In the 1960s, Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller families bought a plot of land near Wickford in Essex; a small town 30 miles east of Greater London. Back then, that plot of land was a mess; an abandoned scrap yard next to a disused MOD scrub full of rusting cars leaking puddles of toxic battery acid. Now, more gypsies and travellers live at Dale Farm than anywhere else in the UK. The 1,000 or so gypsies living in Wickford are settled, but half of them have just been told to GTFO. The council plan to fund their eviction with £18m of taxpayer money.
The dispute centres around another plot of land next to Dale Farm, a slice of Green Belt which the gypsy families bought from Basildon council a decade ago. Basically, the two sides are arguing about a toilet block that was built without planning permission. Any argument about a toilet block is going to be a tedious one, but given that pretty soon a gang of bailiffs and police will be descending upon Dale Farm to try to make 90 angry gypsy families homeless, I thought it was worth going down to meet the travellers and see what was up.
The barricades of scaffolding the travellers have put up around the site are adorned with colourful banners that say things like "WE WON'T GO", "WE <3 DALE FARM", and "NO ETHNIC CLEANSING". 'Ethnic cleansing' might seem a bit strong – Basildon council haven't announced plans to kill anyone yet – but who gives a shit? At the same time that the authorities want the travellers off the Green Belt land, they're selling more of it to rich developers. You don't have to live in a caravan to see that that sucks.
The people of Dale Farm lost their appeal against the eviction last Wednesday (31st August). Currently, the bailiffs are scheduled to arrive on the 19th of September. Fortunately, their plight has not gone unnoticed. When I arrive, I'm given a guided tour around the "illegal" part of the settlement by a guy called Jake, one of the Solidarity protesters who've moved in alongside the gypsies. They live in tents on-site and Jake tells me about how they've been helping the gypsies fill out homelessness applications and construct anti-bailiff defences from old tyres and barbed wire. In each corner of the site were sentry towers, manned constantly by Solidarity workers. The Solidarity guys also put up these natty compost toilets.
The gypsies and travellers are well aware of what many outsiders think of them, so some areas of the camp are completely off-limits (the Daily Mail journalist I'm given the tour with isn't happy about this). The tabloids have labelled Dale Farm a hostile place, but I think they must have turned up at the wrong gigantic gypsy camp. The mood's a little tense, but there's nothing like the atmosphere my taxi driver hinted at earlier, when he told me about the time he was taken hostage in his own car by seven guys as he drove past the camp during a gypsy wedding. He also said BT won't go near the site without a police escort and that the site residents have terrorised the rest of the neighbourhood for years, but at a public demo march through the centre of Basildon later that day, locals turned out to deliver speeches supporting the people from Dale Farm.
One explains that before the gypsies moved in, local gangs used the scrap yard as a hiding place for drugs and guns. Another says that the kids from the local estates cause more problems than the travellers. When it's their turn to speak, the women from the travelling community explain that they don't want to jump the queue for social housing when 6,000 people in the area are already waiting it. Not that the council seem prepared to offer them much: so far 20 of the 90 families have been shown houses, but they've all been shown the same one, and that one is a bedsit. The bailiffs are due to arrive a week from today.
A woman called Cathleen, one of the camp seniors, tells the crowd that the gypsies wouldn't want to live in houses anyway. She says they're proud of their traditions and should be entitled to live in caravans if they want to.
As this protest was winding down, I was invited back on Saturday to attend another, much larger demo march. At 1PM, around 500 travellers, locals and Solidarity campaigners gathered and marched through the town from Wickford rail station to Dale Farm, flanked by police and chanting "Hey! Ho! Tony Ball has got to go."
Tony Ball is the head of the local council. When I asked Cathleen what she would say to him if he was on the march, she said, "I'd ask him if he'd like to swap lives. If he'd like travellers to turn up at his home, turf him out onto the road to live in a caravan with limited electricity, poor sanitation and sometimes no water. I'd like to see if he'd still evict us then."
It took about an hour to reach Dale Farm. On the way, we stopped at the local primary school that would have to close if the travelling families left, as its classes are full of gypsy children. This weird looking MEP called Richard Howitt showed up to hold kids and pose for the media. He gave a speech later, as did reps from anti-fascist groups, Amnesty International and the Gypsy Council of Great Britain.
The speeches got everyone riled up, but when I looked at the travellers many of them seemed sad and weary. I guess many of them must have found themselves in this situation before. No matter how well-attended and reported the march, the bailiffs would still be coming on the 19th to kick them off their own land. Ultimately, this week is just the calm before the storm, and you suspect it'll be down to the gypsies to fight back when the bailiffs come calling. The Solidarity campaigners have said they will hold non-violent, direct action protests against the eviction, but some of the residents have claimed they will defend their homes by any means necessary. Some have even said they'll burn their homes before they're bulldozed. The gypsies might not stand much of a chance on paper, but if I was a bailiff, I'd expect a hell of a bonus before I even thought about attempting to clear this place.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY HENRY LANGSTON