Two weeks after the CPS announced that it would not prosecute a Sussex bonfire society for burning a caravan bearing effigies of a Gypsy family and the number plate ‘P1KEY’, activists have decided to form their own Gypsy Bonfire Society to inform people about anti-Gypsy racism.
Twelve members of the Firle Bonfire Society were arrested last October, but the CPS decided that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a prosecution for incitement to racial hatred. Many in Britain’s 300,000-strong Gypsy community believe that the decision will send the message that racism against Gypsies is acceptable. Barrie Taylor, chairman of the National Romani Gypsy and Traveller Alliance (NRGTA), said: ‘The burning of Gypsy effigies is just one step removed from burning us for real and there’s a real danger that, by not prosecuting, people could be encouraged to put their fantasy into practice.’
The NRGTA has now established its own Gypsy Bonfire Society to actively participate in this year’s Sussex bonfire season. The Society hopes to attend every major bonfire celebration in the region and use the events to inform the public about why last year’s effigy-burning at Firle was so offensive. It will also hold a major celebration of its own, at an as yet unspecificed location.
The NRGTA is calling on supporters and other anti-racist organisations to come forward to assist in reversing the undercurrent of racism at Sussex’s bonfire celebrations. The bonfire tradition has an obvious association with hostility to Catholics, due to its historical origins. But the NRGTA says that if blatant anti-Gypsy sentiment can become acceptable, then other groups of perceived outsiders could easily be targeted.
‘We won’t be aiming to spoil the party’, said Basil Burton of the NRGTA. ‘The supporters of bonfire claim that it is not a racist movement and that it does not stoke up religious hatred against Catholics or racial hatred against Gypsies. This year, as we attempt to visibly join them in celebrations, we will be attempting to test that.’
The Firle Bonfire Society has denied that there was any racial intent behind its actions at last year’s celebrations.