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. 

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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?

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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

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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

 

 

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Human Rights, Self-Organisation & the Power of Solidarity: an Interview with Yonous Muhammadi

Afghan refugee organizer Yonous Muhammadi speaks to Marienna Pope-Weidemann and Samir Dathi in Athens, Greece.

Eleonas, on the outskirts of Athens, is home to Greece’s first official, open reception centre for refugees. Living conditions for the 200 or so residents tower head and shoulders above so-called ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers elsewhere in the country. But it’s special for another reason: it exists because the refugees themselves made it happen.

In October last year, Afghan refugees were sleeping by the hundreds in a local park. In response, the Greek government set up Eleonas – a makeshift camp in an industrial neighbourhood on the outskirts of Athens – but a long history of racism and abuse meant refugees were unwilling to go there. Everyone thought Eleonas would just be another detention centre.

Then the Greek Forum of Refugees stepped in. This international network of communities – from Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and beyond – worked to build trust with the newly arrived refugees, and volunteered for months to make Eleonas what it is today: the most humane official camp in Greece.

The new EU-Turkey deal has opened an opaque and industrious system of mass deportations. This is already crippling the capacity for independent volunteers to act as human rights watchdogs and establish open humanitarian spaces for refugees. In this context, the role of refugee-led organization will become more vital than ever.

Yonous Muhammadi is the Forum’s president. A mild-mannered man, he has represented refugees in the Greek capital for over a decade. He speaks with the easy frankness of someone whose authority stems from a wealth of collective experience.

Forced to flee Afghanistan while at medical college in 1997, he supported refugee communities in Pakistan and later moved to Iran, where he risked imprisonment to teach at a secret school for ‘illegal’ children. After being imprisoned for trying to return to Afghanistan, he resigned himself to leaving permanently, and reached Greece, via Turkey, in 2001.

Younus has encouraged Afghan communities in Athens to organize. They formally combined with other refugee groups in 2012 to become the Greek Forum of Refugees, which has become a powerful force for mobilizing and getting refugee voices heard. ‘All our goals are achieved by participation of refugees themselves,’ says Younous. ‘And Eleonas is an example of how important that participation is.’

 

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Yonous Muhammadi

How have refugees in Greece fared through the winter months?

This winter is especially cold and conditions are really difficult. People fleeing are still obliged to arrive in Greece via the Aegean Sea, and still the EU will not even discuss safe, legal passage. Greek authorities have also been discriminating against independent volunteers. On the Greek islands, volunteers’ work is essential for the safety and reception of the refugees. They should be thanked, not arrested.

The situation at the Greek border is also really worrying. Many vulnerable people are trapped at the border in freezing temperatures. A few groups are taking advantage of this situation to rob refugees. Just recently, an attack left someone dead. That proves how little protection there is.

People stopped at the border can return to Athens, but the situation is no better here. The official reception centres will only accept Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Eritreans and Yemenis. Otherwise, unless you are an unaccompanied minor, you are sleeping on the streets or in parks with no assistance, or being arrested and taken to detention centres, where people are really afraid for their survival.

Tell us about conditions in the official ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers in Greece. In 2014, a lot of human rights groups condemned conditions as deplorable. Has anything changed?

In 2014, we had more than 9,000 people in detention, even Syrians. The numbers have dropped but conditions still do not meet the standards of human rights law. In September 2015, there was a hunger strike by refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The conditions are impossible! When you see it, you can’t believe how people can survive there.

We have reports [documenting the poor conditions]. Greek friends speak out about it – but the problem is, when refugees are freed they just want to leave because there is no trust in the authorities.

Before they even reach Greece, you know, these refugees have suffered so much, they have been attacked so many times by police at the borders of Iran, at the borders of Turkey – everywhere. And when they go the Greek police after attacks by fascists, the police do nothing. So if there is a law broken, most of the time they don’t want to speak about that, they just want to leave.

They are being attacked by the fascists and going to the police and they do nothing. Once, I asked an Afghan woman if she had been attacked by the fascists. She said no, there was some small thing but it was not important. I asked her what it was. She said she was in a queue when one ‘gentleman’ she said, he came and took off her veil and slapped her in the face. But this was not violence for this woman. She said that it was not important, not really a hate crime. Most of these people are used to this violence. They have been born in violence. They have grown up in violence. We know the condition of women in Afghanistan. They don’t know that it’s a crime here.

Reports continue to surface of abuses and illegal pushbacks by the Greek authorities at the borders. The Police deny that it’s happening at all. What are your thoughts?

Before 2014, there were huge numbers of pushbacks, not only at the Evros land border [with Turkey] but also in the Aegean Sea around the Greek Islands. We have collected witness statements from refugees themselves.

In some cases they tried to cross seven times, but every time they were pushed back – not just deported, but removed very violently. There have also been many cases of sexual abuse. And we are still getting cases like this, with authorities deporting refugees back to Turkey and saying: ‘don’t you dare come back to this border.’ People are beaten and robbed.

We have evidence of these things. But the problem is, they say, when we as refugees are speaking it is ‘not so credible’. They always say this. The Greek authorities will never accept that they have carried out a single pushback. But the research, by Human Rights Watch and others says otherwise. There are still pushbacks happening at Evros, I can tell you that.

The presence of big aid agencies in the Greek islands – UNHCR, Red Cross, UNICEF and so on – increased towards the end of 2015, but has been quite minimal given the scale of the crisis. You’ve highlighted the vital role of independent volunteers. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, the most important help comes from the simple solidarity movements. It is self-organized people trying to help. That is very important. There is no other initiative or motive behind this, they just want to help as fellow human beings. So there is no money, no salary, nothing – just humanity.

Independents are the first people on the scene to rescue and welcome refugees. UNHCR and other organizations, with all their power, are actually helping less than ordinary people in places like Lesvos at the moment.

How do you think the Paris terror attacks by ISIS last November 2015 have impacted refugees in Greece and Europe?

The anti-refugee and anti-migrant voices all over Europe are trying to use this to call all refugees terrorists. But the reality is they are running away from the terrorists in their own countries. And usually terrorists don’t use the refugee route. The families coming from Syria, from Afghanistan are the victims of terrorists.

We have held demonstrations against ISIS and the Taliban, and in solidarity with the victims of terrorists in France. We can understand families’ mourning because we know this feeling well. All of us have lost someone. My 16-year-old brother died in a terrorist attack, as did my cousin. It should be clear that we are running away from them and fighting against them in every way we can.

What is it like to be an asylum seeker in Greece today? What psychological pressures are people put under?

Until 2014, we were recording daily attacks on refugees. In 2010, our offices were attacked by Golden Dawn. But this issue goes beyond the fascists: the whole asylum system is a massive obstacle to integration and empowerment. Some people wait ten years for a decision, unable to imagine or plan any future because the rights they have are so limited.

The Greek state provides no support to students. We often meet people pursuing their studies without shelter or food. This is a real problem.

Victims of torture, and trafficking struggle to integrate and are particularly vulnerable because the authorities provide no access to psycho-social rehabilitation.

What is the long-term solution to the European Union’s current refugee crisis?

The problem with the EU is the powers are always trying to push their problems on to each other, especially to the outer border. There is no responsibility sharing. I have been here more than 13 years and I am fed up with this. Solidarity should be the responsibility of every country. No one wants to take the refugees in the same way that no one wants to leave their homes in the first place. The main solution is to stop the wars! Why is there this in Syria? Why did I have to leave Afghanistan, for example?

The other thing that’s important is functional, realistic co-operation with the countries that border Syria. Not like they’re doing with Turkey – it wants EU money and membership and doesn’t care about the refugees. At the moment, all the decisions the EU and other are making are in their own economic and geopolitical interests. Only if there is political will to benefit the refugees, will we be able to find a solution.

I don’t hold out much hope that it will stop. It [the West] interferes in Afghanistan – not in my interests as an Afghan – and here we are, 13 years later, thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent and what is the result? We are still hearing of cities being captured by the Taliban and others and so we have thousands of people who are running away.

Originally published by the New Internationalist

2016: Time to take the leap

Naomi Klein has declared war on what divides us and in doing so has become a global voice for climate justice. Her latest bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, combines years of hard research with her uniquely evocative voice to explain why climate change presents the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to re-make our world.

In recent years, Naomi and her team have worked not only on breaking down the ideological barriers between climate and social justice, but between academia, art and activism. In autumn last year they released a documentary to accompany the book, directed by Avi Lewis. From the heart of the fossil fuel machine to the heart of indigenous communities fighting back against it, this film crystallizes the book’s call to arms, presenting a haunting and luminous portrayal of everything we have that’s worth fighting for.

Meanwhile, the book’s fire and clarity has had a meteoric impact on the environmental movement, giving many climate campaigners the courage to get political and putting the environment centre-stage for a new generation of social justice activists. On 28 March last year, at a 1,000-strong gathering in London titled after the book and streamed worldwide, Klein told us: ‘Books don’t change the world. Social movements change the world.’

theleap2So naturally, they have thrown their backs into building one. After attending the launch of The Leap Manifesto at the COP21 summit in Paris, I interviewed Naomi and her team about all the aspects of the project, and how they leaped from writing a book to shaking the foundations of the Canadian establishment.

Not many books or films need an ‘engagement team’. Tell me about yours. Was it always part of the picture or did it evolve spontaneously?

Katie McKenna, Engagement Lead for the This Changes Everything project, and a co-producer of the documentary:

When Avi directed The Take in 2004 and Naomi wrote The Shock Doctrine in 2007, we were amazed at how quickly both projects turned into organizing tools – The Take was screened in worker-occupied factories around the world, and the ideas in The Shock Doctrine helped frame and focus a global wave of organizing against governments using crises to push forward inequitable and undemocratic policies.

It was always meant as a project in three parts: a book, a film and an outreach strategy. This Changes Everything makes the case that the climate crisis is the most urgent opportunity we’ve ever had to fix our broken economic system, and calls for economic, climate and social justice movements to fight together. So it was a natural fit for some kind of strategic outreach, and when Avi’s film got the go-ahead in 2011, we started planning.

Can you tell me about some of the work you’ve done with activists at the grassroots level?

Alex Kelly, Australian filmmaker and activist, Impact & Distribution Producer for This Changes Everything:

On 18 September, the day before the historic People’s Climate March in New York City and a few days after the NYC launch of This Changes Everything we convened a two hour strategy meeting with 35 climate and environmental justice activists and organizers from around the world at Cornell University.

The meeting helped shape our thinking about the work going forward and importantly, affirmed the value of the convening power that the project has. It was clear from the engagement at the event and the feedback afterward that there is a need for spaces to be created for organizers to meet each other, build relationships and to find common cause across their struggles.

Since the launch of the book in September 2014 we have hosted another three major workshop convenings in the USA, one in Canada and Australia, as well as a number of smaller events across the world.

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1,000 strong This Changes Everything assembly in London (March 2015) hosted by TCE UK

The Leap Manifesto is described as ‘an open source idea’. What does that mean?

Bianca Mugyenyi, activist and co-author of Stop Signs: cars and capitalism on the road to social, economic and ecological decay. She oversees Canadian outreach for The Leap Manifesto:

We hope people all over the world will take this idea … and adapt it for their own countries, regions, and struggles

We hope people all over the world will take this idea – of working across movements to develop a shared vision of a justice-based transition to renewables – and adapt it for their own countries, regions, and struggles.

Naomi Klein: We also think that by picking up the leap name and the leap year metaphor, it’s a great way for people to organize locally and very specifically while feeling part of something global and transformational. And because the climate crisis is as global as it gets, and because we all know that it requires this scope of action, that capacity to think and act both locally and globally simultaneously is really important.

‘Breaking down the silos’ that divide issues and groups within the movement is an important principle, but challenging in practice. Traditionally, that kind of holistic approach was the province of political parties, but this project has been careful to operate outside the party framework. So where is it heading? And what role do single-issue campaigns have to play in the movement that we need to build?

Avi Lewis, award-winning director of the documentary This Changes Everything and The Take:

We chose to release The Leap Manifesto during an historic national election campaign and made a concerted effort to influence the national debate in that political moment. We were responding to what we see as a huge inspiration gap between the narrow incremental options offered by the political class and the vastly more ambitious vision that people are already articulating.

As for the role of single-issue campaigns, many of the movement groups we partnered with – like No One Is Illegal and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty in Canada – might look ‘single-issue’, but what characterizes their ground breaking work is a strong analysis of structural/systemic causes, and a recognition of the need for transformative change. The coalition behind The Leap works on a huge spectrum of different issues, but we all have that common, connect-the-dots approach.

But just joining up single-issue campaigns is not exactly the dynamic that has been building in North America. Instead, we are seeing place-based struggles – whether against coal in the Powder River Basin, fracking in the US Northeast, Tar Sands in Alberta Canada, or its sprawling tentacles, the pipelines – winning individual battles while linking together with each other. And then those place-based victories have been building momentum towards larger policy victories.

At the launch of The Leap Manifesto in Paris Naomi talked about the importance of ‘the yes’: a positive programme setting out what we’re for, not just fighting defensive battles with what we’re against. The Leap Manifesto articulates that. But until now, it’s been a lot easier to mobilize around the ‘no’. Why do you think that is, and why can’t we afford to let it put us off?

Avi Lewis: We’ve waited so long and done so little on actually curbing global emissions that we no longer have time left to choose: we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground while simultaneously shifting to a clean economy. In other words, the science is actively telling us that we have to fight the ‘no’ and the ‘yes’ at the same time.

Of course the ‘no’ is easier to mobilize around because people are fighting to defend their land, their water and their air. These are often life-and-death struggles. But thankfully, there is a natural symbiosis in which the momentum of the ‘no’ can be harnessed to build the reality of the ‘yes’. We’re already seeing it happen around the world: whether in the solidarity health clinics and farmers markets in Greece, or the solar projects in First Nations communities in the Tar Sands region, we’re seeing people fight with one hand while they build with the other.

Naomi Klein: But the alternatives are not at scale yet – they’re being built without the support and resources they deserve. So The Leap Manifesto is on one level an attempt to articulate the big policies necessary to take the ideas built in local struggles to the level where they would have genuine and dramatic effects on both lowering emissions and building social justice.

But one thing we are already seeing is the power of the example – community-level alternatives have an outsize impact. They give people proof that change is possible and there are better ways of doing things. They go viral, broadcasting a tangible story of transformation, laying the ground for deeper change.

We’re seeing people fight with one hand while they build with the other

And that storytelling element is also key to the leap. In putting forward a bigger, bolder vision of the world we want, we were very conscious not to just make a laundry list, but to tell it as a story. This has proven invaluable in how people absorb it, take it in, and organize with it.

I want to talk about how The Leap Manifesto was born – the initial meetings – because it’s really a very comprehensive and radical set of proposals, true to the book, but has managed to attract support well beyond the traditional left. Already it boasts over 30,000 signatures including some big cultural figures and a dazzling array of different organizations.

How to achieve that kind of breadth without diluting political content is the number one question for activists everywhere, so I’m curious about how such a broad coalition unfolded while leaving original vision intact. Did you invite people into that room who were already behind that vision? Or did you try to keep the content minimal to start with, get together the most representative team you could and then hash out the demands as you went?

Katie McKenna: The first draft of the manifesto came out of a two-day convening that we helped organize last spring, with 60 leaders from labour, green, Indigenous Rights, food justice, feminist, and migrant rights movements. We were nervous about bringing some of the people in that room together, but we embraced the idea that ‘if you’re not having fights, your coalition isn’t broad enough.’ We wanted to go broad – but keep it small enough that people could still feel like they were part of a group together, not passive participants.

The original idea for the manifesto document was to create a popular vision for a justice-based transition to clean energy that could ‘inspire the public, help shape election discourse, and fit on the back of a postcard.’ In the end, I think we hit two of three.

We hacked together a first draft of potential demands and workshopped it at the gathering. People had a lot of feedback and input. The initial format of a list of principles was rejected. We went back and forth about how much to emphasize ‘the science’ as a key opening frame, rather than justice or other forms of knowledge about climate. There was also a general feeling of wanting to focus more on the positive vision of what’s possible and how that can make people feel.

Naomi took all those notes and most of all the feeling and inspiration that we all drew from the gathering and, within a few days, drafted the first iteration of the longer document that exists today. It was a text that was more lyrical, more beautiful, but also much less ‘postcard’ length than where we started. Over the summer representatives from labour, Indigenous and migrant rights groups, the feminist movement, Quebec, and people participating through online organizing all gave input on language, length, and demands. Once we had a finished document, it went to translation – into 10 languages – and to artists whom we had commissioned to create images inspired by the text. From day one to the public launch was about 3.5 months of very intense work.

I was struck by the fact that indigenous rights are not only central, but the very first of the manifesto’s fourteen demands. Some environmental groups looking to build broad-based coalitions might be tempted or bullied into side-lining that. You’ve heard the argument, I’m sure: if you want build broad support you have to stick to the issues that affect everyone and not ‘moralize’ about the struggles of other people in other places. Obviously that argument doesn’t hold much sway with you. Why is it so important to have indigenous land rights centre stage?

Martin Lukacs, Guardian journalist and a member of the This Changes Everything team:

The dispossession of Indigenous peoples is the central and original injustice in our country, Canada. Rebalancing that relationship must be foundational to social movements. And ever more people are coming to understand Indigenous land struggles in Canada do in fact affect everyone. As Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation says in the film: ‘People are starting to realize this isn’t just “an Indian problem” – if you drink water or breath air this is about you.’

In Canada and around the world massive fossil fuel and mineral deposits are concentrated in the traditional territories of Indigenous communities. The push for extreme energy is not merely a new crisis – it’s an extension of a very old colonial pillage. No one is more impacted – and therefore up to the fight – than Indigenous peoples. So upholding and strengthening Indigenous and treaty rights is key to keeping carbon in the ground – and that of course benefits us all.

In Canada these communities are at the forefront of the ‘no’ to an extractive model of development, but also the ‘yes’ to alternative community-based regenerative economies. For instance, the community of Clyde River – at the frontline of resistance to Arctic oil exploration – is also starting a new renewable installation next year, working with Greenpeace. Because heating and energy are such huge costs in Northern communities, this project is a way to simultaneously advance climate and economic justice and Indigenous rights – and these integrated solutions is what the leap is all about.

Has there been any negative blowback because you made that choice?

Katie McKenna: Not at all. The Leap Manifesto was released on the heels of the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report. [It found that by the] 1990s, over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in government-funded, church-run schools that were designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples and sever their connection to the land. Canadians are starting to grapple with this country’s brutal history in public. The language in The Leap Manifesto didn’t seem radical or surprising in that context.

What about negative reactions to the manifesto’s 11th point, which demands full immigration status for all workers and a call to welcome migrants and refugees? The climate and refugee crises are connected, of course, but that’s one point that seems to be asking something of people, rather than offering something to them.

Bianca Mugyenyi: People are realizing that the refugee flows we’re seeing now are just a glimpse of what’s to come. Climate change and migration are intimately linked, and we’re going to see massive displacement of people caused by sea level rise and extreme weather in the decades to come, all around the world. So there’s a question facing all of us: are we all in this together?

We think most people, given the opportunity, believe that we are. You see it over and over in times of crisis, when people step up for others in their communities, but also for complete strangers. But we need our immigration, border and social support systems to catch up with this idea. The leap is about speaking to our better selves and, no: we did not have backlash to this demand.

Going back to the book, it is in itself something of a manifesto: drawing lessons from the climate justice movement and advancing many ‘yesses’. And the book’s very title sets up a clear dichotomy between capitalism and the climate. But then there’s The Leap Manifesto, which was launched not just as a different ‘brand’ but also using distinctly different language. One obvious example: it doesn’t mention capitalism.

Naomi has said several times that the book was written with a left-wing audience in mind, whereas The Leap is casting a broader net. Still, it will cause concern amongst many activists that the manifesto represents a political step back from the book; that it’s tinkering with instead of replacing the system that threatens us all. Can you give me a sense of the debates that went on around this question? Why did The Leap Manifesto make this shift away from an explicitly anti-capitalist language?

Naomi Klein: In truth we tried to stay away from jargon and labels of all kinds and we think that’s why it reads like something so many artists and writers in particular, wanted to put their names to. But it’s also true that the corporate press wasted no time in labelling the document anti-capitalist.

Avi Lewis: There was definitely a spectrum of positions among the various groups, from the explicitly anti-capitalist to the more social democratic. But I don’t remember any big debates on whether or not to use the ‘C word’ in the text. In fact, this is one of the unanticipated joys of building coalitions around the positive vision: we don’t all have to agree on the critique of the current system, nor on the ideal future system we’re working toward. We just need to agree on what needs to be done right now.

I think every single demand in the manifesto confronts a central pillar of current-day neoliberal capitalism – from so-called free trade to austerity to de-regulation, to the whole ideological and financial capture of our global political class. We have to knock down all those pillars in the process of building the world we want. I’m pretty sure everyone who signed the manifesto agrees with that. We managed to build a coalition calling for fundamental systemic change without getting bogged down in the same old arguments about revolution or reform. I personally think that was one of the great strengths of the process.

How did you hold the coalition together in the face of major differences? Did you lose any of the early partners?

Martin Lukacs: One. Unifor, the union that represents thousands of workers in the tar sands, was a major ally and organizing partner in the March for Jobs, Justice and Climate Action this past summer. The president, Jerry Dias, stood next to Indigenous and migrant justice activists, in the heart of Canada’s financial district, and that was an extraordinary moment.

We were really hoping to have Unifor be an initiating organizational signatory of manifesto, but in the end they decided they could not sign because of the call for no new fossil fuel infrastructure. But we’re still working with them and other big unions and we launched with a very strong union presence.

Leap Day 2016 is Monday 29 February. What are you all planning for this day?

Katie McKenna: Our friends at 350 Canada recently pointed out to us that this year Leap Day is 90 days after the beginning of the COP21 Paris climate talks, which is exactly the deadline Prime Minister Trudeau has set to host the first ministers conference to work out the national climate strategy for Canada. So it’d be nice to have that idea of a justice-based leap toward the renewable economy in the air as they’re meeting – because what we’ve brought to Paris is nowhere near where we need to be.

We’ve just launched leapyear2016.org and we’re hoping to see ripples of the manifesto in different spots around the world on the 29th. We already know that the nascent Australian Leap coalition is planning its first big drafting retreat at that time, and a Nunavut Leap and Maritimes manifesto are both in progress already. In the UK, they’re working on ‘The People’s Demands’. We’d love to see many more projects announced on the 29th, in whatever form.

Click here to sign The Leap Manifesto.

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Originally published by New Internationalist

RS21 Interview: This Changes Everything

On Saturday 28 March a mass participatory gathering on climate change and the alternatives will be addressed by Naomi Klein, Russell Brand and many others. Dan Swain spoke to two of the organisers, Neil Faulkner and Marienna Pope-Weidemann.

Dan: Can you explain what the plans are for This Changes Everything, what you hope for the event and what you hope will come out of it?

Marienna: This Changes Everything is mass participatory gathering that will bring a thousand people together with activists and campaigners to debate some of the biggest questions of our generation. It’s about joining the dots between different elements of the crisis – war, poverty and climate change – joining the dots for a common solution, and finding ways to support each other in the struggle to make it possible.

It’s been organised by a network of independent activists, some already embedded in the movement, others not, brought together by the vision articulated by Naomi Klein’s new book. She’s highlighted the fact that the threat of climate change represents a historic opportunity for progressive politics, because the cornerstones of any socially just way out of the crisis vindicate much of what the Left’s been fighting for (and against) for generations. One Occupy Wall St organiser in the States put it well: it’s not about building a “separate climate movement, it’s about seizing the climate moment.”

Our organising group is pretty diverse, ranging from black bloc protesters to Green Party canvassers. That comes with challenges, but it’s all about building something broad and vibrant, more of a network-community than a ‘new coalition’. And what binds us together is an understanding of the need for system change – and an appreciation that to achieve it, we also need to voice a positive vision of the alternative. The byline we chose, ‘Democracy, Equality, Survival’ sums up the elements we want to see brought together: the system’s become so rabidly corrupt, so exploitative, so pathological, that those things can’t be won in isolation anymore. We achieve them together, or not at all.

Neil: Perhaps, in a wider sense, the concept represents a throwback to the looser, more bottom-up ways of organising represented by late 1960s movements like the American SDS, the 22 March Movement in Paris, the German SDS, and People’s Democracy in the North of Ireland. Another way of talking about it is to say that it is not quite like anything that currently exists – not a ‘united front’, not a single-issue campaign, not a party, certainly not a sect. Not least, it is a reaction to the plainly dysfunctional forms of ‘democratic centralism’ that characterise so much of the far left.

Speaking personally, I think we need mass revolutionary organisation in Britain. I cannot see any way out of the crisis – a compound crisis with ecological, economic, imperial/military, social, and political/democratic dimensions – which does not involve ending the rule of capital and establishing mass participatory democracy and rational control over the world’s resources in line with human need and planetary sustainability. So we need to build mass revolutionary organisation – mass organisation that aims explicitly for total system change to achieve social justice and climate justice. I see This Changes Everything as a stepping-stone towards that.

Dan: How do you see the relationship between This Changes Everything and the existing climate and environmental campaigns and organisations, from big NGOs to local anti-fracking campaigns?

Marienna: The climate movement has become very polarised in recent years, and particularly since the disaster of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. Since the beginning I’ve thought of This Changes Everything as a response to a ‘red-green disconnect’ that’s emerged, mostly as a product of the dismal strategy adopted by more conservative elements of the climate movement. I see it as a priority for This Changes Everything to call some of the big green groups out on their silence because to the extent they have influence, they’re driving us down a dead end, because this system has got to go. Plus, beating the drum of ‘individual responsibility’ – blaming all our little actions and inactions equally instead of popularising the systemic critique and putting blame where it belongs is no way to build a movement. Not being clear about the problem makes it impossible to be clear about the solution. It breeds depression, political paralysis and resistance to change.

That said, the radical wing of the climate movement is a rising tide. From highly politicised indigenous movements on the front lines in the Global South, to the fantastic work being done by grassroots, anti-fracking and fuel poverty campaigns on the front lines here in the UK. A lot of great work is being done by people who understand that climate justice and social justice are now co-dependent, symbiotic. It’s not an alliance of distinct struggles to bulk up numbers: it’s one crisis, one movement, one vision. There is no radical Left manifesto that doesn’t have a solution to the climate crisis at its heart; and you cannot expect the environment to be treated with respect in a society where people are treated like trash.

Neil: There are three great forces in the modern world: globalised corporate capital; the militarised states; and the mass of working people. The first two form a unified bloc and are highly centralised. In fact, they are more centralised than ever before in human history. There is a vast gap between where most people live out their lives and the great concentrations of economic and political power like that represented by, say, the half dozen oil companies that dominate the global industry, or the ‘troika’ of EU, ECB, and IMF, or tax-havens and mega-casinos like the City of London.

We cannot fight the system effectively issue by issue, campaign by campaign, action by action. The system, and therefore the crisis, is an integrated whole. Power over the system is highly concentrated. We have to build united mass movements to confront that power if we are to have any chance of winning major victories.

Dan: I notice that the Young Greens are listed as supporters, and obviously they have received a big boost recently. What’s your assessment of the Greens as a political force?

Neil: The Greens have become the main electoral expression of what can be defined broadly as ‘anti-capitalist’ opinion in England. It is very good that people want to join and vote for an explicitly anti-neoliberal, anti-war, anti-climate change party. But it is not the solution to our problems. The fate of the Syriza Government in Greece – which has, in effect, capitulated to EU diktat within a month of getting elected – is a warning to us all. Breaking the power of the global corporations and the militarised states is going to involve a massive, protracted, complex historical struggle.

Marienna: In the long-term, the Green Party will be as good as its membership is active and part of the wider movement – because that’s how real change happens, and this is about so much more than getting the right people in government. That said, I think this explosion of support we’ve seen for the Green Party in Britain is really exciting. It reflects a lot of things, of course, not least war-weariness, concern for the environment and the impact of and resistance to austerity cuts – the Greens being the only major party in this country willing to take a stand on anything that matters anymore.

But it’s also about how the complete degradation of the Labour Party into an unrecognisable, neoliberal husk of its former self has opened a gaping hole in our political culture as far as parliamentary politics goes. People have known for a long time that the system is corrupt. They were content to vote for their ‘lesser evil’ because they couldn’t see any alternative. That’s what really excites me about the Greens: they represent a nationally visible, tangible alternative people are willing to go out and vote for. Join up to, even. Our job is to help people understand that the alternative is possible, but voting for it’s not enough: we’ll have to protest, occupy, strike and disobey to wrestle our economy back from the rich.

Dan: What about the existing far left? We all have links to that background, which is in a bit of a mess right now. What, if anything, can these organisations and traditions contribute?

Marienna: Neil said to me recently that after 40 years as an active revolutionary he’d finally come to the conclusion that “there is no formula for social change.” It’s true. Social change is as much an art as it is a science. We’re all learning as we go, but a huge part of that art is being able to treat people the way we think a better world might treat them: with respect. Without that we can’t have healthy political alliances or personal relationships. Nor can we grow, unless we create a culture, a community that people want to be part of.

Neil: I do speak very much as what I call a ‘refugee’ from the Old Left, which I was part of for 40 years. Organisationally the Old Left cannot really contribute anything. I am now convinced that you cannot graft new growth onto dead wood. The young activists think the Old Left sects and splinters are a joke. They are right. Individually we have to make an organisational break and set about building completely new organisations from the bottom up – organisations that are broad, inclusive, participatory, democratic, and dominated by young people. Small groups of non-sectarian revolutionaries should dissolve themselves into mass organisations of the kind I have been describing. Anything else simply prolongs the agony of slow and inevitable organisational death. There is no historical example of a small group setting itself up, proclaiming a ‘correct line’, and slowly becoming a mass party through something called ‘the primitive accumulation of cadre’. The way revolutionary parties emerge is through the crystallisation of revolutionary ideas and cadre inside mass organisations in the context of mass struggle.

Marienna: I think that those organisations and traditions can contribute to the extent that they can accept the need to create a culture people want to be part of, and listen to young people. When you can’t accept it, then you get the territorialism, the sectarianism, the antagonistic identity politics, the ‘I’m a better radical than you’. I think most people understand this is our greatest internal obstacle – but fewer seem to grasp that this calls for a deep cultural shift. One example: I think a lot of groups are losing the argument with radical young people about political organisation and formal membership. This cultural shift against formal organisation happened for a reason, there is a debate to be had and a new conclusion to be reached that reconciles the best of our tradition with the possibility of the present.

Basically, we need to start taking each other seriously if we want the world to take us seriously as a united force. I really hope that’s something that the existing far left can manage because there’s so much cumulative collective wisdom there and we can’t get it all from books! It’s also a culture I’d like to see This Changes Everything help cultivate – and people are telling me that what we’ve managed so far is a big part of why they’re making 28 March their first big political event.

Dan: Neil, you’ve spoken before about the importance of learning from history. Which historical experiences do you both think we should be focusing on today?

Neil: Well, there are so many, but here are two ideas: First, the Bolshevik experience has been the subject of the most grotesque caricature in the canon of post-war Trotskyism. Lenin was a democrat, and whenever possible – in 1905 and 1917 – he was in favour of mass participatory democracy in the party. Historical necessity has been turned into a theoretical dogma and used to justify an abusive and dysfunctional form of top-down internal party organisation. Indeed, modern forms of ‘democratic centralism’ have often been far worse than anything the Bolsheviks did.

Second, the Paris Commune. They did not have soviets or workers councils; they had a democracy based on geographical districts. Now, I strongly suspect, given the fragmentation of workplaces, communities, working lives, and so on, the growth of casualisation and high labour-turnover, and the relative weakening of the unions, that geographically-based mass democratic organs are more likely in a future revolution than industrially-based councils. We do not have mass strikes spilling onto the streets and becoming mass demonstrations or pickets. We have mass demonstrations which sometimes trigger what might be called ‘turnout’ strikes, like in Egypt during the Arab Spring revolution. The street, not the workplace, leads. So the Paris Commune may turn out to be a better guide to what a future revolutionary movement might look like than 1917 Petrograd.

Marienna: I think history is the most important lens to look through if you want to see clearly the how and why of the system we live in and how people behave within it. That said we are where we are, not where we were. Reform, revolution, social transformation – these are vastly complex processes we’re talking about, contingent on a picture we can never see completely. So I’m cautious about fetishising singular historical moments at the expense of learning from our global present and using our imaginations about the future. We need to talk more honestly about our shared history, be inspired by it and keep the best of it close. But we also need a new generation to take the lead by taking action and developing its own ideas about how we can change our world. And that’s another point for This Changes Everything’s to do list after 28 March!

Originally posted by RS21 on 24th March 2015

Photograph by Steve Eason, taken at the Time to Act Climate March, 7th March 2015