A Day in the Country
A late Summer day in Essex. The man in the black hat speaking is Gypsy rights campaigner Grattan Puxon. The group behind are Roma from eastern Europe. The young women had arrived in ordinary tops and jeans but donned more traditional garb to dance, enlivening and adding colour to an English Sunday afternoon.
But the occasion was serious, commemorating past and present victims of anti-Gypsy racism. Crosses and pictures reminded us of Auschwitz and Treblinka, of persecution and murders in Czechoslovakia, and the 'ethnic cleansing' of thousands of Roma in Kosova after its "liberation" by NATO.
Lest we imagined that such things only happened in faraway corners of eastern Europe, we were joined by the family of a 15-year old Gypsy boy murdered by a racist gang in Cheshire. The women nodded and quietly said "hear hear" when Grattan said that Gypsies no longer want to live on the road, "it is not safe for our children".
We'd gone to Upper Nazeing, near Broxbourne, to show solidarity with the families living there. They had bought this bit of land, parked their caravans, and installed facilities. They kept it cleaner and tidier than many a London street, even in suburbia.
Although the surrounding countryside was pleasant enough, this was no touristic idyll. To reach the site we drove down a lane lined with greenhouses. I imagine the owners would have been glad of available labour, such as travelling folk traditionally provided. But this was also Essex commuterland, where the BNP canvasses votes with tales of fictitious African invaders and incitement against those genuine countryfolk called "pikies" and "Gyppos". Tory newspapers have kept up the hysteria.
The families at Upper Nazeing were facing eviction by the council, due the following morning.. Some people intended staying overnight to support them, but we heard they had been granted stay of execution. Nevertheless the area was swarming with police that afternoon, in case we did I-don't-know-what, and we were filmed as we were leaving. The council waited a week or so before sending in the bulldozers and bailiffs.
Then a few months ago BBC News South East had an item saying local people in Essex were upset at the cost to taxpayers of cleaning up land after Gypsies were evicted from a site at Upper Nazeing. We saw a BBC reporter gingerly stepping amid mounds of litter-strewn rubble. It looked nothing like the place I'd visited.I checked they were talking about the same site. Then I wrote to the BBC, telling them that I'd visited the Upper Nazeing site with friends a week before the evictions, and seen none of the rubbish shown on television.
The BBC replied asserting that they always strove for accurate reporting.
Then it struck me. They had referred to a mess left after the Gypsies were evicted. That need not mean left behind by the Gypsies, though that was probably how most viewers would take it. It meant mess left after they were evicted. In fact, as witnesses to the eviction told me later, the bulldozers had arrived at dawn, and swept up stones and anything else in their path into heaps, including gas bottles and chemical toilet cleaner containers which spilled, polluting the ground. After that, particularly if the site was left unfenced, it would have been easy prey to fly-tippers, a frequent menace to any open land in or near our great cities. Blame-the-Gypsies is also an old tradition.
I wonder if it occurred to that young BBC reporter to ask why he was being invited to inspect the Upper Nazeing site so long after the evictions? When we were there we had no big media cameras showing interest, only a German TV freelance and socialist news photographer Molly Cooper, also freelance.
Now there are similar evictions of families at Bromley in Kent, after John Prescott refused to overrule the councils refusal of planning permission. As many as 1,000 people face eviction from a site at Dale Farm in Essex, where families had also bought the land and gathered hoping for security.
There was a small demonstration at Chemsford county court on September 29, while inside mother Margaret McCann told how Constant and Co., contractors hired by Chemsford borough council had destroyed her home at Upper Waltham last year. Bulldozers removed the top soil, and then they flooded the land with pig slurry to render it uninhabitable. Four-meter high earth banks erected without permission of the owners now surround the site, blocking access and causing flooding.
Nevertheless the court found for the council, in what rights campaigner Donald Kenrick had described as a "test case".
" When will the government pay heed to what is happening to Britain's most persecuted minority?", he asked. Perhaps the answer is, not so long as the labour movement, the Left, and the main anti-racist movements show so little interest or readiness to act in solidarity with Gypsies.