Land and Life

Blog #2 from the Letters for Abolition series

For our second ‘Letters for Abolition’ blog, we were delighted to interview Luke from GRT Socialists, a campaign which exists to fight for the welfare, equality and representation of Gypsy, Roma & Traveller communities. It was a lively and informative discussion, focusing on how the carceral state shapes the oppression of GRT people, therefore there is no liberation without abolition. We hope this is as informative a read for you as the experience was for us.

[SoC] Why have GRT communities, historically and presently, been associated with ‘criminality’?

[Luke] The association of our communities with criminality is a historic thing — it has feudal origins. In medieval days, our communities provided services for both lords and rural communities. Peasants were tied to the land and we weren’t, so due to our nomadic lifestyles, we could provide services they couldn’t get from the cities. We could move between cities and villages and perform these jobs.

Our lack of binding to feudal servitude and our freedom was, in my opinion, a source of jealousy for peasants who were tied to the land, which allowed feudal lords to scapegoat us and frame us as a threat to their way of life with popular support. The Egyptians Act of 1530 tried to tie us down and erase both our nomadic lifestyles and spiritual beliefs on pain of expulsion or execution. The name ‘Gypsy’ comes from Egyptian, where the aristocracy believed we were from (in reality, the Irish and Scottish Travellers are indigenous to these isles, while Roma people originated from India).

There is a long history of tropes, entirely based on the fact our lifestyle has been incompatible with feudal and capitalist land ownership. Prejudice has been legislated into society, with laws changing to maintain our “criminality” and keep racism ingrained throughout the country.

[SoC] How are the nomadic lifestyles of GRT communities affected by land ownership, and other manifestations of capitalism?

[Luke] Capitalist laws continue to affect our communities through land ownership primarily. Our stopping places — historic areas where GRT communities would stay temporarily — have been seized and built upon. And what happens when we buy land for ourselves? Well, only 15% of planning applications by our communities are approved. The stringent rules of planning commissions are inherently geared against us, with land often being deemed “uninhabitable” to keep GRT communities off that land (though some real estate developers will use it for housing once we’ve been excluded). In many cases, we experience segregation-tier conditions socially: being barred from pubs, clubs and community spaces, excluded from jobs and schooling if we are perceived to belong to our communities. GRT lives are essentially devalued for not voluntarily assimilating into the capitalist system and the lifestyles it forces, this way of life is not our own. We experience high degrees of poverty due to this social and economic exclusion, and yet these causes of crime are never addressed — it is just assumed that we are inherently criminal.

[SoC] Are there other challenges posed by the carceral state to GRT people, including those with non-nomadic lifestyles?

[Luke] Our educational outcomes are appalling, with high levels of expulsions, bullying and dropping out. There is a school-to-prison pipeline, and we are massively overrepresented in the prison system. We experience mass incarceration, and it is only going to get worse under Priti Patel’s criminalisation of nomadic life. Our community experiences police brutality — this is the daily reality of our families, particularly those of us who are still nomadic (an ever-decreasing figure of around 15–20% within the UK). Even if we forcibly assimilate and play by the rules of capitalism, we are still profiled.

How we are affected by the carceral state goes beyond incarceration in the prison system, too — sectioning is often used to incarcerate those in our communities with mental illnesses. Those of us who are neurodivergent often go undiagnosed. Our children are taken from us by social services and put in non-GRT families to forcibly assimilate us, similar to the kidnapping of First Nations children to ‘residential schools’ in Canada. In an almost-parallel manner to Native Americans on reservations, our community suffers from some of the highest rates of alcoholism and suicide. The internationalisation of racial capitalism yet again becomes evident — our cultural relationships to land and life are not defined by property and ownership, and are therefore inherently opposed to capitalist logic.

[SoC] What would liberation for GRT people look like beyond capitalist land ownership and criminal ‘justice’?

[Luke] Liberation for GRT communities would be the right to roam, the right to live our historic lifestyles and access the land. There are a few adjustments we can make in society to make life easier for GRT communities: rebuilding stopping places, making sure everywhere in the country has facilities for gypsies and travellers, and so on. But beyond this we need to abolish the systems that oppress GRT communities, meaning we have to work towards the abolition of land, property, and the carceral state. The land is for everybody, GRT and sedentary communities alike, not for the millionaires.

One of the tools of the carceral state is the education system. Education frames GRT people in racist ways, and forces us from childhood to assimilate into the system. This system is attached to capital, so the exclusion of GRT children leads to our exclusion from jobs and society, and to our criminalisation. We need community education, detached from capital, where we can tell the stories and histories of our communities, we can revitalise the Romani languages and we can provide political education on our struggles and how society criminalises us.

When it comes to the prison system, the carceral state doesn’t care about reforming or helping people. Often GRT people have to do ‘criminal’ work because of our exclusion from society, then we are further criminalised because the carceral state gives you criminal records, which makes you even less likely to get jobs. We are forced into criminality — it is clear that crime serves a purpose. The carceral state ‘works’ in a capitalist sense — it creates unpaid labour and removes ‘undesirables’ from society. But it does not work to make people or society better, as people are more likely to reoffend after imprisonment, and social issues persist — even getting worse. Something which is common between the nature of the carceral state and the treatment of GRT people is this idea that if you remove people from society, things will get better. This doesn’t address the systemic oppression faced by GRT people, only the abolition of criminal justice and other systems of harm will do that. We need to centre care and reform in society instead.

Importantly, we need to abolish borders for the sake of all nomadic peoples, not only GRT communities. The imposition of borders has atomised and destroyed livelihoods, dividing families globally — whether it be the Sámi in Scandinavia, the Negev Bedouins or the Maasai in East Africa, the struggle is connected.

You can see more from GRT Socialists over on their Twitter account or hear more from Luke here.

Written by Sara & Nass

Further Reading around GRT issues

To be added at a later date

Further Reading around Borders & Land

Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang

Architecture After Revolution by Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal (link only shows the first two chapters, the rest of the book includes architectural case studies)

A Line in the Sand by James Barr

We are a collective of Black Socialists and Socialists of Colour Follow us on Twitter: @SocOfColour.