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Rax Interview with Paul O'Connor

In July, New Internationalist will publish the Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them.

The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.

Paul O’Connor is the co-founder of Undercurrents, an organization who have been providing practical media support and training to activist groups in the UK and the first regular source of alternative film news since the mid 90s. The group have been on the cutting edge of media activism and have been an inspiration to people who have decided to ‘be the media’ worldwide. Their book, ‘The Video Activist Handbook’ is recognised as being one of the leading books on the subject. Their video work has appeared several times in the mainstream media and they are acknowledged as leaders in the field. The Rax team caught up with O’Conner in March 2010.

What issues do you think are most important for young people to address today?

Climate change is the obvious answer, as this is going to have the most dramatic impacts on all our lives. However I think the corporate control of the internet is an issue, which needs campaigning on. The net is the ideal method for coming together to solve the challenge of halting future climate chaos. Corporations meanwhile are relying upon bullying and harassment to stop people from illegal filesharing. The internet belongs to us all so what message do we want to give back to the corporations?

What was the main mission of Undercurrents?

When we launched undercurrents in 1994, we wanted to create an outlet for stories of people taking inspiring actions to bring about positive change. We wanted to put camcorders into the hands of people who were on the frontline of environmental activism- to give the views, which rarely if ever made it to TV screens of the general public.

In the early days of video activism and ‘being the media’ what impact did that have on campaigning?

Video Activism as we know it began in the 1980s when the camcorder was introduced from Japan. Suddenly anyone could make a film, copy it and share it with friends, supporters and beyond. In the 1990s as camcorders got smaller and less expensive, we trained activists to use video in various ways:

– for producing short videos to inspire others to join a direct action campaign. These videos would use music and dramatic images to show the fun, the techniques, the issues and who else was involved.

– for legal support. Filming police actions on protests has proved vital in many cases, showing very different stories to police accounts in court.
Camcorder footage has prevented many cases of injustice.

– practicing talking in front of friend’s camcorders has helped many activists to go in front of mainstream TV cameras. This has produced more coherent and confident speakers.

– activists filming their own actions has allowed them to share their techniques with other groups across the world. In Australia campaigners sent videos to London of themselves blockading rainforest-logging trucks by erecting bamboo tripods and sitting on top. In London the videos were watched by anti-car campaigners Reclaim the Streets who then used similar tripods made from scaffold poles to blockade motorways and city streets.

– providing different accounts for news reports. Activists’ footage has made a story possible. When the mainstream reporters won't arrive in time or refuse to trespass, it has been the activists’ footage, which has enabled the story to be told.

Can you give a few examples of campaigns that benefited from your involvement and say how this improved their success?

Climate Camp- we have established a live TV studio during the recent Climate Camps at Kent, London and Nottingham. Producing dozens of daily chat show from inside the camp (many times surrounded by riot police and helicopters) showed people at home just what was occurring. We had first hand experience of people joining the camp after watching our shows. Many stated that it demystified what the Climate Camp actually was all about. Many of our images of Climate Camp direct actions have been used in News broadcasts and current affairs programs such as Dispatches (Channel 4) and Panorama (BBC). Our footage has also been successfully used in legal investigations into illegal policing of the protests.

How does 21st-century technology impact on campaigning today?

The internet and digital media such as camcorders and cameras has given us all the opportunity to tell and share our own stories like never before in history. However the skills to portray a campaign are still areas, which need work if we expect to reach a wide audience.

What tips can you give young people who want to be the media today?

Young people have been demonized by politicians and the media for years, so turn off your TV sets and beg, buy or borrow a camcorder and make a film about how you see the world. Contact a local campaign, which interest you and help them out by making a film about their concerns.

What key three pieces of advice would you to young people today who want to campaign for change?

Work out what you want to achieve and when. We have all set out to change the world over night but became overwhelmed. By choosing and writing down our targets, you will get a better sense of achievement. Build upon them.

The key issue for individuals who want to change the world is to realize that the problem is not different political parties, it is the structure of governance - not who is governing - that matters most. Focus on changing the rules. Be bold and seek truth; be humble, but also confident in what you know and don't lose your curiosity in trying to figure things out; and based on your search for truth and discovery of truth, speak that truth loudly and clearly to power if given that chance.

Don't try to do it alone. Search for other activists in your local area.
Use the net, read local newspapers for stories of people taking action and go and meet them- volunteer with local nature or social action groups. Get active within your own community. It will change your life.

Can you give a brief outline of the Newbury Bypass campaign?

The Newbury bypass, officially known as The Winchester-Preston Trunk Road
(A34) (Newbury Bypass), is a 9-mile (14 km) stretch of dual carriageway road, which bypasses the town of Newbury in Berkshire, England. It is located to the west of the town and forms part of the A34 road.

Between January 1996 and April 1996 the clearance of approximately 360 acres (1.5 km2) of land, including 120 acres (0.49 km2) of woodland and the felling of nearly 10,000 mature trees including Oak, Ash, & Beech, to make way for the building of the road, led to some of the largest anti-road protests in European history, with around 7000 people having directly demonstrated on the site of the bypass route in some way and over 800 arrests being made. The cost of policing the protest, known as 'Operation Prospect' and run jointly by Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary, had reached approximately Ł5 million by December 1996. In addition to this, the total cost of hiring private security guards to protect the contractors clearing the land (including security fencing and lighting) and building the road was approximately Ł23.7 million.
The protest was popularly known as the Third Battle of Newbury, a name, which was also adopted by one of the main protest groups.

In what way did it become a symbolic campaign and how did this effect what happened there?

The road became symbolic for many reasons. The vast number of young people living in the trees, in camps and even in tunnels to stop the felling of the forests was a potent symbol of resistance to the Tory Governments plans.

The campaign exposed how the road building corporations and Government were in league together to build a trans- European road scheme rather than just a series of 'local' bypasses. The Newbury bypass sparked off similar resistance all over the UK, Ireland and the EU. Many road-building schemes across the UK were shelved because of the protests.

How did the local community react to the protesters?

The local reaction was varied, many joined in the protests, while many others supported the bypass and disliked the protesters.

How were you involved?

Undercurrents trained Newbury activists to use camcorders for legal support, make campaign videos and to supply images to TV broadcasters.

What impact did video activism have on the campaign?

I think video activism probably played a much larger part in other road campaigns than Newbury. By 1996 every media outlet descended upon the protest camps at Newbury putting most issues in the spotlight. Video activism's main role was legal support. With so may people being arrested for defending the trees, it was vital to have video evidence to counteract false Police statements. Video activists also highlighted the secretive role, which undercover agents were playing. Video activists exposed entire agencies hired by road companies to spy and build files on innocent protesters.

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