A Gypsy holds a cross in the air as caravans burn and activists throw stones.
Richard Sheridan’s battered white Ford van pulls up outside the train station in Wickford, a suburb of London. With newspapers and empty potato chip bags covering its dash, it looks out of place against the ranks of shiny cabs and rows of identical homes. Richard is 37 but looks older, his barrel chest squeezed into a striped blue t-shirt and his stained blue jeans hanging well below his waistline. He stoops into the drizzle and shuffles to open the back doors, muttering something in a thick Irish accent. It’s gibberish to me, but I understand when he motions for me to get in the van. I close the doors and lose my footing as he pulls away, falling onto some broken furniture, squinting to recognize the faces of the other crouched figures who surround me in the dark.
We’re told to keep silent and out of sight as we pass a series of police roadblocks. I sneak a look between the headrests of the front seats as we approach Dale Farm near Basildon, Essex, the largest illegal Gypsy residence in Europe, and soon to be the site of a chaotic and unmanageable mass eviction. The long-standing tenants of Dale Farm, Gypsies of Irish descent, are considered a racial minority in the UK. They live in modern caravans towed behind cars and trucks, camping wherever they can—at the sides of roads, other people’s fields, or on common land. Each time they decide to settle down somewhere and set up camp, local townspeople and police immediately start pressuring them to leave. Some say the shy and guarded community is used as a convenient scapegoat for petty societal ills. Others view them as freeloading pickpockets who need to get haircuts and real jobs. But one thing that is certain is the communities’ unwavering commitment to one another.
About ten years ago, a group of Gypsies abandoned their portable caravans and established semi-permanent dwellings at Dale Farm (it had already been established as a popular nomad rest stop decades earlier). Buying land and burrowing deep into the English countryside, they left their nomadic life behind, withdrawing from a society intolerant of their heritage and escaping unwelcome glances and police visits.
In the council buildings of Basildon, there was concern that the development of the farm was carried out without official approval. In the UK, local councils must grant planning permission before any new structure is erected, mostly as a measure to guard against overcrowding and unsafe living conditions. If the owner defies the council by building a structure without permission, the authorities will seize and demolish it. Despite humanitarian concerns and legal and labor costs, Basildon Council argues that the long-standing refusal to abide by this law makes all residents of Dale Farm candidates for eviction. By the end, the operation could cost approximately $28.5 million of taxpayers’ money. Tony Ball, leader of Basildon Council, argues that there must be consistency within the law, and everyone must abide by the same rules. Of course, the Gypsies disagree.
Activists at Dale Farm extend a huge scaffold tower guarding the main gates.
“When we bought this place, the government was encouraging Traveler families to buy land and settle,” says Patrick James Joyce, an Irish Traveler who moved his family to Dale Farm a decade ago. Without planning permission, the Travelers are only permitted to live 28 days a year per site in their caravans, whether or not they own the land. The council has attempted to create alternative living arrangements for the 86 families threatened by eviction—often in cramped apartment blocks, in cities and isolated from the rest of their community—but these have been refused by the Travelers as culturally unacceptable.
More than a decade of complicated and convoluted legal proceedings came to a head in September, when local authorities began eviction proceedings. The Gypsies were able to delay expulsion via legal maneuvering, but by late September, when I arrive, Dale Farm is threatening to erupt in violence.
Our van bounces and jolts over the potholed tarmac of a single lane. News reporters and television vans are lined up on the sidewalk. The normally quiet fields surrounding the farm are now sprawling fenced enclosures housing bailiffs poised to enter family homes by force. Heavy-duty metal sheets laid over pasture support bulldozers and diggers. Portable toilets stand in rows, and men in hard hats and high-visibility jackets check the perimeter, itching for action. The end of the lane is blocked by a giant wooden gate set underneath soaring ramparts made of metal poles, tarpaulin, old tires, and razor wire. These utilitarian extensions clash against the decorative domestic walls of Dale Farm. Scaffold poles are piled over patterned terra-cotta brick, a cross between a construction site, medieval castle, and Mad Max stronghold.
Photographs of children who will undoubtedly become homeless if evicted are fastened to the outside of the battlements, their faces appealing to the outside world. Above, on the ramparts, figures wait, their identities obscured by masks and scarves. Someone taunts onlookers: “We’ve got rocks up here. I hope you brought a hat.” When we pull up, Richard Sheridan, in his white van, is recognized as the president of the Gypsy Council, and the gates swing open.
The farm has changed significantly in the last decade. “The whole place was a wasteland [when we moved here]. It was being used as a scrapyard for old cars,” Patrick says. The land was bought by ten families, including Patrick’s, who were searching for a permanent home and respite from the constant pressure to vacate campsites. It was a place where they could grow vegetables and preserve their cultural heritage. Over time they laid roads, built dwellings, and enrolled their children in local schools. Dale Farm thrived, its population surpassing 400 by 2007.