Gypsies’ big fat struggle for justice

Gypsies’ big fat struggle for justice


Written by: Harmit Athwal

Gypsies living in Meriden have been under sustained attack from the local community and the media since 2010. This pattern is being repeated across the UK as Gypsy and Traveller communities fight to preserve their way of life.

Meriden is a small village in the Midlands between Solihull and Coventry. In May 2010 ten Romany Gypsy families moved on to a site that was purchased legally and immediately their troubles began. The families submitted an application for planning permission to develop the land but this was refused and they are now awaiting the result of an appeal hearing due to take place on 22 March. Currently there is an enforcement notice against the site.

Over recent years, Gypsy and Traveller communities have experienced increasing difficulties in accessing sites that should be provided by local councils but which invariably are not. This has led to situations where families purchase land quite legally and properly and then run in to problems with local authority planning departments. The ongoing campaign (by mainly Irish Travellers) at Dale Farm is a clear example of this.

Meriden Gypsies under attack

The Daily Express and Daily Mail and other sections of the media have reported extensively on the ‘plight’ of local Meriden residents who oppose the proximity of the Gypsies, but no one has reported on how the Gypsy families feel about their treatment. IRR News spoke to one of the families living on the site about the ongoing racism that they have experienced in the last eight months – as they have faced the 24-hour ongoing ‘peaceful’ protests at the entrance to their site by local residents who have formed the Meriden Residents Against Inappropriate Development. The protestors, according to a spokesperson for the English Romany Gypsy Society, who wanted the other side of the story told, sit around drinking all day and act very aggressively towards the Gypsy families on the site. The group has also installed a caravan on privately owned ground, across the road from the site, which has not been subject to any enforcement notice. ‘There are two laws, one for them and one for us,’ he ruefully told IRR News.

He listed numerous incidents which have been recorded by those on the site including:

  • A man was urinating in broad daylight over a fence on to the Gypsy site, was reported to police, arrested and then released without charge;
  • Dirt has been tipped on to the road leading to the site to make access difficult;
  • Graffiti declaring ‘Gypsy scum’ has appeared;
  • A woman driving off the site was faced by a man on the protest who flashed a swastika on a piece of paper and then burnt it;
  • Women have been called prostitutes;
  • People on the site are asked ‘how does it feel to be hated as much as you?’;
  • A meeting on 16 January 2011 organised by Meriden Residents Against Inappropriate Development refused to admit local Gypsy campaigner Noah Burton. This meeting was attended by local MP Caroline Spellman and the MEP for the region, both of whom saw nothing unreasonable in keeping out the one person who could express the views of the Gypsies – about whom the meeting had been called.

The spokesperson for the English Romany Gypsy Society told us that incidents had often been reported to police but that they failed to take any action. The group is now considering making formal complaints to the local police for failing to take their allegations seriously and to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Big fat lie?

The media has no doubt played a significant role in demonising the Gypsy and Travelling communities. Right-wing papers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express have run a number of negative stories over the last few months. Furthermore Channel Four’s series of programmes My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding has also focused unwanted attention on these communities. A number of people have phoned the Institute of Race Relations to complain about the gross stereotyping in the programmes. The spokesperson for the English Romany Gypsy Society told the IRR they were ‘full of big, fat stereotypes and caricatures of the Gypsy and Traveller communities’, that they were ‘sensationalist’ and that they were having a detrimental effect. In one local incident a young gypsy girl had been grabbed by a boy at schools as he said, ‘this is what you like’. The makers of the programmes had filmed on the Meriden site for over two weeks, but none of that footage had been used. He wryly remarked it was probably because those on the site were quiet, calm and there was no aggression.

Government proposals

The government has been consulting on new laws that will directly affect families such as those at Meriden and there are proposals to reform planning which would put ‘power back into the hands of the people’. The bill suggests that new provisions will be made for more authorised sites, yet the government intends to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies which set targets for local authorities on the provision of land for Gypsies and Travellers. The bill includes clauses to reduce appeal rights in retrospective planning applications and allow local planning authorities to refuse to consider planning application where enforcement notices have already been issued.

The English Romany Gypsy Society has organised a protest against anti-Gypsy/Traveller racism this weekend from Saturday 26 – Sunday 27 February 2011, from 10am onwards at the Old Palace Yard, Westminster, London SW1P.

Related links

Read an IRR News story: ‘Gypsy and Traveller evictions: Dale Farm odyssey continues’

Read an IRR News story: ‘Playing the Gypsy ‘race card”

Read an IRR News story: ‘Defend the remaining travelling Gypsies and Travellers, and Showmen’

Read an IRR News story:‘Notes on the new Conservative Traveller policy’

Facebook: Dale Farm Solidarity

For further information phone the English Romany Gypsy Society on 07826 465 221.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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