad issues the Travelers present, they will undeniably ensure that in another 71 years, Mary Anne’s grandchildren will have the same sorrowful acquiescence toward their condition as their deceased grandmother.
“Zach, I’ve got fantastic news! The council has decided to back down. They have stopped eviction proceedings! I’ll be down to Dale Farm later on this morning to celebrate.”
Although I understood what Grattan had told me, I had a hard time letting the information sink in completely. It was, after all, 5:30 in the morning. Grattan, as he would tell me later in the day, had been up for a half an hour, mulling anxiously around his home until he couldn’t wait any longer to give me a call. I, on the other hand, was fast asleep and promptly rolled over in my sleeping bag after I hung up the phone.
A couple hours later, I was awakened again. This time, it was a series of hard knocks on the door of my caravan. As I slowly unzipped my sleeping bag and got dressed, my mind raced back to what Grattan had said previously.
After opening the door of my caravan, I was surprised to find Mary and Margaret, two women living on the eleven properties facing eviction proceedings, staring back at me with wide grins spread across both of their faces.
“Son, have you heard the news?” asked Margaret inquisitively, drawing one last drag from her cigarette before flicking it on the ground. “The council isn’t going through with the eviction no more. We can stay until at least the spring. Come over later on today for a nice cup of hot tea so we can thank you properly. Here, read it for yourself.”
After Margaret and Mary had left, I began to read the paper they had handed to me. In big letters across the front page were the words, “TRAVELLERS CAN STAY – COUNCIL.”
After reading the article more than a few times and talking things over with Grattan after he arrived, I began to have a much clearer idea of what exactly had transpired.
Miraculously, the Basildon Local Council, before a judicial review had even been issued by the High Court, decided to stop eviction proceedings against the eleven yards. Not only had the eviction been stopped, but the council promised not to evict anyone until a separate judicial review covering the remaining 45 properties facing eviction at Dale Farm was ruled upon by the High Court next spring.
The High Court, as I later found out, was prepared to issue a judicial review of the council’s decision to evict the eleven properties. If a judicial review were to have been passed, the eviction would not only have been prevented, but local taxpayers would have had to pay more in legal fees as well.
Not wanting to deal with the headache of a second judicial review, the council called off eviction proceedings, buying its time until the judicial review covering the remaining 45 properties comes before the High Court next spring.
While there is still a lot of work to be done and Dale Farm is a long way from being safe from future evictions proceedings, there is a renewed strength present among all community members. Now that this hurdle has been crossed, people living at Dale Farm sincerely believe that they will remain here indefinitely.
“Although we have compassion for the plight of the Travelers, this committee finds itself obligated to undertake eviction proceedings against the seven plots of land at Hovefields Drive, Wickford.”
After the decision and the grounds on which it had been decided were pronounced by the committee, I couldn’t help but feel as if I had been transported eerily back in time.
“No,” I reminded myself calmly, “today is July the 2nd, not June 5th when you first spoke in front of the Development Control and Traffic Management Committee.” In spite of this reassurance, I still felt a little déjà vu.
I had come to the committee’s meeting to find out more about the Traveler site at Hovefield and to meet with members of the community. Fortunately, I accomplished both of these goals, befriending a few Travelers after the meeting and setting up a time to come to Hovefield the next day. Unfortunately, what I found once I arrived at Hovefield left me wondering if it wouldn’t have been better if I had never visited at all.
The Travelers living at Hovefield, which is located roughly five miles away from Dale Farm, find themselves faced with a strikingly similar set of circumstances as the one with which members of Dale Farm are currently confronted.
Like Dale Farm, the majority of the properties at Hovefield are covered by a court injunction that protects them until the High Court decides later this year whether or not to allow them to continue to reside on their land without planning permission. As is the case with Dale Farm as well, a small number of the properties at Hovefield, seven as compared to the eleven at Dale Farm, are facing imminent eviction proceedings. After the committee meeting last night, the Travelers at Hovefield who live on the seven properties have until July 17th to obtain a judicial review of the committee’s decision to evict.
In spite of the congruencies present between the Traveler sites, there remains one major difference. As I found out the following day during my visit, Hovefield, unlike Dale Farm, has already witnessed a forceful eviction.
The forceful eviction and subsequent restoration of the Greenbelt of five properties were undertaken last year at Hovefield. As is the case with Dale Farm, the committee deemed that the restoration of the Greenbelt was more important than the loss of livable property that the Travelers would incur.
Unable to obtain a judicial review of the committee’s decision to undertake eviction proceedings, residents living on the five properties at Hovefield were removed and had their land restored to Greenbelt. As I saw during my visit, however, the committee’s definition of “restoring” the Travelers’ land to Greenbelt differed dramatically from what I had anticipated.
Not only was there a mound composed of dirt and debris ten feet high surrounding the restored land, but little kids were playing near gutters which had formed since the restoration had been undertaken by the committee. Appalling, the only green I saw during my visit was on reeds growing out of the numerous cesspools which had formed among the various piles of trash.
While snapping photos of the land and talking to Travelers about what had happened, I couldn’t escape the thought of how what I was seeing served as a potentially ominous harbinger for the eleven properties at Dale Farm.
Although confident that our lawyers will succeed in issuing a judicial review of the committee’s decision to undertake eviction proceedings before the deadline on midnight of July 6th, I cant’ help but think about the painful images I viewed at Hovefield while I lie restlessly in my caravan each night.
“Hey, wait! Could the other three of you kindly step outside please? Only one of you at a time is allowed in the store. You know that. The rest of you will just have to wait outside.” At first, I didn’t even realize that the woman was addressing herself to me and my three companions.
I soon became conscious that her words were directed towards us when a short, pear-shaped man, presumably another employee of the store, grabbed my shoulder with his hand and, while pointing grimly to the door, stated bluntly, “wait outside. You heard the woman.”
Once outside and still not fully cognizant of what was happening, I looked at two of the boys with whom I had come, Jimmy and Pat, and asked what had happened.
“Nothing,” replied Jimmy coolly. “The lady in there never lets more than one of us in the store at a time. To her, we’re just Pikies. She thinks were going to steal something. With just one of us in there, she can keep a closer eye on us.”
“How long has this been going on,” I asked, feeling the blood rush to my face as each word came out of my mouth. “Since as long as we can remember,” interjected Pat. “She has never even caught us stealing or nothing.”
After each of the three boys had gone into the store, paid for his candy bar or soda and came out, I prepared to enter. A part of me wanted to leave right then and not go in at all. I went in, however, and immediately felt the woman’s gaze fall upon me like a ton of bricks.
After grabbing my soft drink from the refrigerator and making my way to the register, my eyes met squarely with those of the woman who had greeted us upon entering into the store.
“Is there anything else you would like?” she asked, peering out the window at the three boys I had come with as if they were preparing to spray paint the outside walls of her store with graffiti. “Yes,” I replied, “I’ll have a Guardian, please.”
The moment the last word had left my lips, the woman’s countenance changed immediately. Not only did her eyes soften and her thinly pressed lips relax, but the tone of her voice switched from accusatory to obliging.
“Well, um…I,” stammered the woman, grasping for what to say. It was obvious that my Indiana accent had thrown her for a loop. As she gazed at me incredulously, the numerous wrinkles on her forehead displaying her inward struggle, I could only wait until she uttered her next words.
“You’ll have to forgive me. I just assumed that you were one of them,” she said, spitting out the last word as if it was a sharp piece of glass cutting the inside of her mouth. “You can never be too careful with those Pikey children, you know.”
There was a lot I wanted to say at that moment. A myriad of images swept through my brain in an instant, colliding with the emotions of anger, pity and contempt that I felt at both the woman’s actions and words.
Whether it was the timing of the encounter or the fact that I felt my words would have mattered little, I grabbed my change from the woman’s outstretched hand and left the store shaking my head.
Walking back to Dale Farm from the store while listening to John, the third Traveler teenager with whom I had come, go into great detail about what he would buy if he earned David Beckham’s salary, I couldn’t help but notice that not one of the boys had even mentioned what had just taken place at the store.
As I have come to understand, events as the one which transpired in the store are so common that Travelers view them as banal occurrences in the course of their everyday lives.
Walking around in a Traveler’s shoes for over a month now, I can’t help but feel that my feet hurt more than they ever have in my entire life.
I felt strangely calm as I approached the podium to give my speech. Unlike the first time I had spoken in front of the Development Control Committee of the Basildon District Council on behalf of the Travelers, my heart was not pounding out of control nor were butterflies fluttering around in my stomach. I hadn’t even prepared a single note card in case I lost my train of thought.
Was this reassurance a product of my ability to give amazing speeches? Yeah right…I wish. Every other time in my life when I had to give a speech, especially if it was in front of more than fifty people as was the case tonight, I felt as though I needed to place a puck bucket beside my feet.
Before the committee this evening was a proposal to provide alternative accommodation for six of the fourteen neediest families residing on the eleven properties facing eviction from Dale Farm on July 6th. The families selected for the alternative accommodation included two elderly couples unable to move outside of their chalet without help, two profoundly deaf children who attend a special needs school in the area and other members of the Dale Farm who suffer from severe ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The accommodation site, located near a the town of Pitsea, is close enough to Dale Farm to allow the people who move there to stay in close proximity to members of their family who remain at Dale Farm. Unlike Dale Farm, the site at Pitsea is not located on Greenbelt but, rather, Brownfield, which would allow construction to take place or homes and caravans to be placed on the land.
Contrary to what a lot of people believe, members of Dale Farm will gladly go somewhere else; however, they must have somewhere to go where they can obtain planning permission to legally place their chalets and caravans. Otherwise, Travelers will end up on the roadside or illegally camped, causing another local council in another part of England to be embroiled in the same legal conundrum as the Basildon Council now finds itself with the Travelers at Dale Farm. This will cause more taxpayers’ money to be wasted, more children to have their education interrupted and more resentment to be harbored unnecessarily toward Travelers. The site at Pitsea offered the committee the opportunity to stop these negative trends and compromise with the Travelers.
After my speech and listening for ten minutes as various committee members drooled on about why planning permission should not be granted to the six families, I began to zone out. It annoyed me that each committee member began his or her comments by stating, “I have tremendous sympathy for the Travelers, but ...,” or “I have been a friend of the Travelers all of my life, but...”
It was almost as if each committee member’s conscious forced him to give the appearance of partiality so that he could sleep better at night knowing that he had, however cursorily, examined all facets of the case before making a pre-determined decision.
What began as an annoyance quickly changed into disgust. It made me sick to my stomach to see the committee members justify their rational for not allocating land on which the Travelers could legally relocate, in spite of the fact that it was the committee itself who chose to evict the Travelers in the first place. Do they not understand that their failure to provide a housing alternative only perpetuates the cycle of eviction and subsequent unauthorized relocation that plagues Traveler communities all across England?
Reflecting upon the reasons for my relaxed state later on in the evening, I realized very quickly what had caused my emotions to differ so drastically from the first to the second time that I delivered a speech. The first time, I made the mistake of believing that the committee members were listening to me. The second time, I knew what I said would not alter their decision in the slightest. This conclusion allowed me to be more relaxed but, shamefully, didn’t help the Travelers save their homes.
“Zach, what’s happening over at the yards?” As I slowly turn to see yet another concerned face, beckoning me to come inside a chalet or caravan for a cup of warm tea, I already have memorized what I am going to say.
Yes, the Development Control Committee of the Basildon Council did vote for eviction on eleven properties at Dale Farm. No, this doesn’t mean that bailiffs will come in tomorrow and begin evicting people from their homes. They have to wait until midnight of July 6th. Yes, we have a lawyer that is trying to find a judge who will issue an injunction to stop the eviction until we can get a judicial review of the committee’s decision to evict members of the eleven properties. No, it isn’t certain that our lawyer will find a judge to issue the injunction, but we feel very confident that he will succeed in locating one before the 6th of July. No, we don’t exactly know when our lawyer will find a judge, but we hope it will be next week, at the latest. Yes, when we find a judge, I will let you know.
As I utter the final words of my last response, I feel as robotic as my answers have sounded. The feeling of monotony that stirs inside of me each time that I explain the legal process to another person facing eviction evokes two emotions. First, it makes me thankful that I didn’t choose to become a lawyer and second, more profoundly, it arouses despair.
The dejection that I feel only grows as I continue to explain the current situation to more and more individuals facing eviction. When someone asks the inevitable question, “but this is our home son, where are we gonna go?” I can’t even bring myself to look the person in the eyes. As my heart tightens and my throat goes dry, I can only wistfully reply that the lawyer is doing the best he can and that I am sure he will find a judge by next week.
It’s not that I don’t believe what I say but, rather, that what I say is trite and not nearly enough for a group of people faced with the destruction of their livelihood.
As each day passes, however, I am reminded of how strong the community is where I live. Rosaries are held every night, parties given every weekend and the christening of the newest member of the community, Daniel, born last week, was performed on Sunday. The threat of eviction has loomed menacingly over Dale Farm for the past five years. People here are tough, resilient and, most importantly, truly believe that they will remain at Dale Farm.
While the legal limbo surrounding the plight of the eleven properties continues to swirl, life goes on at Dale Farm, with each member of the community waiting and hoping for the best.
I felt all eyes shift towards me as I walked behind the podium. I had prepared most of the day for the speech I was about to give, but speaking in front of forty people, the majority of whom were faced with being evicted from their homes, made each one of my heartbeats sounds as if someone was banging a drum next to my ear.
Unfortunately my words, nor those of other members of Dale Farm who spoke, could stop the Basildon Development Control Committee from voting for the eviction of members of Dale Farm who are currently residing on eleven properties in the center of the community.
The plight of individuals such as Margaret McCarthy, 85, who endures severe arthritis and can’t walk, nor that of Margaret Gammell, who is both deaf and suffers from depression, were unable to persuade the committee to postpone the eviction until the planning application for an alternative accommodation site at Pitsea has been approved.
Instead, the committee is willing to give residents of the eleven properties until July 6th to move or be forcefully evicted.
While it is true that the Pitsea site does not present the Travelers with an optimal location in which to relocate, the living conditions there are by no means worse than those which were present at Dale Farm before the Travelers arrived. People often forget that Dale Farm was a scrap yard before the Travelers bought the land. Not only has the area been turned into a thriving community since the appearance of the Travelers, but tarmac roads have been constructed and running water installed.
The Pitsea site is also neither a “condemned” location, as council leader Malcolm Buckley would have others believe. A highway overpass does intersect it, but some other brown field sites with overpasses have been granted planning permission throughout England. Why should Pitsea be any different?
One of the more disturbing aspects of the eviction is the grounds on which the council based its decision. The main reason for the eviction of the Travelers is that there is such a scarce amount of Greenbelt left in the Basildon district that it is imperative to protect what little remains from being developed. In other words, the Basildon committee deems it perfectly logical to destroy part of Dale Farm and render approximately twenty-five people homeless so that nothing except grass and maybe a few trees can grow in their place.
In early June, the Travelers protested against the eviction outside the Basildon Centre.
Even more startling is the fact that Thames Gateway, a large construction project currently taking place in southeast England, has been granted permission by the Basildon Council to build a number of its proposed 160,000 houses within the district, some of which are planned to be constructed on Greenbelt! Suffice it to say that the when Mr. Buckley spoke of how all the “precious little” amount of Greenbelt left in Basildon must be preserved at any cost, he must have been suffering from a brief fit of amnesia about the deal his council brokered for the Thames Gateway project.
As such, the reasons that the Committee gives for why it voted for eviction and the eventual destruction of the eleven properties without providing for an alternative site to which the Travelers could relocate is rife with contradictions. Committee members continue to be unwilling to compromise with Dale Farm over a possible relocation to Pitsea, causing one to wonder if their vote was not merely a manifestation of their internal prejudices against Travelers.
“Zach, we have a red hot emergency on our hands. I will be at Dale Farm within the hour to explain everything. Be ready for a long day.” After Grattan, founder of the Gypsy Council and, less notably, my boss during my time at Dale Farm, hung up the phone, I was left in an uneasy state, unsure about what was occurring and nervous due to the concerned tone in Grattan’s voice. Immediately, I recalled the helicopter that had hovered over Dale Farm the previous day for over an hour. Did that in anyway portend the news that Grattan was going to deliver?
For a sixty-eight year old man, Grattan is in surprisingly good physical shape. Tireless in his efforts to help the Travelers at Dale Farm avoid eviction, he moves from caravan to caravan at a brisk pace, stopping intermittingly to drink tea and to discuss the latest news about the eviction process.
When he showed up at the door of my caravan an hour later short of breath and wiping his brow with a handkerchief, I knew that he had came as quickly as possible. My heart began to beat faster, fearing that something much worse had occurred than what I previously thought.
After catching his breath, Grattan calmly explained what was happening. Although it was earlier believed that all 86 homes at Dale Farm were protected from eviction by a court injunction, Grattan had discovered that eleven properties located in the middle of Dale Farm were not, in fact, included.
The fourteen families living on the eleven properties had been notified through letters that the court injunction didn’t cover them; however, due to the high rate of illiteracy present in the community, they were unaware of their properties’ status, leaving them vulnerable to forceful eviction.
The task at hand now was to make sure that the fourteen families living in the eleven properties filled out the necessary legal paperwork so that they could apply for an extension of the court’s injunction, which would place them under the same court protection as the other 75 homes until the hearing by the High Court of a pending judicial review.
Although Grattan and I had previously received all of the legal forms from Dale Farm’s lawyer and knew exactly what information we needed to obtain, it soon became clear that filling out the forms would be complicated at best.
Whether it was the constant fear of been bitten by dogs while going from caravan to caravan (I myself got bit once in the leg), the difficulty of knowing whether or not the name someone gave you was their birth name or nickname, or my inability to fully understand what the Traveler’s were actually saying at all times, what I thought would be a quick exercise in British bureaucracy quickly turned into an all-day affair.
As the day came to an end, I found out that our efforts, as laborious as they were, did produce the desired result: the owners’ information on all but three properties had been obtained. Although the Basildon Development and Control Committee won’t vote for eviction action on the eleven properties until Tuesday, the information we obtained and the legal procedures that are to follow should play a major role in ensuring that the disputed properties fall under the same injunction as the rest of Dale Farm, rendering void any eviction resolution that the committee passes.
“Are you set lad, ready to go? Come on, the antique fair begins at nine. Haven’t got all day.” With a grunt of confirmation, a quick rub of my eyelids and a prolonged unzipping of my sleeping bag, I began my fourth day at Dale Farm. It was early in the morning and as Richard, a member of the Sheridan clan and my personal benefactor since the day I arrived, had stated, there was little time to waste. After getting dressed, imbibing a stiff tea and attaching my caravan to the back of Richard’s truck, we were off, leading a group of approximately fifteen other Travelers to Newick, a mid-sized city in Southeastern England and host of a two-day antique fair.
To make a living, many of the Travelers at Dale Farm trade in antique furniture. They are price savvy and extremely knowledgeable about the quality of antiques. They know the exact value of goods ranging from Georgian chairs to Victorian chests and can easily tell whether or not the craftsmanship of a given item is up to snuff or has been shoddily manufactured. Newick was one of the many antique fairs that Dale Farm’s Travelers would attend during the course of the summer.
After observing the Travelers haggle over the prices of various pieces of antique furniture throughout the first day, one thing became very clear: what Travelers lacked in formal education, they more than made up for in their business acumen. More than a few times, I viewed intrepid customers eye one of the Traveler’s antiques, resolutely approach the Traveler to inquire about the price and then look aghast at the Traveler as the price was stated. Unwilling to persuade a Traveler to lower his price, the customer would oftentimes become frustrated, throwing up his arms in frustration as he turned his back and walked away empty-handed. The aggravation soon passed, however, with many of the same customers, who had earlier said that they couldn’t possible pay a pence more, returning an hour later to begrudgingly hand over the Traveler’s desired sum into an outstretched palm.
Was this thievery or, in the eloquent words written on the website of Essex county’s local paper, ECHO, the work of “scum”? Although I heard a couple of customers, upset over their inability to purchase an antique at their preferred price, utter the word “pikey” under their breath as they carted away their goods, it seemed to me that the Travelers were acting as reasonable businessmen. There was no deception here, no trickery. The sale and purchase of goods within the market were transparent, fair and, most important, legal.
Staring out the window at the endless sea of green English countryside roll lazily by while listening to Richard do his best rendition of Sting on the way back to Dale Farm from Newick, I couldn’t help but wonder how many more Traveler stereotypes I would see proven false in the next ten weeks.
After an intense final exam schedule and a short visit from my parents to D.C., it is finally sinking in that in two more days, I will be crossing the Atlantic and arriving in England to begin my work at Dale Farm
The past month has felt like an intense crash course on Britain’s Traveler communities. Although I have formed an especially close relationship with the Roma/Traveler section of Georgetown’s library and exchanged frequent e-mails with members of Dale Farm, I am ready to have all of my assumptions challenged by the realities on the ground.
The situation at Dale Farm is at a crossroads. Over the past two years, Traveler families at Dale Farm in Essex have been engaged in a protracted legal dispute with the Basildon town council to avoid forceful eviction them from their land. While members of Dale Farm have not yet been evicted, the town council has spent more than £360,000 in legal fees to try and remove them and employed a bailiff service which has already demolished the homes of four families at another Traveler community nearby. The fear is that Dale Farm, the largest Traveler community in Britain with over 1,000 residents, could be the next community forcefully evicted from their land.
Dale Farm is indicative of a much larger problem that many British citizens are currently unaware of – the inability of the UK government to protect the rights of minorities who arouse prejudice. The issue at hand is not whether the Travelers at Dale Farm own the land on which they currently reside but, rather, that they have repeatedly been denied planning permission by the town council on the grounds that they live on environmentally-protected land (Green Belt). This rational for denying Dale Farm planning permission is suspicious, since non-Travelers are routinely given permission to build in the Green Belt. As such, members of Dale Farm feel that they are victims of discrimination and that the efforts toward their eviction are racially motivated.
This summer will be pivotal in deciding whether or not residents of Dale Farm will be allowed to stay on their land, be forcefully evicted or receive an alternative location in which to reestablish themselves at another caravan park. I am honored to have the opportunity to assist the Dale Farm community in its efforts and to experience firsthand the developments on the ground during this crucial time.
Zach Scott is currently pursuing a master's in Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where he is concentrating in refugee and humanitarian affairs.
During his time in Washington DC, he has interned at the International Organization for Migration, obtained funding from the American Council of Learned Societies for advanced language instruction and will be interning at Church World Service’s Immigration and Refugee Program beginning in September.
Before attending Georgetown, Zach completed his undergraduate degree in history and Spanish at Indiana University and taught English for two years in Romania with the Peace Corps. It was during his time in Romania where he first became interested in Roma/Traveler (Gypsy) issues.
Fluent in Romanian, currently learning Polish and hopeful that the opportunity to learn another Eastern European language will present itself, Zach hopes to pursue a career in humanitarian affairs and international development in Eastern Europe.
This summer Zach will be the first Peace Fellow sent by The Advocacy Project (AP) to work at Dale Farm, Britain’s largest Travelers' community, as both a human rights monitor and to advocate for stopping the forceful eviction of the community’s members by the local government.
Zach hopes that his skills in community organization, media development and outreach project coordination will allow him to make a significant contribution to Dale Farm. Zach will be supporting Dale Farm’s ongoing institutional development, networking with the donor community and producing content for Dale Farm and AP.
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