As a volunteer legal observer at Dale Farm my role has been to monitor police and bailiff misconduct against residents and their supporters. There are many reasons why people have chosen to support Dale Farm but I felt compelled to do so because as a mother myself, I cannot justify the senselessness of the state forcing up to 200 children into homelessness for no better reason than planning considerations.
Dale Farm has been covered extensively by the press prior to the ‘eviction day walkout’ when the travellers and protesters, following a forced entry by police, symbolically walked out from the site in a show of solidarity. Frustratingly, it would seem that since the protest ended last Saturday, the mainstream press has wrongly assumed that the Dale Farm story has also come to a close. In fact, the eviction itself is very much continuing. Some live on designated ‘legal’ plots and others simply have nowhere else to go. Control of Dale Farm has largely been handed over to bailiffs and security guards, although there is still a police presence. Basildon Council has imposed virtual media blackout by refusing journalists entry onto the site – only allowing them into their ‘press compound’ – leaving events inside Dale Farm unreported.
Bailiffs are blocking observers from carrying out their activities and even decline them access to the site on ‘health and safety’ grounds despite the fact that the remaining residents and their small children are, for the most part, freely able to wander the site. I myself was three times prevented from filming events; colleagues were threatened with removal and others obstructed from entering for lengthy periods.
‘Heavy-handed and indiscriminate demolition’
Last Saturday (October 22nd) I returned as a legal observer. I was shocked to see that so many of the adult residents showed signs of injury – large bruises and cuts across faces and hands. By this point many (although not all) residents had been served with enforcement notices that they had 48 hours to remove their homes and belongings. Residents were still at various stages in collecting their own belongings and others had sold their chalets and outbuildings. The notice period due to expire the following morning was not honoured and by 11am the bailiffs proceeded with heavy-handed and indiscriminate demolition across the site.
Firstly the chapel was gutted and ripped down. Fences and walls were demolished. Bailiffs dispersed to various properties and began trying doors and windows. Reports came to us from across the site of various actions by bailiffs quicker than legal observers could attend to them. A disabled female resident and her children spoke of being forced out of their home and when observers arrived, their window and front steps had been smashed. By midday there was a visible increase in bailiff and police presence as diggers were brought in to start the demolition which would continue for the rest of the day. Homes and outbuildings were removed or even flattened in front of residents’ eyes whilst they pleaded with bailiffs that arrangements had been made for their collection prior to the enforcement notice’s expiration. At one home the hard-standing surrounding a ‘legal’ structure was eventually demolished, leaving the owner distraught that his home appeared to be cracking and structurally unsafe. One digger proceeded to dig up ground and dump it into the neighbouring (partially legal) plot. From 1pm, contractors with covered faces driving 4×4 vans (licence plates removed) hooked up and drove away several caravans and chalets. Many residents were prevented from going into their properties to collect their belongings. Mothers with their children stood outside the remaining chalets in tears, attempting to comfort each other, whilst their husbands attempted to reason with bailiffs. Throughout the day police refused to intervene despite numerous request by residents and legal observers (including myself) for intervention regarding concerns about bailiffs’ breaches of the law.
I am concerned that current conditions have prohibited even-handed reporting of events at Dale Farm. For example, the female resident widely reported by the media as having a ‘minor back injury’ in fact has a fractured spine as a result of the forced entry of police into Dale Farm. She is forced to wear a large brace across her abdomen, and suffers continued impaired mobility. I believe that it is of vital importance that legal observers and the press be able to continue to do their jobs so as to be able to witness and shine a light onto events as they are truly happening at Dale Farm.
Author: Susannah Mengesha
Susannah is a human rights activist. For the last decade she has worked in the voluntary sector, providing advocacy and advice to vulnerable people