About Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Bolshie but bereaved social justice advocate, wants #JusticeForGaia

The Sinking of the Nameless

Great tragedies have names. The Titanic, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbour. Their heroes grow taller now than when they walked on earth and their dead live forever in story.

This is not a great tragedy. This is just a boat of migrants that went down in the Aegean, another number, another regrettable spat of collateral damage in the border war of Fortress Europe.

Lesvos, 2015

Content warning: distressing scenes, death of a child by drowning.


I acclimate to the volunteer life on Lesvos. I acclimate to the segregation in the camps, packed tents of Syrians looking like dignity compared to the Iraqi, Afghan and miscellaneous African people left sleeping in dirt. I acclimate to screaming babies being thrown at me from dinghies and the brutality of the Greek police. I acclimate to aid workers eating in good restaurants while the children they’re here to help eat from the dustbins outside. I acclimate to the numbness that spreads right out to your fingers and toes to keep you from breaking.

My friend Ashley convinces me it’s time for a day off. We don’t work by shifts for a charity, we just do what needs doing and that shift is endless. We plan to drive from Anaxos to Molyvos for a dinner that isn’t rice and beans or eaten standing up. It’s a half hour drive down the coastline but you’d have to be a sociopath to make it in that time today. 

The sky is bright but the sea is furious and the wind bites. Even so, boats approach the island endlessly. Every few hundred metres along the beach is another dinghy coming in without anyone to meet it, another boat wrecked at terrifying angles on the sand with broken windows and emergency blankets fluttering from the rails like trapped angels. We stop and stop and stop again. Freezing children bundled into cars, battles for seats on the rescue bus, phantom ambulances chased for the sick and injured. 

Breakfast and lunch come and go and we’ve given all our food away, so by the time we reach Molyvos, we’re starving. We talk quietly as we each wrestle our own guilt. After weeks not really using it, our privilege of being able to step out of this cataclysm feels grotesque. The simple act of sitting down to bread and wine has become bizarre. My eyes sweep the harbour, painted late afternoon pink. The restaurants are all open, all empty. Waiters recline in patron’s chairs, smoking and chatting. Inland, hazy indigo peaks reach into the sky. It strikes me as vaguely odd  that I can’t unclench my teeth. 

We’re a few bites into our bread when the sirens start. Rescue workers hurl themselves out of doorways from nowhere. With a synchronicity that only comes to a place where disaster has become routine, tables and chairs are swept away in one smooth motion. Volunteers, locals, journalists and medical teams are converging on the waterfront.  Ten or fifteen children come off that first rescue boat, which heads immediately back to sea. I put my arms out to receive a young boy. He can’t be more than nine years old. He is unconscious. I run for the medical team, transfixed by his face. He looks strangely peaceful, only his skin is grey and his lips are blue. 

I lie him down beside one of the Red Cross doctors. The doctor is already working on a little girl. He doesn’t even look up. “I’m using both my hands already.” His tone is matter of fact, the way an adult might reassure a child with a serious injury that they have everything under control. “Can you do what I tell you?”

“Yes.” My voice sounds far away. 

I get my first crash course in CPR. I am terrified of hurting him, of doing something wrong. Thirty chest compressions. Hold the nose. Two breaths until the chest rises. His lips like ice on mine. Thirty compressions. Nose. Breathe. Thirty compressions. Nose.

 Breathe, breathe, breathe. 

The boy’s eyes fly open and he starts coughing water. I roll him over and rub his little back. Once he’s breathing right we strip off his wet clothes to prevent hypothermia. The medics disappear. I wrap the boy up in my jacket and lift him onto my lap, covering his body with mine. I can see Ashley holding a little girl by her ankles while the medics try to get water from her chest. Every time I see a medic I have them check him. They are overwhelmed. They say he’s okay but he doesn’t look okay to me.

 I’ve been an atheist all my life. This is when I start praying. 

I know there is more to do but until someone appears who can take better care of this boy me, I’m not leaving him. I don’t know how long I rock back and forth with him in my arms whispering in a language he doesn’t understand. 

Now and then he opens his eyes a little but they never focus. 

I don’t know if he sees me. 

I choose to believe he can hear my voice, feel warmth, recognise the feeling of being out of the water, being cared for. I’ve never felt love as vast and desperate as I do holding this child in my arms. Together with the horror, it engulfs me. 

Before I left, a friend of mine warned me that you cannot be a volunteer and a journalist. Journalists do not get involved. I think about that as I hold this boy, who in this moment has only me in the world. Photographers circle like vultures, getting in people’s way, shoving their lenses where any decent human being must surely know they don’t belong. 

I don’t want to be a journalist anymore. 


Finally, the ambulances come. The paramedic has to pry my arms straight out from under the boy. I don’t want to let him go. I’ll never know what happens to him. A second siren announces the return of the coastguard. Somehow, my legs carry me over. I put my arms out to an Afghan woman who grips them like she’s still drowning. 

“My mother, my brother!” she shouts in English. I try not to think of my own mother drowning. 

“Boats are still coming,” I tell her. She does not respond. “We have to care for you now. If you don’t get dry, you’ll get sick.” 

At first she won’t let me, so I just blanket her shaking body, speaking softly and waiting with dry clothes until she’s ready to be touched. 

“Please, please, my mother is a good woman.” 

A flare of fury that in this moment of all moments, she feels the need to assure me that her mother deserves to be rescued. Her name is Sultana. She is alone now, she keeps saying. I help her change, shaking and crying. Feeding her water feels like the most important thing I have ever done. 

The priest opens the church to provide shelter, so I help her inside and encourage her into the recovery position as she coughs up the last of the sea water. I take her name and promise I’ll look for her family and come back. She kisses me and kisses me and kisses me. Twenty minutes later when I return with more supplies, she’s gone. 


There is one more boat after that and fewer people this time. The coastguard has given up the search. The tavernas have reopened to offer shelter and tea. Elderly local women rock motherless babies. One catches my eye. She cocoons a little girl in a blanket as expertly as if she were her own. Her dark eyes brim with an angry love. I want to reach out to her but she seems far away and I don’t want to be the one to bring her back here. 

People weep on the floor, staggering from group to group, crying out for their loved ones; women call for their children, men ask after their wives. I work with a multilingual Syrian man to compile a list of names. The mothers are relieved just to have someone asking after their children. They stay calm while they spell each name and give the age of each child with any distinguishing features. Then when the helplessness sets in, they break down. I hold some as they cry. I am useless, wooden. A softly spoken woman called Named Shorooq who I’d helped from the rescue boat has lost her husband and all three children. 

When the translator has to leave, I hide in an alleyway to cry. Five or six hours in and it’s dark. I haven’t stopped for food or water or breath and I have no idea where Ashley is. A low, alien sound rises up from the back of my throat. There is a unique kind of crying for when you’ve seen a dead child for the first time; a child who, without the right passport, died to make a journey that you could make whenever you like for about ten euros. 

I sway, wordless.

Another volunteer finds me, asking for help with a young mother. She is sitting in a doorway soaking wet, refusing all help until we find her baby. Unblinking, she watches the sea for a boat we know isn’t coming. 


“How do we get her to drink?” asks the young American. 

“She told us,” I reply. “We find the baby.” 

I don’t know what the best use of my time is at this point but doing almost anything seems less futile than allowing myself to feel this grief that isn’t mine but which nonetheless threatens to swallow me. Once she recognises me as ‘the person on the phone about the baby’, her eyes start to follow wherever I go. Every time I take a call, there is hope. I start gesturing ‘no news’ as quickly as possible because I can’t bear it. 

Eventually, a local doctor reports two infants had been rushed from the first rescue boat straight into hospital. It doesn’t look like they are going to make it and we can’t bring the mother to the hospital because the police aren’t letting anyone leave. It is the first moment I become aware that the police are even here because they aren’t running around like the rest of us, just standing in clusters on the edge of chaos.

I make a beeline for the nearest officer. I explain that she’s at risk of hypothermia but won’t accept care until she sees her baby. I beg him to help me find a way to get her to the hospital. The officer towers above me in his riot gear – like anyone here has the energy to start a riot. 

“Like I told the doctor, she was rescued at sea.” He won’t even look at me. “That means she is formally detained until she gets her registration papers. No papers, no hospital.” 

“It takes days to get papers. Her baby could be gone by then, can’t you just escort her?”

“No papers, no hospital, you get it?” he repeats. 

I am haunted by the notion that the presence of its mother might make the difference between life or death for that baby. At the least, she is being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. The rage is unspeakable.


Like an alien from another planet, good news: ‘Shorooq family found.’ I grab a translator and head straight to where I’d left Named. She starts crying again, kissing my hands, clinging. I wait with her, as much for my sake as for hers. I need to know I am still living in a world where good things can happen. 

We hold each other as we wait and I listen to her pray. Every time a van passes, her nose is pressed against the window. From the third van steps her husband. She calls his name, yanking me with her through the door. In his arms, he cradles their youngest child, two year old Razan. I recognise his name from the list we made. There are no other children.  

Named falls to her knees before her husband, howling. She thumps his legs with one fist, still gripping my hand with the other. This isn’t what we’ve been waiting for. It’s almost worse than nothing, as though in the presence of this little boy all she can see is the absence of the other two. 

Her husband stands like a statue, holding his son. His eyes brim with shame as he accepts her blows in silence. I tell her there are children in the hospital. It’s possible they are alive. I don’t really believe it and she knows it. Her daughter, Maram, is six. Her other son, Malak, aged three. Eventually, Named takes her baby in her arms like she will never let go.

I leave them grieving together and return to give the other mother some answers. Her brother translates as I explain there are two babies at the hospital receiving intensive care. We don’t know if one is hers. We cannot take her to them. I find myself quoting the police. “You are being detained. You cannot leave until you get your papers.” 

I tell her I am deeply sorry and the words taste loathsome.

She looks at me with an expression of absolute incomprehension. I have a human right to seek asylum from war. The whole world knows what is happening in Syria. I am not a criminal, so why am I a prisoner? Even a criminal deserves to hold their baby before they die.

Her brother’s heartfelt thanks make me feel even worse. At the very least, I resolve to try and get her into the Syrians-only camp where she can be fast-tracked for her registration papers. The only place to go for that is the man with the clipboard and a cap that informs the world he works for the UN High Commission for Refugees. I argued with him earlier about getting access to the hospital and he doesn’t look pleased to see me again. Bitterly, I concede there is nothing to be done for her tonight but please could we just talk about what will happen tomorrow. 

“Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I ask him exactly what his responsibility is. He ignores me.

“You know the police won’t do anything,” I argue. “Please, can we just try to figure out how to do our best for her?” 

He walks away. I wonder if at some point, just to keep doing his job, he’s had to reach deep inside himself and smother something essential. Eventually, I find someone else to have the woman and her brother collected in the morning and fast-tracked together, so she doesn’t have to go to the hospital alone to identify her baby’s body. Their gratitude is jarring.


Ashley finds me smoking with my legs dangling over the water, staring down at the debris. Emergency blankets gleam like buried treasure from beneath the bobbing water bottles and a cluster of empty life jackets that cling to each other.

“You ok?” I ask, absurdly. She sits down heavily next to me. My voice still sounds far away. 

“I don’t think I can take much more of this.” Her voice breaks. “It’s time to go home soon or we’re really going to fuck ourselves up.”

“We’re already fucked up.” I drop my cigarette butt into the Aegean because nothing seems beautiful or salvageable at this point. “We were fucked up before we came, we just didn’t know how badly.” 

Ashley is silent. 

In a waterfront café, I get a few people fed while Ashley uses her phone to help them contact home. Across the table, a Norwegian volunteer comforts a teenage girl named Sara whose entire family is presumed drowned. 

When the survivors start talking and we learn that three hundred people had been packed onto a rotten little two-storey tour boat, the kind that started appearing on the beaches after last week’s storm. It’s the families with babies, disabled and elderly relatives who pay extra for the wooden boats because they’re meant to be safer. The boat’s top floor crashed onto the bottom and it sank in less than a minute, leaving a pool of orange life preservers shining in a great expanse of blue. 

From the ceiling, a television screen shines down a basketball game, adverts for cosmetics and gambling apps and cleaning products that kill 99.9 percent of bacteria. The local news comes on and we blankly watch images of ourselves from the hours before. 

Ashley is in no condition to drive so we stay in an empty hotel nearby. We talk a little, just to hear each other’s voices. Once she’s sleeping, I go up to the roof to watch the sunrise with my back to the sea. 

The next day, I scan the media coverage for names I recognise, but there are no names. That’s why the makeshift headstones in Greece’s mass graves just have numbers on them. 

When we go back to the harbour, it is calm. The debris is gone and the tavernas are serving again. A new batch of fresh faced volunteers dish out rice and beans from the back of a van. We meet one of the doctors we’d worked with the night before, a stoic south Londoner called Zakia. I ask about the children and she tells me that after so long in the water, they never really had much of a chance.

“Island hospitals just aren’t equipped to deal with this kind of catastrophe,” she explains. “When they’ve taken in that much water, even if you can get the heart beating, often the best thing you can do is just hold them.” 

I did that, I think. It means something but not enough. 

On the road that snakes from the harbour up past the olive groves, a procession of newly-arrived refugees is setting out on the twenty-four mile walk to the camps. 

IMF & World Bank admit to inequality crisis, but they helped create it

21.10.17 Originally written for War on Want & published by the Morning Star

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been forced to admit to the crisis of soaring inequality. But it is the policies they have spent 40 years forcing on the world’s poor that led us here.

This charm offensive is unlikely to signal a significant shift in their approach but it may be an indication that the cracks in the system run deeper than they appear.

This isn’t the first time that the IMF and World Bank have changed their tune. It happens about once every 20 years, when the gulf between their real-world impact and their stated aims of sustainable development, democracy and poverty reduction grows a little too wide to explain.

Like the gap between rich and poor, it’s the widest it’s been since the IMF and World Bank were founded after World War II.

Then, the US towered over a wrecked world economy and the systems it produced still reflect that balance of power. At the World Bank today, the entire African continent now has a collective vote share of 0.16 per cent.

Since the 1970s, their development model has hung quite openly on the brutal realities of global capitalism: a carnival of resource extraction, exploitation, privatisation and plunder which devastates the Global South to the benefit of corporations based in the Global North.

That’s an old pattern going back through the colonial era to the transatlantic slave trade. By the 1960s, however, the success of anti-colonial struggles threatened access to valuable resources and cheap labour in the former colonies. But the rise of neoliberal ideology offered up new mechanisms of control.

Periodic rebranding aside, the neoliberal development story has remained essentially the same and, like most myths, it is best understood from the beginning.

The history of global capitalism is a string of unprecedented debt crises and another exploded in the late ’70s. It was then that the first major rebrand occurred and the neoliberal “Washington consensus” first put itself in the driver’s seat of international development.

People in the Global South were about as responsible for that crisis as people in the Global North were for the sub-prime mortgage crash of 2008.

And similarly, the storm clouds cleared to reveal those least responsible had been left with the bill, in this instance owed to their former colonisers. The economies of the Global South were crippled.

The emergency-response loans issued by the IMF and World Bank, in place of rightful reparations for generations of slavery and exploitation and which the South was in no position to refuse, came with a set of conditions that have perpetuated poverty, dependency and oppression ever since.

These “structural adjustment programmes” forced countries to lower living standards for their own people; to cut wages, social spending, public healthcare and education; and open their fledgling economies to predatory transnational corporations, all to expedite the repayment of that toxic debt.

Structural adjustment was a major cause of global poverty and instability and its aftershocks are still being felt today. They had their justifications: that if the financiers, the “real creators of wealth” could be repaid, that wealth would trickle down. Above all else, the debt had to be repaid for the sake of future generations — even as children went hungry.

If the story sounds familiar, it is. Its was trialled in the South long before they dared to share it with a European audience.

When the IMF first sounded the alarm over the impacts of austerity in Europe in 2013, you’d never guess they’d spent a generation ignoring them in the Global South, where growing human cost simply reflected growing profit margins for Northern banks.

Falling short of its stated aim — development — reflected the achievement of neoliberalism’s true goals: profits for the few, dependence for the many.

As renowned US diplomat George Kennan put it in a startling moment of straight talk just a few years after the institutions were founded: “We have about 50 per cent of the world’s wealth… Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.”

Poorer, post-colonial societies being the testing laboratory for austerity means there is much to be learned from their history.

The first lesson is that the neoliberal development model has not failed. It is doing what it was designed to do: perpetuate poverty and economic dependence in the former colonies.

That is why it’s worlds away from the development path taken by today’s global powers, which centered on self-sufficiency, economic regulation and investment in social welfare.

The second lesson is that contradictions betray weakness. Over the 1980s, another “lost decade of development,” the collective debt of poorer countries soared from $596 billion to $1,419bn — this despite repayments over $1,660bn, which cost countless lives.

At this point, when the centrality of corporate interests became a little too transparent, the Washington consensus became the post-Washington consensus and “structural adjustment” became “poverty-reduction.”

The rules of the game stayed the same but it is a sign of weakness that these goliath institutions again now lack the confidence to say what they mean.

George Orwell had a word for this: doublethink. In his dystopian classic 1984, he explored how people could be taught to believe things to be their opposite: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” In the same way, for 50 years inequality has meant development. Clearly, the cracks in that theory have grown too big to hide.

Last week’s meetings were crawling with contradictions. Their anti-inequality rhetoric was met by an powerful challenge from global civil society to change course.

152 organisations from 45 countries launched a global campaign against their public-private partnerships, which have impoverished governments, undermined democracy, human rights and social support for women and children.

The World Bank also came under fire for increasing fossil fuel investments to a quarter of its total over recent years, while warning publicly of the “acute threat” of global warming.

They will work hard to appear to be closing these gaps but, like last time, rebranding won’t rewrite the rules.

The 1990s post-Washington consensus was presented as a moderate version of its predecessor, prioritising good governance and social provision, but it paved the way for a host of dangerous public-private partnerships, while undermining democracy and sovereignty for the Global South.

The third lesson is to understand the system that exploits us is a global one and look to the Global South not just for learning but for leadership.

I’ve been reminded of that working with War on Want, which supports a range of powerful social justice movements across Asia, Africa and Latin America, where communities on the front line are going toe-to-toe with the banks and corporations.

It is where people have been hit the hardest and have the most to lose, that some of the most radical alternatives and courageous resistance is emerging. Wherever this happens, it demands our support; and it shows us what’s possible.

The eight richest people in the world own as much wealth as the poorer half of the global population. All 3.8 billion of them.

This is what it had to come to before the World Bank and IMF would finally, after 40 years of delusion and denial, admit what most of us see around us every day: inequality is tearing us apart.

War on Want is one of over 100 organisations calling out these institutions over their role creating inequality around the world.

With another embryonic debt crisis in the Global South and subprime mortgages back in business in Britain, these are prime conditions for another global economic shock.

Whether that shock acts as cover for a renewed neoliberal offensive by international finance or opens the door to radical alternatives — that will be decided by what we do now.

We couldn’t trust the Lib Dems before. Tim Farron has shown we still can’t

01.06.17 Originally published by the Guardian

“Hair-shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers”. That’s what Tim Farron called us. Big words from a man whose party languishes at 8% in the polls. He accused Theresa May of taking her supporters for granted – well sure, but what do you call this? I’m not one to judge a political figure on a one-off television performance. It is, after all, not Britain’s Got Talent. But Farron’s behaviour on the BBC debate is symptomatic of an underlying and quite incurable condition: he’s a career politician. He will say whatever it takes to rescue his party from oblivion.

The Liberal Democrats betrayed a generation in coalition with the Tories. We couldn’t trust them under Nick Clegg and nor can we trust them under Farron, who came off in the debate like a – compelling, admittedly – used car salesman.

I was in my first year of university in London when the unthinkable move was made towards tripling university tuition fees and scrapping the education maintenance allowance (EMA). Clegg promised to vote against it, but we should have known what was coming.

Even with EMA, my mum had struggled to finance my sixth-form education. As the eldest in my family, I was haunted by the prospect that these reforms would elbow all my younger cousins out of higher education. On 24 November 2010, tens of thousands of young people took to the streets to hold the Lib Dems to their promise, to give them the confidence to keep it. I was among them. And they betrayed us.

Clegg talked the talk, but when it came to walking the walk he never managed to get so much as one foot in front of the other. Tuition fees were only the beginning. They slashed pensions. The leadership – criticised for links to private healthcare interests – lay down for the Health and Social Care Act that began the dismantling of our NHS. They couldn’t even decide where they stood on GCHQ mass surveillance of all our phone calls and emails, and sharing them with the US. So much for the pure-of-heart liberals.

By 2015 they were still making excuses for that first betrayal, even though Cameron’s policy director James O’Shaughnessy said Clegg was actually “keen” to raise fees and his apologies were “crap”. “I was absolutely between a rock and a hard place,” Clegg claimed. But even if that were true, it’s all relative. I’ll tell you who was actually between a rock and a hard place: the teenagers who knew enough about what this meant for them and the future of our country that they went marching toe-to-toe with riot police; the 15-year-old kids I saw crushed between panicked crowds and Whitehall railings as police horses charged unprovoked into the crowd. It was frightening, coming back after that. But we held the line anyway because we knew it was right. And we deserve a leader who will do the same.

There are many indicators that Farron is not that leader any more than Clegg was. His slippery flip-flopping on LGBT rights has been a recurrent red flag. After much interrogation, of course he’s now saying what a viable politician is expected to say in 2017. But as an LGBT woman I am insulted by his sudden vote-fishing around our community. His impassioned speeches on the refugee crisis may have also endeared him to a dwindling support base, but rhetorical commitment to human rights and civil liberties is no good unless you’ve got the courage to challenge their root causes here at home. The Lib Dems still show no signs of confronting the politics of austerity in any meaningful way, after breaking a sweat to justify it seven days a week for five long years in power. And we know now that it’s the damage that austerity has inflicted on our living standards and public services that has created such fertile ground for the politics of division and hatred.

Meanwhile, they talk the talk on privacy and civil liberties. But Farron’s administration would never have the courage to challenge the “war on terror”, which has justified total government surveillance and bullied our doctors and teachers into playing border security for the Home Office, frightening pregnant migrant women out of seeking prenatal care and making children of colour feel unwelcome in our schools. What’s the point of saying you value diversity when you can’t summon some outrage over that?

Of course, a politician who actually means what they say, well, that would be an entirely new kind of politics. That would ruffle tabloid feathers and cause a real fuss. Honesty is supposed to be unelectable these days. It’s not about policy but personality and fashion choices – about credibility in the eyes of a corrupt system. And Farron is a creature of that culture. He did well in the BBC debate because he knows how to perform. But when the votes are in and the cameras are off, we deserve more than a performer. We deserve conviction, consistency and respect, not someone who’ll turn on us “hair-shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers” at a moment’s notice to score a cheap point.

I’m voting in a general election for the first time in my life next week. I’m voting for the guy who was out there with us in the cold autumn of 2010, speaking to the students when it was unpopular to do so and telling us we had the power to change things while the rest were preparing to turn their backs. Farron says the NHS is “personal” for him, and I believe him because it’s personal for all of us. But where was he when Jeremy Corbyn was turning out time and again on the picket lines in the wet and cold for our nurses and teachers – and for the lives of people around the world – back when there were no cameras to pose for and no votes to win? That’s the only kind of politician I’m prepared to trust.


Labour must keep marching left to appeal to the youth vote

21.06.17 Originally published by the Guardian

My earliest political memory was watching my grandmother with narrow eyes and a heavy sigh tear Tony Blair’s first Labour manifesto into pieces while on the phone to party head office to cancel her membership, breaking generations of family tradition. I sensed her grief but was too young to understand. I asked why she was leaving Labour and she said it was because they were scrapping clause IV on nationalisation, which she explained as “a promise to put working people in charge of their own lives”.

My family is from Dorset, a blue county since the dawn of time, not that this stopped my mum and my auntie dropping Jeremy Corbyn flyers on doorsteps, or my teenage cousins blasting Liar Liar out of the car stereo down the high street. My grandmother would have been so proud, not just of us but of all the young people in this country who are standing up now for all the things that matter. And I don’t need this week’s Ipsos Mori poll to tell me that: I see it every day.

That Labour just won its biggest share of the popular vote since 2001 is certainly thanks to Corbyn’s courageous manifesto, which moved beyond the language of anti-austerity to connect people with a genuinely inspiring alternative vision for the country.

But policies aren’t enough. What built the confidence to vote for them was tens of thousands of people knocking on millions of doors: 1.2 million in key marginals. Marginal seats like Battersea and Sheffield Hallam, branded “unwinnable” by many in the party, were won this way. And they were won, despite all the obstacles, by students, impoverished, black and brown communities, demonised and young people left behind by the Tories.

Crowded around a single laptop in the kitchen on election night, it took us a while to process what we were looking at. As the minutes passed, cynicism gave way to awe. Not so much at the prospect of more Labour MPs in parliament – let’s face it, they’re a mixed bunch – but because after years of Tory austerity fear politics no one really dared believe so many millions would find the strength to vote for hope. Remembering my grandmother, I know this “new kind of politics” isn’t really so new at all; it has a long, strong history that a whole new generation is just starting to remember. So, the question is: what next?

Those people out knocking on your door aren’t foot soldiers acting out of automatic party loyalty. It’s a new generation, with expectations and opinions, and if the party wants to keep us, it’s going to have to listen to us. Simply put, it’s time for Labour to live its values and keep marching left because we know now these policies are far from unelectable.

Corbyn should also take this opportunity to challenge the direction of debates around free movement, immigration and inequality. We’ve not won yet, and the scapegoating of migrants for the broken wreckage of our welfare state is the Trojan horse that just brought the Tories back to power, and it must be stopped. Labour must put itself on the right side of history and make clear that it holds those with wealth and power responsible for poverty and powerlessness – no one else.

MPs still missing this point might consider instead that a strong stance on migrant-bashing will be a precondition for Labour’s alliance with the community organisers and young activists who have just proven themselves powerful enough to propel a marginalised backbencher to party leader.

Another precondition will be that they deliver on Corbyn’s most ambitious pledge: a new kind of politics. In practice, that means democratising the party, empowering members and making MPs more accountable. Momentum must also commit to this process if it’s to retain its activists and cultivate strong community and political leaders. It means creating a party culture that values more than votes and won’t spin like a weather vane with each electoral cycle. Instead, Labour must make itself an ally in building a movement for social justice that is deeply rooted in communities.

This will not be easy. While his staggering electoral success prompted lip service from Corbyn’s former critics, Labour remains deeply divided. Corbyn’s natural inclination will be to build bridges, but party unity is not more precious than the principles that define that party. I wouldn’t presume to know what most Labour MP’s principles are – it’s often difficult to tell – but it’s time for them to show us. A sincere commitment not just to Corbyn as leader but to the politics he represents should be a non-negotiable precondition for sitting on the Labour front bench.

The bulk of the party first laughed at Corbyn and then fell over themselves to boot him from the leadership and his supporters from the membership. Labour has been dragged – often kicking and screaming – back to its roots by a groundswell of ordinary people taking action. They stormed the stage with Corbyn not only because he has an unbroken record of representing us, both in protest and in parliament, but because he makes people feel heard.

When Corbyn calls for a “new kind of politics”, it speaks of a profoundly refreshing humility: a recognition that yes, democracy means our voices matter, be it in the country, in the community, in the party; that doors should be knocked, not just to win votes but because we actually value what the people on the other side of them have to say. It remains to be seen whether that’s a call the rest of Labour is ready to respond to. But whatever happens, the new kind of politics is already here.


Government immigration plans are a betrayal of justice: we all deserve dignity


Last week’s post-Brexit immigration leak revealed a government so utterly without answers to the big questions facing Britain, that their only idea to defend the rights of citizens is to strip those rights from our families, friends and neighbours.

The concessions made to balance tough borders with access for the most skilled Europeans are an attempt to divide this movement. We must not lose sight of our vision of a just migration policy, one that has Britain doing its part, not just to protect living standards and freedom of movement but to tackle the root causes of forced migration in a divided world.

Like Trump repealing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the proposals would leave countless EU citizens undocumented, including many who have lived here for decades or have British children. It will push them deeper into a hostile environment that is already devastating the lives of non-EU migrants and communities of colour. They will then be made vulnerable to extreme exploitation and even incarceration, the number of EU nationals in immigration detention having already increased five-fold since the referendum.

This is a plan that puts the government first, not ‘Britain first’. Laid down with no regard for independent advice, based on flawed assumptions about migration’s economic and social impacts. It makes sense only as a last-ditch strategy for self-preservation by a weak government which has wrecked our economy with years of austerity and relentlessly misrepresented the realities of Brexit.

The proposals pander to the racist breed of right-wing populism that so many people are fighting hard to counter with street demonstrations and acts of solidarity up and down the country. No doubt, its authors tell themselves they are giving at least Leave voters what they voted for but this illusion is only maintained by the failure of the media to interrogate both widespread misconceptions driving public concerns and what drives forced migration itself.

The leaked document proposes to pull EU nationals into a system that gives different rights to different social classes and racialized groups; a system that has already devastated countless lives and continues to fail even on its own terms. These are basic rights, not frilly privileges; the right to work and family life; right to healthcare and education; to freedom of speech and from arbitrary detention. By creating a total hierarchy of rights based on immigration status, the proposal indicates a complete and final betrayal of Britain’s commitment to human rights.

Last Wednesday, the government promised ‘balance’. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon promised the end of freedom of movement but added that the government will not “shut the door on highly skilled people who want to come here and make a contribution to society.” But as anyone with any experience with our immigration and asylum system can tell you, the door is already shut. This is a country that makes its recognised refugees homeless, wrongly deports thousands of international students and systematically discriminates against migrants in every area of life. Even those sheltered from the worst by high-paying jobs, are not immune from the shattering precarity and sense of not-belonging threatened by a hostile environment.

Promises of balance, in continuing to welcome ‘highly-skilled’ EU nationals, are a skilful attempt by the government to placate the more privileged European elements of the migration justice movement and so divide it.

Meanwhile the most marginalised, ‘unskilled’ migrants are demonised as being responsible for this, a long sustained decline in UK living standards. While dividing and ruling, this tactic also helps sweep the role of austerity, deregulation and corporate lobbying under the carpet.

On a deeper level, by implying only high-wage earners make a meaningful contribution to our society, Fallon betrays the government’s attitude to the UK’s working majority, whether they are born here or not, working in industry, the service sector or caring for our sick, elderly or children. These kinds of contributions – the ones that pay little but hold our whole society together – are made predominantly by women, with those from non-EU countries facing some of the worst exploitation and discrimination.


It’s been said till faces are blue, that if you meet a migrant in hospital they are more likely to be treating you than ahead of you in the queue. Dig a little deeper and that’s the most important connection between immigration control and public services. For years, this same attitude has been evident in government austerity measures.

They wilfully dismantle our public services and welfare state with one hand, while the other points the finger of blame at migrants and their families. By doing so, they have made immigration control their Trojan horse. From within, they hope to ride into the welfare state and burn it down, once and for all.

As the government readies this charge, it falls to parliament and the public to stand in its way; to demand democratic accountability for decisions vital to our future and transparent, honest discussion before the point of no return. The leaks reveal a disdain for these principles reminiscent of the government’s conduct through closed-door trade talks, when Liam Fox MP deliberately side-stepped public scrutiny to sign CETA without parliamentary debate.

If left unchallenged, the government’s hostile environment will be set on a course of infinite expansion. As well as pulling three million EU nationals into the sphere of constant precarity, stigma and fear once known only to those migrating from beyond the EU, they have abandoned British citizens to it, too. We have black British children being passport checked in our schools and patients with foreign accents being ID checked in our hospitals. How long before we see income thresholds for medical treatments and student loans? None of this is necessary in one of the world’s richest economies.

The rich and powerful have always used racialised and gendered exploitation to drive a race to the bottom, both here and abroad. That means, and recent years have proven, that how society treats new arrivals is a pretty good indicator of how the rest of us can expect to be treated a few years down the line. So, if we want a public debate that can defend and extend all our rights, we can no longer afford to discuss immigration in isolation from what drives it. Doing so is like trying to grow a tree by giving it earth to root in but no light or water.

However many rights are taken and however many walls are built, mass migration is inevitable in a system that says, with every act of violence, disposession and exclusion, that poor lives, like black lives, don’t matter.

It is inevitable in a world where 24 people are forced from their homes every single minute of every single day. While politicians mudsling around freedom of movement, frontline communities worldwide are more concerned with their right not to move.

Most migrants as well as refugees are forced from their homes, whether by neo-colonial exploitation, conflict, climate chaos or the global, racial and gender inequalities they entrench. Refusing to confront or even acknowledge the powerful interests driving forced migration, the only thing they’ll talk about cracking down on is the people who have to get out of the way, just to survive.

Restoring real ‘balance’ to our immigration policy means taking responsibility for Britain’s role in this crisis and asking the big questions about where we go from here. Either we consent to live in a hostile environment or we can demand a real debate on migration, to establish how an international system based on justice and mutual respect could deliver dignity to everyone.

Click here to review 10 key points from the leaked Home Office proposals

Originally written for War on Want

Featured image by IDJ Photography

Women in Marikana still fighting for justice, five years after the massacre


The fatal police shooting of 37 striking workers at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in August 2012 was the worst recorded instance of police violence in post-apartheid South Africa. Five years on, there have been no prosecutions and no real improvements – no compensation for the families living in grief and dire poverty.

There has also been no apology, although staggeringly Lonmin has created a commercial out of the incident. But as always with the Marikana story, the most important characters were left out.

A few weeks after the massacre there was another death in the community. Amidst a brutal crackdown Paulina Masuhlo, a powerful community leader, died after being shot by police. Paulina’s death helped galvanise the birth of Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana.

As well as demanding criminal prosecution for the killings and compensation for the families, Sikhala Sonke also carries forward the demands those workers died for: a living wage and dignified conditions.


Image: the women of Sikhala Sonke – photo by Sikhala Sonke

We cry together

It’s anyone’s guess how Lonmin accumulated its impressive collection of corporate social responsibility awards. More than ten years after signing a legal obligation to build 5,500 homes in exchange for mining rights, the world’s third-largest platinum producer has erected just three show homes, while the families of its workers live in shacks without electricity or running water. This despite a staggering $15million loan from the International Finance Corporation solely for the social development of Marikana.

Like many killings in black communities, wherever they occur, the horror is not easily absorbed by white society. It will be a stretch for many in the UK to imagine that a British mining company would rather let employees be shot and killed than pay a fair wage. But is it any more unimaginable than cutting corners to cut costs on the Grenfell tower blocks? Or fighting wars for oil even as our dependence on them threatens millions of lives with climate chaos? It becomes clearer every day that we live in a system fuelled by the unimaginable.

Marikana might be far away, in a country very different from our own, but the struggle at the heart of Sikhala Sonke is one we should be able to identify with: the struggle of those hurt most by a powerful corporation to hold it accountable for its crimes. In Britain too, we are searching for ways to take back control of our lives and country from elite interests that see us as expendable.

In August I met and talked with two of Sikhala Sonke’s leading figures, Primrose Sonti and Thumeka Magwangqana. They explained that for five years, the women of Sikhala Sonke have had to ‘fight with two hands’. With one, they fight Lonmin on behalf of their community. With the other, they have had to fight for their place within that community, to be recognised as social justice leaders by a male-dominated union movement.

Sikhala Sonke means ‘we cry together’ and the name speaks to a pain older and deeper than the massacre itself. Far from transcending the yawning inequalities of the apartheid era, South Africa has now become the most unequal country in the world. Though less than 10 percent of the population, white South Africans still control the vast majority of the nation’s wealth.

As well as being highly racialised, this inequality is also highly gendered. A third of women in poor households are survivors of gendered violence and young women are eight times more likely to be affected by HIV/AIDS. They are far more likely to be in low-paid and unpaid work, while in Marikana, the only compensation offered to grieving women is to take up the jobs of their dead in the dark labyrinth of mines, where they live under the constant threat of rape and assault. Look deeper, to where racism and patriarchy intersect, and it is black women who bear the brunt of oppression in modern South Africa and around the world.

The erasure of black women from political struggle began long before Marikana. While much is said of men who had to leave their families to work in mines and cities or resist apartheid, what is less visible is the contribution of women, both to the family and to the cause. Every dead or absent father leaves a mother to carry the family alone: a lifetime of unpaid labour alongside paid work to make ends meet. And while media coverage of the commission into the massacre cast the women of Marikana as grieving widows, that is only where their story began.

Keeping hope alive

In an economic system that sees value only in a wage, this inequality is embedded in the logic of the system. The profoundly political nature of unpaid family and movement support, without which no anti-apartheid movement in South Africa or strike in Marikana would be possible, fades into the background – along with the indispensable role played by women of colour in the movement for global justice.

Black women live each day on the intersection of racial, patriarchal and class oppression. In this much complained about ‘age of identity politics’, which is more broadly recognised amongst progressive circles in the global north, it has become ‘polite’ to concede that women of colour have a powerful role to play in movements for social change – but all too often this is mere lip service, paid in the interests of meeting diversity quotas or meant as ‘compensation’ for their experience, as though a slot on a speaking panel could redress generations of oppression.

But beneath all that is a simple truth: that like all the most painful experiences in life, oppression can be a great teacher. Being born on the intersection is not an enviable position. However, as those of us lucky enough to have learned from brave and brilliant women of colour in social justice work will know, that pain can develop into a profound sensitivity towards unjust applications of power; the sort that sneak up on those without the eyes to see them and collapse our efforts towards equality from the inside. This kind of leadership, too concerned with power over others, stifles the oxygen needed to spark real change from below.

It is from intersections like this that our most powerful stories, inspiring ideas and promising leaders emerge. Recognising that means stepping back to seed spaces for that leadership but it does not mean stepping out. Allies too have a vital role to play and the difference between recognising leadership from those most oppressed and reinforcing oppressive hierarchies by leaving them to all that labour alone, is about whether we are prepared to stay connected and above all, to listen.

Sikhala Sonke describe Lonmin and the ANC government as ‘twins’, both responsible for the situation in Marikana. And now is a vital moment because both are on thinning ice. Lonmin’s share price is at an all-time low and last year, a five-month miners’ strike forced a basic pay rise of 20 percent. Meanwhile the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since apartheid, is losing its majority as the next generation of South Africans feel they have sold out to white economic interests. It is hard to think of a place where this is clearer than Marikana.

Exploited by Lonmin and abandoned by their government, the women of Sikhala Sonke have kept the faith by refusing to abandon each other. It is that solidarity, they say, that keeps hope alive.

Originally published by Red Pepper

Mijente on how living with Trump is teaching people to create, not wait for the world they want to see

This is the second instalment of the Still we dream series, where grassroots voices from across the migrants’ rights and racial justice movements in the US talk about responding to Donald Trump’s election and how they’re building their movements. They’ll talk about everything from winning the public debate to building rapid-response systems to immigration raids. And we’ll be thinking about what might help us meet the challenges ahead for UK movements against racism and for migration justice. 

Mijente – ‘My People’

In the first instalment of Still We Dream, I spoke to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement on to the streets. This time, I interviewed Reyna Wences, a Latinx immigrant community organiser based in Chicago and co-founder of Mijente, a radical, national Latinx and Chincanx organising network that launched in December 2015. Evolving from the #NotOneMore anti-deportation campaigns, Mijente – meaning ‘my people’ – foregrounds intersectionality and community activism to build Latinx leadership and the movement as a whole.

Marienna: What’s the political situation like in Chicago right now?

Reyna: In the early days of Trump’s presidency there was a lot of panic and uncertainty and many more questions than answers. We were watching him enact all these executive orders and trying to figure out how local government would respond. But pretty quick we started seeing a lot more community members coming out to lead workshops, share training and resources. That’s been really positive. There’s still a lot of fear, though.

Marienna: How does that compare to community life and movement building under Obama? Direct action and disruption of raids by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) – started during the historic crackdown on undocumented people by the Obama administration.

Reyna: The growing criminalisation of immigrants, more and more deportations—all that started in 2008 with Obama. In those years we were focused on trying to cut ties between police and ICE, highlighting the way the criminal justice and immigration systems were being blurred to criminalise immigrants.

What we’re seeing now is a growing disregard for some of the victories won on that front. Police are collaborating more with ICE to turn people in and there’s a greater ICE presence in court rooms. Chicago is seen as a ‘Sanctuary City’—public officials will say immigrants are safe here but the reality on the ground is that ICE are coming into our communities. Even if the police aren’t explicitly collaborating we know ICE has access to their databases. There’s a so-called ‘gang database’ here in Chicago. we don’t know how people are on it but we’ve had reports of babies being on these databases, which is crazy. ICE uses them to pick and choose who they’ll go after, and it hints at a larger problem because 90 percent of the time the people on these things are black and Latino men. So we want to push for more transparency and cut ICE’s access to it.

But with Trump at least there’s been a shift in the public narrative. We’ve had more media attention on raids and deportations particularly of victims of domestic violence and DACA recipients when they get picked up. In the early Obama years, the Not One More mobilisations against deportations highlighted personal stories of people being dragged into that deportation pipeline. Towards 2013 there was an increase in public campaigns and petitions but we were just fighting case by case. So one of the big questions was how to continue that case work but make it sustainable.

One of the core ideas that came out of that was that those directly affected by deportation, incarceration and so on – they should be leading the movement.


Marienna: This is when non-violent direct action started to become more central?

Reyna: Yes. We started putting our bodies on the line to highlight that intensity and create a moment in which people had to physically decide whether to be on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the oppressed, of people putting their bodies on the line to try and keep families together.

We don’t just think about direct action as the actions themselves, as getting arrested to get press attention, or just as symbolic; it is very much part of a deeper process to re-claim the space denied to us, even in the movement itself. Often, those risking arrest are undocumented. They are really risking it all because they don’t have status. And the way they often explain that choice is that they’d rather risk arrest on their own terms, for something, instead of getting caught up in a raid any other day.

Marienna: This really shows how effective Mijente and allied groups must have been in raising people’s confidence in the possibility of change, and in you as a group.

Reyna: Yeah, a lot of it is building confidence, building trust for people who’ve spent so many years living in the shadows and as second class citizens. When people come into contact with us at the start there’s a lot of hesitancy around sharing their stories but as we engage and listen and connect our different identities and build relationships. People ease up and the people who have decided to take that stand, they do it not just because they trust us but because they trust that they’re on the right side of history.

‘Our liberation is connected to black liberation in that we cannot be free if the black community in the United States is not free’

Marienna: Mijente describes itself as not simply pro-Latino, but also pro-woman, pro-queer, pro-poor, pro-Black, pro-indigenous, pro-climate because OUR community is all of those things and WE care about all of them.’ It’s an inspiring but very ambitious manifesto, asking people to commit themselves to so many things at once. How did you win that as a starting point?

Reyna: Mijente as a network was created to take the next step towards building a Latinx platform that is pro all these things. I think we get so used to being ‘anti-’ that sometimes we miss ways to talk about what we do believe in. A point of particular commonality with other groups and movements nationwide was the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter. We knew the Latinx community had to figure out a way to articulate itself as pro-black, and to call out our own community for being anti-black, which it often is. Rarely do we see immigrant experiences depicted as black experience. African origin immigrants are rubbed out and mainstream immigrant rights movements have always cast it as a Latino issue. This manifesto gets at the need to acknowledge that. People came into the space knowing that it was always meant to be pro- all these things, so coming into it forced people to ask themselves: are they ready to do that?

Marienna: How do you centre the movement for black lives and black justice in all this?

Reyna: There was a moment in the fight against deportations that people realised the criminal justice and immigration systems are intertwined – and for a reason. We see huge profits made from immigrants and forced labour of those incarcerated in private prisons and detention centres and we expect that to grow under this administration. Through that it also became more evident that our liberation is connected to black liberation in that we cannot be free if the black community in the United States is not free.

That means we have to check ourselves because we come from a different experience as immigrants in this country. What that check means to me is that as we recognise that our identities and struggles are connected, we also recognise they are not the same. Undocumented immigrants with light skin have very different and in many ways easier experiences than undocumented immigrants of colour.

Figuring out what these strategies are going to look like really began with an ICE blockade direct action. This was the culmination of a long process of collaboration, confidence and relationship building with the Black Youth Project 100. That was when our strategies started to change; we could see that just looking at the faces of those taking part. And it hints at what’s possible. Now, we’re having very broad conversations about what the Sanctuary City really means, with Black Lives Matter and BYP100, plus the Arab-American Action Network because we’re all being targeted by this administration and so we need to reach out.

‘When it became clear Obama wasn’t listening to us, we had to turn away from the mainstream and go back to our communities’

Marienna: How’s the definition of ‘sanctuary’ evolving to meet this new situation?

Reyna: It’s been adapted by different communities in different localities to meet their needs. In Chicago it looks different to Arizona, where, being close to the Mexican border, they’re having to resist raids and deportations at an incredible rate. With Trump’s election, and even when it became clear Obama wasn’t listening to us, we had to turn away from the mainstream and go back to our communities, listening to the needs of those hardest hit. And we’ve been working on Community Defence Zones that are about sharing and arming each other with the resources and tactics developed in the past and evolving them because with Trump so much has changed.

Something else I’d like to share is there was a recent story about a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient who was detained after sharing her undocumented statusat a press conference. As a result of that some people have started voicing reservations about undocumented people coming out of the shadows; saying maybe it’s safer not to disclose it. Some of that comes from a good place but it’s a place of fear that takes agency away from us. It fails to recognise that sharing our stories is an act of political resistance. Telling us to go back into the dark does more harm than good; it just repeats what the system has been telling us all these years: to not come out, to live an underground existence outside of society. All we’ve seen since 2010, with undocumented youth refusing to hide in shame, has driven all our movement has achieved.

Marienna: The undocumented LGBTQ+ community has played a powerful role in raising consciousness by ‘coming out’ in both senses. It’s scary enough coming out as queer in a homophobic society, without – as so many do – simultaneously risking support from the LGBTQ community by coming out as undocumented. But the courage to do that seems to be forging powerful links between the LGBTQ and migrant liberation movements. How did all that start?

Reyna: The Coming Out of the Shadows rallies were named to honour the gay liberation movement and the experiences of undocumented people declaring themselves. It all started with the Immigrant Youth Justice League, which I also co-founded in 2009. Many of us identified as members of the LGBTQ community, and I was one of many that came out as queer before coming out as undocumented. The message I got from society was definitely that it was even worse, much worse, to be undocumented than it was to be gay in America. But when I did choose to address my undocumented status, I could draw a lot from my early experiences of hiding and struggling with my sexuality.

Looking at the organisations on the ground doing the most radical, intentional work getting to the root of the issue – they’re all led by women of colour, often queer women of colour. And I think I will follow women of colour, queer or not, because I have faith that those who are most directly impacted are going to be the ones to lead us to liberation.


Marienna: You’ve cautioned against strategies for movement building that are always on the defensive, reacting to attacks from the state.

Reyna: In the Obama years, we had to respond every 6-8 months to some big announcement, which often gave protections to some while stripping them from others. When he would say things like: ‘I’m only deporting felons, not families,’ and we knew that was a lie so we spent a lot of energy trying to prove it, presenting counter-arguments and also pointing out that ‘felons have families too,’ you know, a lot of us have felons in our families. And that’s a point we had to argue a lot within the movement as well because lots of people wanted to throw those felons under the bus to win some crumbs from the administration. Dealing with that sort of thing is exhausting. Constant reaction and defensive fighting, apart from the fact that it can be divisive, burns people out. They get tired. It leaves little room for self-reflection, sharing and envisioning work that brings people together.

Now, that seems to be happening. We’re making a very broad effort to be less reactionary and our demands are actually becoming more coherent as a result of that. When Trump was elected people saw pretty quickly that just because things were getting worse didn’t mean reactionary and defensive work was becoming more effective. With the Muslim travel ban, for instance, that first time, the airports were packed with people and then what happened? Days went by, crowds dwindled and by the time the second travel ban was announced some days ago, we’re not seeing the same reaction on the ground.

I believe in the power of reacting in massive numbers but I’m becoming very wary of the unsustainability of it. It’s only part of the answer.

Marienna: Can you share any more practical insights from your years bringing different communities together?

When I first started organising with young undocumented people there were a lot of questions around people coming into these spaces as allies with their privilege being their documented status, and in addition to that often citizens and white citizens. When we started organising Coming Out of the Shadows, we were very explicit about our intention to amplify the voices of undocumented people. At times that was pushed back by those with status who wanted to know why as citizens they were being asked to take a step back. It wasn’t that they were being pushed out of the space – although we have used undocumented only spaces and people of colour only spaces – saying that this alienates communities, pushing away people who want to understand our struggle and support us. For many of us, the answer to that is that we shouldn’t have to educate every white citizen ally that comes into our spaces. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place but rather that they should be guided to a person or group that has capacity to offer that education, so the labour doesn’t always fall on the most marginalised.

Marienna: What’s your message for migrant communities here in the UK and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there, and what will keep us going until we do?

Reyna: I also want to say to everyone over there in the UK: we see you. We see the resistance and every action we’re able to see and share with our people, they give us hope. I think it gives them hope, to know they’re not the only ones fighting against these same systems of oppression. I don’t know that we’re going to find the answers to all these questions about the path to liberation but I hope this moment will bring us together, to imagine the world we want to see and find the strength to get there.

Originally published by Red Pepper

In Defence of Generation Snowflake

2 March 2017

Trigger warning: genuine emotion, political correctness and marginalised views.

Remember the good old days, when you could slap a receptionist on the bum or hand your suitcase to the first black person you saw in a hotel without anyone having a go at you? I don’t, because I’m 25 and I was raised to believe that sort of thing is really not ok. It’s not like my generation has reached consensus on such matters but they have at least entered the realm of ‘controversial’, which is progress.

Not everyone agrees. Sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything right in the eyes of our parents’ generation.

When we’re not being accused of becoming desensitised ourselves to violence, it’s the opposite: we’re branded the hypersensitive, excessively emotional and politically correct ‘Snowflake Generation’.

I first met this new stereotype with confusion. I’d always thought of us as Thatcher’s children, conditioned to be more competitive, individualistic and apathetic than our parents. At least that’s the reality that confronted me as a student activist, working to mobilise for democracy, civil liberties: the old school values baby boomers are meant to cherish so highly.

On 30th January I found myself amidst a young, diverse and vibrant sea of anti-Trump protesters on Downing Street, heartfelt chants erupting around carefully hand-written placards. On this particular demonstration the depth of the rage and solidarity seemed particularly profound. If I had to guess I’d say the reason is that Trump, like Brexit, represents an existential threat to who we are; what past generation’s civil rights movements gave us the space to start becoming: ourselves. And I found myself thinking hey, maybe there’s something in this snowflake generation thing after all. And if so, it’s about fucking time. What the snowflakes’ critics hear as a kitten mewing for its mummy because it can’t face the real world, I hear as a lion waking from slumber and articulating its will to change the world.

Arguably one of the most messed up things about our present system is that while we are constantly told we can and should be ourselves, unless you’re a relatively wealthy, white, heterosexual man, being yourself can be a pretty painful experience.

In certain, perhaps less visible ways that’s more true for us than it was for the baby boomers. When they were growing up, consumerism was just scratching through front doors and into people’s homes. But belittling, brainwashing and undermining us from infancy is now a multi-million pound industry. And the consequence for Thatcher’s children has been a very real mental health epidemic.

Depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders and self-harm have reached astronomical levels in the world’s wealthiest nations. In the UK a quarter of a million children are receiving treatment. Many more are not. Self-harm amongst our youth has shot up 15% in three years, with 20,000 cases requiring hospitalisation.

It should go without saying that when tens of thousands of children are hurting themselves, that’s not hyper-sensitivity; it’s real suffering. And responsibility for it rests on the society, not the child.

Tell that to the string of self-aggrandising (usually white male) writers branding us a genertion of censorious cry babies. Much of this moaning is directed at university campuses, mainly because they’re the only public spaces where we’ve had any influence. Their favourite targets are trigger warnings, which alert viewers of potentially distressing content in film or literature (not so excessive when you consider 1 on 5 women are survivors of sexual assault, for instance); and ‘safe spaces’, which explicitly prohibit discrimination normalised in wider society, for example against women, LGBTQ or people of colour. Next to climate change, war, historic inequality, domestic violence and racism, for example, pockets of social life trying to protect people from prejudice hardly seem like the most pressing of social ills. But the argument goes that this ‘snowflake culture’ insulates us from ideas we don’t like, promoting censorship and poorly preparing us for life in ‘the real world’.

My main issue with this thinking is that it’s based on a complete mis-remembering of some golden age of the university when all arguments were had and won on their own merit. What they’re actually remembering is a time before their social privilege was broadly challenged. Ask any student from the sixties who was poor, gay, black or a woman, even, and you’ll find things remembered a little differently: as a long, collective struggle against violent discrimination. They’ll remember the ‘brown paper bag test’ to make sure you were pale enough to join civil society organisations; students excluded for their sexuality; mini skirts widely considered an invitation to rape. I mean what the hell is there to be nostalgic about there, unless none of those things affected you?

Don’t get me wrong, the sixties were awesome. But they were awesome precisely because they marked a battle for deep cultural change. They brought a youth revolution that protested, occupied and marched in the face of police brutality and social exclusion to spearhead a social revolution. Let me put it another way:

It was the ‘snowflakes’ of the baby boomer generation that made the sixties what they were.

Ideas have never battled on a level playing field. The arguments made by or empowering marginalised groups have always come up against unique obstacles (police batons, powerful institutions, all the money invested in the status quo). And if a safe space does anything to protect against, or a trigger warning anything to validate, the trauma of that experience, what right does anyone with no lived experience of oppression have to deny us that?

The Snowflake Generation critique is absolutely manufactured by the most privileged in our society, protected by the lottery of their birth from the brutal realities of exploitation and racial, gendered and anti-LGBTQ violence. These are not the people who were flooding onto Downing Street last week to stand up and be counted. They are the people for whom most spaces are safe; whose self image and self-confidence is bolstered everytime they see their own reflection in political and popular culture; people who disparage the notion of a trigger warning because they have no idea what it takes to survive trauma.

If anyone’s being infantalised by the system we live in, it’s them; it’s the guys who can’t even be confronted with their own privilege without erupting into bigotry or hurt feelings.

That they’re well placed to succeed in ‘the real world’ is hardly a revelation; for centuries, the rules have been written with them in mind. But this system isn’t working out for the any of us. Looked out your window at the world lately? It’s a mess. So shouldn’t we be more concerned with fixing it, than being like it?

As a species, we now inherit the power to destroy ourselves, whether through climate catastrophe or nuclear holocaust. (Nice one, baby boomers.) Bearing that in mind, perhaps Generation Snowflake is a necessary antidote; that we, born into a violent and divided world, cradle the embryo of a new culture that can find it in itself to respond to trauma with kindness; that can respect individuality and will defend diversity.

If, as both science and history teach us, people have always been snowflakes – completely unique and acutely fragile – then recognising that will get us further than denying it.

And a generation willing to protect and cherish those timeless human qualities will be infinitely more capable of creating peace, sustainability and democracy than its critics ever dared think possible.


Published by Speakers Corner, Hunger TV

Artwork by Eskay Lama

We must go big, bold & migrant-led, says New Sanctuary Movement

27 January 2017

This is the second instalment of the Still We Dream series, where we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States. They’ll share how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within. 

The City of Sanctuary movement in the US goes back to 1979, when Los Angeles introduced a policy banning police officers from asking arrestees about their immigration status. Throughout the 1980s this was replicated in many states and hundreds of religious congregations hid and transported refugees fleeing conflict and US-backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. At the movement’s height it operated an underground railroad reminiscent of the one that operated during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In the 1980s, more than 500 congregations were secretly hosting refugees, moving them from Mexico to find sanctuary in cities across the US.

Today, there are over 200 sanctuary cities across the US; outposts of a principle treasured and upheld by a powerful, national movement. This week, we’re interviewing Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement on to the streets.

Marienna: It’s been a few days now since the inauguration, how are you guys feeling?

Peter: We had our People’s Inauguration on Friday and it felt really good to focus on something active. We had 20 different groups there: Catholics speaking alongside trans people and former sex workers and it felt really good to see everyone coming together like that. In a way, now Trump’s actually here, after all these months of anxiety and anticipation I feel like we can engage, which is good. But it’s a mixed reaction. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear about what he’s going to do and how that will impact our communities – but the flip side is that we’re seeing more people coming out than ever, ready to fight.

Click here and scroll down to see what the People’s Inauguration looked like

Marienna: How did the NSM get started and how has it evolved?


Peter: Here in Philly we started in 2007: clergy, immigrant members and folks from other migrant rights organisations. It was all volunteers. No one was organising the faith community even though many congregations were being hit by the fallout of immigration policies. We started with education and accompaniment – walking through the process with families facing deportation, making sure they had trustworthy lawyers and going with them to court, or visiting them in detention. That was all about building relationships. We work with 21 congregations at the moment, half are migrants. And the same with our staff, we make sure at least half the board is migrant and becoming more migrant-led has been really important.

It’s one of our key values: that those affected are the experts in what they need. Ultimately we’re working towards a shift in the balance of power in favour of those most marginalised, and if that’s what we want to see we need to do it in our own organisations.

It’s a solidarity structure we’re continually working on – being a mixed organisation of migrants and allies – but how it’s worked developing strategy is that we start with listening campaigns, interviewing migrant members about what issues affect them. And then for each campaign we do strategy retreats with migrant working groups and they set the direction. Then we found we were creating a lot of segregation, with our migrant members and white allies really working in quite separate spaces and we were like ‘well this isn’t really working, we need to figure out how to bring them together.’ So we did shift a little.

Marienna: NSM was central to ending collaboration between local officials and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). How was that victory won and what did it mean for the community?

Peter: This is something that really started after 9/11. The collaboration between immigration agencies and police started under Bush but really escalated under Obama. At first it was opt-in but they kept changing the rules. In Philly our mayor kept stalling, sympathetic in meetings but never taking action. He wanted piecemeal changes, tied very much into this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ narrative, but we wanted everyone to be protected from the impacts of collaboration, whether people were pulled over for having a broken tail light or had been arrested for violent crime.

Marienna: Here you have some quarters wanting to protect refugees only or ‘good immigrants’ only, so it’s contentious to come out and say: ‘no, this shouldn’t be happening to anyone and we want protection for everyone.’

Peter: It was and it still is. Some of our members still aren’t 100% on board, though being in a faith organisation really encourages us to reflect on the ideas of forgiveness and redemption. I remember, we were working a lot with the Cambodian community, whose kids were getting beaten up in school and formed gangs to protect themselves, and later got involved in drugs and some violence. That also pushed us to challenge this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant,’and highlighted how many people get left behind by that.

Marienna: Talk about Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: Sanctuary in the Streets started under Obama when he announced an escalation of raids against central American communities. The sanctuary offered by a congregation is no good if ICE come and raid your house, you can’t get there. So the idea was to bring the congregation to them, holding an interfaith service outside the house. We have a raids hotline open 24/7, the idea being we get a call and mass-text everyone who’s signed up to show up at the address and show solidarity and shine a light on what’s happening. We had 64 sign up, then Trump won and suddenly hundreds of people were signing up in hours. There’s over 1000 people on the list now. So now we’re running trainings, with people willing to risk arrest also signing up for civil disobedience: to encircle the house or the vans and block their path.

Marienna: what do you think has raised the courage or the determination for so many people to be signing up to risk arrest?

Peter: It was really a response to something much bigger, with Trump coming in and the programme being a concrete way of getting involved in standing up to everything he represents. I think it’s been successful, again because it’s so bold.

It’s disruptive, but in a way that fits with and communicates the peaceful values we hold.

It’s not the whole answer, though. Stuff like Sanctuary in the Streets, which is very defensive, is also very draining and hard to sustain. Moving forwards we need to make sure that while we’re fighting back against Trump we’re doing something positive locally. We learned under Bush that even when things are terrible at the federal level, we can have a real local impact. For example, we have another campaign to stop migrants’ cars being towed because they’re not allowed to have a driver’s license. We had people being left on the side of the road with their kids at 2am. Plus it costs like $1000 to get the car back, which for many of our members is a month’s wages. And we were able to get the city to reinterpret the law in a softer way, to at least give them 30 minutes to call someone to come and get the car. Again, that’s solid, concrete results for people in the here and now and that balance is important: between fighting back but always pushing for something positive.

Marienna: You’re organising across not just boundaries of race and class but also faith, and one of your next priorities is incorporating more mosques into Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: We have not been successful in organising mosques. It’s something we’ve been trying for a couple of years, and I think I’ve learned some big lessons about the importance of who you have in the room when you start, because that does form the culture immediately, whether you want it to or not, and many of the things facing the Muslim community are quite unique. To form something and then invite other people and groups into it is much harder.

We are building relationships with mosques but it’s very challenging also because of the level of government spying and intimidation of the Muslim community. There was this one mosque I was working with and I’d swing by for Friday prayers and then suddenly this big story broke about the New York Police department infiltrating mosques in New York and Philadelphia and there I am, this random white dude walking around probably looking like a cop, which wasn’t very helpful. There are very high levels of mistrust, and for very good reason. I think we’d really need to start with that tried and tested method of a listening campaign within the Muslim community to identify what they want to work on, and work on that rather than bringing them into what we’re already doing. We haven’t had capacity for that yet, but it’s something we’re trying to figure out.


Marienna: What’s going on in American hearts and minds? How did we go from Obama to almost-Bernie to probably-Clinton to Donald Trump?

Peter: When Trump came on the scene 18 months ago, we dismissed him as a clown who’d have his moment and then go away.

Marienna: – that’s what a lot of people here said about Brexit.

Peter: Exactly. I remember reading about UKIP and the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany and right wing nationalist groups popping up in Europe, and here we just have Republicans and Democrats, but watching that enabled us to put a name to it, to see: ‘oh, Trump, he’s a nationalist if not a fascist,’ and after that we started taking him a lot more seriously. It’s been a challenge for us to name what he is, but listening to Europe has really helped us to see what’s happening here in the US with a clearer lens.

To answer your question, there’s these census reports showing that in 20 years white folks will lose majority in the States and that has a lot of people very scared. They’re scared of losing their power, and there’s been this trend recently in poor white communities getting that life spans are getting shorter, there’s a lot of drug addiction and for the first time the next generation’s quality of life is worse, not better. People see themselves as victims, somehow.

Marienna: Looking forwards, where do you think the movement needs to be a year from now and what are the key principles that are likely to get us to that critical mass moment?

Peter: Wow, that question makes me realise that with managing crises like we are right now we’re maybe a little too stuck in the moment, putting out fires – Trump, the election – and we do need to keep looking forwards, too.

We’ve been talking about the importance of going beyond defence, beyond ‘Trump’s terrible’, to put forward an alternative vision.

Marienna: Trump’s terrible, but here’s something beautiful.

Peter: Yeah, I like that! And nobody’s really moving on this because it’s really difficult and really contentious, but there are a lot of poor, white people that voted for Trump, and who’s going to start organising them? The trade policies that allowed all the factories in the US to go abroad, they left a lot of people here unemployed and are also devastating the global south, so they migrate to the global north and come up against a really hostile environment. So someone needs to reach out to them and start effecting change there. And nationally, I think we need to do some soul searching, especially with so many people coming out onto the streets for the first time, we need to know: what are we really fighting for? And how do we channel all this energy in a way that’s sustainable?

Marienna: What’s your message for migrant communities over here, and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there?

Peter: I feel what’s been most important for us is to be deeply grounded in our values and take risks based on those, whether it’s Sanctuary in the Streets direct action or hiring people who are undocumented. Looking back at the things I’ve been most proud of in our past, we’ve been at our best when we’re really bold. Bold things that connect with people’s values and give people the space to play that out.

Also we recently went to a racial reconciliation workshop, evaluating organisations on a spectrum from ‘no people of colour’ through tokenising through to being led by people of colour and having authentic engagement. Now in our history we definitely moved across that spectrum, and prioritising that and being ready to slow down to protect and strengthen those principles, in the long run we’ve built a stronger organisation because of it. What’s helped more than anything is listening and being ready to change. I mean really make big changes to our organisation according to what migrant members and communities are saying.


Originally published by Red Pepperand produced for Right to Remain

The extended interview transcript is available on the Right to Remain website

Still We Dream: learning from the US migrant rights movement

19 January 2017

Throughout the Still We Dream series, we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States talk about how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within. 


The election of Donald Trump as the next US president has shaken the world. Not that Hilary Clinton was much of a champion for migrant rights, but what Trump’s victory reflected in the hearts and minds of the American people has been a sobering wake-up call. Even here, the few days after the US election were dark, with activists and community organisers visibly shaken. As with Brexit, we had all been warning of the danger but when it actually arrived, found we couldn’t believe. How could such a brazenly racist and sexist figure be elected the most powerful position in world politics? And now, what?


Over the past three years in the United States, in the face of a record 2.5 million deportations under Obama, the nationwide Dream Movement has been heading towards the most significant victory the immigrant rights movement had seen in 40 years’. It had gone far, alongside Black Lives Matter, towards restoring faith in the enduring power of social movements to shake the ground and change the world – even in the USA. The election of a president who has declared war, not just on a movement but on a people, could have been a death blow. But there are encouraging signs that this movement is rising like a phoenix from the ashes, learning, mobilising and connecting faster than ever before.

In this series of blog posts, we’ll be interviewing migrants and organisers from across the United States, who’ll share experiences and insights from this extraordinary moment in their movement’s history. They’ll talk about everything from winning the public debate to building rapid-response systems to immigration raids. And we’ll be thinking about what might work for us, to meet the challenges ahead for UK movements against racism and for migration justice.

“I am genuinely afraid, but I firmly believe in the power of the people. I am heartened by all the people, especially young people in the streets. That is the movement I come from. We must disrupt, obstruct, hold each other, strategise, organise, and fight like we never have before. “

– Cindy Wiesner, national coordinator for the U.S.-based Grassroots Global Justice Alliance


During a presidential campaign dominated by scandalous allegations of sexual assault and racial slurs against immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Mexicans and the Black Lives Matter movement to name a few, Trump’s intentions for his first 100 days in office have been gut-wrenching. He has pledged to begin his first term with the forced removal of more than two million undocumented people from the country and completely close US borders from ‘terror-prone regions’ and impose ‘extreme vetting’ on all people coming to the United States. He has pledged to introduce a two year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for anyone illegally re-entering the country having been deported and build a ‘deportation force’ dedicated to expelling a jaw-dropping 11 million people.

Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, told the New York Times that:

“[Trump] would have to conduct a sweep, or raids or tactics such as those, to reach the numbers he wants to reach. It would create a police state, in which they would have to be aggressively looking for people.”

Sarah Lazare writes: “In interviews with grassroots organisers who work with undocumented people across the country, AlterNet was repeatedly told that the task, now, is not to petition or persuade the Trump government, but to fortify communities on the local level and coordinate resistance nationally, in order to levy the most effective and strategic defence of people at risk. At a time when many are upset, scared and willing to take bold steps to protect their neighbours, communities and families, these organisers are working to develop infrastructure for a nationwide fightback.”

This movement has a long and rich history of solidarity activism stretching well beyond the more famous examples of the civil rights movement – most notably the Cities of Sanctuary, which will be the topic of next week’s blog. Sanctuary cities offering asylum and protection for exiles and migrants date back thousands of years and have been associated with religious traditions from Christian, Islam and Judaism to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism.

In the United States the tradition goes back to 1979, when public pressure saw Los Angeles ban police officers from asking arrestees about their immigration status. Throughout the 1980s this was replicated in many states and hundreds of religious congregations hid and transported refugees fleeing conflict and US-backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. According to Puck Lo, writing for the Nation, “At the movement’s height, more than 500 congregations nationwide hosted refugees and operated an underground railroad that moved migrants from Mexico to cities all over the United States and as far north as Canada.”

Today, there are over 200 sanctuary cities spanning the United States. In the next Still We Dream blog, we’ll look at Trump’s tactics to intimate and eradicate these sanctuary cities, and interview Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, about how people are responding: how communities are building their own sanctuary spaces, challenging churches, mosques and other religious buildings to return to their sanctuary roots and ultimately taking the sanctuary movement back to its beginnings – in the streets.

In the meantime, you can show your opposition to President Trump tomorrow, on the day of his inauguration, by joining one of many Bridges Not Walls actions happening across the UK and around the world. Find out more at the website bridgenotwalls.uk or on facebook.

Published by Right to Remain

Read More of the Still We Dream series

  1. The New Sanctuary Movement says we must go big, bold and migrant-led interview with Peter Pedemonti in Philadelphia