Alex Bennett attended the Dale Farm evictions as a legal observer. This is his account of the excessive force used to ethnically cleanse the site.
As I watch the two hundred riot police, armed with batons, shields and tasers, come crashing down the hill towards dale farm on Wednesday morning, I’m finding it hard to believe that this multi-million pound operation is not a drugs bust or an anti-terrorism operation. No, this military style assault has been commissioned because of a simple planning permission violation. The fight for this scrap of land, that’s far away from residential areas and almost impossible to access on foot from the nearby town, has somehow taken on a national importance for which it is hard to find parallels.
My fluorescent jacket, giving me legal observer status and a weak claim to immunity between the two sides, began to look pretty useless as the Met’s riot squad began breaking through the site's back fence. It was less than thirty seconds after they entered that a flashing red dot began darting around everyone’s faces. It wasn’t until I noticed a man try and run backwards before falling lifeless to the floor that I realized the flashing light was a taser. This sent everyone, including myself, darting behind the shelter of the first barricade. The one person to try and remain, a small blond girl trying to take notes in her legal observer’s booklet, was immediately threatened with the taser herself. The situation was a surprise to everyone; it was assumed that the bailiffs would enter the front gate to be backed up later by the police. The twenty police vans that were parked a few hundred meters from the back of the camp weren’t noticed until the raid had already begun.
From then on it was clear that the travelers were fighting a losing battle; the makeshift propellants were no match for the numbers and equipment that this experienced group of officers brought with them. One improvised barricade after another fell until the travelers and their supporters were pushed back beyond the scaffolding that made up the sites entrance. The clashes were not one sided by any means; both sides came there with the expectation that there would be violence. But throughout the morning it became clear that some of the officers went beyond what can be called reasonable force in taking control of the site. The tactics that should have been reserved for those actively involved in the clashes were used against those who had no means of getting out of the way or defending themselves.
The first such incident occurred as the police pushed past the first barricade entering one of the few lawful plots that dotted the Dale Farm site. As officers tried to push through the barricade the decision was made to demolish the garden walls of the plot to sidestep the crowd of people keeping police from advancing. As this was taking place a middle aged woman named Nora, who lived on this plot, came out and began shouting at the officers to stop what they were doing. It appeared the police and the council were made aware that this particular structure did have planning permission and wasn’t to be touched; however this didn’t stop Nora taking a baton to the neck from one particularly zealous officer. As Nora fell to the ground she landed on one of the loose bricks from the demolished wall and had to be dragged to a safer area. She eventually had to be stretchered from the site and was unable to walk upon reaching hospital.
It took less than an hour for the police to push back the travelers and activists beyond their defenses, and to reach the scaffolding that marked the front entrance. It was here that a standoff ensued, and in what looked like a last resort one person locked themselves onto the barricade that separated the riot police from the rest of the residential area. As officers crowded forward they were warned that if they proceeded they would break the young man’s arm, which seemed to deter police from pushing forward in the way they had done already.
As I moved forward to stay close to police’s front line, a caravan had been moved into the road and was starting to go up in flames. This was despite an agreement in a camp meeting the night before that fire was not to be used; perhaps the unexpected riot tactics and the heavy force being used had thrown of all this out the window and such tactics were now considered fair game. Soon after this first caravan began to burn out, a second one went up just behind it. This created an effective barricade that made it almost impossible for anyone to move past. Both sides were locked into a standoff that looked like it would hold for the remainder of the day. The travelers and activists would find it impossible to push back against the riot police, who by now had swelled to over two hundred in number, and the police would be unable to push through to the residential areas without the use of extreme force; an unlikely possibility due to the now heavy presence of broadcast media around the front entrance.
By this time it was just gone eight am, and I was approached by two women claiming that the officer who had hit Nora nearly forty minutes ago was at the front of the police lines. As I called the officer over, I noticed that the front of his helmet was obscuring his identification number making it impossible for me to identify him. Once I had made it clear that he had been seen injuring a woman on one of the legal plots, I was met with a very curt denial and a request to leave him alone. After exchanging a few snide words with the women who identified him he disappeared into the sea of riot police, still avoiding my requests to adjust his helmet and take down his identification number.
After this incident I noticed a woman being treated by a volunteer medic, looking to be in her fifties or sixties, she was unable to talk properly and having some trouble breathing. Her name was Mary, and earlier in the morning she had been put into a chokehold by an officer leaving her with a bruised voice box and being unable to talk in anything more than a faint rasping gasp. While I didn’t manage to catch what had sparked this confrontation, as talking more than a few words at a time was extremely difficult for Mary, it’s difficult to imagine anything a woman of her age could do that’s threatening enough to justify such a dangerous tactic.
Things remained largely peaceful after this point; with the only major obstacle to police and bailiffs taking full control being the dozen people occupying the large scaffolding tower at the sites entrance. Considering the hundreds of police and bailiffs that surrounded the tower this seemed like nothing more than a symbolic gesture to delay the inevitable; a final 'fuck you' from Dale Farm to their enemies of the last ten years.
The first thing the police did was to send up the professional climbing team to try and reach the top of the scaffolding. Whether the intention was to negotiate or simply try and force them down is unclear but those in the tower looked like they were planning to hold their position for the long term. Ropes were quickly pulled up and ladders retracted, which prevented the climbers from reaching the tower's summit. While this first push was initially unsuccessful, the climbers started the controversial process of weakening the structure by loosening different areas of the scaffolding. It wasn’t clear why they started to do this, as it looked like a dangerous move to the travelers and activists still occupying the tower as well as to the climbing teams that were strapped on to the scaffolding. The decision to start weakening seemed like a reckless tactic considering the amount of travelers, activists, and police that were going to be on the tower for most of the day.
The rest of the day was largely the drawn out process of removing those who had locked themselves to the base of the tower and trying to remove those locked on to the top. After the unsuccessful first attempt, a platform attached to a crane, dubbed the ‘cherry picker’, was used over several hours to lower officers down. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that police started cutting away at the harnesses keeping people attached to the scaffolding. The travelers and activists were not willing to go down without some resistance; leading to the comical sight of several people slipping away from police and climbing up and down the scaffolding trying to evade capture and extending this last ditch effort to hold on to the site. This quickly changed as police tried to remove a young girl who had attached herself to the tower's middle; for a community that doesn’t seem to want to give too much away to outsiders, her screams and cries to be allowed to stay in the only home she could remember were a fitting reflection of the events of the day.
It’s still not clear whether this is the end of the Dale Farm story; some travelers have clearly stated they are willing to move back on to the site once this process has come to an end. Regardless, the reaction to this eviction has revealed an attitude amongst the public towards travelers that I find very worrying. The empathy that’s normally shown to communities facing similar challenges has turned into scorn, and a belief that this group of Irish travelers ‘deserves what they get’. It’s worth considering whether the upheaval and pain this eviction has caused, not to mention the astronomical bill for the council, is something that we as a supposedly civilized and empathetic society should stand for. Putting aside the legality of the site, these people need somewhere to call home. If there was a legal alternative that kept this community together, Wednesday’s evictions would have some claim to legitimacy. However the ninety percent rejection rate in applications for new traveler’s sites demonstrates these alternatives are simply not there. To borrow the phrase scrawled a fence in Dale Farm; “if not on a scrap yard, then where?”
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