Kids on strike

On Tuesday 3 May thousands of parents kept their kids off school for the day in protest at Year 2 National Curriculum Tests (SATs).

Hundreds of people (most recent estimates are 1000!) attended a lively and colourful rally in Brighton’s Preston Park where I spent the morning. I wrote a report about the ‘kids strike’ for Red Pepper’s website and you can see some more photos from Brighton’s rally here on Flickr.

To find out more, see the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign website.

 

 

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.

Unwatchable

First published on the Red Pepper website on Thursday 20 October 2011

It’s a sunny day and a small, blonde girl is picking flowers in her garden. The rest of her family, are arriving home from school, cleaning and washing the car. It’s a picture of middle England tranquillity, a large rural house and a close-knit family.

Within two minutes they are under attack leading to brutal rape, humiliation and murder, a regular occurrence in the Democratic Republic of Congo where nearly one woman a minute suffers some form of sexual abuse. The film uses an old campaigning trick to try to get Western audiences to take action on issues abroad. It asks what if this happened to someone you know? What if it happened to your family?

The film is definitely shocking, as the title suggests,  and Save The Congo and filmmakers Black Jack and Dark Fibre are hoping it will shock people into taking action. The film is attempting to highlight the link between violence and rape in the DRC and mobile phones. As the film is only available through the official site, they are careful to make sure there is always some context but the link between the story and mobile phones (explained by text at the end of the film) is not immediately clear without some digging around the website. It’s also arguable that making the film so graphic and not widely available will restrict how far their message spreads.

Hunger for DRC’s natural resources has had a negative effect on its citizens and like many countries in the global south natural resources have proved a curse instead of a blessing. The basis of the Unwatchable campaign is that minerals mined in the DRC have been financing the war which has seen over five million deaths in the country since 1998 and led to mass rape. DRC is rich in minerals such as tin, tantalum, tungsten that are all used in the manufacture of mobile phones as well as other electronic equipment such as games consoles.

These minerals pass through many hands before reaching the multinationals and money can get into violent hands. Over 90% of mines in eastern Congo are controlled by armed groups or sections of the army that have ‘gone solo’. As prices and demand rise there is more to bargain with; minerals are either bought directly from armed groups or from miners who pay taxes to warlords in order to mine. They are then sold on to traders who export the minerals to smelting companies for refining and ultimately to factories for manufacture. Unwatchable calls for more transparency in the process and an end to ‘blood minerals’.

Rape is used as a cheap and effective way to force populations to leave areas, or destroy communities and gain control of these lucrative minerals. While mass genocide would often provoke decisive action from the international community mass rape does not. Congo has now been named one of the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.

Mobile phones are now seen as a necessity in the UK so the team behind the film are hoping that the connection of the industry to the events shown will galvanise people into action, seeing another away that their lives are affecting those elsewhere, and not for the better.

The main call to action, which comes at the end of the film, is a petition urging the EU to introduce legislation to stop mobile phone manufacturers buying conflict minerals as well as contacting their mobile phone manufacturer to demand they make sure they are not using blood minerals by publishing details of their supply chain.

The plot for Unwatchable is based on the true story of Masika and her family. Masika’s husband was mutilated and murdered, her daughters gang raped and Masika herself was raped over twenty times and forced to eat her husband’s dismembered penis. Masika was left unconscious and developed fistula. Traumatic fistula is often suffered by women in the DRC after violent rape. If it remains untreated it can lead to dangerous infection, incontinence, restriction of mobility and a nasty smell. These effects can lead to women, who have already undergone severe trauma, being ostracised from communities ans left immobile.

Maskia’s story is actually far more horrific than the one in the film and the video of her telling it on the website is incredibly powerful, coming directly from the person affected. Unwatchable is not the only recent film to highlight the issue of blood minerals. Blood In The Mobile is soon to be released which explores the relationship between minerals, violence and rape in DRC.

Although only just over six minutes long the production of Unwatchable is slick and you can tell it has some big Hollywood names behind it including composer David Arnold, cinematographer Michael Bonvillian and Mark Wolf. Film can be a good way to get an issue into people’s consciousness but there needs to be a clear link between calls to actions and horrific stories. Unless a film does this it doesn’t matter whose ‘eyes’ it is told through, people will still shrug it off as ‘just another tragedy’ they can’t do anything about.

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.

To buy this issue of the magazine or subscribe to Red Pepper go to their website here.