Slavery and Reparations: Bristol and Beyond

malcolm-x-centre-bristol-1445110449

Last night I attended the ‘African connections: moving people – perspectives on Bristol, slavery and migration’ seminar at the Malcolm X Centre, part of the Being Human 15 festival. The panel were brilliant, and the audience engaged.

I was struck at how solid, useful and forthright the conversation was, and particularly on the question of reparations. A question I’ve talked to white friends about several times, friends who have similar if not mirrored politics to mine, and often disagreed on. Last night the idea was crystallised for me thanks to the intelligent and cohesive offerings of everyone in the room.

The crux was this: yes we need reparations – of course we need reparations. We need to repair damage that has been done, always. We need to constantly be looking to better and strengthen our society in all ways, especially for those who bear the extra (and continuing) weights of an inequitable and brutal history.

This does not mean that we give cash handouts to individuals or families or neighbourhoods or demographics – who would we give them to? How much? Where would that money come from? Who is paying whom?

What this does mean is that we acknowledge the truth of our history, and the truths of our present. We employ that truth loudly, openly and together, to build, connect, and repair in real terms.

A full and honest education – not a black history month, but a syllabus that (shock horror) teaches all history because it’s history. New types of investment that recognise the fissured and transitory nature of existing ‘community’ investment, the removal of bottlenecking towards a particular kind of culture and commerce, and a release of the treatment of lower-economic communities as afterthoughts.

The willingness of each of us individually, of all histories and parentages,  to integrate, share, listen to and work with each other – but also as a wider society to publicly express regret. Not because we are individually guilty, but because slavery was a regretful, shameful, vicious practice. And the trauma and reality and consequences of it remain today. Do we not agree?

One of the audience members suggested that a plaque be installed on the statue of Colston in the city centre, acknowledging his profession as a slaver (indeed, someone scrawled the fact on the base of the statue in 1998), or honouring the slaves who actually produced the wealth Colston distributed, or kept, as he saw fit. This is not the first time this has been suggested of course, and many people, myself included, would go further to say why not replace the thing with another statue, feature or something other.

Who are we as a city – what do we want to hide, and what do we want to celebrate?

v2-Colston-Alamy.jpg

The Oneness is the Greatest – #SanctumBristol

Every time I have read about spirituality, and usually when I am reading anything vaguely self-help-y, and sometimes when I am trawling through the Internet, there is a message that keeps coming back. That we are one. All of life, all of the Universe is, or is part of, the same organism, essence, energy.

I’m not too interested in debating or justifying this though I’ll happily discuss it, and often do, when someone is willing to engage with the idea. But without any religion, I have always believed that somehow we are all connected. I don’t know why, and I can’t really explain it. I don’t need to.

My best friend believes that we are imbued with the Holy Spirit, the same spirit of her God; my other best friend is an atheist, but does believes that we each have a soul, or spirit of some kind, and that we are connected to each other through mutual dependence and a moral responsibility to each other, simply by being alive and in proximity.

I’m not sure I can describe my experience of ‘oneness’, other than to say that at times I feel a connection, an emotional mirroring, and a rush and pull so visceral that it’s frightening, as though the soul I haven’t yet decided whether or not I have is being clamped and dragged from my body. I often shut that feeling down, especially since this happens most often when I am faced with the pain of others. Pain I’d rather not feel with no power to act on it, that’s not mine to fully grasp anyway, that’s distorted and egged on by my imagination and my adrenal glands.

This oneness, connection, is both physical and mental. My partner believes that those two things are one and the same. Billions of us believe billions of things; and thus, we are all potentially as different, and potentially as similar, as we can be. Our consciousness, and the oneness, are Schroedinger’s Cats.

Last Sunday, I arrived to see my friend Sara perform at #SanctumBristol. For an hour, every single day, throughout the entirety of the installation, she has been singing, in Arabic, a call to prayer. Sara wrote the translation of her prayer on the chalkboard for us, and asked everyone to face the back right-hand corner of the structure; in the direction of Iran, her country of heritage. The chalkboard read:

The Oneness is the Greatest

I testify that there is no God greater than the Oneness

Come to Sanctuary

Come to prayer

The Oneness is the Greatest

There is no God greater than the Oneness.

It was bright and early in the morning. There was cold wintery sunlight eking everywhere and showing us everything it possibly could. I sat in the newest and most beautiful structure in my city, holding a hot cup of tea, sheltered from the damp outside and swaddled in a large scarf, and felt lucky and happy. I listened to Sara’s strong and worn voice, a vocal offering of connection with the Oneness; with anyone who cared to listen; with anyone who happened to turn up that morning; with Iran; with you; with me. As she began and continued to sing I felt a rush, an impact. A connection with so much and so many that overwhelmed me in its torrent – but for a second, an instant. A collision of whatever that fist inside my chest is that punches up and out and forces me to breathe deeper than before and open my eyes with the hope of seeing something. I see nothing out of the ordinary, simply what was there the second before, and the second before that, but I feel so many tiny fingers and roots and cracks of life surging in one single snap through every neuron and each bronchi. Between my consciousness and others’ spirits must be so much recognition, so much obscurity and all at once and altogether and if only we could have it. Hold it. And actually know each other. In all our generosity. In all our violence. In all our carefree and carelessness.

The connections, the Oneness, was, as always, too quick for me to comprehend. As I faced the feelings of fear that gathered from my seat and crowned over my head I breathed and listened to the river of Sara’s voice. So much possibility and so much pain, so much potential for downfall and excitement and creation and admission and revelation, and the only limitation that will exist will be the boundaries that I put up, as healthy as they are, to fend off the onslaught of life. It was terrifying, exhilarating and I felt the luck and the happiness and the nausea and the hatred and the absolute bewilderment and everything else contained in my life so far, to the fullest.

emotional at sanctum bristol during Sara's call to prayer

This is what that looks like. I think it feels better than it looks. Photo by Max McClure, courtesy of Situations.

I’d never felt lucky or happy until recently. As I’ve grown I’ve stood and faced the Oneness whenever I could, but most often it’s thrown me to the ground, and I’ve knelt, head bowed, pleading, tempering myself and waiting sheepishly while it ticks, silently, potentially sinister. But whilst there, with a good view of the foundations beneath me I’ve gathered my blessings, my connections, my feet and my sight and I’ve waited again. And each time stood to face the Oneness. And last Sunday I sat and soaked up Sara’s singing it to me.

In the last week, the week that followed, were several more terrorist attacks that have become so frequent that they only really rock us if just across the way. More people lost their children, the loves of their lives, the people who cared for them, the people who provided them with their lifelines. Sara texted to ask that we be with her as she carried on, for an hour, every day, performing, rejoicing, calling for us to be One. Asking that we connect with her, as she continued her connection, while life once again seems to repudiate, abandon, and rip our fragile togetherness away from us.

Billions of us believe billions of things. We are all potentially as different and potentially as similar as we can be. Be aware of yourself as a perpetrator. Are you responding, or maintaining our global supply of revenge?

I don’t know what the Oneness is. I only know that we are together, and there is no choice other than to be together. What a threat, what an opportunity. I am thankful that on a Sunday morning I no longer hide under soft duvet barricades, and useless chemical clouds, but rise to connect with a friend, to hear a city, to seek the Oneness.

Come to Sanctuary. There is no God greater than the Oneness. The Oneness is the greatest.

———————————————————————————-

I wrote this for my Sanctum performance on Mon 16th November 2015. I managed to get a slot directly after Sara – it was a wonderful experience. Many thanks to Situations for having me, there’s only three days left of Sanctum, get down there while it lasts.

performing at sanctum bristol

Theatre West REVIEW – The Islanders

Islanders-med-604x270

As the year draws to a close Theatre West have produced a season of new plays, of which The Islanders is the third of five. The setup – a one-act preceded by a short piece by another upcoming writer – not only allows for a showcase of the latest writing by the west’s rising talent, but also for a reflection of the topical issues that theatre’s emerging writers are exploring.

Tory MP Claire is called back to the island on which she grew up – the constituency she now represents in Parliament – where the resident islanders are reeling from the latest in a series of building collapses caused by rising sea levels. Although the many locals – all played by the two supporting actors – spoke in thick west country accents, for some reason I imagined ‘the Isle’ to be in Scotland; perhaps because Claire’s being so far away in London for much of the year was such a foregrounded theme. Bristol was referred to at one point, so we knew we weren’t ‘here’ – but, of course, the vagueness in geography allowed the story to feel simultaneously local and universal.

All the performances were solid and engaging, and the characterisation was particularly enjoyable – Rosanna Miles gave a melodramatic portrayal of a sincerity-chasing career politician, which nicely illustrated an ego-led desperation to appear to be doing the right thing. While I don’t disagree with this reading of political behaviour, I couldn’t decide whether this felt fully three dimensional. However, it did bolster the relentless inabilities of the mentally-, geographically-, and experientially-detached leader focused on placating rather than assisting her constituents.

Joel Parry provided much comic relief in his portrayal of key locals and antagonists; there wasn’t a huge variation in his accent or characterisation – occasionally it was hard to tell whether Bob or The Man Who Wants a License to Shoot Pigeons was speaking – but he performed all with gusto. Claire Sullivan’s recently-home-and-business-less Major was particularly warming, her small frame mimicking that of a frail old man and her thousand-yard stare drawing us into his grief. Similarly, her portrayal of young and eager political aide Anna, whose willingness to admit to the realities of climate change and the subsequent necessity to manipulate the Islanders, was delivered with a frighteningly charming innocence.

The script was tight, the characters well-directed and the story accessible – it is difficult to do behind-the-scenes political dramas following the success of The Thick of It, because everything compares and almost nothing can match it. Indeed, a Tucker-esque character appeared towards the end and swore a lot, and I wished so much that the character had completely diverged from the newly-stereotyped Hardball Spin Doctor. In that vein, there were many ways the story could have been more adventurous and/or perilous, but the real success was in the interaction between characters and the pacing of the story. I was unsure as to whether Claire’s final ‘redemption’ was intended to illustrate the futility of party politics or act as a sincere resolution for the arc of the character – for me, it was certainly the former, and I would’ve liked a clearer, bolder finale.

I’ve seen many plays about climate change recently, and not all of them work. The Islanders fares well as a story about the lack of political will to address the most urgent of society’s needs, and for the company’s next installment I’d simply like a more radical treatment. Ultimately, I’d love to see more from all involved and highly recommend catching it in the last couple of days of its run. It continues until Saturday 14th Nov at PRSC’s The Space on the corner of Jamaica St and Hillgrove St.

A Crushing Attack on Equality: The Musical!

STEP ONE: set this playing.

 

STEP TWO: read aloud.

8TH MAY – 1ST DAY IN POWER:

DWP releases document on cuts to disabled work access scheme hours after election resultDWP releases document on cuts to disabled work access scheme hours after election result

9TH MAY – 2ND DAY IN POWER:

Theresa May to revive her ‘snooper’s charter’ now Lib Dem brakes are off

Theresa May to revive her 'snooper's charter' now Lib Dem brakes are off

10TH MAY – 3RD DAY IN POWER:

Michael Gove to proceed with Tories’ plans to scrap human rights act

Michael Gove to proceed with Tories' plans to scrap human rights act

11TH MAY – 4TH DAY IN POWER:

Stockton road to be cast as ‘Benefits Street’ tonight despite campaign

Stockton road to be cast as 'Benefits Street' tonight despite campaign

12TH MAY – 5TH DAY IN POWER:

NHS sell-out: Tories sign largest privatisation deal in history worth £780MILLION

Most read Live feeds Top Videos News Politics Football Celebs TV & Film Weird News TRENDINGNEPAL EARTHQUAKECABINET RESHUFFLE 2015EL NINOSALLY BERCOWNEXT LABOUR LEADERPRINCESS CHARLOTTE OF CAMBRIDGE Sport Technology Money Travel UsVsTh3m Home News UK News NHS NHS sell-out: Tories sign largest privatisation deal in history worth £780MILLION

TODAY, 13TH MAY – 6TH DAY IN POWER:

Tory officials threatened BBC during election, says Miliband’s strategist

bbc

Interview with Tim Hjersted of Films For Action

(Cross posted from Dialectical Films, with thanks.)

As research for a panel on the subject of ‘audiences’ at the Radical Film Network‘s inaugural conference earlier this year, I spoke to a number of media organisers and radical filmmakers about their work and how they survive while doing it. This is the second of two interviews I’ve published (the other being last week’s with Franklin Lopezof subMedia.tv), with the intention of inspiring, comforting and galvanising those making political work and no money.

Tim Hjersted is the co-founder and head of operations (note the lower case, not an official title) of political video site Films For Action. He and his colleagues have been collating and curating political films, images and articles for the last eight years, and at last count they had 400,000 followers on Facebook.

Tim kindly took time to answer my questions, and gave us an insight into his beliefs about fair compensation for activists, the work that goes into running a digital venture like this, ending with a lovely quote from Derrick Jensen about integrity and social media. (What more can you ask for from a concluding sentence?)

(FUN FACT: All of us in the previous paragraph are somehow connected – last night, I attended the launch of the Bristol chapter of Films for Action, headed by Andrew who has worked for Films for Action for the last couple of years and who I will now be working with in Bristol as part of the film festival I co-run; Franklin’s work at subMedia.tv was the theme of the night, some of which is a documentary called END:CIV about the work of radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen. Thanks to the internet, it’s a small world.)

ffa2

————————————-

What spurred you to start Films For Action?

Learning about the various ways that the mass media harmed society and filtered out important information led us to thinking about how we could ‘become the media’ in our own town, to help correct the deficiencies of our local media. We had seen a few activist films by that point, and one of our co-founders worked at an independent theater, so one night we were hanging out in a friend’s kitchen and we talked about the idea of hosting a film screening. This first event was a success – 320 people came, so we kept doing more. This article goes into more detail on how we got started: http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/be_the_media_change_the_world_a_summary_of_films_for_actions_strategy_for_change/

Are you independently funded?

95% of our funding comes from advertising on the site. The other 5% comes from donations, which we really never promote, but the support we get from people is definitely appreciated. We’d consider this independent because Google Adsense doesn’t care in any way what kind of content we promote, as long as it doesn’t violate their common-sense restrictions. Soon, we’ll be doing PPV (pay-per-view).

Do you get any say in what Google advertises on your site or is it entirely random?

We have the ability to block certain ads or ad accounts, which we do fairly often to keep the ad experience as classy as possible. This is a constant battle though as there are always new ads coming in and we only personally see a small portion of them in daily use of the site.

Do you have another job/income source than Films For Action?

No – after 7 years working on this without pay, FFA has finally become financially able to support myself full-time, as well as 2 part time staff.

How many people work for/with Films For Action?

We have 3 paid staff, 2 of whom are co-founders. We also have 2 other co-founders who currently aren’t active but were for the first several years. We also get a lot of help from our site members, who make submissions to the site.

There’s Eli, who works part-time, maybe a third or fourth of the year, on back-end site coding and feature enhancements for the site. In September 2014, I hired a long-time contributing member of the site to do content curation (seeking out, reviewing, and publishing content on the site, then sharing it on Facebook). Andrew (Butler, who has just set up the Bristol chapter of FFA) lives in the UK and does 20 hours per month.

Then there’s me. I do everything else related to the project, mainly content curation like Andrew. I follow dozens and dozens of activist Facebook pages and websites to filter and scan for good content worth sharing, add the best stuff to the website and share it on social media. I also answer a ton of emails and occasionally speak with chapter leaders on the phone. I used to organize local film screenings but haven’t done that very much in the last couple years, although I occasionally offer advice to others who want to do it (see screening guide at the bottom of the page.)

We also have dozens of city chapters that operate independently from us, and each of those chapters has at least one chapter leader doing work locally. A lot of these chapters are at various levels of activity or inactivity.

Do you consider Films For Action to be politically and/or aesthetically radical?

Yes, politically, as in we try to seek out the root causes and the root solutions to society’s problems. Aesthetically we’ve designed the site to be appealing to a global, mass audience, without any obvious connotations (such as how many anarchist sites have a particular aesthetic which might turn off non-anarchists).

Do you consider your way of organising radical?

I’ve never thought of it is radical, but we’re certainly very different from conventional non-profits and media networks. Our organizing work might be considered anarchist in that we’ve pursued a DIY ethic from the beginning, not content that tries to persuade conventional media to change, or to get anyone else to try to solve these problems. We haven’t tried to appeal to any other non-profit groups, politicians or media to change. We recognized the problem and felt that the best approach would be to create a better media ourselves. The benefit of this is that it doesn’t require waiting on anyone or anything – hosting film screenings or creating a Facebook page or website is something anyone can do.

We’ve also tried to model the kind of organizational values that we believe should be a part of ‘the new media.’ In our case, the people working on FFA have operated in a tribal, non-hierarchical fashion. While I’ve been considered the leader or project director for many years now, decisions are made collectively by the people involved. I’ve frequently deferred to others preferences when there is a disagreement on some aspect of making changes to the site, or occasionally, with content choices.

I think the fact that our group started out among 4 close friends really helped us be productive and effective. We already shared a very similar political perspective, and we already got along really well. We each also had some expertise in a particular area. Because of this, we’ve avoided some of the pitfalls of groups which start out among a bunch of interested strangers who might show up to a public meeting to volunteer, and who may or may not have the relevant skills.

What is your (brief) definition of ‘radical’, if you have one?

To go to the root. To address root-causes.

Do you find any conflict between the work you do and earning money from it?

I used to share a commonly-held notion in our culture that any truly ‘good’ non-profit work should be done out of the goodness of your heart, but over the years I’ve come to see how this perspective is really problematic. Other activists fortunately helped me dispel this notion. Money in our society is an exchange of value, but presently our society holds entirely backwards notions of what is valuable in society. Sports players and movie stars may make millions of dollars, while teachers and social workers may barely make salaries above the poverty line. It doesn’t make sense to me that people doing some of the most important work in the world (including social change activists) should have to scrape by earning very little, while it is perfectly acceptable for people who work in the financial sector of our economy to produce nothing of any value for society but be making millions every year.

What is interesting is that very few question the ethics of making money from being a doctor or stock trading or serving food, but there is this perceived conflict for those doing social change work. I had this notion stuck in my head too, until I had a hour-long conversation with an activist who called me from Australia. He really helped me to see the value of my work and that there was nothing wrong with being paid to do something that is helping other people. It was his opinion that activists deserve to be compensated for their work, a lot more so than a lot of the jobs that are highly compensated.

This is something that I’ve also seen encountered frequently by documentary filmmakers. Because so many films are released for free, whenever a filmmaker isn’t financially able to do that and needs to charge people to see or buy the film, there are a lot of people that don’t really have any respect or understanding for the fact that filmmakers need to eat and make a living just like everyone else. Yes it’s certainly wonderful when a film can be released for free so that the film can reach a larger audience, but I think it’s unfair that filmmakers are expected to put so much work into their films but people balk when asked to pay to see it, because it’s in the social change category. Some filmmakers can afford to do it, some can’t. We should do our best to support the films that cost money, because for better or worse, money is one of those ways that we can show support for each other. It’s one of the ways that we give value to what people do.

What contact do you have with your audience/viewers?

We get lots of emails and Facebook messages. I also regularly read the comments we get on our Facebook posts. I try to respond to all our emails, and I reply a lot on our Facebook posts. It’s getting harder to respond though with the increasing volume of messages we get.

Which medium do you find to be most useful in terms of creating an audience or community around Films For Action?

Facebook. By far. It’s where 90% of our traffic comes from.

Was there one piece of work or event that led your audience to grow, or has it been mostly gradual/organic?

We’ve had several articles or videos go viral now, which gave us dramatic boosts in traffic a few times over the last 2 years. In between that it has been very gradual. We’ve been doing this for 8 years now and if you look at our growth curve the tail at the beginning is suppppperrr long. Things really only took off in the last 2 years.

Do you dedicate time specifically to building your audience, or have you let it happen organically?

Yeah, a little bit. Our main concern has been getting a high viewership for the content we share. This has meant optimizing the title and description of the videos to get a higher click-through and share rate. We’ve taken some lessons from Upworthy in this case, without going as far as they do. Sharing images has also been a good way to build our Facebook audience, more so than sharing links.

If our traffic goes up, that generally ties directly to increasing our Facebook community, so we’ve generally just focused on finding the most important and meaningful content, packaging it as best as we can and then getting it out there.

One interesting factoid is that 2/3 of our Facebook community is outside the US. This has made us focus on content that is relevant to people everywhere, not just the US.

Do you have any qualms using corporate social media, since you are running an anti-corporate media initiative? (No judgment, we all do it…)

No, not really. We’d certainly prefer if there were alternatives that were as widely adopted as Facebook is, but right now, it’s just the nature of the situation.

I’d rather see Facebook used for activist purposes and have some good come out of it then have it not used at all. If activists abandoned it, then it would just become even more entertainment and distraction-oriented and I don’t think that’d be any better.

Reminds me of a quote from Derrick Jensen: “The role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”

———————————–

Look for an FFA chapter in your city at their website, and if there isn’t one, create your own. Tim has written a guide to hosting your own public film screenings:http://www.filmsforaction.org/takeaction/films_for_actions_guide_to_hosting_public_film_screenings/

Follow @FilmsForAction on Twitter, and on Facebook, and watch and read their social change films atfilmsforaction.org.

Elizabeth Mizon is a writer, filmmaker and organiser based in Bristol, UK, and recently finished her first feature documentary The Fourth Estate. Follow her @elizabethethird.