The comfortable life of an armchair activist: sign a few petitions, join a good-cause Facebook group, forward a couple of emails to friends who are possibly interested… Or is it? Does online campaigning deliver change?
‘No, we are not one click away from saving the world,’ admits David Babbs of UK grassroots organization 38 Degrees. And we shouldn’t be under any illusion that we are. But the internet is a powerful tool: it’s cheap (if not turned off by predatory authorities) and quick.
Exactly: it’s a tool. UKuncut, a grassroots initiative against tax dodging and public spending cuts, started as a Twitter hashtag #UKuncut. In less than six months, it reached around 20,000 Facebook fans and almost 22,000 Twitter followers, and has successfully organized sit-ins in tax-evading corporate stores such as Vodafone and Topshop.
Organized via social media, people then come to the real action. Ellie O’Hagan of UKuncut believes first-timers are usually shocked by how quickly the shutters of tax-evaders come down: ‘In like five minutes!’ It helps people realize how easy it is to scare corporations; all you have to do is show up. A textbook example of people’s power?
Perhaps the best recent example of the internet’s success is in Tunisia and Egypt – but it, too, was about people power more than anything else. ‘Everybody’s accrediting the internet, but the real battles were won in the streets,’ explains Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim. ‘I want to make it clear that [Egypt] wasn’t an internet revolution.’
People demand. Photo by Maged Helal under a CC licence.
The anger and desire to fight back have been simmering for the last decade, fuelled by the second Palestinian intifada, President Mubarak’s privatization of the public sector, the occupation of Iraq, and events in Tunisia, amongst others; there were strikes and sit-ins in Egypt well before January 2011. But the internet was super important in coordinating the movement – with the state-controlled media a circus, it became the platform to share information.
But perhaps the biggest challenge is people who just can’t be bothered. So how to gather crowds and inspire action? ‘People have to believe that change can really happen,’ continues Ibrahim. ‘We’ve organized many Tahrirs before, and every time it was the same 50 people protesting. But this time was different. People believed.’
(On complicity and interconnectivity: Vodafone, which had turned off its signal in Egypt when the uprising started, managed to send pro-Mubarak messages to its customers. The company claimed they did it under government pressure, but the fact remains they did it.)
Bolivia on the frontline
Holding the front. Photo by marinalwang under a CC licence.
When delegates at the UN climate talks (COP16) in Cancún, Mexico, in December 2010 stood up to applaud the Cancún ‘agreement’, Bolivia was not clapping. ‘What is happening at the UN is very bad,’ says Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN who joined the ‘Planet in Crisis’ session on Skype. ‘They are not finding solutions to climate change.’ Not only that; they’re also creating new problems by commodifying and commercializing Mother Earth through carbon markets and such initiatives as REDD.
‘The Cancún agreement was not a small step forward. It was a step backwards.’
But in what was one of the most shameful moments in international diplomacy in recent years – when the ‘agreement’ was passed despite Bolivia’s objection (decisions at UNFCCC have to be agreed by consensus) – Bolivia was not alone, secretly. Many delegates admitted to Solón in private: ‘You are saying the truth… But we can’t follow you.’ There are things more important than Mother Earth, apparently.
COP16. Photo by UN Climate Talks under a CC licence.
So now, Bolivia’s action plan is threefold: organizing bilateral alliances in the build-up to COP17 in Durban, South Africa in December; mobilizing civil society to put pressure on their governments; fighting on the legal level for the UN to keep its own rules.
And then came the promise from Solón, cheered joyfully by the audience: ‘Bolivia is not going to change its position!’ But others must.
It’s Palestine’s turn
‘Do you know what the Anti-Apartheid Movement was initially called?’ asks Ronnie Kasrils, former South African minister and anti-apartheid activist at the packed ‘Boycott, Divest, Sanction, Resist?’ session. Very few did.
‘The Boycott Movement.’
Today is Palestine’s turn. ‘At the very least, we need you to end your country’s complicity with our oppression,’ says Omar Barghouti, Palestinian human rights activist. The compliance of establishment – Britain was a major trade partner with the apartheid South African government, and today is selling arms to Israel in violation of its own arms exports guidelines – is a crime, and not only a moral one.
In 2005, over 170 Palestinian organizations called on the world to join them in a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law.
Boycott can be consumer, sporting, cultural and academic. Photo by Daquella manera under a CC licence.
Israel is not happy about it: last week, an anti-boycott bill passed first reading in the Knesset. The bill places heavy sanctions on those who advocate boycotting Israel – and it clearly violates the freedom of expression principle. Barghouti reveals that even some Israeli politicians are against the bill – they’re afraid that Israel could lose the ‘last mask of democracy covering its ugly face of oppression’.
What about accusations of anti-Semitism? ‘Claiming that the boycott is anti-Semitic is in itself anti-Semitic,’ replies Barghouti. ‘Why? Because it assumes collective responsibility, which in itself is racist; it assumes that all Jews think alike. But there is nothing monolithic in the Jewish community – not all agree with Israel’s policies.’
Religion is not an issue. Oppression is. ‘We don’t care if our oppressors are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or atheist. As long as they oppress us, we will continue to resist. We will never accept slavery as fate.’
They oppress us, we resist. Photo by John Steven Fernandez under a CC licence.
Parallels can also be drawn between Palestine’s struggle and that of Northern Ireland. ‘If you criminalize a political struggle [as happened in Northern Ireland and is happening in Palestine], that means a political solution is not possible anymore. It’s dealt with as a criminal act – and that’s the tactic of imperialists. It lets them off the hook and they don’t need to find a political solution, only build more prison camps. That is demonization of the “enemy”, delegitimizing them as political entities,’ explains Seanna Walsh from Ireland’s Republican Party Sinn Féin.
Neither will victimizing do. As Barghouti concludes: ‘Victims derive sympathy. Palestinians need solidarity.’
The Latin American way
People's march for climate justice and against the false solutions of COP16. Photo by author.
There’s a star shining at the ‘Latin America: Be the change you want to see’ session. The star’s name is Dr Ricardo Navarro. He is founder and president of CESTA, El Salvador’s environmental NGO which is part of Friends of the Earth International.
On being the backyard: ‘Latin America was always the backyard of the US. They could take all the resources they wanted.’ Now, Calderón’s government in Mexico is cutting off forests in Chiapas to make way for palm oil, while Coca-Cola is dehydrating local communities in pursuit of water resources all across the continent.
On the World Bank: ‘The World Bank and the World Trade Organization are a more sophisticated way of playing in the backyard. The history of the World Bank is the history of destruction.’ This undemocratic, unaccountable organization is financing dams which displace millions of people around the world and is involved in countless other destructive projects. ‘The only role for the World Bank is to disappear. There is no place for the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund in a sustainable world.’
On the current crisis: ‘It’s a system failure.’ Given the profit-making mentality of international corporations, it’s certainly not healthy to have our governments put in place by them; yet that is often the case. Radical change requires a radical mind, but how can it be achieved when, for example, ‘the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats in the US is like the difference between Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola’?
On the future: ‘Arms and industrial agro-businesses have to be eradicated. Sounds too radical? Well, if a surgeon wants to cut off your arm because it has gangrene – would that sound too radical? [Cutting it] would save your life.’
Of minds. Photo by author.