Following on from my last post, ‘Is anti-capitalist youth work next?‘ Gus John’s complementary, challenging perspective focuses in particular on the authoritarian threat to Black Lives Matter, whilst also questioning sharply what he describes as ‘the alternative provision industry’.
In this wide-ranging interview on the Institute of Race Relations web site, veteran educational campaigner Gus John draws connections between initiatives currently pursued by three government departments (education; children and families; culture, media and sport), and lays out what the government has in store for anti-racism, particularly Black Lives Matter.
Gus John: In summary then, this is the increasingly authoritarian state trying to tell BLM ‘we’re coming for you’. They are letting black campaigners know, we want to put you on the Prevent list and treat you as enemies of the state and of wider law-abiding society.
This, I fear, is the thin end of the wedge as far as the drift into totalitarianism is concerned. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but it would not surprise me in the least if at least 50 percent of the strictures that have been introduced as a consequence of COVID are not written into law to hem us in for all time, thus curtailing many of our hard-won freedoms, while civil society feels it has to be similarly authoritarian, snooping and snitching on neighbours and seeking to criminalise every single non-conformist behaviour.
So, we must never fail to be vigilant and to see the connection between these seemingly consensual things. Above all, we need to take collective action and demonstrate to Boris Johnson and his government that we will not stand by and let them harass and curtail the freedoms of Black Lives Matter.
Professor Gus John is a lifelong campaigner for children’s education rights, a visiting professor at Coventry University and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education. In 1999, he co-founded the Communities Empowerment Network (now INCLUDE, which he currently chairs), a charity that provides advocacy and representation for excluded students and their families. He was the first black director of education in the UK (1989-1996) as director of education and leisure services in the London Borough of Hackney.
[ I posted this piece a few hours ago on the In Defence of Youth Work web site. It felt worthwhile to repost here. It’s rushed and the dilemmas deserve more attention but for the moment my sinuses are exploding on account of a Saharan dust storm.]
Department for Education (DfE) guidance issued on Thursday for school leaders and teachers involved in setting the relationship, sex and health curriculum categorised anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance” and equated it with opposition to freedom of speech, antisemitism and endorsement of illegal activity.
Put aside for a moment the issue of the impact of this fait accompli upon youth workers in schools I wonder where this leaves an open-ended youth work practice, which seeks to encourage a critical dialogue as to the roots and contemporary manifestations of oppression and exploitation?
Where does it leave In Defence of Youth Work itself, which in its founding letter argues that Capitalism is revealed yet again as a system of crisis: ‘all that is solid melts into air’; which in its cornerstones argues the continuing necessity of recognising that young people are not a homogeneous group and that issues of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability remain central?
In this chapter we argue that the present state of English youth work exemplifies the corrosive influence exerted by neoliberal capitalism upon its character and purpose. In doing so we hope to contribute to a collective understanding of how youth workers might criticise and resist on a national and international level neoliberalism’s arrogant contention that there is no alternative.
and which closes:
Our starting point is not youth work per se. It is a radical educational praxis, often described as critical pedagogy, which does not belong to any particular profession or institution. At heart it is about the struggle for authentic democracy, about the continued questioning of received assumptions. It is obliged to oppose neoliberal capitalism. Educators committed to this radical praxis do so in a diversity of settings, under differing constraints and across the board.
Is it mere coincidence that in the same month the Tories invoke the threat of ‘extreme political stances’, the American President has launched a scathing assault on the liberal New York Times 1619 Project? It sets out its stall as follows:
Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.
In an article by Michael Desmond, ‘Capitalism’, well worth reading, he asserts, in order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.
In response Trump rails against decades of Leftist indoctrination in schools, which have defiled the American Story.
I fear that we are not taking the insidious global slide to authoritarianism seriously enough. To be in conversation with young people about prejudice and injustice, sexism, racism and transphobia, precarious work and trade unions, the environment and climate change, anarchism, social democracy and socialism, all these talking points necessitate grappling with Capitalism’s past, present and future. Doing so is to play a part in the emergence of the critical young citizen, who will, whatever their political leanings, resist being told what they have to think.
[This post appeared first on the In Defence of Youth Work web site.]
My days long past in the Trotskyist movement have rendered me supremely cautious when it comes to calls for an International. Back then we had fierce disagreements about what constituted the authentic Fourth International, which would lead the struggle against Capitalism. The Third was but a Stalinist front. Some spoke even of a Fifth International. I have no desire to sneer at this part of my life. In the main we were committed sincerely to changing the world for the better. However our commitment was always haunted by its elitism. We knew best. None of our proposed Internationals were rooted in the social movements from below.
I’m moved to write this brief preface. which begs many questions, because this very weekend sees the launch of a Progressive International following an initiative from the Democracy in Europe Movement and the Bernie Sanders Institute. We are asked to unite around the following vision.
We aspire to a world that is:
Democratic, where all people have the power to shape their institutions and their societies.
Decolonised, where all nations determine their collective destiny free from oppression.
Just, that redresses inequality in our societies and the legacy of our shared history.
Egalitarian, that serves the interests of the many, and never the few.
Liberated, where all identities enjoy equal rights, recognition, and power.
Solidaristic, where the struggle of each is the struggle of all.
Sustainable, that respects planetary boundaries and protects frontline communities.
Ecological, that brings human society into harmony with its habitat.
Peaceful, where the violence of war is replaced by the diplomacy of peoples.
Post-capitalist, that rewards all forms of labour while abolishing the cult of work.
Prosperous, that eradicates poverty and invests in a future of shared abundance.
Plural, where difference is celebrated as strength.
I find it difficult to believe that any youth worker sympathetic to the politics of In Defence of Youth Work and its cornerstones of practice could be at odds with the above. This said, and given the doubts expressed in my opening thoughts, how many of us will be moved to embrace the call to be involved, expressed eloquently if problematically in Noam Chomsky‘s keynote speech.
“We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake.”
He identifies “the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy as the key issues facing humanity”.
He goes on to assert that “the last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.“
There is much to discuss. I have my disagreements. How could it be otherwise? Crucially though, from an IDYW perspective his emphasis on the imperative of creating a vibrant democracy chimes with our sense of open youth work as both a process of ‘intimate democracy’, the vital need to listen to one another, ‘to look into one another’s eyes’ as David Graeber put it and a process of active, collective democracy, which seeks to question and challenge the growing authoritarianism seeping into so many corners of our existence.
Last week the wonderful anarchist, activist and academic, David Graeber met an untimely death. The obituaries are united in acknowledging the insight, optimism and humour he brought into the political sphere. In his words, “capitalism dominates, but it doesn’t pervade”. He argued that “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it‘s something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” My only quibble would be ‘easily’?
Losing Graeber is difficult, because having people with his attitude is so essential to preventing horrors and improving the world. But the good news is: David Graeber’s framework rejects the idea that David Graeber is unique. It does not assume that knowledge and insight are handed down from intellectuals. It treats people as intelligent, and respects them rather than talking down to them.
I’ll confess something to you: on my bike ride to the office, I began to cry a little bit, because everything fucking sucks so much already this year, and things are getting so bleak and may get bleaker, and now it’s David Graeber this time, really? And I realized the only way I’m ever going to be able to keep myself from lapsing into despair if I can get myself to truly internalize the anarchist attitude of limitless defiance. To keep David Graeber’s death from being a total devastating loss, I will have to ensure I learn his lessons. I made a vow to myself through my tears: I will always notice things. I will notice what I am not noticing. I will help others to notice things. I will expose the criminal squandering of human potential. I will be nice to the reader. I will see joy as an end in itself. I will try to cultivate the kind of intelligence and humor that David Graeber showed. And I will fight, because that is what anarchists do. They do not put up with bullshit or bureaucracy. They refuse to accept the inevitability of tedium and the squandering of the gift of life. They dare to demand the “impossible.” Rest in power, David Graeber.
Find below in full as tribute his provocative pamphlet of August 2013, later to become a book, with thanks to the STRIKE coop and magazine.
On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant by David Graeber
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
Why did Keynes’ promised utopia—still being eagerly awaited in the ’60s—never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ’20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.
So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’ In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be.)
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.
It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.
While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.
The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ’60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.
Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done—at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.
Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: ‘who are you to say what jobs are really “necessary”? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the “need” for that?’ (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.
I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ‘taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.’ Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.
There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely (one or t’other?) Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.
This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.
Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told ‘but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?’
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3–4 hour days.
I ask no more than you read carefully and with respect Jonathan Cook’s interpretation of the orchestrated assault on Julian Assange and the very idea of critical, investigatory journalism. You might well read it with scepticism and hostility. Assange’s reputation has been trashed. Perhaps, more likely, you will read it in some ignorance. The mainstream media has buried its head in recent years, leaving him to rot in prison, hoping his legacy will be consigned to the dustbin of history.
A few extracts to whet or otherwise your appetite.
Court hearings in Britain over the US administration’s extradition case against Julian Assange begin in earnest next week. The decade-long saga that brought us to this point should appall anyone who cares about our increasingly fragile freedoms.
A journalist and publisher has been deprived of his liberty for 10 years. According to UN experts, he has been arbitrarily detained and tortured for much of that time through intense physical confinement and endless psychological pressure. He has been bugged and spied on by the CIA during his time in political asylum, in Ecuador’s London embassy, in ways that violated his most fundamental legal rights. The judge overseeing his hearings has a serious conflict of interest – with her family embedded in the UK security services – that she did not declare and which should have required her to recuse herself from the case.
None of this happened in some Third-World, tinpot dictatorship. It happened right under our noses, in a major western capital, and in a state that claims to protect the rights of a free press. It happened not in the blink of an eye but in slow motion – day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
And once we strip out a sophisticated campaign of character assassination against Assange by western governments and a compliant media, the sole justification for this relentless attack on press freedom is that a 49-year-old man published documents exposing US war crimes. That is the reason – and the only reason – that the US is seeking his extradition and why he has been languishing in what amounts to solitary confinement in Belmarsh high-security prison during the Covid-19 pandemic. His lawyers’ appeals for bail have been refused.
There were two goals the US and UK set out to achieve through the visible persecution, confinement and torture of Assange.
First, he and Wikileaks, the transparency organisation he co-founded, needed to be disabled. Engaging with Wikileaks had to be made too risky to contemplate for potential whistleblowers. That is why Chelsea Manning – the US soldier who passed on documents relating to US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan for which Assange now faces extradition – was similarly subjected to harsh imprisonment. She later faced punitive daily fines while in jail to pressure her into testifying against Assange.
The aim has been to discredit Wikileaks and similar organisations and stop them from publishing additional revelatory documents – of the kind that show western governments are not the “good guys” managing world affairs for the benefit of mankind, but are in fact highly militarised, global bullies advancing the same ruthless colonial policies of war, destruction and pillage they always pursued.
And second, Assange had to be made to suffer horribly and in public – to be made an example of – to deter other journalists from ever following in his footsteps. He is the modern equivalent of a severed head on a pike displayed at the city gates.
A sacrificial offering
Briefly, Assange raised the stakes for all journalists by renouncing their god – “access” – and their modus operandi of revealing occasional glimpses of very partial truths offered up by “friendly”, and invariably anonymous, sources who use the media to settle scores with rivals in the centres of power.
Instead, through whistleblowers, Assange rooted out the unguarded, unvarnished, full-spectrum truth whose exposure helped no one in power – only us, the public, as we tried to understand what was being done, and had been done, in our names. For the first time, we could see just how ugly, and often criminal, the behaviour of our leaders was.
Assange did not just expose the political class, he exposed the media class too – for their feebleness, for their hypocrisy, for their dependence on the centres of power, for their inability to criticise a corporate system in which they were embedded.
Few of them can forgive Assange that crime. Which is why they will be there cheering on his extradition, if only through their silence. A few liberal writers will wait till it is too late for Assange, till he has been packaged up for rendition, to voice half-hearted, mealy-mouthed or agonised columns arguing that, unpleasant as Assange supposedly is, he did not deserve the treatment the US has in store for him.
But that will be far too little, far too late. Assange needed solidarity from journalists and their media organisations long ago, as well as full-throated denunciations of his oppressors. He and Wikileaks were on the front line of a war to remake journalism, to rebuild it as a true check on the runaway power of our governments. Journalists had a chance to join him in that struggle. Instead they fled the battlefield, leaving him as a sacrificial offering to their corporate masters.
This poem was writen in 2007 by the renowned poet of the people and key figure in the San Francisco ‘beat’ movement of the 1950s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He celebrated his 100th birthday in March, 2019. Its themes resonate down the years and reach out beyond the shores of the United States. In accord with a term used to describe his poetry it is ‘wide open’ to interpretation in these complex and contradictory times. Are we ‘absolutely’ sure who the shepherds, the leaders, the liars, the sages and the bigots are? And which collectives, which people refusing to be sheep are resisting the erosion of their rights and freedoms?
“Pity The Nation”
Pity the nation whose people are sheep, and whose shepherds mislead them. Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, and whose bigots haunt the airwaves. Pity the nation that raises not its voice, except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero and aims to rule the world with force and by torture. Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own and no other culture but its own. Pity the nation whose breath is money and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed. Pity the nation — oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away. My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.”
I believe there are parallels here with the climate of creativity to be found in parts of youth work forty years ago, expressed in the best of part-time youth work training and the subsequent entry into Higher Education of some of its participants.
An extract from Building a Radical University
Building a Radical University is an inspirational account of what can be achieved in a climate of educational experiment, freedom and cooperation. This history of radical innovation at the University of East London will be published on 4 September in print and as a free e-book, and the book is available now for pre-order. In this extract from her chapter ‘Bloody Snobs’, Tanya Frank describes UEL’s impact on her life and work.
I knew I wasn’t clever enough to get a fully-fledged degree. My teachers at McEntee High had known it too, telling me I wasn’t college material. But I started to toy with the idea that I could maybe get a diploma in higher education. It would take two years of study at the polytechnic. The words diploma and polytechnic were less formidable to my ears. Encouraged by my tutors at Waltham Forest, and by the confidence I’d gained from recent forays into feminist and cultural studies writing, I decided to give it a go.
But by the start of the spring term at Waltham Forest College, I was pregnant again. Gordon, Dale’s father, and I bickered more than we didn’t, as he berated me for applying to polytechnic, reminding me that I would never earn as much as him, and that women’s studies would turn me into a lesbian …
Mum agreed wholeheartedly with Gordon that I should stay home and look after the children. A short access course was one thing, but leaving the kids in order to study for a diploma, and heaven forbid getting a full-time career afterwards, would risk causing them irreparable harm. The vice-principal of North East London Polytechnic leaned closer to Mum’s sentiment than my own, suggesting I might consider postponing full-time study for a year to focus on my domestic responsibilities.
But I knew differently, intuitively, despite the loud noise to the contrary. I knew that I needed something under my belt, for not if, but rather when Gordon and I would go our separate ways, and I would have to become everything to the boys. I took driving lessons. Just in case. In case of an emergency, in case I needed to do a big shop at the weekend, and secretly in case I might dare to really take up the course …
In the autumn of 1989, I clunked through the gears and stalled at every stop on my way to the main site of the polytechnic in Barking, Dagenham, hoping I wouldn’t get pulled up. I dropped Dale at the on-site crèche, and took newborn Zach with me into the classroom. The polytechnic was modern and spread out. A double grey portakabin housed the student union and bar, and sat smack bang in the centre of campus. The place was more Chingford Hall than Oxbridge, and I felt immediately at home.
I chose classes in women’s studies, third world studies (later renamed development studies) and anthropology. In that first semester I sat at the back of the lecture theatre and breastfed Zach, learning from women’s studies professor Maggie Humm how that nameless feeling which had been sitting heavy in my stomach for years, that sense of displacement and subjugation, was not just peculiar to me but had been written about and interrogated even before I was born by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. The units for women in the third world helped me conceptualise what I had witnessed in Andhra Pradesh, and to understand the gender politics at work in the community of Bangladeshis close to where I had lived, where a rising trend of termination of female foetuses had hit the headlines and caused international alarm. Theories of class and race, ideas that had shaped my life without ever consciously crystallising became suddenly as clear as the view from my tower block window – the North Circular Road, and beyond it the illegal caravans squatting near the perfectly round reservoir.
The access course had kept our learning local. We studied at The Vestry in Old Walthamstow, which had once been a workhouse for the poor, the industrial revolution, the suffragists, the miners’ strike, and Britain’s role in the first world war. But now, as part of my lessons at the polytechnic, I was learning things on a macro scale, global concepts of neo-imperialism, second-wave feminist writing from both sides of the pond.
In the buzz and fervour of it all, I started to find my voice, to read critically, to pin myself on the map, to know where I stood politically. Although I was attending the polytechnic part time, two days a week rather than three, in my heart and mind, in my gut that now churned with excitement and novel ideas, I was more than part-time, more than full-time; I was a whole new me …
I had a tribe. There was strength in the students in my cohort: Meena, a young divorced mother of five; Barbara, a florist old enough to be my mother; Michelle, a burned-out Afro-Caribbean nurse who worked on an intensive baby care unit. These women buoyed me up, talking to me late into the night about postmodernism, poststructuralism, post-everything. I finally found the confidence to stay on beyond the two-year mark and the diploma, and study for my degree.
North East London Polytechnic became the University of East London. I loved that something about my East End working-class roots was still there in the title of the university, and I loved that I was attending a real university now. By the time I graduated, I had learnt to craft ceramics, paint … take photographs and make an audio-visual tape-slide project in my Women in Art unit, to examine the slave trade and the impact of colonialism in my Women in Third World Development, but it was the opportunity to tell my story in the women in autobiography unit that would reshape my story forever.
In the light of a forthcoming play, which imagines what life might have been like for Anthony Walker, the 18 year old student, who 15 years ago was brutally murdered, Phil Scraton returns to a radio script he wrote 14 years ago. Its argument resonates vividly and painfully down the years.
Anthony: A Drama by Jimmy McGovern BBC 1 8.30pm 27 July 2020
For several years I wrote and presented a scripted radio broadcast for Féile Radio in Belfast. Seven each a year, 90 minutes long, the script interspersed with music. What follows is the final section from the programme: The Roots of Race Hate broadcast in 2006. The programme opened with my experiences of working with the Irish Traveller Community on Everton Brow, Liverpool in the 1970s. In this extract I mentioned the murder of Anthony Walker:
‘At the beginning of this programme I recounted my experience of visiting Walsall in the aftermath of an unlawful eviction in which three young Irish Traveller children died. They were trapped inside a burning trailer dragged from its jacks by bailiffs.
At the time I struggled with unanswered questions: • under whose authority could a local authority, using private bailiffs supported by the police, recklessly evict Traveller families in the dead of night, killing their children in the process? • what kind of supposedly democratic, pluralist state – national and local – would sanction such acts of brutality? • what kind of investigative system would deny that a grave crime had taken place? • why was there no expression of public outrage, no media concern, no political condemnation? • what kind of inquisitorial system would return verdicts of accidental death? • why was academic research uninterested in researching and recording the experiences of Gypsies and Travellers?
Alongside these six key questions was what I called the Henry Reynolds’ question. Gypsies and Travellers had endured violent repression for generations. Why weren’t we told? As an active anti-racist, why didn’t I know?
In a typically lucid, moving and considered commentary on Rwanda the Irish journalist, Fergal Keane looks down from a bridge and sees two bodies, man and baby, caught in the rocks to the side of the river. He writes: ‘I saw that the child had been killed with a machete, a gash across its skull. It did not seem like a real child. It looked like a doll. Or perhaps it would be more truthful to say I did not want to accept that it was a child. I looked again and of course knew that further back along the river, perhaps fifty to one hundred miles further back, an adult had taken a knife and ended the life of this child and then hurled it into the water … I kept my eyes closed and gripping the rails of the bridge made my way back to the car in the manner of a blind man. I did not want to look back at the river, to see it ever again. And on the journey north to Kigali where the war still raged, I kept asking myself the same question: ‘what kind of a man would kill a baby. What kind of a man?’
Keane goes on to talk of genocide, of how in Africa ‘we almost invariably explain such a slaughter as a matter of tribalism’. Naively, he continues: ‘A crazy African thing. A horror somehow mitigated by the knowledge that Africans have always been prone to this kind of behaviour. Genocide prompted by implacable and ancient tribal antagonisms.’ Like many of his fellow journalists and photographers Keane had arrived in the midst of recurring massacre and migration. There was no shared consciousness of the ravages of colonial rule and the exploitation of cultural differences.He says, ‘I drove in from Uganda believing that the short stocky ones had simply decided to turn on the tall thin ones because that was the way it always had been.’
Scratch below the surface of this genocide and you find not a simple issue of tribal hatreds but a complex web of politics, economics, history, psychology and a struggle for identity. Two years later, following his personal quest to understand the consequences of the brutal colonisation of Africa by competing European States and the protracted and bloody struggle for independence, Keane returned to his initial question, ‘What kind of man?’ he responds: ‘I think the answer is very different. What kind of man? Anyone, anyone at all. Not a psychopath, Not a natural born killer. A man born without prejudice or hatred … but a man who has learned hatred. A man like you and me.’
My research into deaths in custody in England reveals the depth of racism within the state and its institutions. Throughout the 1990s, custody deaths leading to unlawful killing or neglect verdicts at inquests represented the sharp end of the continuum of state violence directed towards Black people. While brutality knows no hierarchy, the killing of Joy Gardner in July 1993, by officers of the Metropolitan Police extradition unit, exemplifies the impunity with which physical force can be directed towards those who resist arrest. She was bound with tape, her mouth gagged, dying of suffocation. Following her death it became apparent that black people featured disproportionately in the numbers of controversial deaths in custody. Oluwashiji Lapite, Brian Douglas, Leon Patterson, Wayne Douglas, Ibrahim Sey, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Sarah Thomas, Alton Manning and Kenneth Severin became familiar names mourned within Britain’s Black communities. Each died in custody, their families alleging neglect or brutality
As inquest verdicts of unlawful killing began to stack up, actively pursued by INQUEST, the United Nations Committee Against Torture produced a report on its extensive UK investigation into custody deaths. It concluded that a significant cause for concern was ‘the number of deaths in police custody and the apparent failure by the state party (UK) to provide an effective investigative mechanism to deal with allegations of police and prison authorities’ abuse’. Soon after this report was published the Police Complaints Authority stated that the police ‘have to ask themselves whether they are treating black and ethnic minority people as well as they would white people’. Coming in the wake of reassurances from all criminal justice agencies and the Home Office that the Macpherson Report’s recommendations had been implemented effectively, this was a significant indictment of police policy and practice.
In March 2000 the killing of Zahid Mubarek by his racist cell-mate in Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution was a clear illustration of how, within an institution, racism can be ignored or even encouraged. Stops and searches, house raids and wrongful arrests, internment without trial and so on, together add to the experience of vulnerability in communities where institutionalised racism has a long and established history. Racism on the street draws support, even legitimacy, from institutionalised racism.
Anthony Walker died in Huyton, Liverpool just over a year ago. With his cousin, he walked his girlfriend to a bus stop. For no other reason than the colour of his skin he was on the receiving end of a torrent of racial abuse from a young man outside a pub. Frightened, the three walked quickly through the local park to another bus stop. But the racist and his mates jumped in a car and ambushed the three as they left the park. Anthony was left with an axe in his head. He died several hours later. In a climate of hate, to be different is enough to be a target.
To be Black or Asian, is to be other, to be an outsider. With racist attacks throughout England and Wales up six fold, in the current climate the deep seated racism that is Empire’s legacy has once again risen to the surface. And racist attacks are a regular feature of daily life throughout the island of Ireland. Abuse and assaults on the street, people firebombed from their homes, mosques and shrines desecrated. It is a climate of hate that emphasises already existing inequalities in a society that promotes the pretence of multiculturalism.
Working class Black and Asian communities understand all too well the meaning of economic marginalisation and social exclusion. They also understand the historical context of imperialism that treated their ancestors and their homelands as places to conquer, to enslave and to own. And so it is with Travellers. Like Stephen Lawrence and Anthony Walker, Johnny Delaney was killed by racists in Ellesmere Port in 2003. Johnny was 15 and lived with his family on the Travellers’ site in Liverpool. He was attacked by a group of youths on a playing field. Knocked to the ground he was repeatedly kicked and one of his attackers stamped on his head with both feet. He said Johnny deserved the kicking ‘because he was only a fucking gypsy’. To his family and to witnesses the attack was undoubtedly racist. The Cheshire police investigated it as racially motivated. Two 16 year old boys were prosecuted for the killing. The judge, however, ruled that there was no racial motive for the attack. The boys were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to four and a half years.
Johnny’s father and mother, Patrick and Winifred, campaigned tirelessly to have the killing recognised as racist. The real concern remains that because Johnny was neither Black nor Asian his death could not be classed as racially motivated. Yet it is difficult to appreciate how the killing could be considered anything but the ultimate act of race hatred. The trial judge’s ruling exemplified how easy it is to take racism out of context, to remove it from the equation, thus denying its ever-present and all-pervasive reality. Hate knows no hierarchy. Yet Gypsies, and Irish Travellers in particular, remain the most vilified of all ‘ethnic’ groups. They exist at the sharp end of the continuum of institutional and interpersonal racism. In the media they endure levels of racist abuse and stereotyping that would lead to immediate censure if directed against any other ethnic group.
Earlier this year Patrick Delaney died, campaigning to his last breath for justice and rights for Gypsies and Travellers. In the tributes to his work one stood out: Patrick took every opportunity to challenge the inequalities that Gypsies and Travellers experience in the criminal justice system. He was destroyed by the lack of justice to such an extent that it killed him.
In understanding racist or sectarian violence and murder, the long history of colonial rule and the power it dispersed to its beneficiaries, at home as well as abroad, is central. Its legacy is racism, its currency is hatred and its consequences implicate us all.’
Last year I had the privilege of attending, together with Malcolm Ball, both of us remnants of the Leicester ‘Dirty Thirty’ Miners Support Group, the 35th Anniversary Orgreave Rally. On this blog I used the occasion to argue afresh for the significance of class struggle for the politics of youth work – YOUTH WORK & CLASS: THE STRUGGLE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME
We promised ourselves that we wouldn’t miss another one, but the virus seemed to have put paid to that desire. However all is not lost as the virtual world rides to the rescue.
Join us for our:
VIRTUAL ORGREAVE RALLY Saturday 20th June 2020, 1.00pm
TACKLING WORKING CLASS INJUSTICES UNITED AND STRONG
Every year the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign hold a wonderful, vibrant rally at Orgreave to commemorate the day Striking Miners were brutalised by police at the Orgreave Coking plant on 18th June 1984. This gives us all an opportunity to meet and show solidarity with comrades and friends and gather together with our magnificent display of banners and placards.
Our campaign for truth and justice this year is commemorating the 36th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike and the events at Orgreave. Covid-19 Pandemic restrictions and the lockdown mean that we need to hold our Annual Rally online to keep us all safe.
Chris Kitchen: General Secretary NUM Eileen Turnbull: Shrewsbury 24 Campaign Sheila Coleman: Hillsborough Justice Campaign Jan Cunliffe: JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association) Lee Fowler: Blacklisting Support Group Judy Bolton and Yvette Williams: Justice4Grenfell Kevin Horne: Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign Janet Alder, sister of Christopher Alder, unlawfully killed in police custody Sal Young: NHS Worker and GMB Branch Secretary
Chris Peace and Joe Rollin: Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign
UNITE Brass Band PCS Samba Band
Given the dedication at the top of this blog I know that my dearest friend and comrade, Steve Waterhouse will be with us in spirit.
I was 73 yesterday, no great age nowadays in the Western Empire, at least unti the arrival of COVID-19. Would-be friends ask of me, ‘why don’t you settle for a quiet life?’ Marilyn found this lovely poem, to which I’ll keep returning as the years roll by. The poet is Brian Bilston, who can be found at https://brianbilston.com/about-brian-bilston/
Brian Bilston is a laureate for our fractured times, a wordsmith who cares deeply about the impact his language makes as it dances before our eyes.’ Ian McMillan
AS I GROW OLD I WILL MARCH NOT SHUFFLE
As I grow old I will not shuffle to the beat of self-interest and make that slow retreat to the right.
I will be a septuagenarian insurrectionist marching with the kids. I shall sing ‘La Marseillaise’, whilst brandishing homemade placards that proclaim ‘DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING’.
I will be an octogenarian obstructionist, and build unscalable barricades from bottles of flat lemonade, tartan blankets and chicken wire. I will hurl prejudice upon the brazier’s fire.
I will be a nonagenarian nonconformist, armed with a ballpoint pen and a hand that shakes with rage not age at politicians’ latest crimes, in strongly worded letters to The Times.
I will be a centenarian centurion and allow injustice no admittance. I will stage longstanding sit-ins. My mobility scooter and I will move for no-one.
And when I die I will be the scattered ashes that attach themselves to the lashes and blind the eyes of racists and fascists.