Back to the future: anti-Traveller racism in 2015

 

17 March 2015 / Damian Le Bas

Above: a flyer warning “residents” of potential new homes for Gypsies, distributed in Gloucestershire, England, February 2015.

 

A FEW years ago, I met a well-respected Gypsy man called Kenny Ayres. I’m referring to him as a Gypsy man because that was how he- proudly- referred to himself. Mr Ayres was not well at the time, and had recently had a few close brushes with death: “The doctors don’t know what’s keeping me alive,” he said. “I’m a medical miracle.” He and his wife were in good spirits, in spite of these problems. He told me how he had traced his Romani ancestry on both sides of his family back for three centuries, and that as far back as he could go, all of his ancestors had lived in England.

Like many Romani people, Kenny also had a razor-sharp sense of humour. He told me about his next-door neighbour, a man who had taken a dislike to him, with no provocation. But just because there was no provocation, didn’t mean there was no explanation: it was, Kenny was convinced, because he was a Gypsy. So he resolved to quell the dispute with a joke. After catching sight of his neighbour one day, he shouted out, “Sir, you know what the difference is between me and you?” “No,” the neighbour replied, with a sour look on his face, so Kenny answered: “I’m not the one with the Gypsy living next door to him.” Kenny went back into his house, laughing. We shook hands and parted company, and I never saw him again- he died not long afterwards.

I mention Mr Ayres’s joke because I’m aware of one of the ironies of Romani and Traveller politics, which is that these communities have great senses of humour: a key weapon in the centuries long battle for survival against the odds. But there’s very little evidence of this humour when Romani and Traveller people discuss politics, because Traveller politics isn’t very funny. It’s also grindingly repetitive. Think Groundhog Day, without the attempted romance.

As I started writing this, one of my colleagues sent me a video of a group of Irish Traveller girls being refused entry to a bowling alley. Not because they were wearing the wrong clothes. Not because they were behaving antisocially. Not because they didn’t have the money to get in. It was because they were ethnic Travellers. “It’s not me, Bowlplex (the name of the bowling alley) have banned all Travellers from being in here,” says the doorman in footage filmed by the girls on a mobile phone. He does a good job of sounding reasonable: look, I’m sorry if you’re offended, but it’s company policy. We reserve the right to ban people because they have a nomadic heritage.

And let’s be clear: it doesn’t matter whether they’re actually nomads now, or living in a bungalow, a tin shack or a block of flats. It doesn’t matter which of Europe’s several dozen ethnic Romani or Traveller subgroups they belong to. But it’s a racial thing. The doorman makes no attempt to deny it. They never do. Not even when a Catholic priest, senior police officer and top lawyer are present. And why would they, when the British government is considering adopting a new definition of Gypsies and Travellers which would effectively criminalise being either. This conclusion is the natural, darkly comic end point of a mindset that thinks it’s witty to insist that Travellers must travel in order to call themselves Travellers, whilst simultaneously doing everything in its power to stop Travellers from Travelling. Incidentally, 2015 is the final year of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, “an unprecedented political commitment by European governments to eliminate discrimination against Roma[1] and close the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society”. Perhaps the memo has been stuck in the British government’s letterbox. For the past 120 months.

The trouble with this ‘debate’- if the immorality of banning people from business because of their race needs to be debated- is that it’s simultaneously incredibly simple, and incredibly complicated.  I, like most of my more committed and gifted partners and predecessors in the struggle to emancipate Gypsies and Travellers from grinding, quotidian racism, have always preferred the simple version: being a Gypsy or ethnic Traveller is not a lifestyle choice, it is an ethnic heritage, the same as being a Bedouin, a Jew, an Apache, an Aboriginal Australian.  Therefore, to say “Sorry, we don’t allow Travellers in here” is racist, and to deny that it is racist is entirely disingenuous (unless by “Travellers” you mean anyone who travelled to get to the bowling alley, which is to say, everyone).

That’s the simple part. The trouble is, this argument may be possessed of a beautiful simplicity, but it doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work because of the complicated part, which is that many people’s feelings about Gypsies and Travellers run so deep as to immunise them against rational argument. This is one reason why lawyers I have met who are engaged in cases where Gypsies and Travellers have been victims of racism believe that litigation may be the only effective way of changing corporate attitudes. It’s also why this ‘debate’ is less like arguing for the end of Apartheid, and more like the grating, relentless, and ultimately jading face-off between “the new atheists” and those religious people who can be bothered to debate with them. To those dealing with it, it feels more like a clash of cultures than a debate. On one side is a culture which says all forms of racism are wrong, and on the other side is a culture which says they’re all forms of racism are wrong, except some of them.

This latter camp includes a wide range of personalities, of course. On one hand we have very nice people, who don’t agree with racism, who simply don’t want Gypsies near them in case it makes their house worth less.  It’s not racist, it’s just financial pragmatism. On the other hand we have people who like Gypsies less, and are happy to murder four-year-old ones to get rid of them and do the rest of Europe’s population a service. It takes all sorts to make a world, and just as many to build something approaching a nationwide, racist consensus.

Last month, I was contacted by a lady from Enfield, in north London. She gave me her name, but wished to remain anonymous in print. The reason she’s worried about being named will be made clear from the following photograph of two words which had been spray-painted onto her house:

Graffiti (794px * 306px)

"I came here ten years ago with four children. One of my sons is registered disabled, it affected him worse. He had to be put on sleeping tablets and anti-depressants," said the victim. “We had to live in there for two weeks before they moved me, we had to stay there. Do you really think I deserve to live like this, because of where I come from? I'm not an animal," she said. The Metropolitan Police acknowledged they’d received an allegation of “racially aggravated criminal damage” and said that “officers attended and spoke to the victim”. I asked them whether they could comment on the victim’s further allegation that a police officer had called and left a card and a graffiti kit, suggesting she should get her children to clean the spray-paint off. The Metropolitan Police didn’t comment on this aspect of their response, but said “if any further evidence comes to light it will be investigated.” A Gypsy Roma and Traveller support organisation had reminded the police of the evidence of likely psychological harm if the targets of such abuse were expected to clear it up. Enfield Council said they believed the victim had been moved but offered no further comment.

For those who don’t know, pikey, or ‘pikie’, or however people wish to spell it, is a traditional anti-Gypsy slur which derives from the fact that Gypsies and Travellers used to camp near highways called ‘turnpikes’. The latter word, though still used in the United States, has more or less disappeared from British English, but the slur is still going strong. Again, people are quite fond of denying that this word refers in the main to Gypsies and Travellers. They might also claim (as the UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom did when complaints were made about its use on Top Gear, the most widely watched factual television programme in the entire world) that alongside referring to Travellers, it also has a new meaning, which basically just means scum or “low rent”. So I take it they’d approve of the one word definition provided by the racists who vandalised the home of the woman I spoke to last week.

It’s funny how people always seem to know exactly what all these words mean, until they’re accused of doing anything wrong. Everyone knows what a Gypsy or Traveller is when they’re trying to racially abuse, shoot or gas one, but their sense of certainty suddenly lapses when they’re accused of doing anything wrong.

And so at last I come to the flyer pictured at the top of this article. Professionally designed and printed, it was clearly the work of an organised campaign which had access to labour and funds. It expressed outrage at the possibility of “at least seven Gypsy pitches” being provided across an area currently home to over 1,200 people. “Seven Gypsy pitches”- i.e, homes for seven families- is hardly industrial scale development. But the scale isn’t the point: it’s the proximity, the idea of Gypsies “on your doorstep”.  The flyer shows how close the new site would be to other “residents”, to within small fractions of a mile.

I looked at the flyer and reminded myself it was 2015. I reminded myself that we have laws in my country banning the incitement of racial hatred, and that we are party to European and worldwide conventions on human rights. I remembered the nature of Europe’s political moment: how with every passing day, hundreds of millions of people are being fed, and digesting, and propagating the idea that human rights legislation does not defend them, but defends only those who are undeserving of its protection. Then I remembered Mr Ayres, living in his house, with his 300-year-old lineage rooting him in his land, and I looked at the flyer again. I wondered whether the people who had addressed it “to all residents” really meant that, considering Gypsies are residents of the land, too; whether they would have meant someone like Mr Ayres to receive it. And if “all residents” wasn’t really what they meant, then what was their meaning, exactly?  

 

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[1] “The term “Roma” is used – similarly to other political documents of the European Parliament and the European Council – as an umbrella which includes groups of people who have more or less similar cultural characteristics, such as Sinti, Travellers, Kalé, Gens du voyage, etc. whether sedentary or not; around 80% of Roma are estimated to be sedentary” - COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS - An EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020, Brussels, 5th May 2011

 

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