New Internationalist Issue 279
The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist
Join the Resistance!
Chris Brazier draws inspiration from the new wave of direct action worldwide.
Britain's Conservative Deputy Prime Minister is at the bedroom window of his multi-million-dollar mansion amid 250 hectares of beautiful parkland. He is wearing lavender pyjamas and his jaw has just hit the floor. What has confronted his eyes early this Sunday morning is a brave example of the enterprise culture he has done so much to promote. A group of miners, trade unionists and environmental activists has banded together to form a consortium ready to explore the possibilities of open-cast mining for coal in Michael Heseltine's back garden.
Only British readers are likely to enjoy the full irony of this moment: Heseltine gave the final kiss of death to the country's coal-mining industry in 1993, closing 31 modern deep pits on the grounds that there was no market for their coal. He is now second-in-command of a government which is encouraging companies to tear up the fields and woods around many of the same pit villages in pursuit of meagre coal seams not far beneath the surface. Now some of those villagers, part of a campaign called 'No Opencast', which links mining communities with green activists, are tearing up his turf.
The law, of course, is on Mr Heseltine's side. But these mining communities have had more than enough of waiting for the 'due process of law' and the 'mature consideration of the wider picture' to do them justice. They have lost their jobs, their traditional livelihood, lost the very heart of their community. They are not about now to stand by and watch the very fields around them ripped up and scarred, to have the silica dust their menfolk once had to breathe underground blow into their houses, streets and schools on the wind.
'Pleading cases before the courts of the land,' said Martin Luther King, second only to Gandhi as the greatest advocate of non-violent direct action in our century, 'does not eliminate the necessity for bringing about the mass dramatization of injustice in front of a city hall. Indeed, direct action and legal action complement one another; when skilfully employed, each becomes more effective.'
Today a new wave of direct action is breaking on the shores of global political culture. Alienation from the official political process is an increasing problem worldwide, despite the apparent triumphs of 'democracy' over dictatorship in the last decade. If you are a landless peasant family in Guatemala you are no more likely under the current pretence at democracy to receive your just dessert of a parcel of earth to grow food on than you were 14 years ago under an unabashed dictatorship. Photographer Nigel Dickinson has just visited our office having returned from Central America with pictures and stories of land invasions by desperately poor communities that are identical in root cause and character to the land invasion in Honduras witnessed by an NI editor in 1981.
As this indicates, the techniques of direct action are by no means new. The anti-roads protester who 'locks on' to the tree or house about to be demolished by the car-culture juggernaut is using a modern technique developed in Australia then passed to campaigning groups all over the world. But the spirit and courage that leads people to lie down in front of tanks or chain themselves to railings has, thankfully, been evident in every part of the world in every decade of our century. The history of resistance on page 26 mentions just a few of these.
What has changed the gear and upped the ante is the global nature of our problems and, more specifically, the new and still-burgeoning awareness of how desperate is the plight of our environment. Once sneered at by Northern socialists as a 'soft' political issue lacking in 'class analysis', environmental politics is now at the cutting edge of resistance to the current world order everywhere. And its activists are making international and economic connections. Native American Daniel Zapata, who is fighting the open-cast mining of a British-based multinational Hanson on his people's land in Arizona, US, has just paid a visit to the campaign against open-cast mining in Selar, South Wales. Together they have forged links with the indigenous Igorot people in the Philippine Cordillera, who have for years been fighting the gold-hungry predations of another notorious corporation, Rio Tinto Zinc.
The latest generation of direct action in the North is often dismissed as 'single-issue' politics. It certainly cuts across traditional Left-Right affiliations. Yet that is more often a strength than a weakness, maximizing the chances of involving people from the middle ground who would usually avoid political protest like the plague. While in the South the greatest promise of a genuinely democratic future may lie in the current explosion of independent organizations which could herald a vibrant, healthy civil society. For example, one way to balance with a modicum of hope the terrifying story about political life in Bangladesh on the facing page is to look at the encouraging success of independent organizations such as the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee in addressing some of the most pressing concerns of the poor.
But when push comes to shove political resistance will always involve individuals putting themselves at risk in the service of their ideals. This issue is an unashamed tribute not just to the work of high-quality photographers prepared to engage with the international issues that matter but also to the bravery and imagination of people all over the world who are prepared to put their bodies and minds in the way of the rampaging free-market bulldozer. The greater our awareness of each other's causes and campaigns, the more we will inspire each other, and the greater will be our collective chance of pulling a future worth having out of the fire.
'What do I live for?' asked the nineteenth-century poet George Linnaeus Banks, and then answered himself:
'For the cause that lacks assistance,
For the wrong that needs resistance,
For the future in the distance,
And the good that I can do.'
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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