Why Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities need our support
51 years ago, in April 1971, Romany activists and their supporters gathered in Kent and a stateless nation was born. For the first time in our history, Europe’s Romany people, often referred to as Gypsies, adopted an anthem and a flag, and re-affirmed a steely determination to improve the living conditions of our people.
Friends of the Earth was founded in the same year, and the struggles to preserve biological and social diversity have been intimately linked ever since. Our flag represents the sky we all live under, the earth that sustains us all and the chakra that represents our ancestral connection to India and our ongoing journey.
The policing bill and Romany people
But this April we won’t just be celebrating the gains Romany people have made in being increasingly well-educated and integrated. We will also be redoubling our efforts to defend our culture, because this spring the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill will become law. Part Three of the Bill will bring in sweeping powers to restrict peaceful protest, and Part Four is a direct assault on the traditional way of life of Gypsy and Traveller communities.
When it’s passed, Part Four of the bill will establish a new offence of criminal trespass with "intent to reside", with fines of up to £2,500 along with the seizure of homes and imprisonment. It has huge implications for anyone needing to defend and live on land they may not be fortunate enough to technically own, from eco-activists to Gypsies and Travellers.
At exactly the time when we should all be connecting more deeply with the landscape, the government will have passed legislation allowing the police to rip us from it.
We know that if humanity is to survive many more centuries on planet earth, it must see itself as part of nature, not separate to it. Yet across the world, those very communities that embody a sense of belonging to nature are still being ruthlessly removed from the landscape. On every inhabited continent, communities with an intimate connection to the land are still being harassed, persecuted and marginalized when they should be being cherished. And you don’t need to go as far as the Amazon to find them.
When members of my community, the Romany Gypsy community of Britain, pull onto a piece of land they do not own, we are simply following our way of life as nomads. When we move onto land, we are continuing a journey that started in the Indian sub-continent over 1,000 years ago. For centuries Romany people moved through the landscapes of Europe, Asia and North Africa, bringing the goods and services of the commercial nomad with them. From metalsmithing to horse dealing, entertainment and even fortune telling, we had a symbiotic relationship with the natural and human communities we passed through.
Now, as we park our caravans, we know it’s only a matter of time before they come. Whether it’s the police, bailiffs or vigilantes, we know there will be no welcome. No matter how it’s phrased, the conversation inevitably boils down to the matter of when we will be leaving. The endless cycle of trespass and eviction will begin once again. As soon as we are gone from one place, we know we’ll soon be asked to move on from the next.
Humanity at a crossroads
Today just a small percentage of western European Romany communities still travel, and the 2022 policing bill looks set to end even that last vestige of nomadic life in Britain. Increasingly, many of the arguments for banishing us are often environmental; in planning permission battles, Gypsy caravans are deemed to look detrimental to the places they stop.
We are now judged alien to a landscape we have long been part of. We know the greatest environmental crimes by far aren't committed by the small minority that litter or those that have caravans. From HS2 to roadbuilding schemes, we've long seen that those who legally own land are often its worst custodians. Now that climate change has brought humanity to a crossroads where we must urgently change our ways, perhaps it’s not too late to see that the greatest Romany contribution to human survival is a world view that we are part of the natural world and not superior to it.
So as the policing bill becomes the Police Act, it’s essential that the bonds that have been forged between environmentalists, minority communities and human rights activists are strengthened. Together we can challenge the Bill we couldn’t defeat by seeking to make the most repressive aspects of the Police Act unenforceable.
This April, the broad coalition of civic society that opposed the bill has called a solidarity day to signal its ongoing support of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities as the bill becomes law.
With the challenges to come, we will need allies from across civil society to enjoy and defend our common home.
For more information on "Drive 2 Survive", the Gypsy and Traveller-led campaign against the policing bill, visit www.drive2survive.org.uk