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It´s Saturday the 20th of October 2012 when I meet Juan Carlos Chindicue, a coordinator of the Indigenous Guard,[1] in the centre of Cali and we set off together 20 minutes on motorbike up towards Alto Napoles, an indigenous “Nasa” community located in the outskirts of the city.

As we leave behind the paved road, and the houses begin to close in on us, Cali and the surrounding valley of Cauca unfold before our eyes. I was on my way to talk with the community about their displacement and resistance in the context of the peace negotiations between the FARC (the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian government. Being one of the populations most affected by the conflict, I was especially interested in learning more about a specifically indigenous perspective on these potentially historic talks.

Upon arrival, I am greeted by María Eugenia Osnas Osnas, governor of the community’s high council (Cabildo Mayor), she tells me “In 2009 25 of us, or 3 families, arrived here after being forcibly displaced. Today more than 250 people live here, some also having been displaced and others simply having come in search of work. The vast majority of us come from the north of Cauca, our ancestral homeland and an area of the country especially scarred by fierce fighting between the government and the FARC.”

After María Eugenia shows me around the community and we are sat chatting in the community’s meeting hall, it becomes clear that the state maintains very little presence here, except for a military base overlooking the community from a nearby hill. The electricity, water supply and drainage have all been installed by the residents themselves, whilst the indigenous guard take charge of security. “Supposedly, we are living on ´high risk land´, but the truth is the authorities have plans to build apartment blocks here. We live with the constant threat of being ousted and they have attempted to shut off our water supply; in the future we also want to leave but we don´t have anywhere to go” María Eugenia explains to me whilst we weave through the houses balanced precariously on stilts occupying every inch of the steep slopes.

Luckily, the Nasa of Alto Naples are not alone in their struggle. Together with other neighbouring communities they are organizing themselves in defence of their water supply, and in their struggle for recognition by the authorities of Cali they enjoy the support of the association of indigenous councils of the north of Cauca (ACIN) and the regional indigenous council of Cauca (CRIC). These two organizations represent indigenous populations in the southwest of Colombia in similar, if not worse, conditions to those in Alto Napoles. In fact, although the level of violence and conflict in Colombia has not increased since 2010 and 2011, according to the national indigenous organization of Colombia (ONIC), 2012 saw a disproportionate and worrying increase in the levels of violence inflicted upon indigenous communities, especially those from the North of Cauca[2] “It could be pure geographical coincidence, or it could be in reaction to our resistance” María Eugenia explains to me with a sad smile.

 A history of resistance

Later in the day I meet with Berenice Celeyta,  forensic  anthropologist and president of the association for investigation and social action (Nomadesc), a Colombian human rights organization accompanied by PBI. She explained how the Colombian indigenous movement has been steadily gaining ground since the eighties. On 12 October 1980, the first National Indigenous Gathering was convened as the first concerted effort among indigenous communities, authorities, and organisations to provide the indigenous movement in Colombia with a political and organisational structure at the national level.[3]  Going from strength to strength, they achieved recognition for the full diversity of Colombia in the 1991 Constitution [4] which opened “a new chapter in the history of indigenous mobilisation.”[5]  Since then, they have continued to be at the forefront of the Colombian social movement.

The mobilisation reached its peak in 2008 when more than 40,000 indigenous people, accompanied by representatives from various social sectors, marched nearly 100 kilometres to Cali to demand that the then president Alvaro Uribe Velez halt the violence against indigenous peoples and follow through on various unfulfilled agreements.[6]  However, they were met with disproportionate violence and the use of explosives on the part of the police in addition to shots fired by “men dressed as civilians inter-mingled with police forces.”[7]  This violence resulted in three deaths and nearly a hundred injuries.[8]

“Despite the extermination to which, historically, indigenous communities have been subjected, their mobilization has permitted them to denounce abuses and strengthened their resolve,” Berenice tells me. “The Minga [9] for Social and Communitarian Resistance was initiated by the indigenous communities of Cauca and went on to gather the support of various sectors including peasant farmers, students, workers, and black communities,” she adds.  Four years later, the Minga continues to mobilise these different populations with its program “Spread the Word” (Caminar la palabra) that addresses five thematic issues: land, war and human rights, economic policies, unfulfilled agreements, and a peoples’ agenda.[10]

Since the intensification of the conflict in Northern Cauca in July of this year, the Minga has reiterated its support of the demands made by ACIN and CRIC: “All armed actors must withdraw from the area!” These demands have encountered strong criticism from the State, the National Army, and the media [11]  which peaked after the destruction of several fortifications, and the expulsion of soldiers and guerrillas by the Indigenous Guard. [12]

Though the Government has agreed to talks with representatives from the indigenous movement, the conditions are highly adverse.  The communities point out what they perceive as a lack of good will and commitment on the Government´s behalf.[13]  This is compounded by the dozens of indigenous leaders who have been threatened or killed, the absence of a cease fire[14], and a national press, which, according to CRIC, is “biased and irresponsible, with content that is racist and disdainful of indigenous autonomy.” [15]  In Northern Cauca, a long a treacherous path to Peace still lies ahead.

  We cannot go it alone: ¡Solos no podemos!

In 2009, the Minga launched the “Peoples´ Congress”, a platform from which to take their proposal for a “transformative peace” to the national level. It began with “pre-congresses” in Cartagena, Bogota and Cali which led up to the Peoples’ Congress in October 2010 in Bogota. This was followed by a thematic gathering on land and sovereignty in 2011, and the planned gatherings for peace and on women in the fist semester of 2013 and 2014 respectively.  During these events, up to 20,000 “congresistas” come together to develop a “mandate of all mandates” upon which they plan to build legislation for the Colombian people that truly reflects the diversity of the country. [16]  “The principle achievements of the Congress are two-fold,” says Berenice: “In the first place, it’s the first movement that, in the face of extreme persecution and barbarity, has united so many diverse social sectors and grassroots communities to present a common proposal for the country.  Secondly, despite the great diversity of opinions and needs, we are making progress, overcoming and understanding differences, and this has permitted us to formulate an inclusive strategy that is broad and diverse and also permits us to transform the current conditions of war and conflict.”

“Clearly, we have been surprised, because to date the proposals from the social movement have not been taken into consideration in the peace talks” Berenice tells me.  “If, at this time, they are not able to generate trust to overcome a history of deceit [in these processes] and if they do not open the pathway to a true participation by the Colombian people, they could be squandering a valuable opportunity to build a definitive peace, with social justice and dignity for all: that which the Colombian people have been desperately seeking for so long.”

For these reasons, the Peoples’ Congress continues to gain strength and demands to be heard.  Furthermore, the proposals of the Peoples’ Congress are being channelled through the Common Social Path for Peace, a coordinated space which aims to bring together different social sectors, movements, communities and organisations in order to connect with one another in their work towards peace, with the explicit goal of demanding a place at the table in the peace talks between the Farc and the Government that began in October in Oslo. [17]

Armed with words

In the Community of Alto Napoles, at the edge of the western cordillera of the Andes and at the periphery of Cali, I felt very far from Oslo.   These people are the Nasa, one of 34 indigenous peoples in Colombia that were declared at risk of extinction by the Constitutional Court in 2009.[18]  In this way, they are fighting for their very survival which demands the recognition of two principles that sometimes appear mutually exclusive: diversity and equality.  However, the synthesis of these two concepts has become one of the unifying principles of the today`s social movement in Colombia, allowing a unity in facing the war like never before. “We start from the

Contact the author: robbie_packer@hotmail.com

Version español (original)

principle,” Berenice very simply puts it, “that we all want peace.”

 Footnotes

[1]  The Indigenous Guard is a security force that is part of the organising process for indigenous Colombian communities in their autonomy and self-governance, principles recognised by the 1991 Constitution.

[2] National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC),  “Por la defensa, respeto y exigibilidad de los derechos de los pueblos indígenas en Colombia,” January to September 2012

[3] ONIC, “Historia de la Onic”

[4] Green Storcel, Abadio, “El aporte de los pueblos indígenas a un país diversoIn: Sánchez Gutiérrez,” Enrique & Molina Echeverri, Hernán: “Documentos para la historia del movimiento indígena colombiano contemporáneo”, Colombian Ministry of Culture, 2001, pg. 319.

[5] González, N. C., “¿Qué papel juegan las organizaciones indígenas del Cauca en la búsqueda de una solución negociada al conflicto y la crisis democrática colombiana?” In: L. Helfrich y S. Kurtenbach (eds.). “Colombia: Caminos para salir de la violencia.” Madrid/Frankfurt: Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 2006

[6] “Marcha indígena llega a Cali y se prepara para diálogo con Uribe”, El Espectador, 25 October 2008

[7]  “Ejército mató a esposo de líder de Minga indígena,” Semana, 16 December 2008

[8] Contravía, Documentary, “Minga 2008” (Marcha Indígena), Morris Productions, 27 October 2008

[9]  Translator’s note: Minga is a term utilised by the indigenous movement in Colombia, and now more broadly, to mean gathering together through social mobilisation and resistance.

[10]  Rozental, Manuel, “¿Qué palabra camina la Minga?”, Deslinde, November-December 2009

[11] ACIN, “Carta a los grupos armados,” 9 July 2012

[12] “Indigenas desalojan base militar en Cauca y piden mediacion de Baltazar Garzón”, El Pais, 12 July 2012

[13] CRIC, “Comisiones de trabajo entre autoridades indígenas del Cauca y el Gobierno nacional no avanzan satisfactoriamente,” 31 August 2012

[14] González Posso, Camilo, “Negociaciones en medio del terror”, Indepaz, September 2012

[15] ONIC, “Por el Derecho fundamental a estar bien informados,” 24 July 2012

[16] Peoples Congress, “Objetivos,” 8 September 2010

[17] ASDEM: “Nace la ‘Ruta Social Común para La Paz’, «la paz es también salud y educación»,” 5 October 2012; PBI Colombia: “A country in peace does not build itself up from the top,” 12 November 2012

[18] Colombian Constitutional Court, Auto 004/09, 2009

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For many of my generation this has been a summer to remember. Yes, the UK weather has  been reliably shit and we made it to the semi finals of Wimbledon, but what has been remarkable has been the general feeling that the world’s going a bit crazy. Youth throughout Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and even our tranquil little island have been, to varying degrees, pissed off. However, journalists, politicians, academics and even us on the street and in the camps are  finding it difficult to articulate exactly why we are pissed off and what we are going to do about it.

We are either in or have recently completed an education system in which we learn how to pass tests. We are told to stay in this system in order to get a great job with which we can buy a house and fill it with loads of consumer shit that we are told will make us happy, not wait, make us who we are. The reality, however, is that we spend hours filling out endless application forms, begging, pleading, lying (selling ourselves) for jobs that simply don’t exist, will just be given to the director’s nephew, or consist of unpaid internships.

Those of us lucky enough to get a job don’t earn enough to buy a house or start a family as prices have been rising faster than wages. At the same time, we get taxed more and more not for schools or hospitals but to pay off a debt we did not accrue and for wars we did not start. Our taxes that do stay in the country line the pockets of politicians and are spent on a police force that infiltrates environmental groups, stops us, searches us, and is far from accountable. And when it’s not the state fucking us, it’s everyone else. Your phone company overcharges you, your landlord steals your deposit and the kids down the road steal your bike. What is more, all the shit you buy that hasn’t been stolen is designed to break after a year anyway. Life sometimes just feels like a constant struggle not to get fucked.

We get home from work (if we had any) and we turn on our TV and flip through a selection of property shows about houses we can’t buy or cooking shows about food we can’t be bothered to cook ourselves. We turn on the radio and listen to music that is either a repackaged cover or could have been written by a computer. We go to the cinema to watch either a remake  or a film that makes up for its abysmal script with special effects and a free pair of glasses. Maybe for a weekend we go to a festival where we pay £150 to camp in a field, jump around in the mud and get pissed on £4 a paper cup of Carling (supposedly beer). We know it’s shit, but what makes it worse is that we get told it’s shit by people who spend their weekends looking at lines, dots and messed up beds in ‘art galleries’ and get pissed on wine that has subtle hints of wild berry and oak.

We turn on the news or buy a paper for some ‘serious’ stuff which consists of celebrity gossip and politicians talking absolute crap about how to ‘manage us’ which basically boils down to how they are going to increase GDP. To achieve this, two parties offer us different packages  of contradictory policies and muddled ideology that must have enlightenment political theorists turning in their graves. We are told we must go to war to secure peace, give up our liberty to secure our… liberty and give up our healthcare, education and jobs in order to remain ‘prosperous’. Rather than production, our economy is based on consumption. The few things we do produce, we pack up and send off to overseas countries who, in turn, produce exactly the same shit and send it to us.

We are a country based on democracy and human rights that lays out the red carpet for Saudi Arabian dictators, sells arms to repressive regimes and is complicit in kidnap, torture and murder the world other. We have a permanent seat on the UN security council which consists of the world’s top 5 arms producers presiding over world peace.

Even science, a discipline which should be above all this irrationality, can no longer provide us with answers. Instead of tackling malaria or other easily treatable infectious diseases, medicine seems more concerned with the task of categorizing every known ‘thing’ into whether it causes or prevents cancer. Companies pay for study after study untill they get a result that suits them and anyone can prove anything with statistics.

Now this is an obvious exaggeration. There are great politicians, teachers and doctors out there and people still make some great films, music, art and TV. and science has made some fantastic progress in the last 10 years. However, what is baffling is how the nonsensical seems to be slowly winning over the rational: good teachers and doctors are exasperated at being underpaid and overworked; good politicians (oxymoron?) are seeing resignation to be less if and more when; funding is being cut  to all arts and science that does not yield an immediate profit. What got us so pissed off was that the cuts did not involve the cutting of corruption, red tape, beurocracy, bankers’ bonuses, subsidies to our arms industry, links with dictatorial regimes and our dependence on fossil fuels. It meant the cutting of everything we’ve achieved in our societies in modern history.

Cuts throughout Europe have bought us to the edge of the abyss. We are staring at a future in which 2 + 2 must equal 5 simply in order to accommodate the inherent contradictions of western capitalist society and we are scared. But what is really scary is that these contradictions and irrationalities are deeply imbedded in our individual and collective psych. The solution invariably involves changing ourselves which is a lot to ask from societies used to changing others to suit their needs. However, if we fail to change ourselves we are likley to have changed forced upon us from without, which will be far more painfull.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world — that is the myth of the atomic age — as in being able to remake ourselves” – Mohandas K. Gandhi

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Hola from Barcelona where the ‘Spanish Revolution’ is certainly being televised as well as Facebooked, Tweated and Youtubed (along with several other verbs that did not exist untill 10 years ago!). Hundreds of thousands of  ‘Los Indignados’ (Indignant ones)  from all over Spain have gathered in their cities’ main squares in protests that many are associating with the current revolutions sweeping the arab world.

Did you?

Here in the Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona, the atmosphere is happy with music (along with the smell of marijuana) drifting through the air, children are running around with their faces painted and people are huddled in circles intently discussing why they are here.

As opposed to the popular movements currently gracing the Arab world, no concrete set of demands nor any coherent ideological thread have yet emerged. Those across the Arab world where very clear in their demands; democracy. Likewise, their respective authorities where very clear in their opposition to this. Here in Spain, however, a democracy (of sorts) exists, no real far left alternative is being proposed and, although government ruled the protests illegal last week (by one vote), the authorities are taking it easy. All a seemingly far shout from Arab people risking their lives in the name of democracy.

Marc Olive (pictured below), however, disagrees. Asides from his day job at renewable energies company Marc is an organizer here with Sentades Populares, one of the many grassroots organizations involved in the Spanish Revolution. ‘We are simply here demanding our rights which, whetherhere or in the Arab world, are being systematically undermined by global capitalism’ claims Marc. We go on to discuss the regulations and legal norms that need to be established in order to create a more just system (a lack of which lie at the very root of this crisis).

Marc Olive, Sentadas Populares

Marc volunteers for the security apparatus here in Plaza Catalunya ‘basically,  we chuck out trouble makers’. A banner claiming ‘Revolution no es Botellon!  (the revolution is not a piss up!) sums up their approach. This, along with the programme of activities, press tent, an ad hoc computer clinic, full time crèche and even a rudimentary veg patch / garden demonstrate an impressive level of organization and spontaneous grass-roots action similar to those revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Carla and Ague

The next people I meet are Carla and Ague (left), two students from one of the many universities here in Barcelona. echoing Marc, they tell me ‘we are here to demand the rights that our parents fought for during the transition from Fascism. People here [in Spain] have got too comfortable but we must fight to maintain them, and recover the ones we have lost!’. Rights seem to be a recurring theme throughout these protests, but opinions begin to dissipate when discussions move on to how to secure these rights. 

 

The food tent

After a salad, gespacho and pineapple (free from the food tent!) I get talking to Pep, Juan and Olga; an administrator, architect and ceramasist respectivly. “The mismanagement of public funds here in Spain is outrageous, people are sucked from the country to the cities in the ‘good times’ before being left high and dry when funds destined for public services are lost to waste and corruption” Olga tells me whilst wagging and indignant finger.

We continue to discuss examples of state corruption and repression untill Pep, quiet untill now, pipes up; ‘the parralels between the Arab Spring and what is happening here lie in our demands; just as the Arabs are demanding democracy, so are we. That is, real government of the people by the people which, despite appearances, we are very far from here in Spain’.

Pep, Juan and Olga

Herein lies the similarities between the Spanish Revolution and the Arab Spring; when people are systematically denied their rights, no matter in what way, they will naturally come together to try to do something about it. However, today we should not expect an all encompassing solution to be handed down to us by a charismatic leader; Our experience of communism has dispelled the hope that a group of enlightened intellectuals will lead us to a promised workers paradise. As one banner reads ‘the process is slow because our demands are big’ and, sitting here in the sun, I can’t help thinking that the seeds are being sown (and are taking root) of something quite different. Maybe, finally, we are learning our lessons from history (it’s about bloody time!) and incorporating them into a movement that will change things from the bottom up. It is not just anarchists and communists here but people from all walks of life simply demanding to be treated as… people! Just like the revolutions across the Arab, this is neither left nor right wing but something quite different. Potentially, something quite new, only recently made possible by 21st century communications technology.

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The dust is beginning to settle after the occupation of 30 Millbank last Wednesday, and the time has come to assess what happened and how we can take the resistance – both in universities and beyond – forwards. The 50,000 students on the streets was impressive, but it was the 5,000 at Millbank who made the difference. They escalated what was already the biggest single protest against the Coalition into the beginning of the resistance. For once, when we chanted “You say cut back, we say fight back”, we actually meant it. The idea that students are apathetic took a big dent at Millbank, and the student population became a threat to government for the first time in decades. This government is fragile; it depends on student support. If an election were held tomorrow, it would not survive, and it would be students who would bring it down, defeating all the Liberal Democrats who were propelled into office on student votes. But to think that elections will be sufficient to stop austerity is fantasy. All three parties have a cuts consensus, and it is through extra-parliamentary action that our voices will be heard. We voted, and we were ignored. We marched, and we were ignored. We rioted, and our voices were heard around the world.

In a demo de-brief meeting that I attended, two comments made by fellow protesters stood out. One described the NUS March (and marching in general) as “asking nicely”. Important, politeness is a virtue after all, but unlikely to gain results. Another mentioned “diversity of tactics”, where those who wish to protest peacefully and benignly can do so, but those who engage in direct action can too. (Incidentally, I would argue the direct action at Millbank also largely non-violent – but then I don’t class breaking windows (violence against property) and violence against the police (who are always the most violent people on a demonstration) as violence per se. The idiot with the fire extinguisher, however, was out of order, and the crowd told him as much.)

Had it just been 5,000 at Millbank without the 50,000 others, it would have been just the same old anarchist and communist faces. The strength of the action was that, from that 50,000, thousands were sufficiently angry and sufficiently confident to join with the minority of seasoned activists. The vast majority of those in the building, pushing against police lines and smashing windows were on their first ever protest, and the pictures show this – would “hardcore anarchists” and “professional protesters”, as the mainstream media have described them, have allowed themselves to be photographed and filmed by so many without the most rudimentary of face-coverings? No chance. These were students, HE and FE, who were angry and who were motivated to do something about it. The arrest statistics bear this out – 10 of 54 were under 18 (FE students).

What cannot be underestimated, however, is the role of the NUS pre-protest. The fact that there was 50,000 of us on Wednesday is testament to their capabilities. They have a level of resources and a reach which we cannot equal, and for better or worse, we do need them. However, their actions post-protest have been despicable, and we must remember that they cannot be relied upon. That a trade union is encouraging its members to shop other members to the police is beyond reprehension. The actions on the day at Millbank showed that there is a palpable anger and urge to resist amongst ordinary students which the NUS does not cater for, and has no interest in catering for. Their bust cards were a joke, and they have set a precedent now in disowning members who engage in direct action. This will not put people off going to protest and taking direct action, but it has highlighted the need for better preparation on the left in order to protect protesters who perhaps are not as experienced as some of us are. The spontaniety of the action on Wednesday was fantastic, and we must ensure that activists are protected.

We also need to ensure that the protests at Millbank are not the last. They have provided an enormous public opening to the campaign of resistance to austerity and must be built upon. Thousands of students were radicalised during the protest, and millions more workers would have sat and watched on television and felt heartened by the actions taken – one senses that few tears were shed for the windows of 30 Millbank in working men’s clubs and trade union branches and job centres across the country. Actions will be taken with much greater gusto as a result of Wednesday. Already, Manchester university has staged an occupation; at Leeds, a police presence in an anti-cuts meeting was summarily removed. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) has called for a student strike on the 24th of November, and this should be the next step in the student resistance. Action begats action, and every step the students take gives confidence to others and makes them more likely to take action. To defeat these cuts it will take mass action from all sectors of society, but, at Millbank, the fightback began in earnest.

To join an anti-cuts movement at your university, or to start one, contact the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

To add your signature to statement of unity with those arrested at Millbank, click here.

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Although a lengthy discussion of semantics isn’t exactly necessary, I think it is very important to clear up the terminology used to refer to travellers. It is by no means consistent and what people say can very often be very different to the meaning they intended. The blurring of definitions is also evident within Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller communities themselves, as people may prefer to label themselves differently depending on their heritage, their current lifestyle and the way they wish to be interpreted. (Discussion on this topic from Gypsy Message Boards)

To try and make it as clear as possible, using the term ‘traveller’ can often be used as an umbrella for groups practising a travelling lifestyle. There are essentially two main groups which form this travelling population in this country (which is estimated at about 300,000), Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies. Irish Travellers often referred to as Pavee, are descendents of nomadic people who roamed Ireland for hundreds of years. Romany Gypsies (‘Gypsy’ being a corruption of ‘Egyptian’, the land the Romany were falsely assumed to have hailed from) are descended from Northern Indian tribesman who left that region and migrated steadily westwards in medieval times. The Romany people have many different sub groups which are divided along lines of different territorial, cultural and linguistic lines.

It is also important to note that many Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies no longer practice a travelling lifestyle, however still attach importance to their heritage.

Despite the different practices and heritage of the different groups of travellers, they are often referred to as a homogenous group because of their shared travelling lifestyle. This often happens in the media, where derogatory stories about Gypsies and travellers is commonplace and does nothing for improving the knowledge of consumers of such stories.

When in conversation discussing the racism which appears to be so acceptable when directed at Romany people and Irish Travellers a response which is common runs along the lines of ‘its not racist because they are not a different race’ which is not only ignorant of the facts that Pavee and Romany people are ethinically different from the other ‘English’, (Anglo-Saxons, Celts etc) but is also reflex to excuse the fear and mistreatment of a minority group.

Whether you call it racism or not, anti-Gypsy bigotry exists in a big way in this country and all over Europe, particularly fiercely in countries such as Romania, Hungary and Italy but what is most worrying about it is that it is more than acceptable. Although banning words from being heard is hardly any solution to racism, you will casually hear words like ‘gippo’ and ‘pikey’ on television and on the radio where you would never hear the words ‘paki’ and ‘nigger’. Although it is hard to fathom today, it is shocking to find that there are places in the UK where you will find signs beside the entrance to establishments to the effect of ‘We Do Not Serve Gypsies’ . Imagine the outrage if establishments refused to serve black people or Jews!

Although it would still be a battle for rights and equality, if the racism that faces travellers today were limited to words and the right-wing media, it would be a much easier task. However, this is not the case and across Europe travellers are quite literally in some cases, enemies of the state. The Italian government declared its Roma population a national security threat. Right-wing groups, notably in Italy and Hungary have used violently mobilised against local Roma populations, forcing them from their homes, burning down camps and even murdering Roma people.

In France, President Sarkozy is under fire from the EU after ordering the deportation of hundreds of its Roma population to Romania and Bulgaria, as officials have cracked down on the group holding them responsible for criminal activity. Closer to home, the new coalition government has reversed the decision to create ‘pitches’ within the jurisdiction of each local authority which aimed to reduce the problems associated with travellers forced to camp on private land. They are also carrying through new waves of evictions of established camps including Dale Farm, home to around 1000 people.

The right-wing media across Europe is constantly on a tirade against Gypsies, The Sun’s launching of a war on the Gypsy community, ‘STAMP ON THE CAMPS’ is just one example. Let us not forget that during the Holocaust, around 500,000 European Roma were executed by the Nazis, a huge percentage of their total population. Much of the rampant anti-Semitism which existed in Europe has since been eradicated after the terrible persecution of the Jews but today it seems as acceptable as ever to treat Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers as second class citizens. Why?

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“One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English language’


Words. Tools with which meaning is devised, described and derived in this incredibly complex world. We use them to think, and use them without thinking; we use them honestly and dishonestly; powerfully, inspiringly, simply, confusingly – and when we really get pissed off with the motherfuckin’ system we sometimes use them offensively. They mediate and define our existence, and are vital to most that we do. We take them for granted. In the arena of Politics and Media this is a grave concern.

Politics is a minefield of language games and deception. It is filled with slippery rhetoricians who peer out through a veneer of PR and spin; theirs is necessarily a vague vocabulary. One that subtly legitimises wars, evades blame, and presents itself in digestible chunks with the use of prefabricated phrases that get lodged in even the most rational mind. This is the language of “peace processes” – when there is actually little peace and not much of a process; the language of “wars on terror”, whatever that means; or even the vague notion of “financial crisis”, which actually more resembles a crisis of capitalism. It is undoubtedly a creative verbal landscape of euphemism but is far from precise, or helpful. Arguably, we should expect little else from politicians considering their nature, and the nature of their work. But the truly alarming thing is how this quietly deceptive language permeates the common argot, with stale and misleading phrases thoughtlessly recycled in everyday speech. Much of the blame for this unnecessary trend lies at the feet of the Media – the megaphone of politics.

The problem of language is certainly not new, but has been made all the more pertinent to the political process by the proliferation of Mass Media. Particularly in the age of voracious 24 hour news coverage, which sees the only legitimate sources as ‘official’ ones and with an onus in commercial efficiency, we are bombarded with these pre-packaged phrases and they inevitably shape our perception of the political. Plus a salacious word often sells more than an accurate one. And so the media become complicit. Not necessarily in any corrupt or conscious sense. But not only do they somehow overlook their vital role of actually exposing the hokum that lurks behind this empty and elusive phraseology: they also reproduce it unquestioningly. And so do we.

This issue of parlance has been variously noted from George Orwell to, more recently, the great contemporary journalists Robert Fiske and John Pilger. As with their warnings, the intention of this Post is not to inspire any profound action. It is enough to simply illuminate the trend of our slovenly use of political language, along with the less visible issues that lurk behind. A word or phrase is rarely just a ‘thing in itself’, it is pregnant with meaning and that is its power. To use the phrases prescribed by those in Politics and the Media ourselves makes us inadvertently complicit: carriers of a dormant disease. Words and phrases which appear innocuous enough actually form a weave in a wider fabric of domination, imperialism, inequality and exploitation. As Orwell notes, use of a “dying metaphor” actually undermines its purpose. A metaphor is there to conjure an image; a borrowed metaphor used without thought does nothing of the sort. But all we need do is extend our analysis of what is said to the way it is said. Once aware of these language games examples begin to burn brightly from the page and screen and it becomes easier to be more discerning.

Language is important. It is rich and varied and there is no cause to fall back on the ridiculous and lazy vernacular of the media-political elites. From Foucault’s concept of the dominant discourse which is reinforced by social institutions imbued with power, to the theory of philosophers such as Richard Rorty which sees truth as a history of competing vocabularies, there is enough background thought to demand we take the issue of language seriously. But we need not over-intellectualise the issue. All we need do is think before we speak or, more pertinently, before we write. As Media move into an epoch of two-way flow, ‘citizen journalism’ and participation all of us who engage in Alternative Media (largely thanks to the internet) have a responsibility to live up to that name. So we must continue to give an alternative account of the world, one which exists outside of the limited and stifling Mainstream Media; part of that is ensuring that we are aware of the language we use and that it doesn’t mimic that mainstream just because it is convenient to do so. A responsibility to think before we write.

“Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”

George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English language’

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It doesn’t take much for the media to reveal its true colours and this week they have exemplified this in the incredibly bigoted and misinformed reaction to the fantastic decision to grant asylum to two homosexual men who face persecution in their own countries for their sexuality. The headlines are hardly surprising, its not that often that the tabloids get to combine their homophobia and racism in a single article. The Daily Star running with ‘No Room For Gays’ is almost unbelievable, The Sun also runs with ‘Gay Illegals Can Stay’ but even the BBC News 24 reporter’s instant reaction was essentially;  ‘Well, surely now they will all just say they are gay so they can stay’.

Not only did this case point the the bigotry of the media (which it of course doesnt take a genius to uncover), it also highlights a couple of other points, the pathetic methods of the UK Border Agency (which a previous article has already outlined the potential affects of) and also the media’s contradictions.

Firstly, in the Refugee Action email out after the ruling, they highlighted how the UKBA staff who assess cases such as this were focusing not on the persecution but on the sexuality, for example the following question was asked:

“Why do you choose to be a homosexual when it is illegal in your country?”

Its difficult to know where to start in trying to dissect the faults in this question. It presupposes that one chooses their sexuality, suggests that if you are homosexual you should not do it if its illegal and thereby legitimises  the concept of criminalising a sexuality (but in another country). Their previous ruling that people should go back to their home countries and ‘be discreet’ about their sexuality continues to display an utter lack of understanding. Would they send a member of the Zimbabwean opposition party the MDC back and tell them to be discreet about their politics?

Lastly I want to point out the striking contradiction of the tabloid press which has occured simultaneously to their disgust at the granting of asylum to the to men concerned here in the campaign to prevent the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani (I have provided The Sun link here). Its very positive that people are questioning the state repression of the Islamic Republic and have decided to campaign against the stoning of a woman accused of adultery. However the contradiction lies in the fact that one of the homosexual men which apparently there is not room for is also Iranian. So, they will campaign to stop the persecution of a woman awaiting a terrible fate in Iran, but they will condemn the ruling which keeps a man from returning to a different kind of persecution in the same country. Is it that he is homosexual, or that he is an asylum seeker that they don’t support him? Or is it another way to maniuplate anti-Islamic sentiment and an easy way to score points over the barbarism of the Muslim regime?

In order to understand the contradiction of the press, try this. Think about what would happen if the stories were reversed; if the court had ruled that a woman who committed adultery would not be returned to Iran because of the persecution she would face and a homosexual man was going to be stoned to death in the same country. What would be the reaction then? ‘No room for adulterers?’ I think not.


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