We contemplate the significance of . . . the continent-wide importance of the Romany peoples, who have begun to show such receptivity to the call of Bahá’u’lláh . . . The Universal House of Justice
Tonight I chaired a packed public meeting called by the Member of Parliament for Bedford and Kempston, the `big’ town about 8 miles from my home. The speakers were Patrick Hall MP, Frank Branston, the Mayor of Bedford Borough, Inspector Mark Everett of Bedfordshire Police and Cliff Codona, Chair of the National Travellers Action Group and Chair of the UK Delegation to the European Roma and Travellers Forum. The subject was the gypsies who have been travelling into Bedford and camping illegally on open land, and the meeting was called `to examine what should be done’.
At a pre-meeting discussion, we checked with Cliff what terms we should use for his people. He was happy with `gypsies’, `Roma’, Romany, travellers’, so I use these terms interchangeably.
The audience numbered some 160 people – standing room only – and was made up largely, it would appear, of local people whose lives have been disturbed by the large numbers of travellers coming into the town and camping for several weeks at a time. The audience also had a good number of councillors from the county and borough councils, some plainclothes police officers, a few people who work closely with the travelling community and some well-wishers of the gypsies. Oh, and two Bahá’ís.
The issues are complex and people feel strongly in many directions. It is difficult to select out one main complaint. It is the case that over the past couple of years greater numbers of travellers have come to the town. It is also the case that they have taken up positions on open land owned by the Borough Council and on other land. It is the case that they have stayed on these sites illegally, often for several weeks. It is also the case that some of the sites occupied by the travellers have been left in a mess. It is the case that the behaviour of some of the travellers has been anti-social and some has been criminal.
On the other hand, it is the legal responsibility of the Council to provide sites, both permanent and transit, for travellers. It is the case that the Council has not provided the requisite number of `pitches’ for the gypsies. It is the case that this has been the situation for many years. It is also the case that the Council takes legal action to move on travellers who are camping illegally. It is also the case that there is a complicated web of agencies and authorities responsible for different aspects of `the problem’. The law defines how these agencies can act and limits what they can do. The police can only work within the law. It is the perception of many people that each agency or authority says it is the other one that is responsible in any particular situation.
It is clear that just about everyone is unhappy. The people who live near the illegal camping sites feel overwhelmed and threatened and are angry that the travellers leave rubbish everywhere, let their dogs run around, do not control their children and that bikes and cars are driven across parks and open spaces leaving ugly scars. They say there is an increase in crime, that insults are hurled at them, that there is a lot of noise and dirt and that they have lost the quiet enjoyment of their own homes. They say that the gypsies do not pay taxes, that they do not work, that it costs a huge amount to clean up after them and that the systems to move them on are slow and ineffective. They want their rights respected. Many believe that the gypsies are beyond the reach of the law and that they are privileged above the legal residents in that gypsies are not penalized for infractions of the law for which others pay fines or are arrested.
The gypsies feel unwelcome in the area. They say it is difficult to find legal places to stay, places to which they are entitled. They are subject to abuse and discrimination. It is difficult to get their children educated. They are harassed by local people and the police move them on peremptorily. Most of the them are tidy and considerate people who earn a living, pay taxes, take care of their children and have pride in their homes. They are just as annoyed by people who break the law, leave rubbish around and make trouble for their neighbours. They are `tarred with the same brush’ as other gypsies who act in anti-social ways and feel they cannot escape the negative image of them portrayed in the media and held by residents.
Politicians cannot agree on a single way forward, a solution that is realistic and do-able. The time frame for finding a solution is either too far away or cannot be rushed. The answer is either very simple or very complex. Either the cost is too great or there is plenty of government money which is not being accessed.
Well-wishers of the gypsies are annoyed that the residents appear to be prejudiced against them and do not try to understand or get on with them. The well-wishers themselves took quite a bit of flack from the audience.
The police are frustrated because no one seems to understand the legal limits within which they have to work and the nature of their job: residents believe they do not act promptly and that they overlook criminal acts; gypsies believe they are harsh and interpret the law to the disadvantage of the travellers.
So it was a tense evening. Having said that, the meeting progressed pretty well. The speakers were excellent and, from their own perspectives, answered the questions thrown their way. The audience was generally cordial, although there were a few hecklers. I felt the meeting could have done with a bit of humour but it was clearly considered too serious a meeting for that.
But as I drove home, I thought how different this encounter was from what had happened seven years ago this very day. Today, people who clearly have a dispute with one another came to a meeting in a public place and talked about it. Yes, many were angry. Yes, the way forward is not simple or straightforward or even clear. But the people of Bedford listened and talked and listened. Mostly, they were courteous to one another and to the speakers. They did not resort to violence or use weapons or become unruly. It was a mature response and, mostly, a measured one.
And I also thought how great it is to live in a country like Britain where there actually ARE rights for all people. While it is true that some people think the `others’ have all the rights and that their own rights are not respected or upheld, by and large all people are entitled to the same rights and privileges, each person and group of people have the same responsibilities as others, there are laws that apply to all people, there is a justice system that generally deals with all people `without fear or favour’, and the democratic system is open to all — this in contrast to so many other parts of the world. I think of the Bahá’ís in Iran and how such a meeting about them could never take place there.
And I also think about the fact that there are probably very few groups of people who positively welcome gypsies as members as the Bahá’ís do, who are hugely excited when a Romany joins them, who think of them as having `continent-wide importance’ in Europe.
And I still pray that, one day, Bahá’u’lláh’s solution to all problems will be taken up everywhere:
O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. We cherish the hope that the light of justice may shine upon the world and sanctify it from tyranny. If the rulers and kings of the earth, the symbols of the power of God, exalted be His glory, arise and resolve to dedicate themselves to whatever will promote the highest interests of the whole of humanity, the reign of justice will assuredly be established.
Technorati Tags: Bahá’í, Baha’i, Baha’u’llah, Patrick Hall MP, Frank Branston, Bedford Borough, Inspector Mark Everett, Cliff Codona, National Travellers Action Group, European Roma and Travellers Forum, 9/11