No justice, no peace: Black liberation movements

I’m really excited that the magazine on Black Lives Matter, race and activism which I guest edited for New Internationalist is out now.

It’s been a long time dream of mine to edit an issue of New Internationalist so I’m really glad to have edited the March issue.

As it says on the New Internationalist website:

Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry for a generation of black activists around the world, from the US to the UK, Australia to Brazil. 

As they build links across borders, one of the most empowering things about these struggles is that they make their blackness a source of strength, building on a long history of black resistance.

It’s been an inspiring journey researching what’s been happening with Black activism around the world. There was so much more than we could fit into 16 pages!

The articles in the main section of the magazine are all written by awesome woman and genderqueer writers of colour: janaya khan, Natty Kasambala, Vanessa Martina Silva, Jamilah King, Kam Sandhu, Amy McQuire and Kristina Wong.

I’m motivated by music so while working on the magazine I put together a little #BlackLivesMatter playlist:

Find out more and read some of the articles from the magazine, here at the New Internationalist website.

Recent writing

This week I had a couple of posts published on the Transition Free Press blog:

  • Real Media conference celebrates independent journalism about the new campaign and network to support and promote independent, ‘public interest’ journalism. As someone passionate about these kinds of publications and platforms, I’m really excited about its potential. Real Media are holding a conference in Manchester on 28 February.
  • Accelerating transition, city by city about the ARTS research project. A study of five European city regions which aims to find out more about what makes some areas hubs for sustainability.

At the Institute of Development Studies, I have been working on three features for the Interactions website, focused on how the project’s key themes: unpaid care work, gender-based violence and urban health of women and girls in low incomes settings, relate to the Sustainable Development Goals. The first article on unpaid care work is now published here.

Beyond burnout: the mental health costs of activism

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of New Internationalist magazine.

In 2009, the Iranian Green Movement became headline news as millions of people took to the streets to protest against alleged vote-rigging in the presidential elections. Scenes of green-clad protesters and their brutal repression by the security forces went viral on social media. One of the most iconic, and tragic, videos circulated was of the fatal shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan; it became an internet phenomenon.

Behind the headlines, online activists including Cameran Ashraf, then 29, worked around the clock to spread the information. Based in Los Angeles, Ashraf first heard about the protests on the news, and realized he could use his technical skills to support the movement. ‘I’m half Iranian and my cultural ties with Iran are pretty strong,’ he explains. ‘I just really believed in it. These were people that looked like me, people my age; they weren’t doing anything violent.’ Ashraf says he quickly became highly trusted among some of the movement’s key activists, and was engrossed in hosting services for a website and providing digital security. ‘I barely slept for two years,’ he reveals.

Activists like Ashraf can be repeatedly exposed to traumatic situations as they fight for what they believe in. These experiences can bring on post-trauma symptoms including flashbacks, insomnia, sudden personality change or withdrawal. If these persist, they may develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The British National Health Service estimates that one in every three people who have a traumatic experience is affected by PTSD.

‘Burnout’ has become a common term, but the deeper psychological impacts on the activists are rarely discussed.

Warning signs

Emily Apple is one of the founders of Counselling For Social Change, based in Cornwall, southwest England. In 2014, the group plans to begin retreats to a permaculture site where activists and campaigners can receive therapeutic support.

The organization was partly inspired by Apple’s own diagnosis of PTSD after many years as an activist, including experiences of police violence and undercover surveillance: ‘We’d seen so many people go through PTSD and realized that we are not making activism sustainable,’ she explains. ‘It is opening up that debate and saying that trauma work is actually part of the resistance.’

When experiencing post-traumatic stress, some push away the warning signs that something is wrong. Ashraf explains that this was his experience: one signal came in 2009 when he went to see a new Star Trek film at the cinema. ‘I was a huge Star Trek fan but seeing people laugh was so alien, seeing people enjoy themselves was so weird. I was, like, “What the heck is going on? Happiness is foreign.”

‘I think when you believe in the cause so much, you can actually view these warning signs as deficiencies, as proof that you’re not doing enough. So rather than hearing them, I basically kicked enjoyment out of my life.’

Ashraf began receiving treatment for PTSD in March 2011 after his darkest period. It was a decision that, he says, changed his life: ‘I had a breakdown where I completely went dark for two weeks. I didn’t talk to anybody; I don’t remember anything about that time. I just remember not turning on my computer, not answering anything – but stuff was still going on, people were being arrested… I just lost it.’

Emily Apple says that these warning signs are key: ‘I carried on far longer than I should have done and would have been far better if I had got help earlier, but it took me getting physically ill.

‘When people are being physically tortured by the state, people want to take action; but when you’ve got police harassment, intimidation and long-term psychological damage because of the tactics that they’re using, we don’t take action.’

Theoneste Bizimana is a psychologist and co-founder of the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities programme (HROC) in Rwanda, which provides support to trauma survivors.

He has seen many activists with post-trauma symptoms, including PTSD. ‘There is no support for activists in my region,’ he explains. ‘Many activists fully commit themselves to serving and solving other people’s problems. Activists need time to work on their own trauma and be encouraged to write or tell stories and communicate about their work.’

Emotional first aid

Simon Griffiths is a member of Activist Trauma Support, which was founded in 2005 and provided ‘emotional first aid’ that year to activists during the G8 summit in Scotland, including a missing persons helpline. It also became involved in the Climate Camp movement.

The bulk of Activist Trauma Support’s work is now web-based. It provides information on activism and mental health, and a directory of places where people can get support. It also runs awareness-raising workshops.

‘I think when you believe in the cause so much, you can view the warning signs as deficiencies, as proof that you’re not doing enough. I basically kicked enjoyment out of my life’
Griffiths says that there can be a dismissive attitude towards taking the psychological effects of activists seriously: ‘It’s the kind of work that isn’t seen as being as important as direct struggle. But, on the whole, it does seem like those attitudes are changing.’

Activist Trauma Support encourages campaigners to support each other and take steps to protect themselves. Griffiths says that basic things such as sleeping, eating healthily and exercising are vital but easily forgotten. ‘Although it may sound counterintuitive, keeping a journal can be a really good way of de-escalating things like panic attacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares. A journal allows you to take a measure of control and get some context, as well as making you aware of any patterns.’

Brian Martin is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He believes support networks outside of activism are useful: ‘Sometimes it’s like, if you’re not doing late nights and so on then you’re not a real activist – you’re not committed to the cause.

‘Activism is like any kind of activity: you get ups and downs. Sometimes you’re totally elated, sometimes it’s very depressing because things are going badly. If that’s your entire life, then it can be quite damaging.’

In Shut Them Down! – a book reflecting on the 2005 G8 summit – Activist Trauma Support wrote about how emotional support for activists is an important tool in making state repression less effective: ‘Beatings, arrests, isolation custody, violation of rights, threats, lies… Their focus is on creating fear, getting inside our heads and stopping us from taking action again.’

Ashraf is certain that a better understanding of mental-health issues would build stronger and more sustainable movements. ‘It’s essential for modern movements to survive, especially as many are movements of attrition. For example, you can see it’s going to be a long process in Egypt; it’s going to take a while to get some kind of healthy situation.

‘It’s really vital that these issues be opened up and talked about. The more people do that, the more comfortable people will be. In Iranian culture – in a lot of cultures – any discussion of psychological issues is taboo, so it has been hard.

‘The first thing is to respect what you feel. There is a level of self-disrespect that goes into activism, I really believe that. Feelings that come up, you mustn’t shut them out, because they will help you get through it – and they’ll help you keep going.’

Giving A-toss about disability

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website.

As the end of the London Paralympic Games draws closer, the legacy of the event for the disabled community is on the agenda. Will the inspiration and excitement have a lasting positive outcome for people with disabilities in Britain?

Many campaigners are unconvinced. They are also angry at the Games’ sponsorship by Atos. The company is deeply unpopular for its Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), which help the Department for Work and Pensions decide who receives health and disability related benefits and who is ‘fit for work.’

The tests have come in for a huge amount of criticism for being inaccurate and unfair as the government tries to cut the cost of the welfare bill, leaving many without the support they depend on.

When Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics was announced, it caused an outcry. Many found it offensive that the organization was going to be so closely associated with an event celebrating the best of disabled sport.

Last week saw the climax to a week of action by activists intent on ramming home the message that the French company don’t #giveatoss about disabled people. On Friday 31 August Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut teamed up outside Atos’ UK headquarters for a ‘Closing Atos Ceremony’.

Protesters also blockaded and occupied the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). As police broke up the demonstration outside, DPAC reported one arrest, several injuries to protesters and damage to one woman’s wheelchair.

In a poignant twist, Friday’s protest also coincided with the death from cancer of 51-year-old Cecilia Burns from Northern Ireland – just six months after DWP found her ‘fit to work’ following an Atos assessment.

Earlier in the week DPAC staged a vigil outside Atos, delivering a coffin to remember others who had died, including people who committed suicide after receiving their assessment results.

Elsewhere, actions included a mass ‘die-in’ in Cardiff’s city centre, which blocked a major road, as well as a blockade in Manchester outside an Atos office.

Paralympians themselves have voiced their concern about Atos. Former swimmer and seven-time medal winner Tara Flood played a role in the ‘Atos Games’ as part of a spoof ceremony where she had a medal awarded then taken away after an Atos assessment.

During the opening ceremony of the Paralympics it was thought Team GB were hiding their Atos-branded lanyards in an act of protest. However, team officials later denied this.

The Paralympics and whether they benefit the struggles of disabled people has become a thorny issue. Activists have been accused of drawing attention away from the games and the achievements of the athletes…

Read the rest of this blog here at the New Internationalist website.

Raising the curtain on Atos

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website on 31 July 2012.

A cockroach, a tapeworm, herpes, a blood-sucking leech – just some of the terms used to describe Atos Healthcare by people who have come into contact with the company..

Assessments for disability and health related state benefits, conducted by Atos, have been hugely controversial. The company is paid by the British government’s Department for Work and Pensions to help decide who can work and who can’t, who keeps receiving money and who doesn’t. Not only are their results often found to be inaccurate, but the process can be lengthy and debilitating.

In September 2011, the Atos Stories collective started advertising online for people’s experiences of Work Capability Assessments with the aim of making them into plays. Judith Cole [a pseudonym] decided to set up the project after reading horror stories in the press. ‘I think I first saw the story that probably went around on Twitter about a poor guy who’d died of a heart attack after an Atos assessment,’ she says.

Adam Lotun, 49, is one of the people who got in touch with his experience. He says he has had two assessments by Atos, one where he was considered able to work, and one where he wasn’t.

However, he feels neither was in-depth enough to determine the true impact of his multiple health issues which include mental health problems, learning disabilities, needing a wheelchair for mobility, and a machine to help him breathe at night. ‘If I was a horse they would put me down,’ he says.

By May 2012 the small collective had three play scripts ready: Atos Stories, a drama with music, The Atos Monologues and Atos Street Theatre, all available via their website for people to put on in their communities.

Campaigners can use the plays to raise awareness about Atos and the issues faced by people with disabilities. Interest has been building, including from activists angry at Atos’s sponsorship of the Paralympics.

Kerry-Anne Mendoza is a 30-year-old campaigner from Our Olympics. ‘There’s still a shocking amount of public ignorance about the stuff that’s happened with Atos and what the actual impacts are on the disabled community,’ she says.

Act Up, a community theatre company based in Newham, London is putting on a performance of Atos Stories. The group is made up of both people with disabilities and people without. ‘We are now trying to adapt it and make it accessible for our group,’ says Yvonne Brouwers their chair…

Read the rest at New Internationalist.

 

Carry on Cwtching

This article first appeared in the June/July 2012 issue Red Pepper magazine.

In January, a fledgling community group opened the first in a series of squatted social centres in Swansea. Naming themselves Cwtch, the Welsh word for cuddle, most of the group met during Swansea’s Occupy protests, but from day one they were a movement in their own right.

‘Not everyone in Occupy Swansea wanted to do a social centre,’ recalls 57-year-old activist D Murphy. ‘So we kind of split our meetings into two: we would have an Occupy meeting and then people would drift away and talk about the social centre.’

They began by squatting the abandoned Dolphin hotel in the city centre, after gaining access through an open window. Just one day later they’d transformed the 66-room hotel into the Cwtch Community Centre. There was a donations-optional café, a freeshop and room to relax and hold workshops.

Cwtch has found strength in the variety of people involved. ‘There’s one local businessman who was there from the beginning. There’s a university lecturer and I’m an office manager . . . I’ve made a wonderful new friend who’s 17; it’s cut across all kinds of boundaries,’ says D.

Cwtch has keenly promoted the centre via its own videos, on Facebook and in the mainstream media too. Its transparency has helped attract a diverse range of Swansea residents. At the Dolphin hotel many different people could be found enjoying a cup of tea, or browsing the library, including young families and homeless people.

Homelessness is a serious problem in Swansea. More than 15,000 people sought council help for homelessness in Wales during 2011, up 11 per cent on the previous year. The highest number of homeless as a percentage of the population is in Swansea.

Cwtch’s aim has been not just to provide shelter for the homeless but to highlight the lack of provision for homeless people. ‘Considering the wealth of finance we’re supposedly stopping by running a free arts café, you’d think they could provide more than a single emergency bed for the homeless of Swansea,’ comments Rev, another member of the organising group.

The hotel’s leaseholder, UBS, acted quickly and an interim possession order was obtained, bringing the group to court on Valentine’s Day. D says the courts were surprisingly sympathetic: ‘When he [the judge] was handing down [the verdict] he said if he had any discretion in the matter he might have come to a different decision’…

Read the rest at the Red Pepper website.

World Naked Bike Ride: a protest with a difference

This article first appeared in the Ecologist on 27 April 2012.

A group of naked strangers cycling through a city centre is going to turn heads. Every year across the UK World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), ‘the world’s biggest naked protest,’ is held to try and get people to notice in the name of oil dependency and pollution, car culture and the vulnerability of cyclists.

The two biggest issues for the naked protesters are our continued dependence on oil dependency and the lack of safe roads and pathways for cyclists, helping us to reduce our dependency on oil. The naked part of the protest symbolises the vulnerability of cyclists as road users.

While the rides themselves are a bold statement, there is debate around whether they are effective in communicating the issues behind them. The organisers of the bike ride say campaigning for better protection  of cyclists and promoting cycling itself is the only reason they do it. ‘But bear in mind that those behind it often have their own angle,’ says a spokesperson for the WNBR.

Bigger environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth see the naked protest as something more amusing than effective. ‘I applaud the bare-faced cheek of those taking part in the naked bike ride. Anything that helps raise awareness of pollution and greener modes of transport is a good thing in my book,’ says Andy Atkins, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth (FOE)…

Read the full article here at the Ecologist.