Rebel Music #9 The Band - ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’

By Alex

27 April 2012

In the wake of the death of Levon Helm, singer and drummer with The Band, Will Farrell considers The Band's classic union song 'King Harvest (Has Surely Come)'...

 

Levon Helm, the drummer and singer with The Band, sadly died last week. The Band will forever be fixed in popular culture as the subjects of the concert film The Last Waltz directed by Martin Scorsese. Before that, they were key in taking folk music into the rock era with their first two albums Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969). As well as being musically rich, those albums also created a hybrid folk-rock genre. The group explored America’s folk past through writing new songs or reconfiguring old ones using the full possibilities of an electrified band, rather than just strumming through the same old Pete Seeger standards. Those albums are, in their way, a kind of ‘history from below’ filled with tales of a hard working, hard living rural past. It’s no accident that they appeared just before Studs Turkel’s breakthrough book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970).

The Band’s music did not, as some roots music does, depend on being particularly ‘authentic’. The arrangements are too lush for that: they were romantics rather than social realists. Politically, this meant that they were rather promiscuous. One of their most famous songs is ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ about the defeat of Confederate army at the end of the American Civil War. However, they did record one of the great American union songs ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’. Sung from the point of a poor farmer who has joined a union, it moves elegantly between the despair of crop failure to the defiance of the collective action he is now going to take. By the end of the song the hope of better labour conditions dovetails with hopes of a better harvest. As ever the sophistication of  The Band stands outs: the unusual fast verse/slow chorus structure, the interchange of vocalists, the lyrical touches that create a sense of the narrator as a person (“I'm glad to pay those union dues, Just don't judge me by my shoes.”) A fitting tribute to the son of Arkansas cotton farmers who went on to become a great musician.

William Farrell is a member of the Labour Party and is researching a History PhD at Birkbeck.

Previously in the Rebel Music series:

Rebel Music #1 The Clash - Sandinista!

Rebel Music #2 George Clinton

Rebel Music #3 Atari Teenage Riot

Rebel Music #4 Robert Wyatt - Nothing Can Stop Us

Rebel Music #5 Manic Street Preachers

Rebel Music #6 Tracy Chapman

Rebel Music #7 Instrumental Interlude

Rebel Music #8 The Au Pairs

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Rebel Music #8 The Au Pairs

By Alex

19 April 2012

Rupinder Parhar on post-punk rebels the Au Pairs...

 

When I first began my exploration of the thrilling world of post-punk, I became convinced that I was spending my teenage years in entirely the wrong decade. Post-punk confronted my impressionable sixteen-year-old ears with a vitality which I found to be abysmally lacking in contemporary music (despite the vogue of the mid-‘00s which appropriated of this exact sound). I hunted down recordings of the myriad post-punk bands from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, many of which had modest back-catalogues, having only existed for a few years each. One particular band which pervaded in my listening habits was the Au Pairs. Two men and two women, driven by the vocals of frontwoman Lesley Woods, the band’s interrogation of sexual politics feels devastatingly relevant to this day.

Formed in Birmingham in the mid-‘70s, the Au Pairs released their debut LP Playing with a Different Sex in 1981.  The album spans ten tracks, broaching issues of gender and sex politics, with reference to British intervention in Northern Ireland and dystopian visions of supreme state control thrown in for good measure (‘Armagh’ and ‘Headache for Michelle’ respectively). Contrary to my teenage perception of protest music, this was neither a folksy, acoustic ode to mediocrity, nor exactly a brash and shouty explosion of hardcore punk. Much like their contemporaries Gang of Four, The Slits, etc, the Au Pairs buttressed their angry, radical politics with a style of punk driven by danceable bass lines and catchy riffs. While punk had been operating within fairly strict ideological parameters, post-punk was ready to fight the cause of any marginalised group and successfully translate political indignation into indie dance floor hits.

The album’s second track, ‘Love Song’, confronts power structures with an exploration of staid romantic conventions and the language of commerce (‘take out the ring/two fates sealed/negotiated a business deal’) that they entail. With echoes of Gang of Four’s ‘Anthrax’, it’s a sardonic interpretation of relationships and monogamy, made particularly interesting by the interplay between Woods’s vocals and the occasional distant yelps of ‘I love you’ and suchlike from guitarist Paul Foad.

This vocal collision occurs throughout the album and, on tracks such as ‘It’s Obvious’, its simultaneously melodic and combative form seems an apt reflection of the complexities of gender relations. The premise of universal freedom from the constraints of gender and sexual identity means that the discourse cannot simply operate in terms of a male and female gender binary. The need to reconcile this binary, so that both men and women are liberated from gender expectations, is especially pertinent as gender remains elemental in political strife. Ongoing government cuts are regularly likened to the Thatcherite era (the political climate which provided the backdrop for this album). Moreover, news that cuts are affecting women disproportionately more than men reflects poorly upon the level of gender equality that we profess to having achieved thus far.

Alas, it is perhaps easy to downplay the progress made in the thirty years since this record was released. The band’s cover of David Bowie’s ‘Repetition’ (the story of a man’s abuse towards his wife) is a depressing reminder of the restricted position that married women still inhabited at the time, despite the gains of second-wave feminism in the seventies. Factors such as the abolition of the marital rape exemption (alarmingly only instated by the House of Lords, in England and Wales, in 1991) certainly indicate that there has been a trend towards positive change. However, considering that on average two women are killed by a partner each week, and the appallingly low 6% conviction rate for rape, it is clear that there is a maze of injustice which we have yet to navigate. Rather than succumbing to the overwhelming gloom of these issues, however, there is a righteous anger pervading the Au Pairs’ songs, which enables the listener to reflect upon it without feeling patronised by dogmatism.

Since the eighties, female musicians have often shunned the tag of ‘feminist’, and understandably so. The term has been slyly rendered hostile and alienating by those who perpetuate the myth of bra-burning misandrists. In the period of ‘80s Capitalist glut, stale notions of femininity, masquerading as a kind of hyper-sexualised female empowerment (see the rise, and rise of Madonna for evidence), distorted the axis of gender relations in popular culture and also exploited the plight of women of colour and gay men etc. Seminal modern musicians such as PJ Harvey, who sings frequently about gender and the struggles of male and female relations, do not identify as feminists. And who can blame them, when the term has become marred by such restrictive connotations?

For me, feminism isn’t merely a political issue: it’s a human rights issue. It operates on a fundamental praxis of respect and equality between sexes, and this is the ideology espoused in Playing with a Different Sex. The album cover, featuring an Eve Arnold photograph of female combat soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army, captures an excitement about radical activism that this album incites in me.  Although the Au Pairs weren’t together for long (they disbanded in 1983, a year after releasing their second album), their incendiary and progressive exploration of gender remains entirely relevant today. They were exploring the constraints faced by women, while understanding that men also require liberation from societal gender norms for an equilibrated state of existence to occur. The band’s call for redefinition of power structures can quite easily translate to the plight of any marginalised group, whilst remaining centred within an indictment of the political climate of the time. Alongside all this, the band managed to create some incredibly infectious songs.  I see the Au Pairs as an ideal demonstration of indignation being transformed into something that is both productive and, dare I say it, fun. With such bleak political horizons ahead of us, this combination is entirely necessary.

Rupinder Parhar is a feminist activist and occasional writer. She helps to run the political and cultural blog the Kitchen Tapes.

Previously in the rebel music series:

Rebel Music #1 The Clash - Sandinista!

Rebel Music #2 George Clinton

Rebel Music #3 Atari Teenage Riot

Rebel Music #4 Robert Wyatt - Nothing Can Stop Us

Rebel Music #5 Manic Street Preachers

Rebel Music #6 Tracy Chapman

Rebel Music #7 Instrumental Interlude

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Socialist Ten Commandments

By Ed

17 April 2012

A genuinely affecting paradigm of this close-to-the-earth leftist culture is provided by the example of the “Socialist Ten Commandments”, taught in the Socialist Sunday Schools set up by the ILP [Independent Labour Party] from the 1890s onward...

1. Love your school companions, who will be your co-workers in life.

2. Love learning, which is the food of the mind; be as grateful to your teachers as to your parents.

3. Make every day holy by good and useful deeds and kindly actions.

4. Honour good men and women; be courteous to all, bow down to none.

5. Do not hate nor speak evil of any one; do not be revengeful, but stand up for your rights and resist oppression.

6. Do not be cowardly. Be a good friend to the weak, and love justice.

7. Remember that all good things of the earth are produced by labour. Whoever enjoys them without working for them is stealing the bread of the workers.

8. Observe and think in order to discover the truth. Do not believe what is contrary to reason, and never deceive yourself or others.

9. Do not think that they who love their country must hate and despise other nations, or wish for war which is a remnant of barbarism.

10. Look forward to the day when all men and women will be free citizens of one community, and live together as equals in peace and righteousness.

If there is an element of sentimental paternalism and pedagogy here and elsewhere in Socialism with a Northern Accent, this is part of the point. One of its repeated assertions is that we have to learn from our socialist elders, that there are vital lessons to be derived from the example of the ILP and the northern grassroots culture that grew up around it.

From Alex Niven's review for NLP of Socialism with a Northern Accent: Radical traditions for modern times

 

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Rebel Music #7 Instrumental Interlude

By Alex

13 April 2012

Emilio Reyes considers whether or not instrumental music can be political...

Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance,
Unless we organise.

The lyrics to this Union song ‘Which side are you on?’ written in 1931 for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County Kentucky can be heard in a variety of contexts, political and non-political. and the political message will still be understood. The meaning of the song is contained within the lyrics and not the music. If you heard the chords of this song, without the lyrics, and without knowing the original song you would be less certain of its political nature. Conversely, if these lyrics were heard on synths and strings and produced and released by Simon Cowell its political message would be disturbingly hijacked without actually being dissolved.

The problem therefore remains. Instrumental music does not convey information and meaning in the same way words do. Two people can differ greatly in their interpretation of instrumental music.  Take the tune ‘Fable of Faubus’ by Charles Mingus, which was a tune written about Orval E. Faubus, the Arkansas governor who called in the National Guard to prevent nine African American teenagers from attending the Little Rock School. This tune only makes sense as a political tune when coupled with its title. Alone, without prior information regarding its purpose, it could lead you to a different interpretation.

Yet there are situations when instrumental music can become political. Throughout history there have been regimes and governments that have denigrated certain instrumental music.  The act of playing it then becomes a revolutionary act. In Soviet controlled Poland, until Stalin's death in 1953, Jazz was considered the music of the enemy. It was not ‘socialist realism’, which as a concept of art meant, amongst other things, it had to be as bland as humanly possible. In pre-Allende Chile, the Nueva Cancion movement played Andean folk instrumentals with indigenous instruments. At the time, Chilean radio would play either American pop music or Chilean bands playing American pop music. Playing Andean folk instrumentals was a political and national statement: a hammer to hit at the cultural hegemony propagated by the Chilean ruling class.

Of course the jazz music in Poland, and the Andean music in Chile were not played because the regime disapproved of them. They were played because of something deeper than that. They were played because instrumental music does express things. It expresses the condition of the people who create it. Were the things that the music expressed, things that the regimes suppressed, denied, rejected? And if so what are these things? And can this relationship truly be established?

Even though you can’t have as clear cut a relationship between music and meaning as you do with words and meaning, this shouldn’t devalue instrumental music's value in political movements.

Emilio Reyes is a composer who, as he puts it, spends a lot of time playing, listening and thinking about music to the detriment of most other things in his life.

Previously in the rebel music series: 

Rebel Music #1 The Clash - Sandinista!

Rebel Music #2 George Clinton

Rebel Music #3 Atari Teenage Riot

Rebel Music #4 Robert Wyatt - Nothing Can Stop Us

Rebel Music #5 Manic Street Preachers

Rebel Music #6 Tracy Chapman

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Comments on New Left Project - an Apology

By John

13 April 2012

A small number of recent comments have disappeared from the site. We would like to assure commenters and readers that this is due to technical malfunction, and not to action by members of the editorial team. We are trying to establish the cause and to restore the missing comments, and in the meantime would encourage anyone wishing to leave a comment on an article to do so in the normal way.

New Left Project apologises for any confusion.

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1992: a nasty Easter egg from the BBC

By John

10 April 2012

Look at this fucking hipster

The BBC’s decision to run its 1992 General Election night coverage, in full, on the BBC Parliament channel over the Easter weekend might have seemed an odd addition to the dismal seasonal fare on offer from rival broadcasters. But it provided a reminder of the night when a generation of voters saw a possible end to 13 years of Tory government, and a limit to the high water mark of neoliberal policies, snatched away almost in front of its eyes.

Of course the idea that a Labour government might present any challenge to neoliberal orthodoxy now seems fanciful to the point of delusion, but in 1992 even Neil Kinnock’s watery brand of social democracy was enough to stir the hearts of those who ached to consign Thatcherism to its long-overdue grave - and enough to panic Rupert Murdoch’s Sun into its notorious election day “lightbulb” front page.

I had just turned 31, and gathered with friends in front of the TV that night, confident, despite narrow and changeable poll margins, that we would cheer the end of the Tory rule that had darkened British life since we had been old enough to vote. The shock, as the results came in and even the hope of a hung parliament drained away, was as numbing as it was universal.

Over the ensuing 20 years, people have tended to focus more on the 1997 election which took Tony Blair’s New Labour to power, and to block out the painful memories of 1992. Yet watching the repeated coverage last night, with its forgotten faces and double-breasted suits, one appreciates the significance of 1992 anew. Such innocent times! To believe that the neoliberal ascendancy would end with the election of a Labour government; and that we were enduring “the worst recession since 1931”, with no inkling of the scale of the crisis that would engulf the world economy within two decades.

As the pundits debate the significance of the Tory victory, the talk is of John Smith and Gordon Brown as successors to Kinnock. 20 years on, one can sense the young Tony Blair sitting, watching these very images, and drawing his own lessons. Truly, you can almost hear New Labour being conceived as the night wears on.

Meanwhile there is a surprising amount of commentary devoted to electoral reform and the failure of the recently-formed Lib Dems to breathe life into the anti-Tory majority. Elsewhere that same night, working for a lobbying firm hired by Colonel Gaddafi, is an ambitious 25 year old named Nick Clegg.

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Rebel Music #6 Tracy Chapman

By Alex

05 April 2012

NLP co-editor Maeve McKeown on the quietly subversive music of Tracy Chapman...

 

 

The history of folk music is littered with lonesome, humble, beardy men with a guitar, strumming tunes of political freedom.  But in 1988, along came Tracy Chapman, an African-American woman singing about poverty, racism, gender inequality, domestic violence and life in the ghetto.  When her debut album was released at the age of just 24, she caused a sensation.  Not only did her music stand out amidst her contemporaries - a music scene dominated by synths and electro pop - but she married the mainly white political folk tradition of the sixties, with African-American soul and blues.  An all-round outsider.  After an appearance at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute concert, she shot to fame, gaining awards and glory from the Grammys to the Brits.  Not a bad trajectory for a girl brought up by a single mother in Cleveland, Ohio.  Throughout her career, Tracy has remained an activist, campaigning on issues including Apartheid, human rights, and AIDS. 

Many of the other artists featured in this series write angry, noisy, hardcore songs, designed to shock people out of their apathy and get their hearts thumping.  What I love about Tracy Chapman’s music is that she writes about devastating and tragic themes, but sings it to you as if it were a lullaby.  Her most iconic song, Fast Car, lilts along slowly and calmly, lulling you into a sense of security; but look at the lyrics:

You see my old man’s got a problem
He live with the bottle that’s the way it is
He says his body’s too old for working
I say his body’s too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody’s got to take care of him
So I quit school and that’s what I did

In this verse, she sums up the situation of so many women who live in poverty, forced to abandon their education and ambitions to care for another; in this case an alcoholic father.  You get the sense that his alcoholism stems from his desperation, and yet feel angry at the dreadful situation in which this places his daughter.  Her mother left, but can you really blame her?  The daughter dreams about driving off in a fast car with her boyfriend, getting a job so they can “buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs”.  But you know that this is just a dream.  Incidentally, Fast Car is the highest-ranking song both written and performed by a woman in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

Another difference with the artists in the series is that Tracy Chapman could be considered to some extent mainstream.  She has won many major awards and one of her songs was even covered by Boyzone!  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that her music is any less subversive.  Consider another of her early songs, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”:

Don't you know 
They're talkin' about a revolution 
It sounds like a whisper 
While they're standing in the welfare lines 
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation 
Wasting time in the unemployment lines 
Sitting around waiting for a promotion 

Poor people gonna rise up 
And get their share 
Poor people gonna rise up 
And take what's theirs 

This doesn’t sound like mainstream or liberal sentiment to me.  “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” charted at #75 in the US. What Tracy Chapman managed to do, was to bring challenging revolutionary ideas to a mass audience.  She challenged the complacency of white America, bringing anti-racist, anti-poverty songs straight into their homes.  Her music and political campaigning continue to challenge to the present day. 

Tracy Chapman is beautiful, exceptional, inimitable - a true inspiration.

Maeve McKeown is a co-editor of New Left Project and a Political Theory PhD student at University College London.

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Rebel Music #5 Manic Street Preachers

By Alex

30 March 2012

Rhian Jones on the most high profile political band of the 90s - the Manic Street Preachers...

 

 

Manic Street Preachers were, before most other things, a curio and an anomaly. Throughout the 1990s – a queasy time of class confusion, class drag, and class erasure – they were a band characterised by a particular and peculiar brand of politics. They were also the band with whom I felt the strongest sense of shared political identity – one which seemed increasingly out of step with the era. If Pulp were, as recently suggested, the last of the art-school bands, then surely the Manics were the last artistic gasp of a certain breed of late 20th-century industrial working class?

The Manics stand slightly apart from Pulp's putative artschool/suburbia/starving-bohemian axis. Raised in the south Wales cultural cellar and fed on intermittent and disparate drips from the ceiling - Plath, 'Howl', Solanos, Baudelaire, Bret Easton Ellis, Big Flame – they fashioned around themselves the kind of defiantly odd proletarian glam aesthetic that gets you beaten up in pubs before it gets you feted in Camden. But the band and their music was always shaped by and rooted in class and class politics. The Manics were class-conscious – that is, they were unable to avoid being conscious of class – in a time and place where the signifiers of class were becoming abstracted, simplified, stripped of meaning and scattered ready for appropriation, while at the same time those who'd happened to be born with the same signifiers involuntarily bolted-on were vanishing from public view. In the 1990s the Manics' distinct brand of Bevanite workingmen's-club socialism, a grand tradition subtly but surely drilled into every Valleys child, was a baffling throwback - less palatable, because less plausible, and certainly making you work harder to understand it, than the cartoonish outrage of S*M*A*S*H or Oasis' lumpen-aspirational swagger.

What their body of work wasn't, despite the rose-tinted political ideals sometimes on show, was a romanticised view of actual working-class conditions. It wasn't sexy and it wasn't Poor Is Cool. And in something like ‘Archives of Pain’, a heartfelt and clunky advocacy of capital punishment, the band could display a liberal-baiting outrage – ‘pain not penance, forget martyrs, remember victims’ - which touches on elements of working class thought that more squeamish or apologetic commentators might have kept swept under the carpet.

Elsewhere, 'SYMM' commemorates the Hillsborough dead – mawkishly perhaps, but providing a necessary analysis and reminder of how state, police, and media institutionalised fear and distrust of mass proletarian engagement, and how this led to people being caged and corralled like animals. And thus the song does slightly more for the working class football fan than, for instance, the set of self-satisfied Primrose Hill muppets which perpetrated 'Vindaloo'. Similarly, the swooning Spanish Civil War salute 'If You Tolerate This...', or the post-industrial cri de coeur 'Ready for Drowning', were atypical, essentially dignified expressions of indignation whose existence in a world and in charts which also contained that cover of 'Cotton-Eye Joe' seemed incredible. About as offbeat, outdated, and exasperating if you didn't get it, as socialism seemed to Tony Blair.

While their conditions of production invariably informed what they said and did, the Manics only occasionally wore class on their leopardprint-clad and spraypaint-spattered sleeve. They didn't have to, because it was so blatantly bred in the bone. Absolutely no one but a working-class lyricist would have come up with the line 'Close the pits, sanctify Roy Link, an OBE / Shareholding a piece of this fucking country' unless they were angling for a job doing Billy Elliot, the Slightly More Obscure Musical. (I heard that song in the days before Google and even I had to ask my dad who the hell Roy Link was. He said I was too young to know.)

In contrast to a handful of their peers and successors, being Dead Working Class Right wasn't the Manics’ raison d'etre, because they were secure enough in the authenticity of their origins not to be constantly at pains to point them out. Even while everyone else was doing so, with varying degrees of validity. For the stylish, book-smart and culturally savvy proletariat, the weary stoicism of 'Working class cliches start here / Either cloth caps or smack victims' does as much to anticipate the 21st century as to sum up the late 20th. And it remains impossible to reach back into the 1990s, grasping for lines to describe the sociopolitical here and now, without burning your fingers on the white-hot irony of 'A Design for Life'.

It has, incidentally, been years since I’ve listened to the Manic Street Preachers. I’m happy to leave them to their photographic retrospectives and their status as mock national treasures. They remain the band who most accurately represented where I came from, and, in their uses of literacy, uses of glamour, and uses of consciousness, they also represented the sometimes preposterous methods of escape one had cause to employ.

Rhian Jones is a writer of fiction, satire, and nonfiction on the subjects of music, history, and politics. Her blog is http://velvetcoalmine.wordpress.com

Previously in the Rebel Music series:

Rebel Music #1 The Clash - Sandinista!

Rebel Music #2 George Clinton

Rebel Music #3 Atari Teenage Riot

Rebel Music #4 Robert Wyatt - Nothing Can Stop Us

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“Festival of Dangerous Ideas” Review

By Maeve

25 March 2012

Last Saturday saw the first Festival of Dangerous Ideas in London, curated by Counterfire, Verso and the International Socialist Group.

Generally when I attend one of these events, my test of whether it was worthwhile is if I learnt something.  This day of talks and workshops was a bit of a mixed bag.

The first session I attended was entitled, “Ethical Consumerism: More Harm than Good?”  It was the session I was most looking forward to, as ethical consumerism is something I research as part of my PhD.  Unfortunately, however, it was disappointing.  The two speakers didn’t really talk to the question, whether ethical consumerism does “more harm than good”; instead they made vague, general arguments about how the people involved think it will change the world when clearly it won’t.   The first speaker, Tansy Hoskins, invited a Bono impersonator on stage to read out the RED manifesto, which advocates changing the world through happy capitalism, as an example of such a philosophy.  But surely this conflates two separate issues – grassroots social movements who have campaigned for workers’ rights, and the corporate co-option of their ideas.  No-one involved in the former pursuit thinks that ethical consumerism is a panacea for the world’s problems; and the latter are clearly engaged in marketing bullshit.  Moreover, not once did either speaker talk about the victims of unjust labour processes and what they can gain from fair trade; both talks were pitched in terms of Westerners trying to feel good about themselves.  What could have been a very interesting talk about a highly complex and nuanced issue, turned into the usual leftie rhetoric of “it’s not a revolution, so it’s not good enough.”  A shame.

Next up was a feminist talk by Kate Connolly, entitled “From Suffragettes to Slutwalk”.  After the first session I didn’t have high hopes.  But this time I was pleasantly surprised.  It was an informed and intelligent talk, and I came away feeling I had learnt something interesting about the role of working class women in the suffragette movement; something that all too often gets overlooked.  

After some entertainment provided by Josie Long at lunch, I decided to try out the artistic side of the festival and went to a workshop on the Theatre of the Oppressed.  The instructor, Sergio Amigo, took a group of twenty participants through various exercises developed by the theatre director Augusto Boal.  We were divided into two groups of ten, given newspapers and told to pick a story.  Then we had to represent the story in a single image.  Afterwards, Sergio asked us to represent the opposite, utopian outcome of the story.  Once we had done this, we then had to go back to the original oppressive picture and make one change at a time until we achieved the utopian version.  Boal taught that revolutions were gradual; that it involved one person changing their attitude at a time, and that eventually a more just and progressive world would be achieved.   Teaching such a philosophy through drama was a fascinating and fun experience.  The most enjoyable part of the day. 

My good mood was spoilt, however, by the next talk – “A Brief History of the World” by Neil Faulkner, which was billed as a Bill-Bryson-type-thing with a Marxist twist.  We heard about the three main revolutions so far in human history – agricultural, urban and industrial.  And the fourth yet to come – the socialist revolution.  Then many male members of the audience took the floor and waxed lyrical about their particular interpretations of Marxist history (obviously not the organisers’ fault).  The audience had a reasonable gender balance, yet not a single woman spoke.  The session ended with a call to join Counterfire as this was the way to achieve the socialist revolution.  So “here’s the problem”, “here’s the solution” – join our organization!  It winded up feeling uncannily like propaganda.

I was then looking forward to the Afghan monologues, by the human rights theatre company Ice and Fire.  After waiting twenty minutes for it to start, we were told it was cancelled.

I finished the day with a performance from our theatre of the oppressed workshop and an interesting discussion on political music with Sam Duckworth, aka Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.

It’s great to have a lot of artistic contributions at a leftie conference, something I really welcome and thought that Dangerous Ideas did well.  It was also refreshing to attend an event like this in a comfortable and vibrant venue – Rich Mix in Shoreditch.  I felt it let itself down, however, with the tub-thumping pleas to “join us”; something we could all do without.  Give the information, then let people make up their own minds.

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Life under occupation in Nabi Saleh

By Jamie

23 March 2012

Footage of Israeli soldiers raiding a house in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh (with English subtitles):

The home being raided belongs to the family of Bassem Tamimi, a prominent non-violent activist currently languishing in Israeli prison. The EU has declared Bassem a 'Human Rights defender', and Amnesty International views him as 'a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for his role in organizing peaceful protests against the encroachment onto Palestinian lands by Israeli settlers'. 

This is not the first time Bassem has been detained by Israel. In 1993, he was tortured by the General Security Service (GSS), falling into a coma for six days after being violently shaken during interrogation. All told Bassem has been arrested by the Israeli military 11 times (not including this latest one), spending a total of approximately three years in prison, without ever having been charged with an offense. On this occasion, Bassem was arrested on 24 March 2011 and charged with 'incitement and support of a hostile organization, organizing and participating in unauthorized processions, incitement to throwing objects against a person or property'—that is, incitement to throwing stones. As Amnesty notes, Bassem has in fact 'repeatedly affirmed nonviolent principles' and the protests in Nabi Saleh have been 'largely peaceful', with organisers urging protestors to 'adhere to non-violent methods' (some individual protestors, this notwithstanding, do throw stones). The case against Bassem is based primarily on the testimony of Islam Dar Ayyoub, aged 14 at the time of his arrest, who was taken from his house (he is Bassem's neighbour in Nabi Saleh, and goes to school with Bassem's son, Waed) in the middle of the night, deprived of sleep, refused legal counsel, not informed of his right to silence, threatened, and interrogated without the presence of a lawyer or parent. He spent two and a half months in prison, before being released to house arrest. While Islam was in prison, his brother Kareem —11 years old—was also arrested, before being released. Mo'atassem Tamimi, 15, also provided 'evidence' incriminating Bassem, also under duress. More generally, as documented in a recent EU-funded study, Palestinian children detained by Israel are subject to 'systematic' ill-treatment, sometimes amounting to torture.

The woman in the video above is Nariman Tamimi, Bassem's wife and also a prominent non-violent protest organiser in the West Bank. She has been arrested and injured numerous times in the course of the protests. Nariman studies international law, and works with Israel's leading human rights organisation B'Tselem. The Tamimis' home—the one being raided by soldiers in the video—has been threatened with a demolition order. In December 2011, Nariman's cousin Mustafa Tamimi was shot directly with a tear gas canistera common though illegal practice—at a protest in Nabi Saleh. He died the next day.

The Halamish settlement bordering Nabi Saleh was established by the Israeli cabinet in 1977, and since then hundreds of dunams have been declared 'state land' and expropriated to it. Moreover, since 2000, settlers have taken over a further 450 dunams that fall outside Halamish's official boundaries and de facto annexed them. In July 2008 settlers from Halamish began to use a spring located on private Palestinian land, used by local Palestinian villagers, including those from Nabi Saleh. In February 2009 the settlers began building work on it. Palestinian complaints were rejected by Israeli authorities, who in January 2010 informed villagers that the spring was an 'archaeological site' and denied them access to it. The settlers however continued to build on the site and enjoyed 'free access' to the spring. This was the latest in what the UN OCHA describes as a '35-year-long process' of Israeli settlers 'undermining the agricultural livelihoods' of local villagers. It is also part of a broader pattern of water theft across the West Bank:

'Springs remain the single largest source of water for irrigation in the West Bank, and an important  coping mechanism for communities not connected  to a network (or those supplied on an irregular  basis) to meet domestic and livelihood needs. Springs are also an integral part of the West Bank landscape and open spaces, and as such they serve as sites for leisure and family recreation. 

Over the past few years, however, Palestinian access to a growing number of springs has been significantly reduced, and often totally prevented,  by Israeli settlers, mostly by threat and intimidation. In most cases, following the removal of Palestinian presence at a given spring and itssurrounding  areas, Israeli settlers have begun developing the  area into a tourist attraction.'

Weekly protests in Nabi Saleh, against the theft of the spring and other Palestinian land, began in December 2009. Israel reacted by invoking Military Order 101, issued in 1967, which 'prohibits almost completely the holding of demonstrations in the West Bank'. This is the Order under which Bassem was arrested. Since the weekly demonstrations began around 13% of Nabi Saleh's inhabitants have been arrested, many of them children. The Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem reports that the Israeli military's response to the Nabi Saleh demonstrations is characterised by 'excessive use of force', 'harm to civilians', and the 'infringement of the right to demonstrate'. Between 2009-2011, one demonstrator was killed while protesting and 185 were wounded, including 26 children. The IDF has classified the entire Nabi Saleh area a military zone, and B'Tselem concludes:

'The security forces’ behavior in dispersing the weekly demonstrations in the village seriously harmed all the residents of the village, who were effectively under curfew every Friday, while being exposed to tear gas that penetrated their homes.

Residents of the area, too, were harmed by the closing of the roads, which forced them to use alternative routes, greatly lengthening their travel time. The security forces made no effort to balance between the residents’ right to demonstrate and the authorities’ obligation to maintain public order; instead, they severely infringed the residents’ rights.'

The persecution of Bassem Tamimi is, then, not an isolated one. Nor is the repression in Nabi Saleh unique. Activists in Bil'in, for example, the site of weekly demonstrations against the wall, have received similar treatment. Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a prominent non-violent activist, was arrested in December 2009 in circumstances similar to the treatment of Bassem Tamimi. Like Bassem, Abdallah was charged with inciting demonstrators to throw stones on the basis of testimony induced from minors who were interrogated without legal representation. As in Nabi Saleh, the Israeli army has used Military Order 101 to effectively prohibit public demonstrations there. Like Bassem, Abdallah has been declared a Human Rights Defender by the EU and a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He was convicted in an unfair trial and ended up spending 16 months in prison. The EU's Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton expressed deep concern that 'the possible imprisonment of Mr Abu Rahmah is intended to prevent him and other Palestinians from exercising their legitimate right to protest against the existence of the separation barriers in a non violent manner'. Bassem Abu Rahmah, also a participant in the Bil'in protests, received an even harsher sentence: on 17 April 2009 a soldier fired a tear-gas grenade directly at his chest, killing him. He was not throwing stones or endangering soldiers in any way. Bassem's sister, Jawaher, died in 2010 after inhaling massive amounts of tear-gas at a demonstration; his brother, Ashraf, was shot in the foot while bound and blindfolded at a protest in Nil'in in 2008, and was arrested in Bil'in in 2011. Protesting against Israel's theft of land and resources in the West Bank isn't easy—not if you are Palestinian, at any rate.

More generally, recent years have seen 'a crackdown on those voicing their opposition to the construction of the fence/wall', with dozens of activists known for advocating nonviolence arrested and the offices of organisations involved in nonviolent advocacy against the wall being repeatedly raided by the IDF. See this B'Tselem report for more on that. Bassem Tamimi explains the logic behind Israel's targeting of advocates of nonviolence:

"The army is determined to push us toward violent resistance. They realize that the popular resistance we are waging with Israelis and internationals from the outside, they can’t use their tanks and bombs. And this way of struggling gives us a good reputation. Suicide bombing was a big mistake because it allowed Israel to say we are terrorists and then to use that label to force us from our land. We know they want a land without people — they only want the land and the water — so our destiny is to resist. They give us no other choice."

As senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad explained, "We don't do Gandhi very well".

Palestinian nonviolent resistance continues, but its success - and the safety of its participants - depends on people elsewhere paying attention. 

Iz al-deen Tamimi, 16, injured today at Nabi Saleh demonstration, after being hit with a metal bullet in the face.

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