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.

Profile: D Murphy

Amy Hall speaks to D Murphy about Swansea’s latest wave of squatted community centres, being arrested in the West Bank and years of campaigning for social justice.

D Murphy is part of the self described ‘motley crew’ in Swansea who launched the squatted Cwtch Community Centre in January and February this year. Named after the Welsh word for cuddle, the group took advantage of some of the empty buildings that pepper the city centre.

They started at the empty Dolphin Hotel in the city centre, gaining access through an open window, and running a refreshingly open and successful social centre. After being evicted from here they moved to the JT Morgan department store, were again evicted, then took up the old Earlsmoor Care Home which they renamed Serfsmor. After a third eviction they decided to regroup and take a break.

D, originally from Cork in Ireland, is now concentrating on her trip to Palestine in April with the Welcome to Palestine initiative. She has been a dedicated campaigner for Palestinian freedom since she first went there in 2005.

D started working for Undercurrents, an environmental and social justice video production company, ten years ago. She is their office manager. The charity was founded in 1994 out of a desire to film with people who were protesting instead of behind police lines.

Colleague Paul O’Connor describes her as a ‘mother to all’. “I think her heart rules over her head sometimes but her passion for a cause is admirable,” he says. “She is the glue, which bonds our organisation together.”

Before Undercurrents D worked in research. After doing a master’s degree in Research Methods she got a job doing research for housing and homelessness charity Shelter and later worked for Cardiff School of Medicine and trained someone with a learning disability to carry out peer research.

D has flu today, and is wrapped up in a dressing gown, intermittently coughing. She says she rarely gets ill but when she does it’s her body’s way of saying slow down but the 57 year old shows no signs of doing so.

Caradog Jones became good friends with D through the Cwtch group, despite the 39 year age gap. He says her energy was very valuable to the group. “She was brilliant at facilitating the consensus decision process at meetings, making sure nobody was left out and no one voice dominated,” he explains. “Everybody knows of her, from the local refugees to a homeless mate who knew her as ‘that Irish girl’.”

Is the Cwtch group planning long term?

Most of us work and there are a few students with some flexibility but do we want to do something full time? It’s a huge commitment, unfunded, voluntary and we absolutely do not want to go down the funded route at all; it changes the whole dynamic. I like the idea of just going into empty buildings, doing something creative. You could open up, do nice things, community picnics, barbecues, and whiz out again.

Is the squatting aspect important to Cwtch?

Not for all of us, I’d say it’s about half and half. I’m a mum and a gran and I haven’t done much squatting but I’ve been and stayed in squats and I think it’s a really fundamental right to people in this country, and more so now than ever. It’s not right just to leave buildings empty. If you’re going to, at least offer them to groups, do something positive don’t just let them to deteriorate.

Is there a particular philosophy behind the Cwtch group?

There’s one local businessman who was there from the beginning. There’s a university lecturer and I’m an office manager. There’s a real mix of backgrounds occupations and age, it’s cut across all kinds of boundaries. I suppose it’s the kind of philosophy you would find around the Occupy movement. If you speak to different individuals some would be firmly anti capitalist. It’s not something I broadcast but the principles my heart leads towards are anarchist. Anarchist philosophy to me is the most just of all ideologies.

What other projects are you involved with?

I suppose the biggest passion really in my life, the thing I’m most committed too, is Palestine. After the war Iraq went ahead I was very disillusioned with marching and protesting. I thought a lot about how I want to move forward in my life and I came across ISM (International Solidarity Movement) so I decided to go to Palestine with them. What I saw moved me in such a way that I could never forget Palestine now.

What happened when you were detained?

I went last July with a delegation and we decided to go via Tel Aviv and be open about why we were going. 127 of us were detained for six days. We decided to stay together as a group and went to the passport controls and they said ‘what’s the purpose of your visit?’ We said visiting our friends in Bethlehem and we had an invitation from the cultural centre and straight away we were stopped. By the end of the day we found ourselves in the detention centre. We were detained for no reason simply by wanting to openly visit our friends in Palestine.

People think it’s only around Gaza but there’s a different kind of siege around the West Bank. It’s day-to-day relentless humiliation, degradation and dispossession of land and homes. It’s relentless.

How does Undercurrents and Swansea Telly work?

Undercurrents support anything that’s related to social justice and we do a lot of training around giving people the skills to tell stories about their lives or their issues or their causes. I left a well paid job at the university to have the chance to work with Undercurrents, for half the money, but it’s so much more fun, I absolutely love it.

Swansea Telly is a giant project and we’re the lead partners in it. It’s internet telly for Swansea really. At the moment it’s a lot of community video, but we’re working on a music channel and were hoping to have more local bands on there and maybe more sports. It’s almost like a YouTube for Swansea.

When did you first become politically active?

When I was 16 I got very involved in the Irish language movement in Ireland. They were shutting down a very small school down in Dunquin, an Irish speaking area. I told my mum I was going to stay with my friend and her family, and we were going to study for the week. Instead I did a walk from Cork to Dublin and my mum only found out when I was being arrested in Dublin after an occupation. I had kids quite young: when I was 19 I was pregnant so really the poll tax was my next really active thing in this country; I moved here in 1980.

What do you like to do when you get any free time?

My idea of a dream holiday is to go with a few friends, put a backpack on and to walk for days. For me walking is the only time I slow down. But I think my family is my main hobby. My grandkids range from the age of a few months to 17. We just have a laugh together and I see them whenever I can. They keep me fresh and they challenge me.

What are your hopes for the future?

My biggest hope would be to see peace and freedom in Palestine before I die, it makes me sad me sad because I feel I probably won’t.

I just hope that the capitalist system crumbles. I’m very excited about living in these times because the edifice is crumbling that’s been in place for hundreds of years and I just hope I’m still around when it all comes down. It will be a fearful time but it will be a time that’s full of promise for ordinary people that we can have a better and more just world.

Interview with Jill Evans MEP

First appeared on alt.cardiff on Friday 11 November 2011.

Jill with Cymdeithas supporters

Politicians normally try and hide their law breaking from the public, but Jill Evans Member of the European Parliament (MEP) announced hers publicly when she stopped paying her TV licence in protest against cuts to the only Welsh language television channel, S4C.

“I’m standing side by side with the other people, the other 99 or a hundred, who’ve been refusing to pay their license fees,“ says Jill, outside court where she is appearing for the refusal. “I also feel that I’m doing it on behalf of the people who are not in the position themselves to take that sort of action because of their own circumstances.” She is adamant that this is her duty as a politician.

After a long wait a nervous looking Jill is called into courtroom two of Pontypridd Magistrates Court, joined by around 30 supporters. A large group are from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), here as a thank you for her support. The youngest supporter, who stays outside the courtroom, is a shy young girl in traditional Welsh dress.

Jill was still a student at Aberystwyth University when the original campaign to establish a Welsh language television channel took place. This also included the tactic of refusing to pay TV licences. “At that time students didn’t have televisions”, says Jill. “Thousands of people refused to pay, I remember the time very well.”

Although this is her first criminal offence, Jill has been an activist for many years and has campaigned with groups including Shelter and Greenpeace. She is currently chair of CND Cymru and took part in a blockade of Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston with them in 2010.

It was when Jill got to university that she became involved in party politics and joined Plaid Cymru. She says this helped her combine her interests, “for me the whole language movement, the peace movement, the environmental movement, all the things that I’ve been involved in all came together.” She is now President of the party.

A day in court

Outside the court there is a murmur that proceedings will not be in Welsh, something a large group of Welsh language activists is bound to take seriously. But in the end they are translated into English, through headphones, to those who can’t speak Welsh.

Representing herself, dressed in a smart suit, Jill pleads guilty and gives a heartfelt speech explaining why she stopped paying. “This is an opportunity to show your support by not placing a fine,” she tells the magistrate. However, she is told that although her guilty plea was taken into account she will be fined £500 plus legal costs. Cries of “disgrace” come from supporters and one person shouts “stand up for the language and democracy”.

Back outside the court Jill looks relieved but resolute for the future. “I was given quite a heavy fine”, she says, “but of course when I begun this campaign, when I started this action I knew what the consequences would be. It was something I expected.”

But from now on Jill will be paying her television licence, along with other Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg campaigners, after an agreement was made between S4C and the BBC which guarantees funding for S4C until 2017. The focus is now a call for the devolution of broadcasting control to Wales, something Jill is also backing.

Language and identity

Jill sees S4C’s security as crucial to the survival of the Welsh language. “I live in the Rhondda and so many young children now go to Welsh language schools who come from non Welsh speaking homes. It’s so important that when they go home from school they hear the language at home.”

Born in the Rhondda in 1959, Jill also learnt Welsh as a second language and says a S4C is important for older people too. “It became such a symbol that it wasn’t just a TV channel. It’s been a real symbol of the whole campaign for the welsh language and its recognised as that around Europe as well.”

As an MEP since 1999 Jill also works to improve the status of Welsh across Europe. “It doesn’t yet have equality”, she explains, “but it is seen as a model by other minority languages as a very successful campaign.”

Jill’s approach to language is linked to her identity as a Welsh person but she doesn’t see that as exclusive. “I come from a family which has a very strong Welsh identity but I’m the only one who speaks Welsh. It’s not essential for being Welsh but I know that most people see the language as something that belongs to all of us whether we speak it or not and its something that has to be protected.”

Under The Radar: Achub S4C

First appeared in Red Pepper – Oct/Nov 2011

Amy Hall talks to the activists fighting to save the only Welsh language television channel.

The creation of a Welsh language television channel has been on of the major achievements in the campaign for the protection of the Welsh language over the past 40 years. S4C or Sianel Pedwar Cymru (Channel 4 Wales) was eventually established after a long campaign with Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) – often the younger and more radical side of Welsh language activism – at the forefront. Before S4C was established, Welsh language television was catered for by BBC Wales, but the programmes were sporadic and generally on the fringes of the schedule.

The solution for many came during discussions over a new fourth channel in the UK  in the late 1970s. Both the Conservatives and Labour promised a fourth channel in the UK in the late 1970s. Both the Conservatives and Labour promised a fourth channel broadcast in Wales and dedicated to the Welsh language. But when the Conservatives were elected in 1979 they changed their minds, outraging campaigners, many of whom refused to pay TV licences.

Often engaged in direct action scaling and sometimes deliberately damaging television masts; a number of campaigners went to prison. Former MP Gwynfor Evans threatened to go on hunger strike in 1980 f the decision wasn’t reversed. In 1982 it was, and Welsh language campaigners won their own television channel: S4C.

One of the aims of S4C was to reflect the variety of Welsh culture and experiences in a channel relevant to the people of Wales. In reality coverage hasn’t always lived up to the aspirations of campaigners, focusing on a fairly narrow range of Welsh life. As well as providing Welsh language news and sports coverage, entertainment and children’s programmes, it features offerings like Fferm  Ffactor: an ‘X Factor‘ for farming with one unlucky person eliminated each episode in the battle for Farmer of the Year.

Bilingualism in Wales has grown rapidly in recent years with approximately 22 per cent of the population now speaking Welsh. Yet just as the Welsh language audience is growing the channel for Welsh speakers is being threatened. Current government proposals will sift funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the BBC, which campaigners fear will threaten S4C as the BBC suffers cuts of its own and has to look at its priorities.

Heledd Melangell Williams is a student from Nant Peris who has been heavily involved in recent campaigning around S4C: “The most frustrating thing for me is that thee was such a big and succesful campaign to get S4C and so many people went to prison, then they can just take it all away – I’m shocked people can do that.”

She is clear that the BBC will not prioritise Welsh language television: “If the BBC had to make a choice between funding an episode of Doctor Who and funding a Welsh language music programme then it would be Doctor Who. A minority language can’t compete with those viewing figures.”

The threat to S4C has led Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg to start a new campaign in its defence. Its first protest, in Cardiff, attracted over 2,000 people. Other actions have included two protesters climbing a television relay building near Caernarfon, a camp outside the BBC in Bangor and occupations of BBC offices in Cardiff and Carmarthen. Some people are also refusing to pay their TV licenses in an echo of the past campaign.

The first court cases have now taken place as people return to direct action. Cymdeithas activist Jamie Bevan is refusing to pay his court fine or stick to the limits of  curfew imposed on him for breaking into Conservative MP Jonathan Evan’s office. He argues that Welsh judges would send a clear message to London by not imposing penalties on Welsh language activists. He now faces a custodial sentence. There have also been arrests after Cymdeithas activists painted ‘Achub S4C’ (Save S4C) on BBC buildings in London.

Heledd Williams explains why young people like her care so much about the channel: “My generation has grown up with Welsh being around as a normal language, in school and on the television, and we want to show that there is a place for it in the modern world.”

The channel has been criticised for recent low viewing figures and a lack of willingness to work with new talent, but Williams says what it needs is a new direction, not a slashing of funding: “Since this campaign has been going it has raised awareness about S4C and the viewing figures have gone up slightly. They are also producing more imaginative programming.”

Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg says it will keep battling until S4C is truly secure and independent. With more than 60 towns and cities currently bidding to host the UK’s first local television services, Cymdeithas also wants provision for Welsh language broadcasting to be written into the licences in Welsh speaking areas from the beginning.

Campaigners argue that the threat to S4C shows that Westminster is not interested in protecting the language. They are calling for the devolution of Welsh broadcasting to Wales to allow Welsh speakers to control their own television channel and develop S4C into a broadcaster that represents the diversity of Wales’ rapidly growing number of Welsh speakers.

This article was written a while ago but to get the latest on the campaign go to the Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg website in English and Welsh.

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