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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Whose farm? Their farm!

Do you like having somewhere to live? I know I do. In fact, I like living somewhere so much I think that everyone should do it. If you feel the same, you might like to come down to Dale Farm and help stop several hundred people from being kicked out of their homes. I did, and can tell you that as well as being the right thing to do, it’s also amazing, life-affirming and (I probably shouldn’t tell you this bit) fun.

My girlfriend and I arrived at Dale Farm late on Sunday night. As we walked down the road to the site we were flanked by friend and foe on either side. To our right, gypsies from the legally occupied part of Dale Farm greeted us warmly with smiles and thank yous. To our left, a mist was rising through the floodlit field occupied by the bailiffs who have, ironically, built themselves a shiny new compound without any planning permission.

Despite the friendly welcomes from residents I felt uncomfortable and awkward as I walked through the gate. I remembered that, despite proudly declaring my anti-racist sentiments at 16, I made an exception for gypsies, whose lifestyles I felt were selfish and destructive. In the last few weeks I’ve discovered one in three people still hold the same views as I did as a child, probably for the same reason I did – because they’ve never actually met any. I like to think I’m much less ignorant and intolerant now, but my trip into Dale Farm still represented a kind of first contact. As such, I was surprised by how normal it all was. Dale Farm is a community like any other – houses, streets, families. My discomfort at the implicit racism my own sense of surprise revealed was mixed with shock and rage at what was planned for the next day – a full on £18m assault on this place, paid for with taxpayers money.

Only a few things stand out as different about Dale Farm. The first is the shrines dotted here and there – most of the residents are devoutly Catholic, but despite my own agnostic fundamentalism debating the reality of transubstantiation felt like an argument for another day. The second is that Dale Farm is a real community – everyone knows everyone else, the kids run around freely, their parents safe in the knowledge that they will be looked after by their friends who are also their neighbours. In fact, seeing how the gypsies live made me a jealous - I live as part of a community, but I don’t live in a community. Once you see the difference it’s easy to understand why they resisted the council’s offer of limited, scattered council housing. If someone wanted to move you away from everyone and everything you knew and loved, you’d resist too.

Enough about cultural differences – what’s really exciting on Dale Farm is how thoroughly they’re overcome. The activists are spread throughout the campsite, but their main HQ, nicknamed camp constant, has a lovely kitchen and campfire around which activists and gypsies gather together to chat, eat and get a little tipsy in the evening. When we arrived there people were sorting themselves into groups and finding roles. My role was that of a medic. I was not entirely happy about this. I’ve done action medic training but, as a wimp, I’ve conspicuously avoided using it before. I got together with a few more experienced action medics and brushed up on the finer points of keeping people alive until I felt a bit more relaxed about the whole thing.

Many of the gypsies opened their homes to the activists but some of us slept in tents dotted round the site ready for the big day. We were expecting the eviction to begin as early as 8 AM so the morning was filled with activity – building barricades, scouting the perimeter, playing up to or avoiding cameras. I was surprised that, despite the fact they were under siege, I saw the gypsy children being sent off to school like it was any other day.

As I was helping construct one of the barricades one of the women came up to us asking us to help her clear some rubbish from her plot. It was a surreal experience – here she was with the hammer of eviction hanging over her head and she was busily making sure the place was clean and tidy. She was obviously distressed. As we piled the rubbish up she told us that she couldn’t read and write – her three children were the first in her family to be able to do so. Why had the council given them an education only to take it away again? I hadn’t got an answer. “People hate you” isn’t something you want to tell a woman on the verge of tears.

Just after lunchtime a shout went up that the bailiffs were coming. We rushed down to the front gate ready for the worst. Barricades, lock-ons and a massive concrete-filled car called “the beast” were in place ready to deter any potential onslaught. Things were tense but it was a good kind of tension, spirits were high and the scaffolding was filled with activists and gypsies singing, chanting slogans and ready to resist.

The bailiffs, flanked by cops (who are, of course, neutral and only there to keep the peace), arrived at the gate. Despite the council’s £18m budget they appeared to have bought themselves a megaphone from Toys R Us. They warbled something vague about health and safety then asked us if we’d like to fuck off quietly so that it didn’t cost them too much more money. We politely declined their offer.

To everyone’s surprise the bailiffs then wandered dejectedly back to their own compound. The firm, Constant & Co, has a reputation for nasty, violent evictions, and they specialize in providing solutions to what they terrifyingly refer to as “the gypsy problem”. Constant & Co even designed their website so it’s one of the first to come up when you type the word “pikey” into Google. They are, without doubt, an unalloyed armada of cunts.

Once the unstoppable force of bigotry having met with the immovable object of health and safety legislation, everything calmed down for an hour or two. Then a huge cheer went up. The fog of war being what it is I spent a good five minutes running around like a circus giraffe before I heard the good news – a last minute high court injunction had forestalled the eviction for at least a few more days. The mood was jubilant, the sound system was pumping and gypsy and activist alike were going cheerfully mental.

The next night there was a huge meeting between everyone on site. The solidarity between the gypsies and activists was incredible. The main debate was about whether to open the gate. Many activists thought it was a bad idea, but all agreed that the final decision belonged to the gypsies. “But we don’t want to be forcing you to do anything” opined one gypsy woman “the last thing we want is someone ringing up the Sun and saying we’re keeping you all here as slaves” she continued to the laughter of all. Our side was equally concerned that we might not be wanted there. “Don’t be silly” one of the gypsies responded “ye’re the best comrades we could ever have.”.

The main point I’m trying to make is this: come to Dale Farm. You’ll be doing something amazing and you’ll have an amazing time doing it. It’s about half an hour out of London on the train – Liverpool Street to Wickford. Call 07961 854023 or 07583621312 once you’re on your way to arrange a lift. Piece of piss. If you could bring some spare cups or cutlery that would be nice, but the most important thing to bring is yourself.

The eviction could begin again as early as Friday afternoon, but my educated guess is that it will begin either Saturday or Monday morning. But whenever you come, and however long you come for, it will be awesome. I hope I’ll see you there.


More info:

Dalefarm.wordpress.com

http://mattpearson.org/2011/09/19/what-does-dale-farm-teach-us-about-ourselves/ - brilliant blog dispelling many of the myths about Dale Farm.

Post-script:

Late Tuesday night an odd man turned up, on his own, and immediately made us all suspiscious. He spun an almost believable story about being a kayak instructor from Canada. I sat with him for an hour to suss him out and try to work out if we had a situation – these things are very delicate, as you don’t want to go accusing people who might be genuinely be well meaning outsiders of being undercover cunts. He told us he was staying for the next four days, but by morning we were pretty certain he was one of the baddies and we walked him off site. The clincher was when I asked to borrow his phone, with the intention of checking his messages, and he pretended not to have one. Naturally, you can never be sure, and we were all a little concerned we might have done the wrong thing.

Luckily, on this occasion, we can be sure as the twat in question went on to pen this barely readable puddle of bile in The Sun. Naturally, it’s filled with venom and bullshit and conveniently forgets how utterly fucking inept the "journalist" in question was at his job. If you can bare to feel your eyes boil at its acrid prose, you might like to have a read. Or, if you want a real treat, you might prefer to inject fermented rat shit straight into your retinas. It’s your call.

The main thrust of his verbal shit sculpture is that there is a gulf between the activists and the gypsies. This is true - we come from different communities, different backgrounds, different worlds. That is why it is amazing and inspirational to see the two groups working together in respect and solidarity. In the hour I spent talking to Nick I spoke a lot about how intertwined the two communities had become. Shame he did not deign to put that in his shit-rag of a newspaper.

Post-post script: After we rumbled him it was generally agreed he was probably an undercover bailiff as he seemed too thick to be a journalist. Now we know he works for the Sun, everything makes sense.

The prison blogs will return next week. Ta for your patience.