On October 12th, after ten years, the residents of Dale Farm traveller’s site lost their final bid to overturn their eviction, when the High Court refused them the right to appeal the judgement. With every legal option exhausted, it was simply down to the matter of eviction, so I was sent down to cover the unfolding story.
By way of background, the two sides of the story were pretty straightforward. The case for the prosecution had built its argument on the fact that the Dale Farm site was based on Metropolitan Green Belt land so, as such, building and development laws were very strict. No official applications had been made for the homes of the 80 families. The residents had based their defence on the fact that, prior to them moving onto the land, it had been a scrap yard and a Police car pound, not protected land. They argued that the eviction was simply based on a bias against the travelling community.
Whichever was correct, the law came down on the side of Basildon council, and I found myself driving east before dawn on the first day that an eviction attempt could take place. Having visited the site once before for a press conference following an earlier reprieve, it was clear that this really was looking like the end this time. Police and bailiffs had sectioned off large areas around the camp, with secure media parking, staff canteens and toilet facilities, as they prepared for the long week ahead. While I’d been allowed inside on my previous visit, the camp was now very much on lock-down, with only a handful of journalists and photographers who’d invested more time on covering the story allowed inside.
The day cruised by with very little to focus on as the fortified defences were strengthened around the site, and warnings and murals were painted onto the main entrance. By 4pm, it was clear that nothing was going to happen, so I volunteered to return the next day and headed home.
Arriving at 6.15 the next morning, the vibe was very different and it was clear that today was the day. Hundreds of police officers in full riot gear were gathered in the fields and car parks around the site, and the media parking was near-capacity when I pulled up. Thankfully, there were two of us from AFP on shift that day, as I was joined by this year’s “News Photographer of the Year” Carl Court so we had the chance to spread out and cover more angles. With Carl on the front door, I went cross-country and found a different way into the camp. By the time I arrived at the main entrance, the police had already got through the defences and had claimed an area around the scaffold entrance. Tensions were running high as residents argued with police and activists and supporters clashed with riot teams. Bottles and bricks were soon flying through the air. Thankfully, predicting the way it would go, I’d brought my helmet with me so was spared the constant fear of looking to the air for incoming missiles.
With police breaking through the defences at two points, it became harder to locate where the action was, but this was soon cleared up when a small puff of smoke went up. Activists had dragged an empty caravan into the middle of one of the roads and set it alight. While everyone dashed towards the smoke, it quickly became a rather embarrassing situation with photographers and camera crews stacked on top of each other to get the shot. When a woman brought out a crucifix to hold as she stood in front of the blaze, we quickly realised how set up the shot was becoming. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations that members of the media have to face sometimes. While you’re sadly aware of how you’re being led into a picture, you have to shoot it. Those that are unhappy with shooting any staged event during a live news situation will often sadly miss out as the papers want the “big shot” of the day, even it does feel contrived at the time of capture. As an interesting side note, Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori recently released a fascinating but somewhat embarrassing film highlighting how photographers can often “create” the event without having to actually physically set anything up.
With two caravans now simply piles of smouldering plastic and metal, the focus returned to those activists that had built the structure around the main gate. While they were in their “crows nest” above the main gate, police and bailiffs were unable to gain access to remove the military truck and debris that was blocking the access road. After clearing most of the ground around it, the police sent in trained climbers to test the structure. I’m well aware that I may get some criticism for this controversial statement here, but I’m constantly impressed with the police force that we have in this country. While some of the more aggressive activists hurled abuse and rocks at them, they calmly worked out how to get the protesters in the structure down to the ground, without any injury or loss of life. There are so many countries elsewhere in the world where, faced with this problem, the police would have gone in there with an armoured vehicle and just brought the whole thing down. It baffles me how people can scream at these guys, accusing them of brutality when they so clearly are one of the most considered and ordered police forces in the world.
I guess I may have had different feelings if it was my house being threatened, but I like to think that I’d still be able to direct any anger I had at the people responsible. Having said that, the police did use a Taser during the very first stages of entry into the camp which may have been a little over the top, but I guess when you’re faced with signs warning of imminent death, you may end up over-reacting a little.
Once the structure was cleared, the bailiffs entered the site, for the first time, to erect fencing around the newly secured area, and seeing that this would take some time to clear what they now controlled, I spent the rest of the day looking around the site.
With sunlight fading, the bailiffs were called off-site and the police erected security lights. With the light gone, it was my turn to call it a day.
Now that the police had near-total control over the site, Thursday was always going to be less explosive than the previous day. With the gate now secured, it was simply a case of clearing a path and getting on with addressing each of the blockades that had been built. To ease tensions, police teams came onto the site to visit the houses that had been highlighted as legal, by residents, and got the chance to explain that the bailiffs would not be coming roaring onto the site to destroy the buildings today. By now, the residents were clearly just waiting to go and most had packed up their belongings and were passing the time until they could drive away from the site.
Once the police teams had cleared the protesters from under a former Soviet army truck, they moved on to two people who had attached their hands together through a barrel. Sensing that the end of the protest was near, other activists came to say goodbye to them as they left the site, resulting in emotional scenes.
With the “Industrial muncher” (as Sky News called it) tearing the final parts of the defences down, it was time for the residents to finally say goodbye to their home of the last decade. Whatever you think of the travelling community, it must be so hard to see your community split apart like this. It’s a real shame that this could not have been resolved amicably between residents and Basildon Council.
I hope their next site brings them more luck and hopefully, stability.