Photos: Zakariya Gacal
With the general election fast approaching, last Wednesday Red Pepper hosted ‘Beyond the Ballot Box: Ways We Can Win!’ The aim of the event was to explore, celebrate and be inspired by grassroots politics and the people that are fighting and winning on the issues that matter to us – from stopping social cleansing to education to ending Israeli apartheid.
While the political options on offer from the mainstream parties tell us we should accept austerity (or a watered down version), endless war and capitalism, there is an alternative political reality that already exists in grassroots campaigns and groups – with solidarity, social justice, mutual support and personal liberation both the means and the end for many of these groups and organisations.
Unite the union kindly hosted the evening in central London, and it was led by speakers busy making change happen in five areas: education and the arts, direct action, workplace organising, community organising and solidarity organising.
We kicked the evening off with films from the Economic Justice Project’s ‘We Can Win’ website- listening to Laxmiben, who struck in the 1976-1978 Grunwick Strike, as well as Ann Scargill and Betty Cook from the Women Against Pit Closures group, and Tony, who organised against the Poll Tax in north London in the early 1990s.
Their words provided a context of past struggles and successes for the individuals and groups who spoke for a few short minutes each about the current campaigns they are involved in. Henry from the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain was first to speak about the successes of the 3 Cosas campaign, followed by Roger from Disabled People Against Cuts, who described the politics of solidarity that pins together the group and inspires its direct actions.
Claire and Naia described in detail how they were part of a collective of activists from London Palestine Action and other Palestine solidarity groups who shut down drones-part arms factory Elbit Systems for two days last summer to highlight the company’s complicity in arming Israel during the latest attack on Gaza. Jinan from Shake! talked about how the project’s arts for political and personal liberation programme had led her to understand self-care as a radical political act, while Farzana, also from Shake!, challenged the traditional left to take art as a medium for radical political change seriously.
The youngest speaker was sixteen year old Tasnima from the Globe Poets, who spoke about her alienation as a young Muslim woman from a Left that refuses to use accessible language, and finished her speech with a tongue-in-cheek spoken word piece that challenged those who speak on behalf of Muslim women. Speakers from Unite Hotel Workers branch talked about the difficult work of organising in hotels, activists from English for Action London spoke about how ESOL classes were vital in supporting migrants to challenge political and social inequality, and Maya from Voices for Creative Non-violence described the challenges of building effective solidarity with peace groups in Afghanistan.
The evening was finished by a short talk first from Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary, who detailed the ramping up of organising around migrant detention and the need for action, before Jasmin from Our West Hendon sent the room out on a high with a rallying call to action against social cleansing.
Dozens of people stuck around for nearly an hour afterwards to continue the too-short conversations, to swap numbers and contact details, to discuss ways to work together in the future, to share admiration. Many of these people continued these conversations for many more hours in the pub – perhaps showing that inspiration really is contagious.
The speakers were predominantly women, and they demonstrated very clearly that there is a wide and exciting range of struggles going on in lots of different spaces and places, from the classroom to the streets to the home. We need it all to win – and we need to recognise it all for it to win.
With the event over the challenge now is to respond to the calls from the speakers: join the movement against detention centres, take art seriously as a medium for political expression and change, use language that politically inspired young people can relate to and understand – and overwhelmingly to keep listening to each other and supporting each other’s struggles.
For more information about these campaigns and many more, see our People’s Agenda series.
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