When the Travellers Came to Town
On National Roma Day 8th April Travellers visiting Hastings were evicted for the third time in less than a week. Cllr Maya Evans, HBC lead member for Travellers, investigates.
Tanya stood outside her caravan telling me about her life on the road, with a twinkle in her eye: “Growing up, my family travelled around the country working the land; in Kent we’d pick apples and sweet peas. Sweet peas were my favourite, they were good to eat and easy to pick; too many apples would eventually make you sick, or make you crap a lot. We would do sprout topping and all sorts. In the evenings we’d all gather round a fire and cook up a big pot of stew to share, it was a good life back then.” Looking at their motor homes pitched up on our seafront car park made her idyllic-sounding childhood seem like a completely different era.
With the Roma flag
One of the caravan windows was broken. The night before someone had fired ball bearings at their homes. Tanya explained: “We heard something hitting our van, the kids asked me what was it, I said it was the seagulls dropping stones on the roof, I didn’t want to tell them the truth.”
Looking into the caravan I was amazed that six people were able to live in such a compact space. It was fastidiously tidy, everything had a place, possessions minimal. A miniscule carbon footprint compared to static house dwellers. Tanya’s accent had an Irish lilt and spoke of high adventure on the open road, a lust for travel and an unquenchable thirst to live freely.
Tanya loved Hastings and had always visited as a child, and they tried to visit every year. An aunt, 40 years ago, had lived in a cottage in Old Town. Originally the small fisher cottages had been slum-quarters for working people. Now they are exclusive and much sought after; fashionable, quaint holiday homes or expensive Airbnbs.
In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act limited Travellers to convoys of six caravans. The controversial Police Crime and Courts Sentencing Bill currently going through Parliament will limit them to just a single caravan, in effect outlawing an already criminalised and endangered way of life; the maximum penalty being a £2,500 fine or three-month prison sentence. Families will be separated, children sent to care homes, or worse, ‘secure schools’ which are the new child-prisons run by the Oasis Charity Trust.
Gypsy, Roma and Travellers (GRT) were the first minority to be targeted in 1930s Nazi Germany, the first to be sent to concentration camps and forced into gas chambers. If the Police Bill passes, GRTs will be the test for further repressive legislation, using the most vulnerable to see how far draconian law can be pushed.
John Doe in front of his vardo (wagon) in Dorset
The Roma are thought to have originated from India, but people assumed they were from Egypt, the origin of the word Gypsy. Travellers are generally Irish or Scottish and have probably always roamed this country, choosing not to settle when most humans settled around the time crops started to be farmed. In the last 500 years these three nomadic groups have lived side by side: different histories, similarly persecuted.
Roma, Gypsy and Travellers have a long and proud history in Britain, known as story tellers, musicians and entertainers. They have been mobile, cheap and versatile labour – helping to build our extensive canal systems, roads, the factories which fueled the industrial revolution, casual seasonal farm labour, serving as soldiers during war, doing everything from blacksmithing to basket weaving. They have been an integral part of building this country, though throughout this service they have been persecuted. At times they were shipped abroad and even hanged.
In the evenings we’d all gather round a fire and cook up a big pot of stew to share, it was a good life back then
“I hated living in my council flat in Tottenham, having four walls felt like a prison. We were also targeted by our neighbours, there were attacks on our home, my kids were picked on at school. The final straw was when a Traveller said to me ‘you’ve settled, you’re no longer a Traveller’, that was it, I packed up a few special things, took my children and went on the road. I couldn’t live knowing I was depriving my children of their heritage.”
In less than two days of arriving in Hastings, a Facebook campaign against the Traveller community had been launched. First of all, accusations about stealing sweets and forcing a nearby gift shop to close, when in reality, the shop was actually short staffed and employees “felt intimidated”.
Tanya’s analysis and understanding of racism is perceptive: “The government are coming after all of us, Blacks, Muslims, Refugees, we’re all the same, they want to criminalise us all. The discrimination we experience is racism, same as Black people; in some ways it’s worse. Everywhere we go, people make up stories about us.”
Three days later I caught up with them at their third location in as many days. The night before they had been evicted from a recreation ground near the town’s dump. Police issued a section 61 eviction notice after an argument in a playground involving one of the Traveller kids.
Celebrating a way of life
Tanya was still in good spirits: “It’s true, our kids get excited when they play in proper playgrounds, but you’ve got to understand, we’re normally on the road, it’s not often they go in a proper playground. Our four-year-old had an argument with another kid, I think it was over a swing.” Another Facebook campaign ensued. The official police justification described an altercation in a playground and the discovery of “human faeces” in the same play area. Had the police really carried out a rapid forensic test on excrement, or, was it the result of an irresponsible dog owner? Obviously, I am aware of the racist trope around Travellers being unclean, but seeing this written down as an official justification for an eviction was astounding.
In less than two days of arriving in Hastings a Facebook campaign against the Traveller community had been launched
Currently Hastings doesn’t have a site for Travellers, which means, wherever they stop in our town, they are automatically criminals. The shared attitude within local authorities is to try and get Travellers out as quickly as possible, and that being seen as soft will lead to a ‘mass incursion’. The only legal stop-over site in the county is in Lewes, some 30 miles away, but there’s no guarantee of getting a place. Over the last 10 years there has been an 8.4% decrease in local authority transit stops.
Hastings is a Victorian town specifically built for leisure: supposedly we pride ourselves on hospitality; we are a ‘Community of Sanctuary’, offering shelter for those fleeing persecution. Yet within less than 24 hours of being parked up in a pub car park, closed due to Covid restrictions, the Travellers were evicted by bailiffs, and before evening, they were in another town 40 miles away. The last I saw of them, their half dozen caravans were resting under giant Douglas fir trees, the spring sky piercingly blue, illuminated by the bright midday sun. It was almost like a promotional video for a caravan holiday camp, if not for the bailiffs dressed in black prowling around, tow truck at the ready.
A chat with the boys in blue
Only the previous week there was an uproar within the Labour Party: the Shadow Equalities Minister had tweeted a photograph of a leaflet which described “traveller incursions” alongside tackling anti-social behaviour, fly tipping and waste transfer sites. ‘Incursion’ normally describes a hostile foreign military invasion. Listing Travellers alongside these other particular complaints is just outright racist. Racism may be rife within Britain, but it’s unlikely you would get the Labour Party in this day and age describing a community of British black people as an ‘African incursion’ to be dealt with alongside rubbish.
I know that the GRT community are one of the most persecuted minorities, but in all honesty, I had never fully appreciated what that meant. The community visiting Hastings were shot at, had a window damaged, were subject to two Facebook campaigns, legally accused (without evidence) of defecating in a playground, and evicted three times: all of this within less than a week. No wonder Travellers are known for their toughness.
The discrimination experienced by the GRT community has a high price: acute deprivation, which results in life expectancy 10-12 years less than that of the national average, suicide four times higher, 42% are affected by long-term conditions, one in five women will experience loss of a child compared to one in a 100 non-Traveller community; disproportionate number of children in the care system, mental health, depression, alcoholism. Criminalisation and racism mean it has become harder and harder for this community to survive.
Racist graffiti from earlier this year
It’s curious to consider where these outwardly racist attitudes have come from, especially as most Travellers are white and have roamed these lands for hundreds if not thousands of years. It strikes me that Travellers are one of the last sectors of society not to be controlled by the state and capitalism.
In the last week, one of the main complaints was: “they don’t pay taxes”, which of course is ridiculous, everything in this country is highly taxed, you buy a bar of chocolate and you’re paying tax. Billionaires with offshore tax havens dodge millions in tax, but they don’t receive the level of vitriol, discrimination and criminalization which is directed towards the GRT community: an attitude that’s unchallenged within mainstream society.
In some ways, Travellers have refused to be bent by the rules, they refuse to be forced into houses, into repetitive office jobs. They treat land as ‘common land’, unperturbed by the concept of capitalist ownership. They have relatively subsistent lifestyles, minimal possessions; they are perhaps the most non-conformist sector within British society. They know all about our world, but choose to live in another, which we know very little about.
• Maya Evans is Hastings Borough Council lead member for Travellers, and the first Hastings Cllr to visit a Traveller site and is now the Hastings Borough Council Cabinet lead member for Natural Environment, Leisure and Climate Change Strategy.
• ALL PICTURES: Jake Bowers
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