Removing the Bite from Brother Malcolm

I wrote this as a response to a recent piece I read in the Guardian.

“Things get blurry” – Spike Lee on working on Malcolm X

Spike Lee set out to adapt the autobiography of Malcolm X to the big screen which might explain why it misses out so much of his later life.  But given this, it is not hard to see why the film has been called ‘the second assassination of Malcolm X’ and why it is one of Spike Lee’s most conventional films.  Either way a movie can only serve as an introduction to a subject and if this is yours there is going to be a great over-emphasis on the ‘Big Red’ phase.  Thus posing the danger that you might not appreciate Malcolm’s international thrust and could easily fall prey to the insinuation that his killing was just a bunch of black folks falling out.  The film contained some powerful scenes, like the dictionary scene, but the film wasn’t powerful.  And this despite not having to totally rely on Warner Brothers because Afro-American celebrities put up much money; the racism of Hollywood is as real now as it was in the early 1990s.

If you look into the history you will find that numerous scripts for a film version of Malcolm’s life have been written and turned down by Hollywood, including one by James Baldwin, so why was 1992 the right moment?  There can be little denying that the movie aimed to commercialise Malcolm X with tee-shirts, hats, and memorabilia all pre-ordained.  Spike Lee set out to please Hollywood with the film, to make an epic and gain some degree of acceptance, but in terms of awards and nominations he didn’t succeed.  Despite Warner Brother’s expectations for swells of an angry black audience dollar, upping the security on opening night in New York, the film faded quite quickly from memory because it wasn’t controversial or epic enough.  Some very sharp questions were left out on numerous dynamics, including on the Nation of Islam and Minister Farrakhan, possibly due to Spike Lee’s personal connection to them.  We know that Spike bowed to pressure over sex scenes in the film; so what of other, more potent, alterations? 

When reviewing the film we need to bring up issues it left out and why they were left out.  It’s not simply about time constraints in a 202 minute film or money.  With the life and legacy Malcolm X left behind it wasn’t good enough to simply do a run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbuster; attempting to institutionalise a ‘dangerous figure’ (to middle class whites and non-whites alike).  The narrative is contemporary and alive.  Malcolm X was one of the first to radically criticise the media in addition to the political system to such a significant audience and this needed to come across.  I wasn’t looking for answers to the assassination but I didn’t want to see Spike Lee turn Malcolm X into an institutionalised poster boy like the watered down version of Martin Luther King Jr we are fed.

The flaws of Spike Lee in this film come through most poignantly when a white girl asks Malcolm, ‘what can I do?’ and he replies, ‘nothing’.  Spike Lee opens up this dialogue without closing it.  Whereas in his autobiography Malcolm follows through saying he wishes he knew where she was so he could go apologise.  As a result it is clear that Spike Lee is on a racial thrill ride for Hollywood.  It strikes me that those who knew Malcolm X knew he wasn’t perfect but it was the manner in which he tackled the situations he found himself in and questioned his own understandings.  Similarly, Malcolm X wasn’t simply travelling to African countries as some tourist might but meeting with the revolutionary leaders in those countries and talking with them at length; discussing various issues including Israel/Palestine.  These details are missing in abundance.  Because art is propaganda Spike Lee maintains the propaganda of middle-America.

The film was politically and economically mandated by Hollywood and the bottom line is that the film has nothing to do with reality but everything to do with what middle-America want to say about Malcolm X.  Malcolm X was a revolutionary and as a result his ideas were not easy to assimilate, certainly not for a Hollywood production.  I would’ve liked to see a film that concentrated on the periods of transition in Malcolm’s life not a neat highlight reel of compartments; ‘Big Red’, finding Islam, and political assassination.  In a time when globalisation is popularly criticised it would’ve been good to hear Malcolm’s ideas of internationalism as much as his ideas on racism.  But an Afro-American cannot be so complex surely, certainly not on screen. 

So the question for me is, if a film adaptation of Malcolm X’s life was made today would it still miss so many interesting and powerful parts of his narrative and his lasting impact?



It’s Logical: Times Are A-Changing

Ten years ago it wasn’t planes hitting buildings that made it hard to separate Islam from terrorism.  It was the deliberate formulation by politicians and an obedient corporate media following the doctrine of shock that told us Muslims equal terror.  Those that opposed the cries for war and sought to layer a dialogue for non-violence were easily dismissed and side-lined; in some cases alternative voices were never even considered let alone heard.  Since then some journalists have reconsidered their earlier work and backtracked but most of the mob have sought to maintain the cross-party line; subtly and explicitly Muslims equal terror.  Today there are token column inches noting contributions from Islamic people and cultures, but as with the business of sexualising girls-women, and increasingly boys-men, such tokenism serves only to maintain an illusion of fairness.

In such a context it is often hard to see the stars for the clouds, to know where fresh and meaningful voices will arise from.

As is normal the strongest voices come from the oppressed, not from elite journalistic mediators or their government bosses.  The most articulate voices are not from the confines of an academic page or within the walls of parliamentary aristocracy; meaningful voices rise up from an oppressed people using a magical combination of art, performance and politics.  Step forward Logic, step forward Lowkey.  The beats, the lyrics and the crowd all played their part in accomplishing more in a single night than most lecturers-students or corporate media-consumers achieve over years.  There was a sense of purpose and direction, of strength in diversity; combinations not permitted in the mainstream rush to fit into a middle class bubble.  Some might say that at the end of the day this was a hip hop gig complete with screaming groupies and moody hip hop heads…  Bullshit was it.  Although it indeed contained industry elements of cool and hard-hitting, conversations were being brought up in a central Southampton nightclub that are near impossible to have in other contexts. 

Logic and Lowkey didn’t bang on out Israel/Palestine all night, it was all in context, but for this writing the subject simply highlights a shift in dialogue more easily.  When I was regularly going to hip hop nights Israel/Palestine was a subject that would never have come up, a simple as-salaam alaikum might’ve got you slap as easily as it would’ve been ignored.  Now cats are rapping about jinn and the crowd are joining in like freedom of speech actually exists!  One of the most poignant moments came when Logic performed a remix of ‘Begging You’ and the crowd were singing ‘put your loving arms around Palestine’.  Doesn’t sound quite right does it?  Check the link below to hear what I mean.  The songs aren’t simply a collection of rants but thoughtout polemicals, as is suggested by the subtle mention of the Chicago School of thought in Lowkey’s ‘Obama-Nation’.

This wasn’t crap protest music; this was a serious hip hop night for serious hip hop heads.  Some great sampling, fantastic beats, timely lyrics, with on-point free-styling to boot.  There was respect to the forebearers of UK hip hop and on the day that Heavy D passed it is good to know how far the artistry has come… And that hip hop isn’t just alive but growing stronger.  Rest assured that the night can be remembered for the music and atmosphere or the political content, but should be remembered for both.  More than this, as I find with all the best things it leaves you wanting to get more involved.  Like a nostalgic reminiscing of a drum’n’bass rave the night reverberated in the chest in more ways than one.  Check out Logic and Lowkey on tour if you get a chance. 

It’s not hard to see why people have said in the past that hip and reggae artists are the people’s journalists.  Clearly Islam does not equate to violence.  Clearly there is strength in diversity.

Times are changing.  This is the UK.  This is hip hop.


Logic – ‘Begging You’ (remix):

Logic was the highlight for me:

Happy Days in Mixed Britannia

“Mixed-race children make up one of the fastest growing ethnic minorities in the UK”

–       George Alagiah, Mixed Britannia

That is a heavily loaded sentence with many assumptions; let’s break it down George.

‘Mixed-race’ is something of a dodgy term to say the least.  To me it sounds like ‘a mixing of species’ rather than loving relationships between people.  The traditions of the terminology make this clearer: Australoid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid.  In more everyday racism, these categories probably equate to something like chavs, chinks, natives and niggers, not people and inferior.  Some people try to be more considerate and talk about ‘cultures’ rather than ‘race’, all they are really doing is alluding to a taught racism.  ‘Genomics’ (genetics since the mapping of DNA) continues the ‘race’ debate scientifically acknowledging that there is a socially constructed basis but insisting that the 0.01% of DNA relating to skin colour can contain all the difference imaginable due to ‘bio-geographical ancestry groups’.  ‘Bio-geographical ancestry groups’ are categorised as Africans, Asians, Europeans… hold on I’ve heard this one before, haven’t I Sir Francis (founder of eugenics) Galton!  But ‘bio-geographical ancestry groupings’ have proven to be unreliable, bringing out similarities between ‘races’ rather than historical realities.  As biology proves there is often more in common amongst the mythological categories of ‘race’ than between them.  Just as ‘race’ is socially constructed so too is ‘mixed-race’.

Rather than enabling those not conforming to the tick boxes of statistical analysis to perhaps become a metaphor for the multicultural experience we all share, George encourages a neat label complete with tagline; ‘the fastest growing ethnic minority’.  Those of the civil rights movement such as Walter Rodney, Malcolm X and Stokeley Carmichael recognised that the power system decides who is ‘white’ and who is not (generally if you can trace both parents ancestors back to Western Europe you are accepted as ‘white’).  George is part of that power system, of course he is, rather than investigate how these particular people experience the world and define themselves he sets the framework and marches them into a tick box.  George the narrator could have taken a back seat and asked more open-ended questions in the hope of discovery instead of searching for a sense of comfort.  And how very comforting it was; the parents of these minorities helped us maintain our colonial power over global trade and helped us win the war; God Save The Queen!  Again Walter Rodney predicted that a non-white selected elite would help dominate the ‘natives’ in the UK and in the former colonies, and he was right, wasn’t he George?  We can see it in our councils, our ‘race development officers’, our police forces, parliament and the former colonies.

Tick boxes deny the diversity of experiences people go through, simplifying an entire lifecycle to something altogether alien.  In middle school I hung out with children whose parents were first generation migrants from India and Pakistan, we played at the Adventure Playground and ate together.  I did not see myself as any different.  At secondary school I hung out with ‘white’ boys from another area altogether, we played sports and ate in each other’s houses.  I didn’t see myself as any different.  As I left school I started hanging out with some boys whose parents were second generation migrants from the West Indies, like two of my grandparents; we played much basketball together and ate in each other’s homes.  Again I didn’t see myself as any different.  I’ve worked a variety of jobs, from those that needed little training to those in professional settings, I’ve completed two degrees and in no environment did I understand myself as significantly different from anyone else.  I learned from these experiences that not only are we all so similar but we all share a capacity for racism and can challenge ourselves both subtly and explicitly.  I’m not the only person that can negotiate social barriers, there are similar comments from people in Mixed Britannia but these are never expanded upon.  All this reminds me of Janie in Zora Heale Hurston’s 1930’s banned black feminist novel, Their eyes were watching God, who didn’t realise she was different from the ‘white’ children until she was photographed at the age of six.  She exclaims, “Aw, aw!  Ah’m coloured!”

There are some very beautiful moments in the Mixed Britannia series and archive the footage is a pleasure to see.  Likewise some of the historical details teach us much.  The second episode was stronger than the first but George has already given the impression that everything is gravy today.  Hence he will totally miss the issue of class difference and concentrate seemingly exclusively on the middle classes, or it’s aspirants.  Similarly he appeases the notion of the nuclear family; those that are not otherwise would be in ‘happy’ families if it were not due to external factors far beyond their control.  All this is perhaps summed up best when George hails D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms as a marker of changing views, forgetting Griffith’s other film Birth of a Nation that holds the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.  But the common thread running throughout is the familiar question, “Where do you come from?  Where do you really come from?”  As if I cannot be from England because I have a different skin tone.  I must not have the similar problems and joys as ‘white’ people, I must be a ‘minority’.


Rebellious? Media Conference

The organisers and the performers deserve to be congratulated for putting on this long overdue event because the line up commanded attention depsite nobody taking a fee.  Orginally it was to be named ‘Radical Media Conference’ but due to technicalities the event was renamed ‘rebellious’.  Either way there were few moments of radicalism or rebelliousness, although there were indications and moments towards such adjectives; and this is not me simply wishing for more.  As has proven true in other cases the smaller workshops were always going to be a lot better than the massive plenaries when the opportunity for fringe events was missed to make way for the ‘Almighty Chomsky & Albert Show’.  In the opening plenary there was much mutual masturbation by the duo and little on the media.  Bad organisation also contributed to this becoming comical as the duo couldn’t hear the audience but attempted to an answer along a theme they half imagined.  I was happy to get out of the hall and get into the workshops.

I attended the ‘Mind the Gap’ workshop which was about how to fill the gap left by the corporate media. The workshop made it clear to me that the paramount concern of the conference was to network with like-minded media people. In hindsight this workshop was perhaps a bad choice on my side; I found little room for ideas that I wanted to contribute and a general belief that the way forward was to centralise alternative media and seemingly to mirror the existing mainstream. These are not the ways forward I seek to engage because if the internet has taught me anything it’s that accessing original, different and diverse sources is an irresistible benefit. Despite this the session did reveal a few publications that I want to look into further including the Manchester Mule and the Salford Star. For the final seminar of the day I attended the feminism forum organised by The F-Word. The all-female panel seemed quite a good mix of educated and middle class perspectives from southern England.  I also appreciated the brief discussion on the role of males in feminist thought and action; I felt Laurie Penny almost hit a nail on the head when she said all-female spaces really are a red-herring.  Indeed if all-women spaces can be valuable than so too can all-male spaces, highlighting that it is not such spaces in themselves that are useful but their purpose and meaning.  During this session I had a phone-call from a female friend in Indonesia who once said to me, “I ain’t no fucking feminist, all they do is write and discuss theory.  I am taking action.”  This fits nicely with Laurie Penny’s acknowledgement that those who write about feminism often represent the ‘hive vagina’.  I would’ve liked to have heard some recognition of the return to biological determinism within the corporate media but again there were a number of links worth following up.

On Sunday I went to the forum on alternative voices from ‘the riots’ this was a focused and well organised session; probably worthy of the trip in itself.  A number of young people talked about their experiences of the riots, their interpretations of mainstream media as well as their analysis of the causes.  They expressed themselves in a variety of ways, including using video and poetry.  This was the ‘rebellious media’ I was looking for, not mirroring the current inadequacies but finding common ground with others and allowing their own expression to be the media.  Concerns of those close to events were raised, not mediated through some elite journalist with a decontextualised catchphrase.  This is what a radical media conference should look like as voices from the heart of relevant issues command centre stage while networking and organising follow.  I didn’t need to hear the repeated words of Chomsky and the fantastical theories of Michael Albert, they did say some better things in the final plenary but it wasn’t essential for me.

Some more mutual masturbation occurred in the final plenary, this time with some crowd participation, as people hailed a ‘successful’ and ‘nice’ conference.  When venues for events like this consistently take place in universities and Friends Meeting Houses friendly middle class voices will continue to dominate, whether they come from men or women, white or non-white.  I would love to see these events take place in community centres and to stop panels of academics and professionals dominating affairs.  Mix it up from the status quo and place academics and professionals alongside the youths of the riots and black feminists.  Neither do we need American dominance taking main stage; the UK has a wealth of expertise with greater analytical depth that is directly relevant (as Chomsky acknowledged).  Regardless of my opinion, most obviously there were two things missing from this ‘Rebellious Media Conference’; representatives from Wikileaks and Anonymous. I never even heard these two groups mentioned in passing and wondered if I was missing some aspect of alternative media politricks that served to exclude them.  Anonymous and Wikileaks have had a massive impact in the relatively short time that they have been around, and certainly fill the ‘rebellious’ quality.

Of course if my name was Noam Chomsky or Michael Albert I’m sure my criticism would be consumed much more easily or even swallowed whole.  Thankfully I do not wish this; I prefer the idea of ‘critecon’ (promoting a far more diverse critical economy).


A few groups worth checking;

Partnering Ayo Indonesia in Ruteng

Twisting from Bajawa to Ruteng, along, around and over the mountain range, in some places the road in so good its as if when the landscape was formed it came complete with tarmac. In other places nature is belittling human effort to control the land by tossing boulders as if they are pebbles; around one hairpin we have to dodge a fresh rock that is bigger than the 4×4 we are in. We will spend the next four days partnering Ayo Indonesia who has a packed schedule in store. Since they begun their work they have listened to communities and together negotiated strategies forward; from agriculture and roads to advocacy and education.

At the Ayo Indnesia office they have recalled field staff and invited people from local organisations, including Indonesia’s national family planning organisation; there are over twentyfive community activists. One of the women immediately asks Inna why she does this work focusing on abortion. Sometimes this could be a principled ‘why’ as in ‘how dare you’, at other times it is a ‘why’ of passing curiosity. It is always a question that deserves a succinct answer because since 2009 women having abortions and those avocating on abortion face a fifteen year jail sentence. Conversation then goes from sex and gender to contraception rights and informed choices. Inna is explaining that women not only have a right to contraception but a right to know the related side effects and an option to refuse. In the past Indonesia’s national family planning organisation has provided contraception without telling people of the side effects, not only breaking some medical principles but endangering women’s bodies and relationships. The representative today reacts to by talking about the culture of Flores and Manggari, how if women were informed many would refuse to use contraception. Inna responds by suggesting that its not simply about chucking information at people but how they are informed and also explaining coping strategies. I had a conversation with one women whose mother suffered from heavy bleeding for over twentyfive years, nobody knew that she had a intrauterine device and not even she believed that it was the cause of the heavy bleeding until last year when it was ‘discovered’ and removed. At the end, as always, people are asking for more information and copies of presentations.

Over one hundred nuns look after a sparkling building, six nuns look after almost two hundred orphans, the logic isn’t in the distance…

Later that day we are taken to an orphanage where some one hundred and fifty children, many with visual, hearing and speaking disabilities, are awaiting us. There isn’t time to work in smaller groups and we must sieze the opportunity. ‘Salamat sore’ [good afternoon] I say, ‘salamat sore’ they roar back. The concert has begun. So that those with physical disabilities are included from the beginning I suggested doing a few brief Shakti exercises and when it comes to describing the the female reproductive system I had the idea for everyone to touch their own eyes (ovaries), follow the eyebrows (fallopian tubes), down the nose (cervix) to the nostrils (vagina). Perhaps I am not the first to have this idea but I am happy to see so many children doing the actions; the idea for the male reproductive system was certainly less original! We do workshops with four or five big groups of children at schools, orphanages and nunneries. The children are invariably split into groups, asked to think of changes during puberty, and then to feedback in front of everyone. At times these moments are like concerts with someone coyly saying ‘menstruation’ followed by houls of laughter and Inna cheekily asking ‘what did they say’ getting more and more to shout ‘menstruation’; it is and excellent to watch as permission is granted to say taboo words and discuss subjects, for some, for the first time. At other times these moments are like politcal rallies with everybody listening with great intensity and taking notes as Inna writes a keyword.

Ayo Indonesia also take us to do a workshop with one of the villages that they have worked with. Over twenty villagers greet us; the older they are the darker they are, from all those years under the sun in the fields I guess. We are treated to an organic lunch fresh from their labour. There are also eight students from a nearby college doing a two month field study in the village. Its hot under the tin roof and I go out for a break. Quickly the students have followed me and I feel guilty because I assume they want to practice English. They introduce themselves and we chat and then I ask them why they left the workshop, was it not interesting. They embarrasingly reply that ‘too many taboo words are being used’. I ask what words but none want to say. Having met so many children over the past few days that have really embraced the opportunity to discuss these topics it is suprising to hear this from people in thier early twenties. I say lets go back in and they gradually follow as Inna is explaining about cervix exminations and breast examinations. I can tell they are uncomfortable throughout. At the end of the four days in Ruteng Inna tells me we have met over fourhundred people!

Conservative nuns, good nuns, nice nuns, polite nuns. Don’t think none, don’t talk none, don’t see none…

I, like Inna and Ayo Indonesia, appreciate the satellite workshops as an opportunity not just to present information to others but to learn from communities about sexuality and reproduction. We know that we cannot rely on governments to meet our daily needs or to save us in times of crisis. Only by listening to each other and being willing to take on projects together, with or without government assistance, can we find solutions to the problems we face. These people are too busy for protesting; they are living their lives, not demanding to be told how to live.


On Their Black History Month

I write from a specific personal history and a precise place. Of course I do, everyone does. I’m from a single-parent family, just my mum and five children, growing up on council estates in a small city. Despite living in the ‘black area’ I went to a different school from everybody else and found myself to be the only ‘non-white’ sitting in the classroom. Both, the all so English white children at school and the all so English ‘non-white’ children after school would often take me to task over whether I considered myself ‘white’ or ‘black’. Perhaps I thought this was a result of where I lived and where I went to school rather than my parentage, but either way I learned from an early age that such questions contained a great deal of bullshit and were irrelevant to me. Still every time there was a nameless African, Asian or some Other in a textbook at school, childish voices would call out, ‘Martin, is that a relation?’ The teachers did nothing, it was so normal that years later at university when people told me that there was no racism at their schools it was hard to see them as anything but stupid. Racism was normal back then, and yet our memories know it wasn’t acceptable. Today inequality and racism have increased rather than decreased; a strange twist sees only our memories acknowledge an inappropriate acceptability of racism that grows evermore unchecked.

Today, when reports reveal that the police stop to harass non-whites as much as twenty-six times more often than the 85% of the population with a lighter skin tone (and Hampshire is one of the worst areas), nobody cares. Senior (black) police officers and (black) equality officers come forth suggesting that their own stats are wrong, yet they maintain increased policing in ‘black areas’. When they go onto suggest that such statistics are just the outcome of too much paperwork (a ridiculous proposition not because I love paperwork) I know that their colour means nothing to me and that their position does even less to protect me. When I say to them that we have witnessed the return of Swamp 81 stop and search tactics, that caused so much harassment and tensions to rise into riots before, they seem to hold back laughter. Their position matters little to me, their concerns are not mine, and they are not interested in protection. Partly this is their own self-indulgence and partly this is the success of a system that has largely succeeded in segregating us along religious, ethnic and gender lines. During the eighties workshops explained what such different starting points had in common in terms of colonialism, art and oppression; links were forged. Today Muslims have a problem with ‘Islamophobia’, Afro-Caribbean people have a problem with prison, and we all have a problem with the Polish; the issues are divided and not even theory is allowed to unite them.

While first generation migrants of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are stereotyped as keeping their heads down and trying to fit into the system later generations forced their way into the system, but for what? So they could stifle the voices opposing institutional and everyday racism? So they could commercialise the concerns of people struggling to live in the face of adversity? It has been said before that that the greatest problem with the anti-racist movement today is that we have lost so many excellent and respected voices to institutionalisation; the voices that could precisely make the links between the Toxteth and Brixton of 1981/1985 and London thirty years later, in 2011 and beyond. The voices we need to hear speak about unreliable and divisive journalism of riots thirty years ago and those today. While we all share in this loss there are some weird statistics to go alongside; there are less non-white councillors than there were thirty years ago; perhaps suggesting that that old guard are consolidating and holding onto their positions (it doesn’t really suggest this but it’s what I think). So when reports are revealing that there are more black people in prison in the UK, proportionately, than in America (who have more black people under lock and key than during slavery), I say to the old guard speak up or make way.

Black History Month, like Notting Hill carnival, was an achievement that came from struggle. The impetus came from the supplementary schools movement when parents wanted to stop feeding their children Eurocentric versions of history; classes were formed to combat racism, teach relevant history and to positively discuss non-European accomplishments. It was their achievement that they are right to reminisce but time has come to stop listening to their pacifying voices and start building towards such an achievement of our own. The month is sometimes criticised for being the one time to bring in the ‘black’ pound, highlighting the point that it a light-hearted moment devoid of the meaningful struggle. I think we are witnessing this most vividly this October in Southampton’s Black History Month when there is nothing on the Black Panthers despite the month coinciding with the 45th year since they were formed, and we see nothing discussing riots. But the thing that becomes clear from such reminiscing as well as from our everyday lives is that, despite statistics, colour is of little importance. Yes, colour makes for an easy target for the those in power to harass but if we bypass the politician’s and the corporate media’s system of classification we can see that there is more that ties us together than divides us. We are neither ‘white chavs’, ‘black thugs’, or ‘the aspiring middle class’ so often portrayed. We are all being fucked. Ever since I can remember I have loved the words of one civil rights activist in particular:

“If you’re not careful, the newspaper will have you hating the
people who are being oppressed and loving the people doing the
oppressing” – Malcolm X


Dale Farm: Big Brother 12

It’s eviction day on Dale Farm. Nobody seems capable of stopping it and worse than this, most parties seem to be gearing up for a big day of confrontation. Activists and the traveller community are prepared to barricade themselves in and use a variety of tactics to keep the bailiffs and authorities at bay for as long as possible. The media has prepared helicopters and towers, while some journalists will report from within the barricades others will be safely tucked out of harms way in a ‘green zone’ courtesy of the authorities. The whole affair has become a spectacle just like the Channel 4 television series, Big Brother, but reality is a lot harsher than ‘reality television’. Although the media do not play a twenty-four hour live feed from Dale Farm they could. Everyone could then speculate on the next turn of events; who will be arrested first and who will be evicted last. If fires and fights come to pass we might just have this kind of coverage but if the bailiffs and authorities decide to wait things out perhaps the media will lose interest and coverage will be cut just like Big Brother. In any event there can be no real winner, it is not a game show and surely we have all lost.

I spent just over twenty-four hours at Dale Farm this weekend and the atmosphere was totally different from the one I experienced nine months earlier. The fear of eviction seemed to have sunk into anger and despair: a sense of the inevitable. Many families were moving their most valuable possessions to areas safe from bailiffs, this left many plots of land empty; void of the life I saw last December when I was so warmly invited into people’s homes. The camp of people supporting the resident community, Camp Constant, has grown with tensions running high as people organise for the eviction day. Activists and residents work together to build barricades, discuss tactics, keep watch, and communicate with medical and legal teams off-site. They are united in a paranoia of unknown faces but this is something that plagues much of England. The environment is quite a sight and looks like a natural disaster has hit the community with broken furniture in piles and homes reduced to their shells. Amongst all this, a stream of media people never ceases to try and gain access to those caught up in events; it’s hard not to see them as anything but vultures preying on distress and misery but when times are hard any lines of help are welcome.

I would like to have stayed longer and got more involved but it was hard to find a meaningful role and make sense of a situation that sometimes seems certain to turn violent. Watching as families make hard decisions about what they could and could not take in the hurry to get valuables out of the reach of bailiffs and wondering how many will return. I am indifferent about how I could help. When families return to defend their bare plots of land, with only graffiti slogans for decoration, it might amount to only a weak protest; truly a sign that they are a part of the British community as the rest of us. Like anyone else in their situation, they deserve to have people at their sides in the event that their homes are taken from them. At other times spirits were lifted and people were wondering how long they could fend off the evictors, either way the conclusion was the same; people get arrested and families are forced out of their homes. It seems to me that the situation has been dichotomised; either you’re for or against, either you’re right or wrong. I’m not happy with such clear-cut distinctions but it’s hard not to think in these terms when the outcome seems so certain; the travellers will be evicted no matter if they own the land or not, no matter if it costs taxpayers more to force them to move than to allow them to remain, no matter if the United Nations and human rights organisations back them up or not.

On Saturday night some off the travellers decided to construct a brick wall on the legal side of the land, right where the bailiffs planned to come in on their newly built road. This feeble wall was on the land that had been granted building permission and so was permitted, so it might present an interesting legal issue that forces the bailiffs to relay their road. Or perhaps the bailiffs will simply demolish it with some legal reasoning; the law is there for them after all. Either way it illustrates my point that this unjust eviction is creating more barriers, racism and damage than it can ever possibly resolve. I spent Sunday stationed at the main gate telling journalists that they weren’t allowed to enter without prior appointments. It didn’t seem fair to be telling people they couldn’t enter but the residents and supporters had agreed that there was still much work to be done and so journalists should be kept out of the way. Still, a few journalists were allowed onto the traveller’s land and I found myself escorting one around to meet families. I facilitated a positive interview but I don’t know the extent to which I trust the condescendingly nice words of a journalist trying to get a story. I also had the opportunity to talk with a senior police officer, a bronze commander, who was insistent that he was there to protect people, but when I asked him just whom he was protecting in this instance he couldn’t answer.

Now I am at home watching the comedy unfold on the news. One moment the High Court has dismissed an appeal, the next they have told Basildon Council that they cannot touch the site until a hearing on Friday. It is good to see that confusion and misunderstanding don’t only rule supreme within Dale Farm and amongst the media but also at ‘higher’ echelons of society. A few things remain crystal clear; the travellers own the land, planning permission is a poor excuse to evict families from their homes and all parties are still gearing up to a day on confrontation… The candlelight flickers as much as ever.


Dale Farm: A first meeting with gypsies

I wrote this late in 2010, things are coming to a head and I am about to return.

In London a few weeks ago I heard of a place called Dale Farm, just a few miles east of the M25. Apparently a group of ‘travelling’ gypsies, after legally being told to settle somewhere, had purchased this isolated piece of land in Essex. The gypsies had lived there for a very long time but were now about to be evicted from their homes, at the cost of millions to the taxpayer. Immediately a plan hatched to go and meet the people, to talk with them and see what they needed or wanted.

I arrived late, just as darkness was about to fall. The final five minutes takes me down a narrow single and pot-filled country lane with a few houses on it. Turning onto Dale Farm I am immediately struck by such an ordinary residential scene; kids playing in yards with council issued bins stood to attention at the front of well organised homes. There are caravans but most homes seem well established spacious shallots with small gardens and driveways. On the walk from the car a few dogs came to inspect me but they were tame, friendly and pleasant. I thought of the stereotype of gypsy dogs and thought of Bali where they are more like creatures of the living dead; two stereotypes that didn’t fit. This place clearly wasn’t a council estate, a country village or a suburban complex; this was another unique place in England with its own distinctive feel.

We had told Marion we would be late and she answered the door with her gorgeous great-granddaughter in hand. “Are you Martin? Come in, come in” her thick Irish accent coming over loud and clear. It all seemed too easy for a meeting of strangers, bearing in mind she’s expecting to be evicted. Marion calls out for her daughter so that we can talk more easily, even though the great-grandchild hardly makes a sound throughout our stay. Her home is immaculate, fashionable and well designed, matching rugs and sofas, everything colour coordinated (magnolia?) with a 28-inch television in the corner, complete with digital set-up. I must have seen eight large decorations or Jesus Christ before sitting down. The place was so clean I felt underdressed and like I was a messing up the front room but Marion just got on with chatting. When one of her grandchildren walked in she immediately set to fixing us a coffee. Having peered into some of the other homes this layout seemed by no means unique.

Marion and her daughter told us about the history of Dale Farm, the community of gypsies, and their family. She remained understandably reserved on some subjects because she was frightened of being evicted this was especially so with issues relating to the community. Dale Farm had been a big scrap yard, not ‘greenbelt’ by any stretch of the imagination, until the 1970s when they had taken the opportunity to purchase the land. It had taken two years to clean and clear the land; to make it liveable. The community had built and supplied all the amenities themselves; cess pits, electricity, running water. Basildon Council had done nothing although settled life eventually provided some benefits; while Marion and her daughter were largely illiterate her grandchildren had attended the local schools. Marion was Irish but all her children had been born in the UK and are British citizens.

A few months ago another settled gypsy community near Hoverfield was evicted from their homes, which were then bulldozed. The threat is real. This is England not some distant place like Jerusalem. Although like the Palestinians these people are happy in their homes and simply want to remain. As the red tape gets tighter petitioning and protesting won’t cut it, and this is a community that understand that such things never helped them anyway. Luckily some of us, like the gypsies themselves, are dynamic enough not to be taped in by bureaucratic pen pushers. Marion’s grandson walks in, he’s in the furniture business and plans to go to some clubland island like Tenerife for Christmas; all so normal.

There was one funny story Marion told us. Essex County Council had paid for the construction of a community hall right in the middle of Dale Farm. It is used as a youth club, to hold church services and as a storage space. Basildon Council were not pleased with this, they after all are the main instigators willing to spend over £10million to evict some two hundred children, men and women from their homes and livelihoods. Why? Because they are ‘Irish’; because they are ‘travellers’; because they are ‘gypsies’. Racism that’s why. You’ve heard it before but when Marion said it last night it somehow sounded more poetic, “all feel pain if ye tooth pains ya, we are no different.”

(To be clear; they own the land, over a thousand people live there but around two hundred are being threatened with eviction because of planning permission, even though all homes are mobile. It’s just an excuse to divide the community and at the end of day is an unjust racist programme. No realistic alternative is being provided).