I’m worried. I’m worried about the drift to the right in Govanhill, in Glasgow, in Scotland, in the UK, in the World. I’m worried about encroaching fascism. I think the time for saying “You’ve just Godwin’d yourself on your own blog” is over. It’s not funny any more: ask Trayvon Martin’s family. Ask the ethnic minorities and Jewish families of Toulouse. Ask the families of 77 dead teenagers in Norway. Actually, ask me. I live in Govanhill. They haven’t stared coming for me and mine yet, but my neighbours may be at risk. You think that’s hyperbole? At what point will you start worrying?
I was in a taxi last week, and was treated to a diatribe on how dreadful things are these days in Govanhill, where I live, as the taxi driver knew, because he picked me up there.
Specifically, how awful the Roma in Govanhill are. This speech culminated with a self-satisfied description of how the driver’s sister had thrown a bucket of water out her back window onto an older Roma woman who was using the garden below as an outdoor toilet. ‘What kind of people go to the toilet outside?’, he asked indignantly, without pausing to consider that maybe one answer is ‘The kind of people whose bladders aren’t that reliable after years of childbearing, who live in grossly overcrowded conditions with no working toilet or no running water or too many other people using the toilet’. That’s without even considering, ‘The kind of drunken idiots who pee in public on their way home from the pub’, many of whom I have seen in Glasgow over the years, mostly male and white.
A note for those not in the know: Govanhill, on Glasgow’s South Side, has for a few years been home to hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand immigrant Roma from Eastern Europe, mostly from Slovakia. For more see this ‘Report on the Situation of the Roma Community in Govanhill, Glasgow’ by Lynne Poole and Kevin Adamson at the University of the West of Scotland. Roma are an ethnic group of travelling people, a sub-group of the Romani (sometimes colloquially known as Gypsies), who are impoverished, abused, excluded and worse right across Europe, who were slaughtered by the Nazis.
Anyway, back to the taxi driver. He was an intelligent, witty, articulate man; I’d been enjoying talking with him up until that point. He made no attempt, subtly or otherwise, to suss out whether I would be receptive or condemning of this topic of conversation. You know what I mean, right, those of you reading who are my fellow white people? Yes, you know, those conversational feelers as to whether you will jump down the other person’s throat or join in with their racism? This sussing out doesn’t seem to happen as much these days, not on Glasgow’s South Side anyway. It’s straight for the jugular, because, I can only presume, they have these conversations so often and with so little push-back, it doesn’t even occur to them you might object. And it’s not just white people; you sometimes hear this stuff out of the mouths of South Siders of Asian descent too.
I’ve been getting a lot of taxis recently and it seems like this anti-Roma racist conversation is part of the service now. And it has extended its reach, this service. A few weeks ago, I was having a lovely birthday outing at Pollok House, doing the tour for the first time ever. One of the volunteers recognised my companion from the ‘hood, and started chatting to us. Once again, with no pre-amble or attempt to establish our general receptivity, he launched into the anti-Roma speech.
We can be quite smug in Glasgow about what a left-wing, Red Clydeside kind of place we are. Recently there were rumours among anti-fascist activists that Govanhill might be the next rallying point for the SDL to come and stand about behind a police line looking ugly, shifty and nervous (all three of them accompanied by their knuckle-dragging brethren from south of the border). We thought that was hilarious: Glasgow’s South Side is so ethnically diverse, surely such a fascist rally would turn into a giant multi-cultural kick-fest, pulling together all the local communities in righteous anger. There would be no pub for them to hide in; none of the pubs round here would have them.
But now I’m not so sure. The atmosphere has slowly but surely soured round here.
I’ve lived in Govanhill since 2004; virtually the same period of the Roma migration here. I live in one of the streets notorious for the exploitative landlords who have contributed so grossly to the problems faced by the Roma. I shared a close with an ordinary Roma family for a while, interacted with them a fair bit as they had one family member with good English.
I remember how when the Roma first started coming, they used to walk through the streets in groups singing in close harmonies; such an improvement on the drunken shouting and “singing” from the pubs round about. You don’t really hear that any more. The children would chat to you, open and friendly, admittedly generally trying to get some money or sweeties out of you, but charming and cute with it. No more.
Then there was a period where the housing situation got out of control and rumours flew around about terrible things like child prostitution rings (always the Roma doing that of course, and not a word about who was “buying” the “service” locally). Then the social workers and the community teams and the council and the like swooped in and various attempts have been made, and are still being made, to address cross-cultural and poverty-based problems.
Govanhill has always been the landing place in Glasgow for immigrant populations, so the cycle of new people arriving, not fitting in, escaping poverty and oppression, taking the worst jobs and living in overcrowded conditions and smelling funny with their weird food.. this is something the South Side of Glasgow has experience with going back to early Irish migration into Scotland.
The next stage of the cycle is the established groups gradually get to know them while a new generation learns English (or, more precisely, Glaswegian Scots), is educated locally, gets better jobs. Subsequent generations are both well-integrated and proud of their heritage and traditions. Don’t get me wrong, racism generally accompanies this process the whole way along, but in a place like Glasgow, that racism exists alongside strong left-wing traditions of cross-cultural solidarity. It is this balancing force for good that is being undermined by all the usual suspects in the economic and political sphere.
Meanwhile, the Roma seem to have people stumped. This is a culture used to being so threatened by murderous prejudice and indifference, so unaccustomed to anything good coming from official interest or even from well-meaning do-gooderism, so solid in survival skills that are apparently oppositional to what settled communities expect (and enforce), that all the well-meaning folk are not finding purchase to beat back the forces of blame-the-victim and create-the-ghetto and whip-up-the-fear-and-prejudice encroaching from all sides.
Let me make it clear where I stand: I am one of the well-meaning folk, and this is our problem. People have turned up on our doorstep coming from hideous, impossible conditions, looking for something better. I had hope two years ago that things were working out better for them here. Now I am scared for them, and for the rest of us.
Where to Next? A Traveller Solidarity Network in Glasgow?
How to show solidarity? I went to a meeting of the Traveller Solidarity Network last Thursday. This group was formed by activists around the Dale Farm eviction, made up of folk from both traveller and settled communities. I think they came hoping to expand the scope of the Traveller Solidarity Network’s reach; they are touring the UK. What they found in Kinning Park, Glasgow, was the Roma hornet’s nest (not the only traveller-related issue in Scotland, to be sure, but as the rest of this post shows, a very pressing one where this meeting landed).
It was horrifying to hear something from outwith mainstream reporting about what happened at Dale Farm, and in fact what is happening all over England to traveller communities. The outright racism, indeed violence, of settled communities and their elected representatives, is chilling. It was another stark warning for us in Scotland. We can’t be complacent about how much better Scotland is than England in this regard.
So, the outcome of that meeting for me was the sharing of email addresses among folk in Glasgow who want to do more to show solidarity and support for the Roma (and other travelling peoples) here. I know that groups like the Govanhill Law Centre and Barnardo’s and local residents groups and community councils have been trying to do stuff already. We can’t give up, we have to press forward.
One thing the settled folk at the TSN meeting said was that when they bowled up to Dale Farm to offer solidarity and help, they got knocked back. A lot. Travelling people have no reason to trust us. What helped build trust and solidarity there was, sadly, the need for activists to stand in front of riot police to defend the homes of families. I hope it doesn’t come to that level of aggro in Govanhill, but we have to persist.
Who is with me?