‘A bit of a do-gooder’: Activists, Advocates and other fellow Travellers
In reflection of the 2020 media coverage of the Black Lives Matters movement (BLM), protests across the world following the killing of George Floyd at the knee of the Minneapolis police, has me thinking about my experiences with activism. I admit, I have only dabbled. I have always been impassioned about and enraged by social injustice. I am not shy about giving my opinions in any room. I am an avid enthusiast of the social revolution seen in the sixties and seventies; the hippie fashion alone – sign me up! I sit watching videos of peace protests in NYC and the Women’s Liberations movements in California with heart-faced emoji eyes.
I watch videos of Woodstock and Glastonbury; artists and festival-goers living the ideals of the time – equality for all, free love, peace not war…. at a glance, they appear to be truly liberated in both their behaviour and exhibition of physical markers. There is an observable rejection of conservative, capitalistic, Thatcherite ideals, which is symbolic in the way they dress – not a string of pearls or bra in sight…freedom (if you know, you know).
On a more serious note (one deserving of the topic) whenever I take part in activism; whether it be an anti-xenophobic demonstration outside the Yarlswood detention centre; marching down the Kings parade in Cambridge for Kurdish resistance or protesting outside the L.A. City Hall, demanding divestment from Fossil Fuels, I find myself shrinking into the background. I want to join in with the chanting, the singing, the clapping, but instead I stand there awkward and cringing – I am cringing as I write this, my jumper necks pulled over my mouth, my cheeks are flush. Why do I have this reaction, when I believe so strongly in whatever issue has prompted me to protest?
I think it is partly due to the bad name that activism and activists were given in the official normalized press in the in the sixties and seventies. To be an activist was to be a “slacker” or “vagabond”. Activists were not simply anti-establishment and pro-liberal progress; they were unpatriotic and a danger to “civilised” society (funny how right-wing racist groups like the KKK are not tarred by the same mob). If we look at the press and some of the racist backlash to the current BLM movement, you can frankly, see its focus and intent on portraying protestors as looters or violent – a sly attempt at delegitimizing the BLM movement. I wonder if maybe the mainstream press has rubbed off on me (I suddenly feel slimy…) or it may even be a bit of internalised misogyny, that women should be seen and not heard (ha! I’ll tell the jokes!).
In introspection, I honestly believe it has more to do with cultural norms and my upbringing as a Showman-Traveller. In order to counteract prejudicial views and stereotypes, (all Travellers are vagabonds and itinerant slackers) we are consequently raised with a strong and performative work ethic: “the show must go on”. The normative reaction to conflict of any kind is to “keep your head down”. However, in recent years, particularly in light of the Dispatches: The Truth about Traveller documentary GRT youth have been raising their heads and using their voices to tackle anti-Traveller racism, both in the community and on a national level.
A call to Activism…
I am overwhelmed with pride at the great and courageous work of contemporary generations, but I still find myself asking these questions: why, has avoidance been the default response to handling inequality and discrimination for Travellers? Travellers have and continue to endure injustices – so what led other disadvantaged groups to uprise, and why are Travellers yet to do, so? I will put my academic deerstalker and matching holey UofG hoodie on to Sherlock Homes this yet unsolved mystery – that is dying to be turned into a Sociology thesis!
If we look at the history of global social movements and activist campaigns (e.g., The Indian Independence Movement (IIM) (1920s-1930s), The Black American Civil Rights Movement (BACRM)(1940s-1960s) or The Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement (NICRM) (1960s-1990s), there are common threads running through each, a shared trajectory of cause and effect, a catalyst which prompted a mass uprising – a call to activism.
Firstly, a group or community experiences recurring social injustices: 1) disenfranchisement, 2) inadequate or unequal access to housing, 3) workplace discrimination and 4) exclusion from public services. Then there are the local (too often unsung) heroes, community members who bear witness to continued systematic oppression in their local community and take action (e.g., Patricia McCluskey and Dr Conn McCluskey who established the Homeless Citizens League (1963) to demand equal access to public housing, which would in turn put an end to gerrymandering, and allow a greater number Catholics local government franchise).
A desire for social justice will grow within the community and eventually a stand-out incident will occur (e.g., Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955) that may not be unlike previous community violations – but fits a perfectly targeted campaign embodied by organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which in turn fits in with the set agenda of the media (the controversy sells and likewise lends credence to the importance of the event). This incident sparks national or even global attention (think, the global shock at seeing Black American demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama being mauled by police dogs and water cannoned on television), which leads to acts of civil resistance (e.g., sit-ins, protests, marches etc). These actions are observed by others more broadly, who begin to question, challenge and stand-up to injustice.
The BACRM (1940s-1960)’s tactic of civil resistance, was largely inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s “Satyagraha” and the IIM (1920s-1930s). However, was also the culmination of multi-generational resistance spanning centuries and periods of oppression: from slavery; to reconstruction; to Jim Crow; up until the BLM Movement. However, BACRM differed from earlier acts of resistance, in that it was embodied by large organisations like the NAACP, who united individual activist groups and provided a systematic framework for the movement.
These ontemporary social movements where led and represented by influential figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Emmeline Pankhurst, Nadia Murad – to name but a few. They utilised a combination of in-community education (the passing down of oral histories and traditions of resistance) and formal education (Martin Luther King Jr. inspired by the philosophy and teachings of Booker T. Washington and W E B Du Bois) to create a nation-wide social movement. In Gandhi’s case he pursed his education out with his community, undertaking a law degree at University College London (1888), before going on to spend 21 years in apartheid South Africa as a lawyer. It was there that Gandhi was said to have developed his political views and ethics, which no doubt was influenced by both his unique life experiences: travel, education, experiencing new customs, cultures, traditions and the interpretation of foreign social and political structures. It was after having these experiences that Gandhi returned to India and the IIM (1920s-1930s).
After having conducted ethnographic research, with numerous unique yet comparable Traveller communities, I would suggest that there are a few reasons why Travellers have not followed the same trajectory as other oppressed groups. First of all, I think that the autonomous underpinning of any nomadic lifestyle allows a person to simply move away and disengage with an oppressor: “don’t want to give us a place to live? – fine, we live in wagons and move with our community!”; “don’t want to give us jobs? – fine, we have our own skills/trades/businesses’ and we’ll employ our own; “don’t want us to buy from your shops/drink in your pubs/use your swimming baths – we’ll shift somewhere that will”. Travellers are proud of who they are, hold strong to their traditions and are happy to keep themselves to themselves.
I also found that demographics and interrelations, discord between GRT groups, to be a determining factor in why there has been little success in starting a mass civil rights movement. Travellers are thought to only make up approx. 0.09% of the UK’s total population (this statistic is potentially underrepresented due to lack of participation – see what I mean!). It would therefore require unity between groups, a conscientious effort moving forward to work together, to achieve mass status and deserved recognition. Which, as I discovered, is contrary to longstanding familial customs and nomadic practices (e.g., GRT tend to shift in clusters if private family groupings or, occasionally, several distinct family units will come together to operate a fair). In simplicity, it is practically difficult to gather everyone in the same place, if their defining quality is to be on the move and to be settled a fundamental negative.
My research findings also showed a correlation between symbolic boundaries and negative interrelations, often having an impact on how individual groups view their own identity or chose to self-identify. I discovered that all groups have differing degrees of hierarchies within and between, based on economic prosperity and orthodoxy of “Traveller Morals”, which impacted how they viewed and portrayed their own in-group identity. Showman-Travellers have a contested identity (front stage, business identity “Showman” and a backstage, in-community identity “Traveller”):
“We had to ditch Travellers. They took it over and we ditched it, we had to go with Showman…[hand gesture to imply with others] cause the government labelled us all so we couldn’t keep our identity.” (Male Showman-Traveller: 6)
Whereas Romani Gypsies suggested that “Travellers” had adopted and misrepresented “Gypsy” identity:
“You’d be lucky if there’s only 20 Gypsy families in Scotland and look how many trailers there is, and you hear people saying: “the Gypsies, the Gypsies, the Gypsies”. Their not! “
(Male Romany Gypsy: 4)
Others believed they were more “evolved”, or more entitled to use “Traveller”, than other GRT groups – scapegoating them for prejudices and stereotypes misrepresenting all Travellers:
“You’ve got better morals [than Irish Travellers], you’ve got cleaner stuff, you’ve not gone out taking stuff; that makes us better” (Female Romany Gypsy: 8)
This type of discord between the communities, impacts not only a cohesive sense of group identity (necessary to demand ethnic protection) but the ability to learn and work with one another; to stop shifting blame on one another and channel a shared oppression into action united under one banner .
Lastly, it has historically been the case that formal education was not given priority or seen as necessary by the majority of travelling people. You were taught skills by your community to either enter traditional trades or to be a good homemaker. The most recent statistic shows that only around 3-4% of GRT go on to higher education. This is a major problem for generating any large-scale civil rights movement, as despite the perceivable rabble of social protests; there is great deal of organisation that goes on behind the scenes: hours of research, a clear and succinct message, event planning, written and visually engaging content. All of which can be difficult to achieve when you have not developed the skill set to do so and frankly have other priorities (earning a living or looking after your family).
A New Hope (had to be done)…
The GRT youth of today have shrewdly combined an inherited, unique GRT work ethic, with a skillset and knowledge developed through higher education (a small but increasing number of GRT are heading to universities) to bring GRT rights to the forefront; creating or partnering with existing NGO’s to bring about change. GRT have been engaging in various forms of activism from largescale demonstrations like the lock-on protest at the Dale Farm Evictions in 2011 to taking a seat at the table, engaging in dialogue with policy makers, “hawking” the necessary mindset to end inequality.
What is even more compelling, is that GRT are starting to receive the recognition they deserve. Scottish Traveller Charlotte Donaldson (18-year-old) was recently awarded the Points of Light award for her role in the #iwill campaign (defending Gypsy and Traveller rights); Romani Gypsy Lois Brooke Jones won the Ede and Ravenscroft Valedictory Award in her first year at the University of Chester, for academic excellence and extracurricular activities and the national charitable organization: Friends, Families and Travellers, who have created their own peer nominated awards, given to outstanding members of the community.
A standout for me, amongst the many deserving recipients was Jade Doherty. Jade was awarded “The Courage Award” after she started a successful petition, to ensure friends and family could continue laying tributes on her brother Simey Doherty’s resting place, after the local council tried to prohibit the memorial. Jade managed to collect 5000 signatures and the council ultimately consented to the families wishes. This is a massive achievement given how important burial rituals are to GRT. Historically, GRT in Scotland were legally forbidden to bury their loved ones in church grounds and instead performed hedge-side, road-side burials. Despite changes to the law, GRT still follow their traditional custom of laying wreaths, in the location in which someone passes away. To deny them that after such a huge injustice is simply wrong. That is why the work of young GRT like Jade Doherty is so exceptionally courageous.
The fact that Jade Doherty or Charlotte Donaldson would be recognised with an award for community activism, is in itself a sign of progress; as there was a time in the not too distant past in which prestigious achievements were reserved for a particular class in society. It has historically been the case that non-community members were the only people to publicly speak out against GRT injustices; whether it be the arguably well-meaning but exoticizing Gypsiologists of the late 1800s local philanthropists looking to push middle class ideals on to the poor creatures down the road, living in wagons and bow tents; or the celebrities who drape themselves in bohemian dress, hoop-earrings and flowy dress, proclaiming: “I care cause I am a bit of a Gypsy myself”. If you need a more contemporary example of this think Shakira and her single “Gypsy” (2010). The coupling of a seemingly pro-gypsy stance, whilst running around in her music video stealing clothes, perpetuating the stereotype of inherent deviancy.
Unbelievably, there has even been some royal support for GRT over the years, that again, was kind but in many ways patronising:
“I cannot say how happy I am, that these poor creatures are assisted, for they are such a nice set of Gipsies, so quiet, so affectionate to one another, so discreet, not at all forward or importunate, and so grateful; so unlike the gossiping, fortune-telling race-gipsies” (Queen Victoria, 1836).
As you can see, there is a danger in non-community members acting as the arbiter of progress. If someone does not have a personal investment in GRT equality, they can be at risk of becoming a “white saviour”; picking and choosing who is deserving of “assistance”. The very act of speaking out and occupying a platform can in itself, serve to silence those who are not typically given a platform. I do not doubt that GRT allies have been well-meaning, but it is time for GRT to raise their own voices and create a new platform that highlights the resistance, the bravery and struggle that has always been there within such communities.
It was an honour to meet the late Raymond Gureme (1925-2020) on his Heroes Message tour in 2019. Raymond is largely known as a member of the French resistance and for surviving the Roma Genocide or Holocaust (“Pharrajimos” the “cutting up” or destruction of the Roma); perpetrated by Nazi Germany (1935-1945). Raymond began his life as a French Manush Traveller, travelling throughout France and Belgium with a circus and cinema, in the 1900s. In August 1941, Raymond and his family were captured and interned in a “nomad camp” for Sinti and Roma.
Raymond used the acrobatic skills he had learned in the circus to escape from the camp but was recaptured and detained in a different camp – re-escaping another nine times! Raymond spoke out against fascism throughout his life. In 2011 he wrote a memoir “Forbidden to nomads (Documents, News, Society)”, which was controversial in highlighting both the role that French police played in the detention of his family and the persecution French Manush Travellers continued to face after WWII. In recent years, Raymond had spoken candidly about his belief that there has been a resurgence of anti-Roma fascism in France. He, himself, was the victim of police brutality in 2014 – severely beaten at home by the Police Nationale. He was 89 years old.
Raymond was (and continues to be) an inspirational example of GRT resistance and activism. His Hero’s Message and personal life-story is harrowing, but is in equal measure encouraging:
“….resist…stand up, never remain on your knees take action and act, never lose hope and always keep some courage!”
I wanted to reach out to two young GRT activists who have found courage in their hero’s message; to ask why they chose to stand in the face of adversity, to re-tell the truth about GRT culture and history, and find out if being selflessly courageous, if fighting the almost innate need to shift away from the adversity, has taken a toll on their wellbeing?
Davie Donaldson is a “Nawkin” Scottish Traveller who shifted for most of his childhood in and around Perthshire. He recently graduated from Aberdeen University with an honour’s degree in Social Anthropology and International Relations. Davie has been an avid and impassioned GRT activist and advocate from a young age: creating Scottish Traveller history events and seminars, has acted as a liaison between GRT and local councils to negotiate improved living conditions for Scottish Travellers and has worked with Article 12 in Scotland with the message that GRT rights are Human Rights. Davie also chairs Romano Lav and is the founder of Progress in Dialogue. Davie fundamentally believes that open dialogue leads to sustainable change and chooses to work with local councils, through COSLA and the Scottish Government to create a space for dialogue.
When I first met Davie when he was nineteen, dressed in a smart shirt and tweed jacket, he was the image of professionalism choosing to adopt a strand of activism, notably through his attire, which shows that he can play the game on his own terms. He cleverly achieves a first impression that projects an instant message: I deserve a place at the table and belong in any space, official, media or otherwise. When this highly intelligent, sharply dressed young man extends his hand for an introductory shake – it instantly disarms anyone who may have loosely held anti-Traveller prejudices.
Whilst talking with Davie, I found it interesting that neither of us could recall an openness about activism or speaking out against injustice within the community. We can certainly recall individuals who did so – but they were almost seen as a bit odd or “quirky” (not being the typical Traveller can be a burden):
“[seen as] a bit of a ‘do-gooder’…makin a show a yersel”
Davie pays tribute to the important work of Scottish Travellers like Sheila Stewart, Duncan Williamson or Charlie Douglas who fought to ensure sites would remain open or that access to sacred sites would be granted. He recalls the immense achievement of Jess Smith in 2008, who was able to secure a public apology for the Scottish “Kirk removing bairns” throughout the early to mid 20th century. GRT children were removed from families by the “cruelty’ in an act of ethnic cleansing, which led some children to be forcibly migrated to British colonies. How disappointing it was that it only received a small mention in the Sun newspaper and went largely unrecognised in the community.
A cherished custom in Scottish Traveller community is creating and presenting Scots ballads, which Davie recalls experiencing as a child:
“The Hackers Lament is…from the point of a Traveller, a political statement to the settled community….one of the main barriers is how the settled community perceives our community.”
One of the biggest challenges Davie tackles through raising awareness; is the belief that, if a Scottish Traveller lives in a house, they are no longer a “Traveller”. This denies contemporary Scottish Travellers their heritage and culture, which in turn allows authorities to erase a claim to contemporary ethnic identity and protection.
In retrospect, Davie can now see that Scottish Travellers have always engaged in activism “in their own way”; a way that has inspired Davie in his own work. He has taken important Scottish Traveller teachings, passed down through the generations and applied them to contemporary approaches to fighting inequalities. There was a poignantly charming moment in our conversation when we both realised that we had unknowingly stood on the shoulders of an “old guard” who had passed. We agreed that we had a responsibility going forward to ensure the generation after ours had the tools going forward to continue the struggle.
Lois Brook Jones a Romani Gypsy (amongst her many identities; a woman, is Jewish and a member of the LGBTQ+ community) is a prominent inter-sectionality activist and international relations/politics student, recently deported from Russia for attending a LGBTQ+ rights rally in Moscow. She is an ambassador for the European Roma Rights Centre; is a member of the Traveller Women’s Network and the founder of the Diklo Collective (a “Diklo” is a neck scarf in Romanes). The Diklo Collective is a part-fashion, part-activist project that allows young Romani woman to purchase traditional dress and embrace their Romani heritage.
When I first saw Romani Gypsy Activist “Lo Lo B. Jones’” Facebook post on BLM my heart rejoiced; to see a strong, passionate Gypsy woman dressed in traditional yet somehow modish Romani fashion, standing up for the rights of others was an inspiration! In contrast to David, Lois plays to a different strand of activism and uses fashion as performative protest. She is reclaiming Romani style from the “Shakira’s” and weaponizing the Diklo as a political tool. Lois is not playing the game on her own terms; Lois is making it very clear in her attire that she is not here to play games.
From the beginning of our conversation it was important to Lois that her activism should extend beyond GRT rights to incorporate her other identities. She vehemently believes that injustice for anyone; is injustice for everyone. That being said, Lois adheres to a ground up approach that puts GRT at the forefront of decision making on GRT policy or practice:
“It’s a space occupied by Gorja people [“non-Travellers” in Romanes] and they do not do it right. They go in, hand out a radge leaflet on how to keep the site clean. No Traveller’s gonna read your jakey leaflet!”
Lois believes that there is still “a long way to go” if we want to ensure that GRT are fully included in discussions about their own wellbeing. She recently became the victim of workplace discrimination whilst advocating for improved GRT living conditions on sites. Lois was recently brought in to consult on a best practice approach to working with the community on local sites. She discovered she was the only GRT member on the team, the only unpaid employee on the team and that ultimately, she would be excluded from attending any meetings on Traveller sites:
“Instead some boujee, bauldy headed man called Nigel invaded the site.”
I was once in a similar situation to Lois when I was told by a local council that I would not be granted access to a site unless I was accompanied by security – what an odd thing do say to someone who would be leaving a Showman Travellers yard in the morning and visiting a Scottish Travellers site in the afternoon? I mean, did they also want to walk me back into my own yard again that evening: “Hi Dad, [me walking into the yard with two heavies] the boys are just walking me to my door!”.
I know from my own experience that advocacy takes toll on your mental health. An organisation or individual can initially express a desire to have an insider input (you think, yes! finally some progress), and then they go on to ignore your advice – as if their sole intention was to simply tick the: this project is inclusive box!
I whole heartedly agree with Lois when she says that GRT activists have to endure a lot of emotional labour that can often go unpaid or unrecognised. I have found that many non-Travellers, feel you owe it to them and your community, to perform research or community engagement without exception. They expect us to be ready and waiting like show ponies, ready to perform at the drop of a hat – “you wanted to be seen and heard, so what are you moaning about?”. It is even worse when you are carted around a social or networking event expected to prance and trot on queue (funny how, I am always seated beside a funder or president at every formal dining or charity event) However, it can also go unrecognised by GRT who do see you as an oddball or eccentric, as a “show off” or “know it all”. It is hard to work in a toxic environment and then return home to a space that makes you feel equally devalued. Guess how often I have been told by another Traveller, that I only got into the University of Cambridge, to fill an institutional quota:
“Aye, but its cause yer a Traveller you got in!”
They do not call it a “struggle” without reason. There is no social justice movement in history that was not won without free labour, that required its followers to push past the measly cringe, against the no-good do-gooders; the systematic and individual acts of violence, the boujee, bauldey Nigel’s invading our platforms and safe spaces or community members that would prefer you continue to keep your head down. I for one, am proud of the GRT activists and advocates who continue to push for GRT rights and am thankful that they are starting to receive the recognition they deserve. I promise to be their ally going forward, to attend the GRT history month events, the demonstrations, the protests and will fight past the desire I have to remain silent. We all need to raise our heads and use our voices; to freely chant the Heroes Message: Resist!
It was not long after writing this article that Travellers of every kind took to the streets, advocating for their rights loudly and proudly, for an end to discrimination and a chance to live freely. Showman across the UK are pleading for government assistance, some help (pale recognition might even be nice) due to travelling funfairs being closed for the foreseeable future. Gypsies and Travellers have taken to the streets, joined by “the Gypsy King” and heavy weight world champion Tyson Fury under the banner of “Travellers Lives Matter”; to highlight the racist branding of all Travellers as “criminal and violent” by Home Secretary Priti Patel. Whether or not the use of a slogan, that parallels with “Black Lives Matter” is appropriate is a difficult call for me, although I would like to hope that it is being used in the same spirit as Lois’ call for solidarity. Their choice to finally take a stand is beyond appropriate, has shown me that it is time to stop cringing and start chanting!
 Pulls jumper head over mouth, both hands grasped firmly around the collar, whilst cheeks turn crimson red – Listen, I’m working on it, alright?!