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Surfing Travellers

Last year, Irish President Mary McAleese approved a law that makes trespassing a criminal, not civil, offense. The law’s unspoken target: Ireland’s 25,000 Travellers, nomadic people known derisively as "tinkers" or "white gypsies." Travellers typically live in adhoc trailer camps, pulling up stakes whenever seasonal work is available elsewhere. The criminal trespass law — the ...

Last year, Irish President Mary McAleese approved a law that makes trespassing a criminal, not civil, offense. The law’s unspoken target: Ireland’s 25,000 Travellers, nomadic people known derisively as "tinkers" or "white gypsies." Travellers typically live in adhoc trailer camps, pulling up stakes whenever seasonal work is available elsewhere. The criminal trespass law — the first in Europe — makes Travellers subject to arrest for erecting unauthorized camps.

But unlike past attempts to curb Travellers, the new law was not accepted quietly. Within hours of its approval, the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), a Dublin-based Traveller’s rights advocacy organization, sent e-mail alerts to over 500 regional activists, who then circulated word among nearby Traveller clans. Soon itinerants were marching on the government in Dublin.

The protest over the trespass law is an example of how Travellers are using information technology to battle persecution, says ITM Coordinator Catherine Joyce. "The best way to contact our members is via e-mail, to tell them what kind of protests we’re organizing," she says, noting that each of ITM’s 87 local affiliates now has networked desktops. In addition, ITM uses its Web site to feature protest announcements and human rights reports detailing the plights of Travellers.

It’s hardly the first time the Internet has been used to spread the word about injustice: Solidarity groups like the East Timor Action Network and the Free Tibet Campaign have been doing it for years. But ITM is putting a unique spin on cyberadvocacy by using the Internet as more than just an educational medium. Since most Traveller households lack phones, the best way for them to learn about scheduled pickets is by logging on to public computer terminals at a local library, cafe, or, more importantly, a school computer room. Around 70 percent of Travellers are illiterate, but that number is dropping as more families send children to public schools — an unheard of move just a decade ago. Joyce hopes children will soon emerge as ITM’s digital vanguard. "The idea is to train [kids] to use the computers, but also to train them to be trainers, so more and more Travellers will have access to e-mail," says Joyce. And, she hopes, they’ll gain access to a more tolerant future.

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