It was a terrible thing. It had pranced and preened in front of the press, and it was dutifully followed by the knives of the UK tabloids and the truth-pinching of some of the broadsheets, and the beastliness of the local paper, the Basildon Echo. And, as the residents of Dale Farm walked with wrenching dignity away from their homes, the mindset which evicted them was still trying to hold centre stage.
You could see the mindset, as you walked out of the UK's largest traveller site, down the ranks of riot police and the lines of bailiffs, some of them shoving their cameras into the faces of the elderly as they tried to make their way through the gauntlet. You could hear it, in the triumphant speeches of the local councillors, who were standing, arms folded, at the entrance. But you could not feel it, not inside that procession, with the Dale Farm supporters linking arms in the middle, surrounded by a protective ring of residents who were walking, heads held high, in silence, into an unknown future.
You would not have guessed, from the mass of press jostling for position in front of them, that the image which would be used by almost every mainstream outlet the next day would be an anodyne shot of a group of people walking towards a camera in the sun. It was Thursday 20th October when the mindset which had set out to evict the residents of Dale Farm finally got what it wanted, among scenes to make humans weep. And shortly afterwards it stripped off to reveal itself not as just racism, or ethnic cleansing - of course not - but a financial scam. After years of telling the taxpayer that this was going to cost us fictional and unexplained millions, Basildon Council leader Tony Ball confirmed that this was, actually, a land grab. "We will be pursuing the costs so at least some public money can be recovered, and we would say that includes land" he said. (1) You pay your money; Basildon Council end up with the prize.
And the residents of Dale Farm end up homeless. "They're travellers, so why don't they travel?" quite intelligent people are still asking, bustling past the tasering, the tears, the riot police; the shame of it. It seems it needs repeating: the residents, like most travellers in the UK, have nowhere legal to go. Ever since the then Home Secretary Michael Howard removed the duty on councils to provide suitable stopping sites, thousands of families have been doomed to live perpetually on the move. "They were offered alternative accomodation" is one of the main lies about the Dale Farm residents: a very few were offered temporary housing. "They were offered alternative land" lies Richard Littlejohn in the Sun: the council had been offered land by the Homes and Communities Agency but had rejected it and withdrawn from further discussion.
Ten years ago the residents of Dale Farm had tried to break the Conservative curse by buying a deserted old scrapyard and transforming it into a site for mobile caravans. Around half had planning permission; the rest did not. It was on these grounds that the eviction went ahead - "but does this look like a planning issue to you?" asked a supporter at the site on Wednesday. In front of him the riot police were changing shift. Two helicopters droned overhead. Collapsed walls and fences testified to the police invasion that morning when, before it got light, they broke through a back fence with a battering ram, tasering two of the site's supporters in the process.
The Dale Farm residents are mainly women - their men often die young and, for the older generation particularly, their men were the people with driving licences. Many of them cannot, therefore, physically travel. It was the women and children who suffered most when the police smashed their way down through the site, ignoring the open gates and the open pathway. One was taken to hospital with a "crush fracture" of a vertebrae: when she came back she had the hospital report to prove it. There were "claims" that residents had been hurt, the broadsheets had reported. "A minor back injury" the tabloids had confirmed. "My wife's back is broken and you did it" her tormented husband was saying later, to the lines of unmoving police. "How would you feel?" The police who, in between their inhuman orders, had been as decent as they were allowed to be, stayed silent. "I will never ever forget the children screaming" said a legal observer, a former teacher. "There are some things you don't forget".
The tabloids have reported that the police were met with bricks and other missiles, after which they tasered people; in fact the sequence was almost precisely the other way round. "But the protestors didn't expect the police to come round the back" chortled the Mail. The supporters, who had helped the residents blockade the front gate, had not expected it. Evictions are legally meant to be led by bailiffs, not by riot police, which is why someone who builds an illegal extension has not, up until now, had to fear being electrocuted in his own back garden. In this case the police were, they said, concerned that people were stockpiling weapons: bricks were mentioned. "Yes, look around" said another supporter. "These are weapons - cunningly disguised weapons, built in the form of walls, admittedly".
But there were bricks lying around all over the site and, halfway through Wednesday, the riot police marching through were met by about ten of them; the flashpoint, apart from the adrenalin left over from the morning, remained unclear. There had been no violence for the month that the supporters had been there, or before. In this case, as tensions ratcheted up, and screams could be heard from the front gate, a few masked boys seemed to be responsible: the police, behind full body shields, looked untroubled, and the main danger was for anyone standing nearby. "Lads, lads" expostulated one of the residents. "Stop this; you're doing no-one any good". They stopped.
Much has been made over the mixture of supporters and residents. Both have been demonised - the residents "all have houses in Ireland"; they are thieves, dole-scroungers, and bad neighbours. In the face of this, Roxy Freeman, a Dale Farm resident writing in the Guardian, was ready to believe a poll on the Sky news website on Wednesday, which seemed to show that 90 percent of the people supported the eviction. She was not alone, but the fact that only ten people may have voted in the poll (no figures are given) does not seem to have crossed anyone's mind. "What's going on there, what's happening to those people is disgusting"; a neighbour had said that morning. "We think it's wrong, anyway" she had added, defiantly. "I don't understand it" one of the local taxi-drivers had said. "Why are they doing this? I pick up from there, no problem".
Meanwhile the supporters were violent extremists, professional protestors, privileged rich kids and dole-scroungers, univited and dangerous. In fact, most of them were young; the rest were parents, nurses, academics: some had supported other human rights causes for which, one supposes, they can be blamed. "We invited you here" a Dale Farm resident was saying to them, in the emergency meeting on Thursday afternoon. "We've lived with ye, and we've grown to love ye like family. You have done all this for us and we can't bear to see you hurt anymore. We've bonded with ye, and we'll never forget what you've done for us. But it's time for this to stop".