My Romani gypsy great-grandfather was charged with being drunk in possession of a horse and cart in 1907 when he was 18. I laughed last week when I found the article in the British newspaper archives and sent it round to family members.
We joked about who had inherited his genes and I found out about their memories of him as a kind grandfather with a stash of stale biscuits.
I didn’t think much about Romani-police relations until I read this article in the Independent this week: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/met-police-to-face-racism-probe-after-secret-online-facebook-page-filled-with-abusive-comments-discovered-10399244.html. It exposes police racism on social media against ‘gypsies’ and ‘travellers’.
When I read it I had already started writing a post about James and his wife Sarah-Ann, and how they were the first in a long line of Romani blood to settle. They changed the course of our family’s history, so much so that our culture and history are mysterious even to many of us within the family. I wondered what their motivations were after a lifetime of travelling and living in caravans (the wonder of old census records). The plot thickens when I learn that they also changed their surname around this time.
Whatever the motivations, the outcome is that 80 years later we, like many Roms, are indistinguishable from ‘mainstream’ society. Some of us are more likely to be told a joke about gypsies than we are to experience first-hand discrimination. Maybe we even tell them. How ironic that descendants of Romani blood are probably contributing to this prejudice when they may only be assimilated into mainstream society because of a want by their ancestors to avoid such prejudice. I am merely speculating, but you get my point.
And it really is prejudice. This follow-up Guardian article about gypsy police officers http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jul/21/gypsy-roma-traveller-police-officers-band-together-beat-prejudice, that follows the finding of racist posts by police on social media, highlights how many of them do not even feel that they can ‘come out’ as Romani. I should point out here that many ethnic minority police officers do not have the privilege of non-disclosure when it comes to their ethnicity, and that racism in the police (and society more broadly) is certainly not reserved for ‘gypsies’. I need hardly mention Stephen Lawrence.
I think that this exposure is really important and that individuals should be held accountable for their actions (such as being drunk in charge of a horse and cart!). Example posts that have been reported include:
“If you don’t live in a caravan, claim dole, have four aliases, convictions for theft of scrap metal, and are an artisan driveway landscaper then sorry chap, you’re not a proper Pikey no matter how many teas you’ve had from a baked bean can.”
Well that counts me out then. And here was me thinking it was all about the beans. Maybe that’s why my family changed their name from Beaney to something a little more inconspicuous. I digress…
For me, the danger is in focusing in on police wrongdoing and blurring the wider context within which these comments were written. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is going on when these types of attitudes are so prevalent. We are not talking about a few rotten apples; it’s a rotten barrel, and it goes far beyond the police. Campsites and pubs even explicitly advertise that ‘travellers’ are not welcome and Harlow has even taken out an injunction to ‘protect’ 454 pieces of land from camping http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11449118/Traveller-sites-banned-from-entire-town-as-High-Court-issues-unprecedented-injunction.html. Local Tory MP Mr Halfon even said “The announcement is a major step forward to ridding our town of this blight once and for all”.
Sometimes I find it hard to believe that we are living in 2015 and not 1865. Speaking of 1865 (which happens to be 2 years after James’ father, my great great grandfather, was born) I found an article about ‘gipsies’ in the Kentish Gazette from the 10th October that reports on the harvesting of hops near Rye. The article talks about a group of ‘gipsies’ that the author came across who may well have been my ancestors.
“These Zingari (gypsies) were anything but steady in their habits and decidedly obnoxious in their conversation”. You’ve got to admire the language. It’s certainly more elegant than a recent Urban Dictionary entry for the term gypsy: “Being a gypsy c*** gives me the right to steal anything unless it is nailed down”.
1865 was a different time, but it’s still hard to imagine my family being gazed upon and written about as if they were animals, or an extension of the hop harvest. Or at least I would like to think that it’s hard to imagine. As I said in a previous post (What’s in a name? Gypsy), just google the word ‘gypsy’ and there’s a whole wealth of people who, just like the mid-nineteenth century reporter, want to air their negativity. And it’s still a popular pastime nearly two centuries on.
No wonder some leapt out of the rotten barrel of prejudice and slipped into ‘mainstream’ society.