Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Dale Farm: Ethnic Cleansing in the UK

How close does a film have to come to 1930s  Nazi propaganda before it becomes appropriate to draw that comparison, without causing offence? I don't know, but I do know that watching last night's Dispatches programme on Channel 4 about the Traveller community at Dale Farm made me feel extremely uncomfortable and reminded me of nothing more than those vicious and ultimately successful attempts to demonise an entire population of 'undesirables'. Propaganda usually betrays itself by the sin of omission: it is what the film did not say and did not ask which proves without doubt the intention of its makers.

The local council (Basildon, Essex) is trying to evict a community of Travellers who, they say, do not have planning permission to occupy the land which they own and keep their trailers there. The council say this is because it is Green Belt land which no one should be allowed to use for this purpose. This is very strange, since the land was originally concreted over by the council themselves many years before, when the land was allowed to be used as a scrapyard by its previous owner. Here is Ray Bocking, the man who sold his scrapyard to the Travellers, explaining the history of the site:

Clearly, the land is a brownfield site, but curiously, last night's Dispatches film failed to mention any of this. For a film purporting to investigate the issues, this is extremely odd. They also failed to ask the most obvious question of all: why does the council refuse planning permission for Travellers to park their trailers and live on a site which was previously a scrapyard? Surely the council would have been delighted to explain exactly why they are happy for Dale Farm to be used for disposing of cars for scrap metal but not happy for a community of Travellers, having bought it, to live on it in their non-scrap-metal caravans? Even the United Nations has criticised Basildon Council's position and called for the evictions to be halted, whilst the UK government has blocked attempts at mediation. This is nothing to do with protecting Green Belt land, nor is it about interpretations of the law: it is simply a matter of what is right or wrong.

The film's glaring refusal to ask this most obvious of questions, or even to mention that the site had been a scrapyard, clarifies its real intention: to justify Basildon Council's ethnic cleansing of an unpopular group of people. The Dispatches film did everything it could to feed anti-Traveller prejudices, which are already ubiquitous. The film insinuated that Travellers generally were prone to criminal and anti-social behaviour, even though many of the examples they used to illustrate this had nothing to do with the particular community at Dale Farm. The narrator even interviewed a police officer about criminality among Travellers but waved away his very reasonable attempts to bring some balance and nuance to the discussion.

It is not only TV news and documentaries that spew poisonous propaganda about unpopular minorities, of course. The Daily Mail was up to its usual game today, with absolutely no regard for facts, totally inventing a quote from a friend of mine who is at Dale Farm to show solidarity with the community there.  

As far as most people in Britain are concerned, Travellers are anti-social criminals. Full stop. This is precisely what most non-Jewish people thought about Jews in the 19th century. Anti-Semitism was rife then and Jews tended to live in inner-city immigrant ghettos such as the East End of London, where crime was also high. The same attitudes prevailed towards black and Irish immigrants in the 1950s through until very recent times. Thankfully, few people today can get away with making sweeping generalisations about the 'black community' being prone to criminality, even though many people still think that way and the fact remains that crime is always higher in poor areas, where ethnic minorities tend to live.

What is most worrying is that there is absolutely no taboo on stereotyping and defaming Travellers. They are seen as fair game and it is open season all year round. It only takes a single member of the Travelling community to commit a crime and everyone seems happy to see that as part of a general tendency towards criminality in everyone labelled as a Traveller. Anti-Traveller sentiment covers a wide spectrum. I have otherwise intelligent liberal-minded lefties telling me that Travellers are homophobic, misogynistic, traditionalists who have nothing in common with us more enlightened folk, although they wouldn't describe Muslims in the same terms. I don't know for sure but if this is true of some of them, to some degree, I find it ironic that Conservative Basildon Council is trying to evict such natural Tory voters, who must have a lot in common with their neighbours there in Essex.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are undoubtedly those who see Travellers as sub-human vermin, to be expelled or even eradicated. Films like last night's Dispatches only serve to legitimise the most extreme hatred. Anti-Semitism started simply as unchallenged day-to-day prejudice which became received wisdom, the logical conclusion of which was the Holocaust. It is no coincidence at all that European gypsies were also among those groups exterminated by the Nazis during World War Two, suffering a quarter of a million deaths - proportionately more than any other group except the Jews. We seem to be taking our first small steps down the same path here today, at Dale Farm. That path leads eventually to Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. Gypsies have travelled it before, when they were forced to wear black badges, whilst the Jews wore yellow.

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