Rowan Fortune says Tory plans to criminalise the culture of Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma are racist and must be opposed by all socialists.
27 December 2019.
In early November 2019, on the build up to a general election, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a consultation on granting new eviction powers to the police, designed specifically to discriminate against Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma. This proposal was then fleshed out in the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto:
We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps. We will give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities. We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.
Behind such law-and-order rhetoric is dog-whistle racism. George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, described the policy as ‘legislative cleansing’ (here).
Damningly, it is unwarranted even on its own terms. As reported by Friends, Families, and Travellers, an organisation that advocates for Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma: ‘The overwhelming majority of police responses to the Government’s 2018 consultation on unauthorised encampments do not want more eviction powers’ (here). FFT point to the fact that a whopping 84% of police responses opposed criminalising unauthorised encampments, and a clear majority of police believe that a ‘lack of site provision was the real problem’.
As Monbiot argues, this is not about preventing real social harm. There already exist laws against activities such as ‘damaging places, leaving litter, and abusing residents’ or any of the countless other false concerns that thinly disguise the intentions behind these plans.
In any case, to use stereotypes and generalisations to justify unwarranted and draconian powers over such a group is a clear example of institutional racism. It must be opposed by anyone of good conscience. This is far from an attempt to address a social problem, to ‘protect our communities’: it is, rather, a flagrant attack on a marginalised culture and way of life.
Monbiot places the implications of the policy within its broader and disturbing historical context:
The consultation acknowledges that there is nowhere else for these communities to go, other than the council house waiting list, which means abandoning the key elements of their culture. During the Conservative purge in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two-thirds of traditional, informal stopping-sites for travellers, some of which had been in use for thousands of years, were sealed off. Then, in 1994, the Criminal Justice Act repealed the duty of local authorities to provide official sites for Roma and Travellers.
As University and College Union GC candidate Dr Jo Edge has written, this is a group of people that already suffers from many misrepresentations and distortions, which should be challenged by government rather than reinforced. Despite common ideas to the contrary, travellers pay council tax and often pay rent to councils; their life expectancy is an unacceptable 50 for women and 55 for men; they are a diverse community; they generally do not claim state benefits; they often pay inflated prices for water and electricity. Already oppressed, they deserve society’s support, not dispossession.
Modernity established its economies on the enclosures. The modern world, like much of the pre-modern, has been consistently set against the nomadic. In consequence, this is a bigotry that has deep and troubling roots in our society.
Because of myths and prejudice, Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma serve as an easy distraction for politicians who have no substantive offers to a society riven by homelessness, hunger, in-work poverty, inequality, and, increasingly, ecological crisis.
The Tories are ‘conservatives’ who conserve neither human life nor the natural world, and therefore find scapegoats for their morally and intellectually bankrupt political tradition. This is the conservativism of fools.
The following model motion should be passed by trade union branches, political party branches, student unions, and other progressive organisations. Let's build a network of resistance to face down this and all other Tory racist attackers. Let us know at Mutiny if your organisation passes the motion.
1. The [PLACEHOLDER] Branch of [PLACEHOLDER] urges our [PLACEHOLDER] to commit unequivocally to opposing any attempt to introduce or implement legislation that discriminates against the culture, existence, or way of life of Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma, irrespective of ethnicity, culture, or background.
2. This includes criminalising unauthorised traveller camps; giving the police additional powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma, and making intentional trespass a criminal offence.
3. We especially urge [PLACEHOLDER] Council to make no use of any ‘greater powers within the planning system’ that are intended to enable discrimination against Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma.
4. We stand in solidarity with all victims of government racism, and commit to do all that we can to impede and oppose a historic prejudice that offends our shared humanity.
We rebuke the attempt to inflame social prejudice against a group that was already victimised by Nazi Germany in what the Romani call the Pharrajimos (the ‘Fragmentation’), which saw the extermination of between 220,000 and 500,000 Romani people.
5. We stand in solidarity with the oppressed, never with the oppressor.