Charter flight deportations and school census boycott

As the climate of hostility towards migrants in the UK continues to grow I wrote a short piece for December’s New Internationalist magazine about a boycott of the school census. This asks parents, guardians and carers in England to state if their children are foreign nationals and the information has been used by the Home Office.

More recently I wrote this about the impact of deportation charter flights on families in the UK for Aljazeera. This was published during over two weeks of protest across the UK, as well as demonstrations in Jamaica and Nigeria. The #StopCharterFlights actions included ‘ad hacks‘ on the London tube system, a demonstration outside the British High Commission which had to be rescheduled after arrests


Solar buses, Cornish language, post referendum racism and crowdfunded housing for migrants

I’ve been a bit rubbish about updating this blog with my writing lately so here’s a quick roundup:

From the last two issues of New Internationalist: The response to racism after the UK’s European Union referendum (September) and the fight to save the Cornish language after government cuts (October).

For Positive News I wrote about the Thousand 4 £1000 project, crowdfunded housing for migrants in Brighton who have no other means of support.

This week the Guardian Sustainable Business network published my article about The Big Lemon bus company and Brighton Energy Coop’s plan to bring electric buses to the streets of Brighton and Hove, powered by solar energy generated at the Big Lemon depot.

Smiley-faced monopolists, Nuit Debout and Newbury’s ‘refutrees’

By Thomas Bresson

Nuit Debout, place de la République. By Thomas Bresson, under a CC License.

The July issue of New Internationalist is out now, featuring three articles from me.

The theme of this month’s magazine is ‘smiley-faced monopolists’. It argues that “for Facebook, Amazon and Google, we have traded our privacy for something we find useful and put on hold our support for ethical shopping in exchange for the ease of low (or no) price and almost-instant gratification.” The magazine questions the exploitative and anti-democratic nature of  ‘surveillance capitalism’.

My feature focuses on online ‘direct’ giving and lending platforms. Why bother with aid agencies when you could just get money directly to those in need?

I also wrote two short articles for this month’s news section: one on the relentless Nuit Debout movement and discontent in France, and the other about the ‘refutrees’ of the Newbury bypass which were saved from destruction and are now thriving around the country.

Find out more about this month’s magazine, as well as reading selected articles, here at the New Internationalist website.


Preventing Prevent and LGBTI rights in the Caribbean

I have two short stories in the June issue of New Internationalist which is out now.

One article focuses on court cases being fought by LGBTI rights activists in Belize and Jamaica. When I was in Belize in January I met Caleb Orozco of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM), a tireless activist who is challenging the country’s anti-gay sodomy law.  When I got back to the UK I also spoke to lawyer and activist Maurice Tomlinson who is challenging a similar law in his home country of Jamaica, as well as laws which restrict his rights to travel as a gay CARICOM citizen.

The second story is about the PREVENT, Islamophobia and Civil Liberties National Conference which takes place in London on 4 June. The event will examine the impact of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, which in 2015 legally enforced on public sector workers the Prevent duty, which encourages people to monitor and report others they suspect to be at risk of radicalisation.

The main section of the magazine is written by journalists from Sierra Leone, and takes a critical look at the impact of Ebola, asking whether the right lessons have been learned. New Internationalist also has an interactive documentary called ‘Back in Touch‘ which brings the stories to life.



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.’


Krey vs Rio Tinto: a community struggle against coal expansion

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

John Krey moved to the village of Bulga in New South Wales expecting a quiet retirement. The 73-year-old did not expect to be taking up another full-time job: fighting mining giant Rio Tinto. For the last four years, Krey, with fellow-members of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association (BMPA), has worked to stop the expansion of the Warkworth open-cut coal mine to within 2.6 kilometres of his community.

‘It’s a David and Goliath battle and we’re determined to beat the buggers,’ says Krey, a former quantity surveyor. ‘The history of open-cut mines in our area is that it destroys villages.’

In April 2013, the BMPA won a legal challenge against a previously approved expansion of the mine. In the ruling, the judge highlighted the project’s ‘significant adverse impact on biological diversity’, as well as negative social effects and noise and dust pollution. However, soon after, the New South Wales government proposed policy changes, which gave economic benefits a higher priority. Rio Tinto reapplied for expansion and it was granted by the Planning Commission in January 2014.

‘The Planning Department has worked hand-in-glove with Rio Tinto to ensure this project was fast-tracked to approval,’ said Steve Phillips in a press release for the Lock The Gate Alliance, an Australia-wide movement that fights coal and gas expansion.

The mine’s expansion should be global concern – Greenpeace predicts that Australia’s coal exports will account for 1,200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution each year by 2025.

The Supreme Court is now considering the case and, at the time of going to press, was expected to give its decision in March 2014.

Meanwhile, the BMPA has also taken its case to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and is not ruling out direct action. Activists from elsewhere have said they are prepared to ‘stand in front of the bulldozers,’ says Krey.


Do you know your neighbours?

I have recently made a new podcast for New Internationalist on the FAN network…

Nearly two years ago my partner persuaded me to go with him to a FAN meeting in Cardiff. He had stumbled across the group through work but had become hooked. I wasn’t keen to give up some of my Saturday morning but decided to give it a go eventually and was glad I did.

Friends And Neighbours (FAN) groups began as a network of people making a difference through the power of conversation. When fear and anger towards the ‘stranger’ next door is often promoted by politicians and the mainstream media, FAN successful brings people together, not through some kind of top-down ‘cohesion’ exercise but through community run groups which just ask people to talk on a subject for five minutes. Nothing more.

Although FAN began in Cardiff, the idea has now spread as far as Pakistan, all with the same structure and principles. For this podcast I spoke to FAN fans in England, Wales and Pakistan.