The cuts can kill and we must not stay silent

On Thursday 15 March I was found guilty in the Oxford Magistrates’ Court of causing ‘harassment, alarm and distress,’ following a peaceful, and legal, political protest in Witney in December 2012. The judge said ‘I can think of nothing more alarming than the statement that “Cameron has blood on his hands.”’

I will continue to say that British Prime Minister ‘Cameron has blood on his hands’, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Thousands of people in Britain have died after being found ‘fit for work’. Over the long term, as more and more is taken away there will be increasing harm and death.

On the 30 November 2012 David Cameron was booed as he came on stage to turn on the Witney Christmas Lights. You can watch a video of him trying to drown out any criticism by awkwardly getting the crowd to cheer for everyone from themselves to the Queen on YouTube. Kind of funny. Also, kind of not funny.

Beth Tichborne outside court
Beth Tichborne outside the court Chris Honeywell

I find it very weird watching the video, because while this was going on I was being beaten up by the police on the other side of the stage. I have never been so scared: my face was being pushed into the ground, I could feel blood coming from my nose, there was someone putting their whole weight on my back while someone else was stamping on my knees, along with various people grabbing and twisting my limbs. And then the officer on my back moved a knee up onto the back of my neck.

Up until then I’d been shouting ‘I’m not resisting, I’m cooperating,’ trying to ask them to stop, but from the moment I felt someone pressing their body weight into the back of my neck I gave up trying to communicate anything to them, I realized the police officers on top of me either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hear me. Instead I began begging anyone who was nearby to intervene, to tell them to stop.

One of the things Cameron had asked the crowd to cheer was ‘the Paralympics, that was great.’ Well yes, the Paralympics were great, but he should remember that his ministers were booed loudly whenever they appeared at Paralympic ceremonies, and that it had the least popular sponsor possible, Atos.

The British coalition government gave Atos the contract to kick disabled people off benefits they need to survive, and despite some of its staff quitting on grounds of conscience, they’ve done an admirable job of swiping those benefits away. To rub salt into the wound the government justify their cuts with misleading press releases about what percentage of disabled people they’ve deemed ‘fit for work.’ These are taken up by the press, who spin them still further from reality and stir up public hatred of ‘scroungers’ and ‘shirkers’. A survey by Inclusion London found that the general public believes that between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of disability claims are fraudulent. The reality is that the fraud rate for disability benefits is 0.5 per cent.

Disability hate crime, which ranges from comments in the street through vandalism of motability cars up to imprisonment, torture, rape and murder is growing. A Comres study found that 66 per cent of disabled people in September 2011 said they experienced aggression, hostility or name calling compared with 41 per cent in May 2011. I’d heard the stories about the people being affected, but I also knew that these stories weren’t being given the front page spreads that ‘scrounger’ stories get. I think it’s important to show that some of us are refusing to buy the rhetoric that would have us scapegoat disabled people. So I held up a placard that said ‘Cameron has blood on his hands,’ and I shouted that ‘disabled people are dying because of Cameron’s policies.’ I didn’t expect that to be a big deal.

Since December 2012 there has slowly been more attention paid to the horrific way that this government is treating disabled people. Member of Parliament Michael Meacher told the House of Commons that Cameron has blood on his hands (he didn’t get arrested). We’ve heard more about how the bedroom tax is going to hit disabled people. But still, there’s very little media coverage of the disability campaigners who are also in court on Thursday 15 March in London, challenging the cut of the Independent Living Fund, which will force people into residential homes.  

The £747 ($1,130) fine and costs I have been given come to more than I earn in a month but, according to the judge, of course I’d have no trouble paying it back. After rent, travel to work, food and paying off loans I don’t have money left by the time pay day comes, and my salary is going down soon, so I’m not sure what will happen next. Except that I’m going to keep saying that Cameron has blood on his hands.

We can listen to the voices of the people who know what’s going on, the people on the frontline of the cuts, and share them with our friends. Calum’s List, a memorial site for those who have died because of the welfare reforms, is hard reading, but important. It lists the deaths caused directly by welfare reform. Disabled People Against Cuts campaign tirelessly, provide an endless amount of information and analysis, and receive hardly any media coverage, or even the recognition they deserve from the wider anti-cuts movement. The Black Triangle Campaign tells it just how it is, read their page and you get a sense of just how violent the government’s two-pronged attack on disabled people is, and how dangerous it is for the rest of society to stay silent.

Practising peace in Afghanistan

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Afghan Peace Volunteers deliver duvets made by a women’s group to vulnerable people in Kabul Beth Tichborne

Of all the places in the world to be a peace campaigner, Afghanistan must be one of the most demanding.

Grassroots organization the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV) face threats, scepticism and the daily worries and risks that come with living and working in a war zone. The organization emerged in 2009 from a workshop in Bamiyan, a mountainous agricultural province of Afghanistan. Since then, APV has embarked on a campaign programme, going on peace walks, creating a peace garden and lobbying.

Journalist Faiz Ahmad travelled, as part of the group, to the Afghan capital, Kabul, where the group has found a house from which to start its latest project. They have founded a special community that challenges the corruption and poverty that a long war has created, a multi-ethnic microcosm of Afghan society, that aims to ‘bring the war under one roof’ and break down the barriers to peace.

Faiz teaches maths
Faiz teaching maths Mary Dobbing

‘It was difficult when we first came together,’ Faiz told me. ‘We have two religions in the group, Shi’a and Sunni, and there were arguments about prayer. People were criticizing each other for doing things differently, for not being real Muslims.’

They deal with such conflicts, whether large or small, by operating a policy of complete openness. In the evenings they have wide-ranging discussions about practical problems, and the underlying beliefs that create them. ‘One night, all the youth came together and discussed different ideas about god, prophets and holy books until we found points of unity. In the end we came up with the idea that all people are equally human,’ explains Faiz.

Most of the group has first-hand experience of war, from ethnic conflict to oppression by the Taliban and bombing by drones. As a young child, Faiz saw his older brother killed in front of him and witnessed the aftermath of a massacre. Later, he lost a cousin who was a bystander to a suicide attack on a NATO convoy.

‘The war has a bad effect on people’s minds. For people who’ve always been at war, killing a human becomes nothing, it’s just like slaughtering a lamb,’ Faiz has said. ‘We’ve had 30 years of war, which is a whole lifetime. It affects me a lot when I remember people being beaten up and killed, or those who were dismembered and had their eyes gouged out. I don‘t know how to feel, I wonder who and where I am.’

The community provides a way of processing these traumas, transforming fear and sorrow into hope for change but, as with any community, the problems aren’t all at such a philosophical level: ‘Cleaning has been another big issue. Because everyone’s mothers and sisters did the housework in Bamiyan.’

APV volunteers
A group of APV volunteers Maya Evans

Community members have travelled to different provinces within Afghanistan to talk to young people about nonviolent solutions to their country’s problems. They are building links with civil society groups, they run classes for local children and are supporting a women’s project from their compound. Volunteers found a teacher to give sewing lessons to poor women in Kabul. They are paid a living wage for sewing duvets which are then given away to vulnerable people in the city.

But they also think far beyond Kabul, beyond even national borders, making connections with people around the world. The group has welcomed over 40 international visitors and has a monthly Skype call: a ‘global day of listening’. But this international outlook, and working with foreigners, isn’t without risk.

The problems the APV face can’t be minimized. They are a crucible in which a process of nonviolent living and learning is being practised in a very difficult environment. Many of the community’s volunteers are still in their early teens; the oldest are in their twenties. They are idealistic, but they understand very intimately the effects of war, poverty and violence on people’s minds and on society. The work they are doing is more than symbolic. ‘I’m proud of the fact that we work nonviolently and voluntarily for peace; this is now the meaning of my life. I want to help the people and learn from the people. This community is a university for everyone.’

To show solidarity with the work of the APV you can sign their 2 Million Friends petition.

Occupy Wukan: A call for solidarity action

More than 1,000 police in antiriot gear entered Wukan village before dawn on 11 December. Police fired more than 50 rounds of tear gas and other ammunitions. Image: Helen Lee on GooglePlus

The villagers of Wukan are in a siege. They have food and water for 10 days, and riot police are stopping supplies from entering the village. They have been protesting land-grabbing for months, in particular the ‘sale’ of a pig farm to property developers, but the recent death in police custody of Xue Jinbo has ramped up their anger to the point where they expelled local government leaders and set up roadblocks to occupy their own village. Now we’re starting to hear the worrying rhetoric of repression, with vows to ‘strike hard’ against ringleaders.

Wukan is in Guangdong province, an area designed to appeal to transnational corporations. The stealing of land serves, as it has for hundreds of years, two purposes: it makes people dependent on a wage because they can’t grow their own food and live in peace in their own houses, and it gives corporations the land to exploit. In Guangdong, as transnationals and governments see it, land is for building factories on, and people for supplying cheap labour in those factories. As ever, it takes violence and corruption to impose this ‘free’ system of deregulated market forces. The people in Wukan have stood up to the violence and corruption, and they have achieved something spectacular: the authorities are, at least temporarily, on the back foot. But of course the government has power in reserve. There’s little hope for Wukan to win this if it is a straight battle between them and the riot police.

However, there is a flip side to the globalized capitalism that they’re fighting, and that’s the growing power of globalized resistance. Their fight is our fight, in three very literal ways:

1) Many of the parasitical corporations that operate in Guangdong, that buy up this stolen land and exploit the people, while contributing little to the local or national economy of their host body, are the same companies that we’ve been protesting against for dodging tax here too, while paying massive executive salaries.

2) We actually are all in this together. With the ‘austerity’ politics that hides behind shoddy economics, the working classes of countries in the Global North are going to discover increasingly what a deregulated labour market means for employees. We need to work in solidarity with factory workers and villagers in areas that neoliberalism has already ravaged, to learn how to fight for our own rights, and not let the international élite play us off against each other in a borderless race to the bottom.

3) We say we’re the 99 per cent. If that’s true, then we need to look overseas and into the past and claim solidarity with the ordinary people the world over, who are suffering the legacy of colonialism, usurious debt burdens and the financial and political pressures of the IMF. Identifying with the world’s oppressed majority gives us the strength and conviction of numbers and justice, but it also gives us a responsibility to look past our own immediate situation and connect with the parallel struggles of others.

Occupy camps have seen repression and police brutality, some of it shocking even to those who’ve been involved in similar protests before. This is nothing to what Wukan could face. Knowing that the world is watching might make all the difference in how the authorities behave, and knowing that people around the world are thinking of them might make all the difference to morale within the village. I can’t make it to an Occupy camp myself this weekend, but if I could, here are the suggestions I would bring to a general assembly (they roughly line up with the three points above):

1) Ask businesses that operate in Guangdong, such as Apple, to make a public statement against corruption and land-grabbing, and demanding peaceful treatment of the villagers.

2) Mass lobby the Chinese embassy, and any other relevant political channels.

3) Make a statement of support, encourage other people to follow what’s going on there and see the connection to their own lives.

Let’s show the rest of the 99 per cent that we really mean it. And that pesky one per cent, with their grimy factories in Guangdong and their shiny shops on Oxford Street, yeah, let’s show them that we mean it too.

Beth Tichborne is a feminist, anti-cuts, anti-racist blogger and occasional occupier, living in East Oxford.

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