Multiple Fronts

November 21, 2008

Zenobia has the fantastic post up, asking who is feminism reaching, and pointing out that the way a lot of contemporary feminism works (ie meeting weeknights in city centre bars) means that a lot of women are inadvertently excluded because they can’t come to meetings and the issues discussed don’t seem immediately relevant to their lives.  Zenobia recommends that feminists get involved in more community-based groups instead, and I couldn’t possibly agree more.  First of all, you’ll probably have a much more positive impact on people’s lives in the short-term, especially with the current severe democratic deficit.  Building a community garden, for example, might improve people’s lives directly and immediately in a way that marching at this year’s RTN may not (especially as I’m not convinced RTN accomplishes what it sets out to do, but that’s a whole other issue). 

Furthermore, the revolution is not going to be engineered by a small group of elite activists while everyone else just goes along with it.  It’s going to come about when some sort of critical mass of people who refuse to do what authority tells them to is reached.  Or basically – what if the soldiers sent to Iraq refused to fight?  The army couldn’t court martial ALL of them, so they’d have to give up on the war.  Similarly, wouldn’t it be better if men were educated to believe that they were not entitled to women’s bodies, and so no rapes occurred, rather than locking up rapists after the fact (and let’s not even start on the oppressive nature of the prison system).   Additionally, community-based work will hopefully expose privileged activists to less privileged people (thereby, for example, convincing middle-class white women that racism is a feminist issue!) and recruit a wider variety of people to activism.  On the latter point, I remember an interview an American anarchist was giving about building the anarchist movement.  And he said that all anarchists should get involved in a community project – and don’t mention anarchism once.  Work really hard, and develop a reputation as a really dedicated activist who really knows his/her stuff – and don’t mention anarchism.  And finally, if someone asks you about your politics, then talk about anarchism a bit.  If they’re still interested, invite them to a meeting, but don’t push it.  Basically, if people respect you, and you’re an anarchist, they’ll be interested in anarchism; but if you’re a jackass, they’ll just write you and anarchism off. 

However, a lot of the “activism” done by “activist groups”, ie protesting, circulating petitions, etc.  is also really necessary.  Everyone is going to be negatively affected, for example, if rape crisis centres lose their funding; but the free time and money necessary to pitch up in front of parliament protesting once a week is not a universal attribute.   Some kinds of activism, particularly the time-consuming kinds and the kind that risks arrest, often require the people who do them to have a certain amount of privilege (this is not always true, and people braver than I often risk arrest despite being far less privileged).  White people with British citizenship are risking less by getting arrested then migrants, or British people of colour.  Yet, as Zenobia discusses, these campaigns are significantly weakened by their membership consisting mainly of privileged people.  Plus, the important community-based work, discussed above, is not getting done.

The solution, I think, is to conceptualise progressive/radical movements as having multiple fronts, with need for excellent communication and collaboration between fronts.  For example, No Borders is an anti-capitalist activist group the members of which are mainly middle class and mainly white (there are both people of colour and working-class people in No Border, but they’re in the minority).  A lot of this comes from how people get involved with No Borders (often through university) and the fact that No Borders is a direct action group, which means being willing, in theory at least, to risk arrest.  No Borders is very clear that they don’t think less of people who can’t take this risk, and I’ve never felt looked down upon because I can’t be arrested (whereas I’ve totally felt that in a feminist space before).  Similarly, the preponderance of students means a lot of protests are held during office hours; this is good insofar as it means you can protest in front of government buildings while employees are actually there, but it also means that a lot of people (myself included) can’t go to the protests.   There are serious problems with such a homogenous membership; on the other hand, it’s important to have people that can protest during office hours and can risk arrest.

Activists in individual anti-deportation campaigns are often working-class and much more likely to be people of colour.  That’s because an individual anti-deportation campaign involves a person’s friends and neighbours rallying around him/her, and asylum-seekers are usually placed in council estates.  Some inspiring stories of solidarity have come out of anti-deportation campaigns.  The government, for example, won’t send asylum-seekers to certain areas of Glasgow anymore because whenever they tried to deport someone, their neighbours would run and stand in front of the person’s door, so immigration officials couldn’t get through.  And these were always really grim, impoverished areas, where the government has blamed asylum-seekers for their own failure to do anything to alleviate that poverty.  Yet, the residents were able to see through this propaganda, and came to the defence of their neighbours.

Individual anti-deportation campaigns are crucially important – they save people’s lives.  They also expose British citizens to the racism and injustice of the asylum system, and cause people to question the basic justice of borders.  But they won’t necessarily lead to an open borders policy, nor do they help people who aren’t asylum-seekers (migrant workers, for example), nor anyone who cannot rally community support. 

Both types of activism, clearly, are important and necessary.   Ideally, there should be close communication and collaboration between No Borders and the National Coalition of Anti Deportation Campaigns (and there often is).  Those of us who have the time should get involved in both and act as a personal link between groups. 

Multiple fronts are also necessary because of the inadvertent negative impact that activism can have, particularly on less privileged people.  If detention centres are shut down, their staff will all be thrown out of work.  Not only are working-class people more likely to find themselves in situations where they are hurt most by otherwise positive changes caused by activism (if an airline stops deporting people, they will lose money and may have to lay off staff), but they are less likely to have the resources required to recover quickly from this impact.  If detention centres are shut down, the governor of the detention centre will also lose his/her job, but he’ll probably find another one pretty quickly and/or has savings and bonds and whatnot that s/he can live off of until then.

Consequently, it’s important that activists campaigning for the close of detention centres are ALSO supportive of retraining schemes and job creation programs, etc.  I think this will also make us better activists, because when you scratch the surface a bit, you often see that apparently unrelated issues are in fact linked.  The government’s failure to act on poverty issues, and it’s subsequent scape-goating of migrants, contributes a lot to the xenophobic atmosphere that No Borders is trying to combat.

The first step in building a movement that functions on multiple fronts is to follow Zenobia’s advice and join a local community centre.  You’ll probably learn a lot more from the people there than they will learn from you.  And remember:  don’t mention anarchism (or feminism) until someone specifically asks.

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6 Responses to “Multiple Fronts”

  1. Zenobia Says:

    Some inspiring stories of solidarity have come out of anti-deportation campaigns. The government, for example, won’t send asylum-seekers to certain areas of Glasgow anymore because whenever they tried to deport someone, their neighbours would run and stand in front of the person’s door, so immigration officials couldn’t get through. And these were always really grim, impoverished areas, where the government has blamed asylum-seekers for their own failure to do anything to alleviate that poverty. Yet, the residents were able to see through this propaganda, and came to the defence of their neighbours.

    That’s a very direct action which targets the problem immediately and exactly where it is happening: don’t let the cops drag the people out of their homes. So, in many ways, they’re the polar opposite of the phone blockade. I think if we were maybe to find out where a deportee lives and all go and stand outside and offer whatever help was needed, that might be a lot more effective than phone blockades and so on.

    And, it’s the kind of thing that can only been done if you have been active in your community otherwise. If you go as a member of the community, that’s great. If you go as a member of an activist group with an ideological agenda, it’s suspect, because whatever your own intentions, you are going as a member of a group that has said “we are more bound by our shared ideology than by solidarity with other human beings”. So, there might be solidarity there as well. But you might be there partly because you think this action would be good for your group. A group has to be kept alive after all, and everything you do has to be in the interest of the group, otherwise, no more group.

    Although, I have to say, I met a handful of people from No Borders, and I was favourably impressed. And, of course, individual anti-deportation actions are crucial, but they have to be thought-out, otherwise they’re the same as sitting there telling yourself it isn’t happening.

    And about people getting laid off if you close down a call centre and so on, my previous point was that it’s far better to be laid off than sacked, hence my concern over not getting call centre workers into trouble, at least not without a damn good reason – a damn good reason being that you were sure this was going to actually achieve something. Otherwise, action is necessary, yes, but not this particular one.

    It’s always awkward to argue against one action because it looks like you’re saying “let the fuckers die!” while stroking a cat and cackling as Fu Manchu’s daughter drags in your next victim. But – anyway, I should probably be replying to your other post with this, since I 100% agree with everything you’ve said here.


  2. […] on community and activism Gwen at High on Rebellion has a fantastic response to my post from Wednesday. In fact, we’ve been having a very interesting discussion about […]

  3. Gwen Says:

    I think we basically agree on an underlying philosophy, and we’re disagreeing on:
    1) The extent of the negative impact of this action on call centre employees
    2) The necessity of the phone blockade
    3) The effectiveness of the phone blockade.

    WRT people standing in front of their neighbours doors – right now, it’s not a solution open to everyone. One of the reasons it worked in Glasgow is because the migrants were in tower blocks, so everyone could see the immigration authorities coming, and the neighbours therefore had time to get to their friends’ door. That’s not always possible if people are living in houses, especially as the snatch squads come at 6am. Plus, in some parts of the country, the anti-immigrant government propoganda has worked really well, and there have been a lot of racist attacks against migrants. Finally, some migrants’ build communities outside the area where they live; in Manchester, for example, the Lesbian Community Project supports a lot of asylum seekers who have fled their country of origin because of their sexual orientation, but the LCP members might not necessarily live near the asylum seeker. So, while organising neighbours is a great idea, we can’t adopt it as our only strategy – in fact, we shouldn’t adopt anything as our only strategy, as it makes it too easy for the government to neutralise our resistance.

    1) I don’t think that the negative impact from the phone blockade on call centre workers will be minimal. They wouldn’t have fired people at my call centre over this, and from what I can tell, legal protection for non-unionised workforces is actually better in the UK. Of course, there’s a lot of caveats there, like are the workers aware of these protections, etc., but I still think that there’s not going to be a huge impact from the phone blockade.
    2) & 3) I think the phone blockade has a good chance of working; phoning/faxing/emailing for specific migrants has worked on other airlines before, but BMI is more intransigent. However, if we can persuade BMI that there phone lines are going to be shut down once a month if they keep deporting people, they will stop because of the money they’ll lose. Plus, if word gets around, it might persuade other airlines to stop deportations without us having to take this step. And I do believe this tactic is necessary. As I’ve said before, no one tactic will solve everything, but this will definitely slow down deportations.

    I have no faith left in our ability to influence government on most issues. Our former minister of Immigration (Liam Byrne) insisted that “he thought of his children” before consigning children to detention centres; our current minister of Immigration (Phil Woolas)believes that if there were fewer immigrants there would be less racism and acts according to this backwards logic; and of course, our “feminist” deputy leader of the labour party blocked debate on pro-choice amendments to the HFE, reportedly so that the Northern Ireland MPs would back the government on 42 days’ detention. I’m not saying we still shouldn’t try, and there are good MPs (Diane Abbott!!), but I don’t think that we should think of government lobbying as an effective strategy, particularly when lives are at stake.

  4. Zenobia Says:

    WRT people standing in front of their neighbours doors – right now, it’s not a solution open to everyone. One of the reasons it worked in Glasgow is because the migrants were in tower blocks, so everyone could see the immigration authorities coming, and the neighbours therefore had time to get to their friends’ door. That’s not always possible if people are living in houses, especially as the snatch squads come at 6am. Plus, in some parts of the country, the anti-immigrant government propoganda has worked really well, and there have been a lot of racist attacks against migrants. Finally, some migrants’ build communities outside the area where they live; in Manchester, for example, the Lesbian Community Project supports a lot of asylum seekers who have fled their country of origin because of their sexual orientation, but the LCP members might not necessarily live near the asylum seeker. So, while organising neighbours is a great idea, we can’t adopt it as our only strategy – in fact, we shouldn’t adopt anything as our only strategy, as it makes it too easy for the government to neutralise our resistance.

    Certainly, it’s not something that can even be expected of anyone, I mean it’s a pretty amazing thing to do. And I agree, it’s not a good idea to just have one strategy.

    1) The extent of the negative impact of this action on call centre employees

    I think, less the negative impact, more the general idea that so much campaigning has to involve hassling the workers in a company.

    2) The necessity of the phone blockade

    I don’t disagree on the necessity of doing something. But,

    3) The effectiveness of the phone blockade.

    maybe not this. I appreciate we need to do something fast, and direct actions are necessary – and this is one of the least direct actions possible, even though it has the ‘trappings’ of a direct action. I think there’s a lot of groundwork that hasn’t been done, a lot of, not so much unacknowledged privilege, or unexamined privilege (I think if there was a privilege acknowledgement event at the Olympics left-wing feminist-leaning anti-racist activists would probably hold the record at one zillion acknowledgements per half-hour or something), but lack of examination of what this actually means. I think where we’re disagreeing is, I think as relatively privileged people we wield different types of power, as I said in my comment on the other post – and I don’t think anything radical can be achieved through the power that comes to us through our class, or our economic privilege. We have that privilege that if we walk and talk like middle-class people, we are listened to more easily – I don’t think we should be using that.

    In fact, any power that constitutes a privilege, we shouldn’t be using, because a privilege has to be stolen, really, from someone else – cue sound of bones being crushed under your feet (not to be over-dramatic or anything).

    I have no faith left in our ability to influence government on most issues. Our former minister of Immigration (Liam Byrne) insisted that “he thought of his children” before consigning children to detention centres; our current minister of Immigration (Phil Woolas)believes that if there were fewer immigrants there would be less racism and acts according to this backwards logic; and of course, our “feminist” deputy leader of the labour party blocked debate on pro-choice amendments to the HFE, reportedly so that the Northern Ireland MPs would back the government on 42 days’ detention. I’m not saying we still shouldn’t try, and there are good MPs (Diane Abbott!!), but I don’t think that we should think of government lobbying as an effective strategy, particularly when lives are at stake.

    Well, as I said in a previous comment, this is one area where we need to do more work. Previous generations of women didn’t have the vote – we have it (again though, a privilege we have over the people we’d be helping, not saying we shouldn’t use it of course, but think about it…). In fact, one of the big problems faced by, well, feminism certainly, I don’t know about the left, is that we tend to think we live in a totally free society now, and it’s harder to notice in which ways we, and most people, are disenfranchised. In a way, while we’re not explicitly forbidden anything, the restrictions on our enfranchisement are conveyed using the language of choice and empowerment, so it’s harder to notice.

    In the long term, I guess what I’m doing here is draping myself in a red flag and saying we need some sort of socialist revolution. In the short term, we need lots, lots more organisation, a better network for information and education – which, if it is to really work and not go via the government, we seriously need to work on our self-presentation, because people aren’t necessarily going to trust a bunch of commies, not because they’re not interested in left-wing politics or whatever (seriously – I’m the one saying that of course working-class people want to read theory and it should be accessible – do you see me taking that back and saying they’re not interested in politics?), but because we tend to be up our own arses at the moment.

    And, I guess it looks like I’m advocating crawling up there to see what we can dig out, inventorying it, and analysing the data. What I’m in fact advocating is basically perspective: we need to not just acknowledge where we’re speaking from, but actually apply that knowledge to what we do. Not so much analyse our own stomach contents (we’re already pretty good at that) but what we’re standing on at the moment, and whose heads are being injured by our stray cutlery and chicken bones, who’s sustaining permanent spine damage from supporting us.

    I mean, how much of our identity and the value we place on things is based on how much labour and how many hours of how many people’s lives were sacrificed in obtaining it for us? That’s not just a realisation you can put away on a shelf and examine at your will, it’s as much a part of you as your skin.

  5. Gwen Says:

    I agree with much of what you said in your comment. I do think it’s a good idea to visualise activism in a short-term/ long-term model, and in the long-term, I completely agree with everything you’ve said.

    In the short-term, almost any anti-corporate activism involves going through the people in the lower ranks, because it’s not possible to contact the people in the higher ranks. If I call up my bank to complain about their overall crapness, I’m not going to be put through to the Vice-President of customer relations. I will be talking to someone being paid minimum wage in their call centre, who can do absolutely nothing to help me. Corporations are structured so that anyone with any power can completely avoid accountability.

    Which is why the phone blockade is less about complaining to the call centre workers and more about shutting down the phone systems. You call up, you politely ask if the person on the other end could please tell you about BMI’s ethical policies. You listen while they tell you where you can find that info. You then politely ask whether BMI deports people, as you find that behaviour extremely unethical. They hang up on you, as they have been instructed to do. And meanwhile for 2 minutes that person has not been able to book a flight for BMI, so BMI has lost money. If enough people do it, BMI won’t make a lot of money that day, and it will no longer be in their interest to deport people.

    It is seriously fucked up that any kind of complaint to any kind of company, or any other institution goes through to people who are the least responsible for what’s happening within that company. And that is definitely an issue for long-term activism.

    But in the short-term, people are being sent to their deaths, and we need to figure out what to do about that. I don’t see any other way to prevent BMI from deporting people, any other strategy that has the same possible effectiveness and is relatively easy for a lot of people to do (as opposed to standing in front of doors, or chaining yourself to an airplane, etc.)

    And to be honest, I’m not sure HOW to apply our knowledge of where we are coming from in this situation. I can see how this would work in the long-term, but I really don’t know how to apply it to this particular situation right now. And I’m being serious here, so I would not be at all offended if you explained it to me like I was 6. Especially since, and I know you’re not saying this, but this is how I see the options before me, the alternative is to adopt strategies that are a lot less potentially effective. Which puts me in the position of saying, based on what I know and believe, “I’m sorry you’re being deported, but this one thing that I think could help you I feel would be an abuse of my class privilege, so you’re on your own.”

    To reiterate I KNOW that’s not what you’re saying, but that’s how I end up feeling about it.


  6. […] is coming out, in part, of two conversations I’ve been having with Gwen at High On Rebellion, here and here (Gwen, no need to link my big blabbering mouth from your comments twice if you don’t […]

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