Friday, September 23, 2011

hears from #dalefarm - of activism and advocacy


Travelers have never had great support in the UK. Look through history and it isn't long before you see tales of prejudice, hate and mistrust towards a more nomadic approach to life.  
The issue reached the headlines again this week as Dale Farm, and planned evictions. Today the media styled 'battle' for Dale Farm reaches a climax, after a court injunction stopped the bailiffs from acting on Wednesday. 
A friend of mine, Tim Gee, was at Dale Farm on Wednesday so I thought it worth finding out a wee bit more about him, his actions and what benefits he felt they brought:
Could you tell us a wee bit about yourself
Image of Tim Gee
from Guardian Comment is Free
I’m an activist, an author and a blogger. I’ve spent the last month dividing my time between my home in London and the Dale Farm traveler site in Essex.   
Why did you head over to Dale Farm?
Initially I went out simply to find out more. But on meeting with residents there it quickly became clear that a plain injustice is being threatened. People from one of the most discriminated-against groups in the country have bought a bit of land on a scrapyard to live with their community – but still the Council wants to move them on. As a poignant sign near the entrance reads: if not on a scrapyard then where?
What was the atmosphere like?

I’d say the atmosphere on the plot where the supporters are staying is one of determination. All of the supporters are there to make their contribution towards preventing a very immediate tangible wrong from being done. Most are willing to take admirable personal risks for the cause. But there is also a spirit of assistance for one another to learn new skills, to prepare psychologically for the potential horror of what may come, and a growing understanding between the residents and supporters on the site, forged through solidarity. Have you ever been involved in 'traveller' activism/defence before?
No I haven’t – I’ve mostly been involved in environmental stuff. There is an interesting link here though: arguably it was when travelers camped on the site of the proposed road over Twyford Down in 1992 that the bottom-up part of the environmental direct action movement really got started.       
Were the media labeled 'activists' people who had traveled in or part of the traveller community?
What is special about Dale Farm is the unprecedented solidarity from members of the settled community who constitute the majority of activists and supporters on site. The biggest in terms of physical bodies on site is Camp Constant – a base for Civil Disobediants and Legal Observers which has similarities with the Climate Camp in terms of the decision-making, food, structures and so on.

Then there are a number of NGO and CSOs including the Gypsy Council, PAD and the Irish Traveler Movement of Britain which I believe have people born into both the settled and the traveling communities involved.   
How were 'outsiders' helping, rather than antagonising a tense situation?
Every decision made by activists is led by the wishes of residents. Activists were invited by residents and if a majority or consensus wanted the supporters to go the activists would go. On the council’s stated eviction date last Monday many of us accompanied brave residents in their homes who would otherwise have been alone as the bailiffs approached. But in the event, the defenses were so well built that the bailiffs were not even able to breach the perimeter.   
You’re a poster boy for Quakerism this year - did your Quaker beliefs influence your attendance and/or your response to the situation
Quakers are often asked questions like that and often find it hard to respond. It isn’t that Quaker beliefs influence me one way or another, but that I try to live my life a certain way and being a Quaker is part of that. Having said that there were certainly aspects of the shape of the struggle that correspond with Quaker methods - including consensus decision making and nonviolent resistance, but I was only aware of two or three other supporters there having Quaker connections.
 What would you see a 'just' solution to the situation being?
Dale Farm travelers being able to keep their homes. Proper pitches being supplied by councils across the country. A decrease in the shocking racism that prevails against travellers. And more understanding between the settled and traveling communities to resolve those tensions that remain.  
Finally, you have a book called ' Counterpower' coming out in the Autumn, covering people’s ownership of power - if you had to write a brief item on what you saw/experienced at Dale Farm - what Counterpower did you see in action?What I saw at Dale Farm marked a change from protest to resistance. For months and years people have pleaded with the council and the courts, yet the system continued to discriminate against Dale Farm residents. On Monday a different method was tried. Blockades were built, people wore arm lock-ons and a woman chained her neck to the front gate. This is people claiming power and defying the authorities. As the television cameras reported live, the court system for once found in the residents’ favour, granting a temporary reprieve. It was only a small victory, but also a rare one - perhaps an indicator of the beginning of a wider rebalancing.

Tactically I see this as comparable to the Roads Protests in the 1990s. Almost all of the large protest sites were eventually evicted and the highways built. But as protesters claimed power, a wider societal shift took place and 77 proposed roads were scrapped. I don’t know if Dale Farm will live or not. I hope that it will. But to win the wider battle for human rights for the traveller community may take many more such confrontations. But I think with the attention Dale Farm is getting, things are beginning to change already.   
Pre- publication copies of Tim Gee’s book ‘Counterpower: Making Change Happen’ are available in the New Internationalist shop (http://shop.newint.org/uk/counter-power.html) 


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