The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will further criminalise so-called ‘unauthorised encampments’, increasing repression of Gyspies, Travellers, and Roma people. Charlotte Powell interviewed Luke Smith about the impact of the bill, the fightback in the #KilltheBill coalition, and prospects for the future if the bill passes. Luke Smith is the founder of GRTsocialists.
The anti-GRT elements of the policing bill follow on from Tory policy plans announced during the 2019 elections. Can you describe a bit about what GRT oppression has looked like up to this point?
Oppression of Gypsies and Travellers overlaps with oppression of Roma people, but there are differences. Roma face more problems with immigration enforcement and the Home Office making our lives a misery by deporting people. They go to airports and select people based on the colour of their skin, because Roma are slightly darker than your average European. I’m a Romany Gypsy: our origin is northern India. In the UK there was a lot of mixing between Roma and the nomadic communities native to these Isles, whereas there is a history of racial segregation that they experienced in countries that they settled into, like Romania and the Czech Republic.
Oppression against Gypsies, and Travellers, on the other hand, revolves around the fact that we’re a community that doesn’t fit in with capitalism and previously didn’t fit in with feudalism even – we were the antithesis to the feudal society. We’re not tied to the land, we work for ourselves. We try not to have any masters. To this day, a huge majority of us are self-employed. We posed a threat to feudal society because we weren’t slaving for landowners, and showed people the chance of a better life than serfdom. This threat was identified under Henry VIII, and you can see it in the Egyptian Act of 1530: it essentially said, ‘As long as you give up your ungodly and unclean ways, and your thieving (a racial trope which goes back to the mediaeval times), if you stop palmistry, and you just work for the aristocrats, like everybody else, we’ll leave you alone.’ And many did settle and leave the nomadic ways behind. But we have lived thousands of years being oppressed everywhere we go, and we survived. Many of our ancestors refused to settle, and then the government created laws allowing the seizure of our assets, which is basically the same as the law Priti Patel’s bringing out in this bill.
What happens now is no different. We would be deported to colonies as punishment, and now the Home Office can deport us to countries we’ve never lived in as immigration enforcement. We would be hanged on the second offence of petty crime, and that disproportionate prejudice for incarceration of GRT people over average offenders still exists. We would suffer pogroms, with people coming to camps to burn us all out, and that still happens today – we get petrol bombs thrown at sites and all sorts. GRT oppression looks like the state sending troops and police to evict us from sites, or violent vigilante mobs. It looks like being chased from county to county. We’re still chased, we’re not allowed to sit on any of the land.
Our oppression today looks like: we die around 12 years younger than average. We have high infant mortality rates. We have the lowest educational attainment. We’re often bullied in schools, called racial slurs. And not only from skinheads or Tommy Robinson: often it’s from teachers, civil servants, nurses, social workers, judges, lawyers, doctors. We’ve experienced medical racism, not only from the Nazis but also in the UK. A lot of families who are still nomadic find it a struggle to register at GP surgeries.
Denying someone somewhere to live is a form of state violence in and of itself. There is a history of forced assimilation which underpinned the Tinker Experiments in Scotland from the 1940s to the ‘80s. Forcibly adopting our children, giving them to non-Gypsy and Traveller families. That oppression is going to be worsened by this bill that’s coming out.
What would this bill change about the oppression of GRT communities?
This bill is going to make that oppression worse mainly for the 15 to 20% of us that are homeless. I call it homelessness, because you might have a roof over your head in the form of a trailer or caravan, but you’re still homeless if you’re being chased from place to place. This bill is proposing that the same people imposing police brutality upon us should have the discretion to seize our goods until criminal proceedings have taken place. Those criminal proceedings can sell those assets and put us in prison for three months, and give us fines of up to £2,500. These are vulnerable families that really can’t afford those impositions. So those people that still live our historic way of life, that we’ve lived for thousands of years, are going to be criminalised out of existence.
If you stop in an area and a police officer thinks you’ve got the intent to reside there – it could be a motorway services, it could be private land – they can seize your vehicles. This used to only apply for groups of five or six vehicles, but under this bill it will be for one, so just one family can now be criminalised. The criminal sentencing is up to three months in prison. If you put the parents in prison, what happens to the children? The children get forcibly assimilated and taken into care.
The solution to homelessness is give people somewhere to bloody live, right? Organisations like GRT Socialists and GRT charities and NGOs have been telling them for years: provide transit sites so people can carry on being nomadic. Allow for negotiated stopping, so they can stop in one area or the next and negotiate with the council over how long to stay, and the council could agree to provide bins and toilets, then nobody is leaving a mess. It’s actually cheaper to do that, but the Tories prefer to tackle these problems through the Home Office and Ministry of Justice Department, through repression. They want us to not exist.
This bill is going to make life even harder for GRT people. It’s going to make it harder to access GP surgeries, when our health outcomes are some of the worst in the country. It’s going to make our kids even harder to educate. It’s going to make running a business even more difficult. And seizing our assets means that people can’t go to work and earn money to feed their family. It also means that people will become conventionally homeless, because they haven’t even got a trailer.
How did GRT Socialists start up?
GRT Socialists started as the Labour GRT campaign. It was a campaign to say to Labour politicians: you’re saying that you’re socialists on your party card. In reality, your socialism is exclusionary, it doesn’t include people like us. I got involved during the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Most of our community are apolitical. We don’t trust any politicians. As I got deeper into the Labour Party, I met loads of people and started learning about trans rights, sex worker rights, about racism against the Black community, about Islamophobia. And I realised we’re all being oppressed: they isolate us and abuse us separately, but in the same ways.
There’s been some terrible stuff on Labour party leaflets. These leaflets are the consent-manufacturing machine for taking away our rights and dehumanising us on that pyramid towards genocide. We’re climbing up that pyramid at lightspeed at the minute, with politicians dehumanising us, calling us vermin, incursions, invasions.
Politicians consistently use bogus talking points, like ‘unauthorised encampments produce rubbish’. That comes from the fact that local authorities are being racially exclusionary and refuse to provide bins to Gypsies and Travellers in their constituencies, even if they’re just roaming through. But it goes deeper than that, because they’re refusing to do it for people on permanent sites as well. They don’t want to talk about the poor access to water on a lot of sites, or the fact that they put sites on old rubbish disposal tips. But they really need to find the courage to do that, because that is the truth: that there are reasons for all these things happening. But it’s easier to use us as a political football because it gains votes without councillors having to pull their finger out.
Through all of this, the Labour Party are being the helpers towards a police state. When the Tories attack minorities like us, they’re taking your rights through the side door. That’s why we’re centre stage in the attacks of this bill, but before you blink, it’s everybody else.
The campaign recently changed its name from ‘Labour GRT’ to ‘GRT Socialists’. What is your relationship to Labour now, given Labour’s terrible record with anti-GRT racism?
I do see it moving away from Labour. I got into electoral politics wanting a better world and wanting better things for my children. I think electoral politics has failed us in such a way that I don’t know if that can ever be repaired. But then Sisters Uncut came along and made this coalition and forced the government into a partial retreat. Marcus Rashford came along, and was more of a leader of the opposition than our leader of the opposition, getting those school meals for people. Then I thought: electoral politics, what’s the point? If I’m going to have to fight within my own party against all these people that hate me and want me to die, who want to bat for landlords over tenants, with 50% or so front-benchers being landlords, where are you going to get the change that’s needed to happen?
I think direct action may be where the answers lie. But I’m new to this. I’m new to abolitionist thinking as well. The police have always abused us, but it wasn’t until I went to university – and that’s rare for my community – that I had time to think about these issues and see how the police are part of the problem. They don’t protect us: this is a mythical lie. They’re here to protect property, not people.
How can the police save us when the police are doing the lion’s share of the abuse? More bobbies on the beat? I don’t want to see more bobbies on the frickin’ beat, I want to see investment in grassroots boxing for my community. I want to see investment in proper housing, proper sites, proper jobs.
How are more charity/NGO-style GRT organisations responding to the police bill?
Pretty well, overall, but I have some issues with these charities. A lot of them don’t contain a lot of GRT individuals. They’re being better recently, since we’ve been holding them to account on their employment practices. There’s been a historic issue where they just employ GRT people at the base roll. They employ them as receptionist workers so they can say they have GRT employees.
My other issue with the charities is that they’re so involved with the state. It’s very difficult for them to criticise the Tories without jeopardising their funding. And they’re very involved with the police, while the community is at odds with the police just by existing. The idea that you can cosy up to the police and have serving officers on your board whilst being an advocate for GRT rights is completely contradictory. I think this sort of racism is inherent in the police service. You can’t work within a system that’s so far gone, and then say, ‘Oh, we’ve got the Gypsy and Traveller Police Association.’ Those individuals might be from our community but the state is still going to make them enforce pogroms on us. It’s like a black police officer at a riot or a vigil beating black women.
Representation politics, identity politics, this seeps into liberal politics, saying ‘I can do no wrong, because I’m from that community.’ If you’re from my community, and your politics is clapped, you’re still not going to help our community. Selling out your community is not progress.
What future do you see for the fightback against GRT oppression after this bill passes or is defeated? Do you think it will be tied to whatever happens to the broader KTB movement, or once again be a separate struggle with erratic support from other parts of the left?
I’ll never separate from the fight for trans people, the fight for sex workers or the fight for women. I wouldn’t ever turn my back on that movement, regardless of how it turns out. I’ve learned too much about the oppression of people, now I could never shut that box and just be like, let’s go back to defeatism.
But I don’t think we have a future in this country. I’m at the point now where I’m basically panic-swinging back at the state. I think the writing’s on the wall for a lot of families, that they are going to lose their children. I think the bill will pass and people will lose their lives over it. I’ve got to a point where I think we’re going to be defeated, but I’m going to fight anyway. I think there’s no saving us at this point, but I’m going to try. I’m not telling everybody that because I want people to fight for us. Just to say that somebody said something, when we look back in 100 years’ time, and our community is devastated and destroyed. I just want people to say that there were people that stood there with us. People like my family have lived in wagons with horses nomadically for probably thousands of years. And it’s the end of a long chapter of survival.
What I want to know is what’s going to happen when our community starts swinging back. When they start taking our children, what happens when we start getting violent back? Because when you start taking children away from poor families, they haven’t got anything to lose. You’ve taken their dignity. You’ve taken everything from them.
Do you think the Kill the Bill movement will change the relationship between GRT organising and the left?
A lot more people are looking out for each other now: I will defend sex workers till my dying breath, I’ll defend trans people to my dying breath, I’ll defend black people to my dying breath. So I’m ‘joining the party’ you could say. Because we’re all minorities, but eventually we’re all going to become the majority and they’re going to have bitten off more than they can chew. Their greed is going to bite them in the ass because they’re not paying for enough police to defend them from what’s potentially coming. They won’t have enough police to defend them, they won’t have enough tanks, guns or whatever. I’m not saying I’m taking part in it, but we’re facing a point where there’s going to be massive unrest sooner or later, just because of the concentration of wealth at the top.
You meet people, and it gives you a little bit of hope. That’s what keeps me going. And in this moment everything’s heightened: the kind of fear of what could happen is so much but also the hope in this coalition.
I never felt more safe in an area than when I was with Sisters Uncut and everyone else at a protest. We were surrounded by police who could kick off at any point, but that feeling of solidarity was overwhelming. It kind of felt like this is what it feels like to be human. Everybody looking out for each other, not letting the police beat everyone. I never had that feeling before, the Labour Party never gave me that. Whereas in direct action, I feel a lot more powerful, as weird as that sounds.
There’s something very human about protest. You’re coming together, you’re working together. And it’s the least capitalist thing, because you’re not abusing each other. You’re not going after people. You’re just trying to accept people for who they are. And they’re accepting you for who you are. In that moment, you’re outside of the system. And you’re like, shit, this is what it feels like. This is what it feels like to not be alone. And in the struggle.