‘I’d Become a Criminal for Living a Nomadic Way of Life’Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities Protest Against New Policing Bill
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill creates a new offence of residing or intending to reside on land with a vehicle
Following the third reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the House of Commons this week, a few hundred members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities gathered on Parliament Square on Wednesday to register their fears that this new legislation will make their way of life illegal.
Organisers Sherrie Smith and Jake Bowers, of campaign group Drive2Survive, said that it was the first protest they had organised. It was attended by GRT groups such as the Traveller Movement, as well as Black Lives Matter organisers and other marginalised groups showing solidarity with GRT people.
Civil rights group Liberty has said that the bill will “enact a direct attack on the way of life for many in these [GRT] communities” as it “creates a new offence of residing or intending to reside on land with a vehicle” and “establishes new vehicle seizure powers”.
John, who described himself as a Romany gypsy, brought his traditional horse and cart along to the protest. He told Byline Times: “With this bill coming in, it would make me a criminal when I’m not. How can I be a criminal for walking on the public highway? They can arrest us and I’d become a criminal for living a nomadic way of life. It isn’t me that needs to change, it’s the law that needs to change.”
A Community Under Attack
The protest comes after rising right-wing media commentary depicting the GRT communities as a problem. Matthew Parris’ recent article in The Times went as far as to say that GRT people should be forced to live sedentary lifestyles because “there is no room for the true nomad in modern Britain”.
While it was not a big demonstration, the protest attracted Labour parliamentarians to speak, including MPs Bell Ribiero-Addy, Zarah Sultana, Andy Slaughter and the former Shadow Attorney-General Shami Chakrabarti.
Representatives from the Green Party, human rights and anti-racist groups also took part. Speakers emphasised the importance of solidarity between different marginalised groups which would be targeted with the new police powers as, by themselves, groups which represent the GRT communities lack numbers and support from the wider public.
“When it comes to this bill, even if they pass it, we have to remember it’s our unity that’s our strength,” Stand Up To Racism’s Weyman Bennet told the crowd. “They may pass their bills, they may do what they like, but we’ve got a chance of defeating them.”
Sultana said that the bill was a “racist, unjust bill which needs to be resisted by every person who calls themselves an anti-racist”. She added that attacks on Travellers reminded her of how “politicians also talk about my community, how Muslims are demonised, refugees and migrants, black people, Jewish people, we are all targeted and scapegoated, we are blamed for problems that aren’t of our making”.
Peter Forest, who attended the protest, said that “we are the canary in the cage, we are the ones who are going to tell you when the gas is coming”. He said that the legislation would allow the police to abuse GRT people, because “instead of just coming up and abusing us with verbal abuse, they can just come up and say ‘we’re taking you’, whereas before they’d have to get a court order against us and having bailiffs come in”.
Alongside the GRT communities were other groups who risk being targeted by the new laws, including a contingent of squatters. Homeless groups have warned that the bill criminalises rough sleeping, allows police to stop protests that cause ‘serious annoyance’, and increases the maximum sentence for damaging statues to 10 years.
With rising rental and property prices in the UK, instead of proposing solutions to the ongoing and worsening housing crisis, the Government’s instinct is to criminalise those people who either choose not to live sedentary lives, or are pushed outside of the housing market by price inflation that benefits older, propertied people who are also more likely to vote Conservative.
Police officers themselves do not even want these new powers. The chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Martin Hewitt, told a parliamentary committee that police leaders think that their current powers are sufficient and that they do not need new powers to seize vehicles and criminalise “residing on land without consent in a vehicle”.
A Long History of Discrimination
Yvonne MacNamara and Jenni Berlin, of the Traveller Movement, said that they had attended the demonstration to show solidarity with other Traveller communities.
“I’m sure Boris Johnson isn’t listening but maybe he can hear some of the racket,” MacNamara told Byline Times. “It’s really important that people use their right to protest, and this bill is going to have a huge impact on our democratic rights. This is about removing people from the land and making sure we all have to live a certain settled lifestyle. The diversity of different communities and nomadism is being killed.”
MacNamara said that she hoped the bill would be challenged in court. However, she expressed concern that new powers could lead to a repeat of the 2011 scenes in Dale Farm, when the largest ever eviction of GRT communities took place.
Dale Farm was one of the biggest Traveller sites in the country, with 1,000 people living there – a far higher number than had been allowed by Basildon Council. When the council moved to evict most of the families, they were met with resistance. The Travellers argued that they had nowhere else to go. The eviction ended with multiple arrests, injuries and cost millions of pounds. However, the council eventually had to allow many evicted families to move to a new site 700 yards away.
The Liberal MP Eric Lubbock proposed the Caravan Sites Act 1968 as a solution to the issue of Travellers camping on private land by mandating that councils make a needs assessment and provide plots of land for Travellers to camp on. Many Conservative councils simply refused to comply with the law and to make any sites available. Eventually, the law was repealed – leading to situations exactly like Dale Farm.
At the end of the protest, John was told by police that he needed to remove his horse and cart from Parliament Square, so off he went – leading a contingent of demonstrators down Millbank, using their right to the public highway. “We are here to cause serious annoyance!”, sang one protestor.
These are communities with ways of life which have been gradually marginalised since the land enclosures of the early modern period. They are communities which were targeted by the Nazis in the Holocaust. What lesson has the Government appeared to learn from this? Not to try to accommodate this minority by identifying sites they can camp on, but to secure a few more votes by seeking to oppress them further.