Archive | June, 2012

Gypsies and Travellers – A tale of two events

26 Jun

I was going to focus purely on the Time To Think Seminar I was invited to by Sussex Police with two women telling us about their life and how it is to be respectively an Irish Traveller and a Gypsy. Stories of terrible discrimination and downright cruelty. Bullying, tolerated by teachers. Refusals to allow travellers to register with a GP. A refusal by every community and their local government to provide sites, so forced into houses where neighbours complain about the noise, visitors, parking. The early mortality, difficulty with accessing education and the resulting literacy issues, the hostility and fear that Gypsies and Travellers experience binding their community ever closer and ever more defensive of each other and their cultures and customs.But a continual fight to get any positive messages about Gypsies and Travellers occurs everywhere. Last year, representatives from the Gypsy community went to the Cenotaph to remember the Gypsy war dead, wearing the medals won by their families. Even there, where we remember a terrible war and the genocide of many, including Gypsies by the Nazi regime, they experienced abuse and harrassment.In the shadow of a terrible grief, more grief befalls Gypsies. I am not going to pretend I understand people’s fear and that behaviour on that day. To me, it is shameful and I condemn the hypocrisy and ignorance.

I remember going to the meeting organised by Mike Weatherly MP in Patcham about Council plans to extend the transit site. I fully understood the main thread of the complaints, about the plans to extend on the Downs, about the fact that other areas could be used and I quite believe that many of those objecting would have objected whoever the residential site was intending to house. There were issues about infrastructure which, in fairness, most developments raise questions about. I was impressed with the Chairing even though I had felt sick with anxiety about the meeting beforehand.

There was a contingent of people which represent a lot of the prejudice of the ‘settled population’ towards Gypsies and Travellers, which was born out by the life experiences of the two women who spoke today: A constant reference to the dirt, rubbish, urination, faeces in example after example of objection to having Gypsies and Travellers in the area. Viscerol words which express and convey disgust, less than humanity and a permission to hate. I know people will holler at me ‘ITS TRUE..YOU SHOULD SEE THIS PARK’ etc etc. You know what is my truth, I have seen a young man pee in the bushes in the childrens section of my local park before hopping over the wall and getting a bus. He wasn’t a Gypsy or a Traveller. I challenge any of you who troll me on this, to get up early on a Summer Sunday and patrol the streets of the city centre and our beach if you believe that urination, defecation in public space is a Gypsy/ Traveller thing. I will come with you if you like!? We can also tread carefully through the vomit and spit that also are splattered over the pavements. Those are our friends, neighbours, family and communities creating that mess.

When I first became Diversity Lead on Sussex Police Authority and discussed Gypsy & Traveller work with family, they told me I was being too idealistic, that SOME are terrible and I should understand that. My response? “Oh tell me about a Traveller experience you have had?” *tumbleweeds* Their answer, INVARIABLY: “Well a friend of mine…[insert own terrifying experience]” here.

I am not a Gypsy or a Traveller but I lived on a boat when a small child, with an even smaller sister. Someone waited until my parents had left the boat to go next door and, then placed gas cannisters either end and blew them up simultaneously with the intent to kill my sister and I. Because, they felt the world would be a better place if we were exterminated. My sister is an Occupational Therapist and I have worked in charities becoming Chief Executive of a national charity prior to having my baby.

I don’t think many, but the truly irredemable would do anything but condenm that man’s actions. To be fair, the villagers where we lived were really truamatised by that action. But my questions for you are:

-Would you have condemned him if he said that since we had been living there crime had risen?

– Would you have believed him if said he had seen me and my sister weeing on the tow-path?

– Would you have believed my teacher if she told you we were problematic and difficult to teach?

– Would you have believed your child’s best friends mum if she blamed an outbreak of nits on me?

– Would you have called me smelly?

– Would you have invited me round to play with your child?

Politicians have failed to tackle these inequalities for decades, because they don’t think you would vote for them if they insisted that Gypsies and Travellers had a site near your home, went to your kids schools, had proper protection from fear and loathing. I believe I live in a better country than that and that the dialogue is being distorted for political gain which is frankly shabby.