First They Came for the Travellers: Solidarity with Govanhill’s Roma

It is International Romani Day AKA Roma Nation Day on April 8th 2012. Join us in Govanhill to celebrate: see our Facebook page. Read about day of action in London here.

International Romani Day flag

The Romani flag proposed by the 1971 World Romani Congress.

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.

Glasgow Taxi advertising lapdancing club

This is not the taxi. But it is a Glasgow Taxi advertising a lapdancing club. Another reason to stop using Glasgow Taxis. Photo by lenivor on Flickr

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.

Pollok House

A tiny corner of Pollok House. Thanks to pixelsandpaper on Flickr.

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.

Roma Youth Project poster

Roma Youth Project - Photo from A Glasgow Album by Edwin Moore.

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.

Humza Yousaf MSP, in his Tartan Pakistani formalwear, at the Scottish Parliament.

Humza Yousaf MSP, in Tartan Pakistani formalwear, at swearing in of the Scottish Parliament. Photo copyright to Humza Yousaf, used with permission from his Flickr photostream.

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).

Traveller Solidarity Network Roadshow speakers

The Traveller Solidarity Network Roadshow speakers (this wasn't taken in Glasgow I don't think but they looked just like this!). Photo from the Traveller Solidarity blog.

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?

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. netbimbette
    Mar 20, 2012 @ 23:37:11

    Wow, so much to say about this.

    Your experience with a taxi driver mirrors some I have had recently – not specifically about Roma but more general racism which I have not encountered here before. But mebbe that is because both you and I are getting more taxis recently?

    I’ve been worrying recently that I’ve been living in a nice little lefty, activist bubble, that I’m preaching to the choir, and not really making much difference by my actions.

    But, a few projects give me hope – and the Travellers’ Solidarity Network you mention is one of those.

    Reply

  2. MI Chelle
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 00:57:41

    I am in, as you know, we have short time to organise for International Romani Day – can we knock something up quickly? Or I can ty and arrange a TSN -Roma-centric sometime in the near future. We need to have that coffee. Michelle

    Reply

  3. kiran singh sirah
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 14:49:59

    Great Article , thanks for posting this, i lived in govenhill for 8 years, i still own a house there, although i live in the states now as a student. i have lived in 5 countires and 8 different cities, and Govanhill has been the place that i felt most at home, a real sense of community, and where people support each other. people might look at it a place that has changed, and despise that, but i have only good memories, of a place that stood side by side when EDL tried to seperate us, where groups joined together to fight for the justice, for the baths campaign. and much more, it has a sense of community, that is uique and i feel proud to have lived there. I have always enjouyed interactions with Roma community at the art evenst, the kids made me feel like a kid again! thank you for your post and hope that the people of scotland can look to govanhill for inspiration, on how a community can grow, change, adapt, face challenges and embrace multi culturalism, and oneness and a shared sense of space. thank you, kiran singh sirah.

    Reply

  4. Hamstair Toilichte
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 18:09:30

    Hi a Mhorag. I know how you feel, as racism of this nature is an integral part of dominant reactionary culture in that barbaric nation South of the Border, and taxi drivers are the worst by a long chalk. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of taxi drivers who aren’t loudmouthed racists, and for that reason alone I make a point of avoiding taxis unless desperate. There’s something about their ‘profession’ that makes them one of the most backward sections of the petit-bourgeoisie, on a par with White Van Men. Barbers come a close second. I think it’s because they’re ‘self-employed’ that they reckon they’re standalone entrepeneurs who can look down on wage-slaves and claimants. Look, we choose to live a shit life working 60-hour weeks without benefits or security, so we’re tough Thatcherite metalfitters, unlike you poncey scroungers and soft-arsed wage-slaves. Plus we’ve got you trapped in the cab so you’ve got to listen to us.

    The trick is not to take the reactionary toads seriously, but treat them as the self-deluded saddos that they are. You certainly shouldn’t read them as representative of the general population of the area and get depressed about it. Perhaps there’s a niche for a lefties taxi service? That’s only semi-joking…

    Maybe you ought to remind the feckers that Scotland’s losing population hand over fist, and without young and fecund immigrants the economy’ll go down the tubes, and taxis with it.

    Reply

    • Morag Eyrie
      Mar 23, 2012 @ 10:03:57

      Damn it Hamstair, I just knew someone would come along with a “taxi drivers are just like that” comment. I obviously didn’t write my post well enough to prevent that happening. I was hoping to get across the *change* I’ve noticed in Glasgow’s South Side over the past 6 months or so. I have lived in Glasgow for 13 years, the South Side for eight.

      My experience with Glasgow taxi drivers has included a lot of very positive encounters over the years so I don’t take it as read that they are all racist. That said, there has always been that contingent you talk about, but what’s been happening lately is so many local white people (not just taxi drivers, I mean, a volunteer guide at a local stately home FFS?!), and quite a few local Asians, have been straight in there, with no preamble, no trying to suss if you are going to go along with it, into exactly the *same* rant about the Roma. Like they are picking up a conversation you had with them yesterday.

      It *has* got me thinking about this general propensity for so many humans to go straight for othering and scapegoating the less powerful when things are bad. Wish there was an easy solution, I really do.

      Reply

  5. Morag Eyrie
    Apr 01, 2012 @ 13:01:26

    I posted this on the Radical Glasgow Facebook page, and got 6 Likes and no comments:

    “Ok, I’m sure you’ll all pull me up if this is a stupid idea. But was just reading about @Tracie B Wilde buying ice cream in Queen’s Park for some Roma kids who the ice cream man was yelling at. Been trying to think of something quick and easy to organise for International Romani Day on April 8, which also happens to be Easter Day this year. Was thinking a bunch of local folk could wander around Govanhill including the parks, with cards or badges saying ‘Happy Roma Day’ in English and Slovak and/or the Roma language, and hand them out to folk with an Easter egg each. Could explain re Roma Day to non-Roma and just give the Roma people we meet a smile and some chocolate if they don’t speak English. Chocolate, the international language of love and solidarity! Simple but a way to show public friendliness and support, and raise awareness with non-Roma, without having to grapple with inter-community organisational issues at short notice..what do you think?”

    Still want to do something next weekend. See the Romani flag I’ve inserted into the top of this post. What I want is maybe some flyers with this flag and a bit of text saying “Happy International Romani Day” in relevant languages for Govanhill, including the language(s) the local Roma speak: I need to check what those languages should be, and find someone to do the translations.

    I also added this link above: http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/international-roma-day/ where they note that going to a body of water and scattering flowers as midday is the way Romani peoples celebrate the day, so thinking maybe flowers *and* chocolate to be handed out with flowers.

    Reply

  6. Nathan
    May 07, 2012 @ 18:33:24

    Such a brilliant article I have to say. I really hope some things have progressed since the TSN Info meeting and some good solid contacts have been made. The issue of approaching Gypsy, Roma or Traveller communities is always a difficult one, as you know yourself, because they are usually & understandably quite insular & tight communities. These links can be made however, yet take time.

    Please feel free to continue emailing and talking to TSN as well as asking for resources that we may have. Our experience at Dale Farm was obviously only partial and we are always looking to learn. However certain skills some of us developed, such as working with the Media in campaigning, are things we would be keen to share so please do get in touch at travellersolidarity@riseup.net.

    Reply

    • Morag Eyrie
      May 07, 2012 @ 20:21:23

      Hi Nathan, thanks for stopping by!

      We had our Roma Day walkabout in Govanhill (about 18 people showed up I think) and gave out chocolates, flowers and flyers to Roma and non-Roma, and got a generally positive reception (only two racist responses, lots of smiles).

      I then made contact with Marcela Adamova, a local Roma woman who works for Oxfam (through David Zabiega who has also been doing some excellent work with local Roma through the Govanhill Housing Association). She told me that some local Roma had had their own Roma Day party on a different day, and also that some folk had approached her and told her about what we had been doing and asked what on Earth that was all about.. but she sounded like they had actually liked it! She’s away just now, but when she gets back I’m going to speak with her further and let those who have already been in touch know about where we can go next.

      There is a lot of organising already going on through the usual funding channels; we don’t want to duplicate work. But we also don’t want to jump on the funding bandwagon: if there’s funding to be had I think it should go to Roma-led activities. For me it’s so important that we are Roma-led and that we find out what we can do that will be most supportive and helpful.

      I also discovered that one reason things may have taken a turn for the worse recently is that the community that has settled in Govanhill since 2004 have been from the former Czechoslovakia. More recently a change in Romania’s status has meant a new influx of Romanian Roma who are a distinct culture and also have come from even worse conditions. So it’s like a new wave of immigration and folk starting again from scratch from a place of worse poverty; but all the Roma being lumped together by people, and the existing services not being equipped yet due to language differences between the two groups etc.

      Anyway, I have been reading emails on the TSN email list, just to stay informed; it’s been very interesting and informative. We haven’t exactly dropped off the map; I’ll be picking tings up again in June and will let you know what we end up doing once we’ve made some next steps.

      Reply

    • Morag Eyrie
      May 21, 2012 @ 15:00:41

      @Nathan et all: I have now set up a Facebook group to get us going for Traveller Solidarity Network Glasgow: http://www.facebook.com/groups/370063863051860/ – we can see if we need our own listserv as well, and would be nice to have a face to face meeting in Govanhill at some point soon.

      Reply

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