On the day residents of Dale Farm, then one of the largest unauthorised Traveller sites in Europe, were due to be evicted a decade ago, pupils at the nearby primary school were handed special stones they could squeeze as they walked into their morning assembly. The teachers wanted to remind everyone that the school remained a safe and welcoming place.
But the helicopters above and the violent scenes that unfolded pierced through and reinforced what the local community had been bracing for: 80 families, including vulnerable children, would find themselves homeless and unsure of where to go.
“Some of them [children] were talking about seeing some of their belongings burning and ruined, and the big vehicles coming in that were flattening things,” said Hayley Dyer, the headteacher at Crays Hill primary school. Several of the children who were evicted never returned to the school.
On the 10-year anniversary of the eviction in Essex, residents and campaigners have told the Guardian that time has done little to dull the pain and trauma. And while many families moved out after losing their protracted legal battle against the local council, wrangling over the future of the site continues.
The Travellers who own the land are in the process of trying to sell it to developers for housing, many hoping to use the money to set up new lives elsewhere. Whether Basildon council lets the development go ahead remains to be seen.
“It was like living in a war zone,” said Candy Sheridan, a Dale Farm campaigner and then vice-chair of the Gypsy Council. “It was a massive injustice. It was shameful of this country that they decided to pick on such vulnerable people.
“There is an opportunity, 10 years on, to finally call it a day and let these families get back on with their lives. I don’t want to be talking about it in five years or 10 years. I just think they deserve so much better.”
Patrick Egan, who owned a legally sited farmhouse on Dale Farm that was burned down a few years ago, still has nightmares about the eviction. “They destroyed my life really because now we’re homeless.”
Though Egan had a legal right to stay, he said the eviction caused damage to his property, and the land that was once full of families and friends had turned into a dump site that he describes as toxic. “We had a close-knit community where everyone looked out for each other but it was just like a nightmare after we left. I didn’t know where to go, what to do.”
He welcomes the opportunity to sell his land to a developer and finally have some closure. A 50-year-old Romany woman who lives in nearby Noak Bridge, who wished to remain anonymous, echoed his sentiment. “I think the end of Dale Farm should [have been] to let them have a little bit of joy out of it instead of being turfed off and having nothing.”
She argues that racism has got worse for her community since the eviction. Pauline Anderson, an Irish Traveller and chair of the Traveller Movement, agreed. “Public opinion about the right of Gypsies and Travellers to a nomadic life, to live on sites rather than in housing, has just continued to worsen since [Dale Farm],” she said. “I think what happened was the media and Dale Farm brought the Gypsy and Traveller lifestyle up for public scrutiny.”
The eviction was fiercely resisted, with hundreds of activists from around the country descending on Dale Farm and helping construct a barricade. The veteran campaigner Grattan Puxon was chief among them, and estimates that about 1,000 people came and went across the course of the standoff. “It was an extraordinary situation, you had to see it to believe it … it was like two medieval encampments next to each other, ready to go to war,” he said.
Natalia Szarek, who was 23 at the time and the media spokesperson for Dale Farm solidarity, said the campaign and eviction opened her eyes to how deeply racist UK society is. “The eviction was brutal and violent from the police and it was really heartbreaking to see these families, including vulnerable and ill people, and a lot of children just being completely traumatised and their homes destroyed.”
But opinion is split over whether the actions of the activists helped the overall cause, with some Travellers feeling their tactics distracted attention from the plight of the families themselves. Sheridan believed legal challenges and negotiation with the local council were the best way of stopping the eviction.
Others say the focus should not solely be on the turbulence of the three days of eviction. “The anniversary of Dale Farm will only be remembered for one thing, and that’s the barricades. It won’t be remembered for making people homeless, taking children out of education, denying them the right to healthcare,” said Joe Jones, the current chair of the Gypsy Council.
He said there were still young people from Dale Farm wandering the country and being evicted on a daily basis. “It doesn’t matter where we go. Everyone seems to know where we shouldn’t be, but no one knows where we should be.”
Even those who were supportive of the eviction, such as Len Gridley, a neighbour of Dale Farm, are critical of what followed. “When they did the eviction, it was meant to be turned back into greenbelt. Ten years later nothing has been done,” he said. “They [the council] don’t want to clean up the mess. The easiest thing to do is for a developer to do it.”
It remains unclear, however, whether the sale will go ahead. The leader of Basildon council, Andrew Baggott, said: “The council has not been made aware of any land in the Dale Farm area coming up for sale at this time. The land has not been allocated for housing within the emerging local plan.”
As for Egan, he has vowed to never return to Dale Farm. The place has too many bad memories. “I just want to get someplace just for me and my family. And I’ll die a happy man once I know that my family have a home that they can call home.”