Greens must not repeat Lib Dem mistakes on race

GreenPartyBlogPix-finalOpinion polls currently have the Greens roughly neck-and-neck with the Lib Dems, between five and nine per cent, suggesting Natalie Bennett’s party could be set for a bumper general election result in just over four months’ time, in terms of their overall popular vote anyway.

Viewed in context, popular support for the Greens today is less than half the level that they enjoyed in the 1989 European elections (15%) however there are crucial differences that will give them hope that at the coming general election they may enjoy their best result yet.

The Greens are a different proposition compared to 25 years ago. Less reliant on environmental issues they trade more as ‘real Labour’, a radical Left alternative not afraid to challenge the Lib-Lab-Con triopoly who are all squeezing into a similar space on the Right of the spectrum on immigration and austerity cuts.

Large swathes of the public can…

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Of Pride of race and lineage and self*

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Writer’s block. Because I don’t know how to convey the sense of momentum that I feel about tomorrow’s special event hosted by the Romanian Cultural Centre as part of the The Roma – from ‘extra’ to ‘ordinary’ exhibition. 

First, we will screen the award-winning film Our School by Mona Nicoara, documenting an ubiquitous aspect of institutionalized racism in Romania: educational segregation of Roma children and what has or has not been done about it in today’s Europe. 

And then, in sharp contrast to the sense of despondency and discouragement that pervades ‘the Roma issue’, it will be my honour to give the floor to four of the most inspiring Roma artists and activists that I have met. 

For me, Alina Serban (Actor, London), Nicu Dumitru (Project Manager – Terre des Hommes, Bucharest), Artur Conka (Photographer, London) and Ewelina Pawlowska (Roma Community Support Worker, London) are the real McCoy when it comes to Roma activism. Four ordinary people, getting on with their ordinary lives and at the same time contributing to a tremendous wave that is sure to change the face of Europe in the next decade or so. Getting to know them and their work gradually over the past few months has been both a privilege and a confirmation of what I already knew: that Roma liberation is alive and kicking and way ahead of the curve of media perceptions and even the efforts of policy makers (albeit helped by some of those efforts). And it is something we would all do well to notice since it will change all our lives to the better. 

Because when a people awakens and starts to question their history, they question everything about all of us. They hold up a mirror to society at large and to each one of us who has been stuck in the old ways of believing that we must fear those who are different, lest they jiggle us out of our carefully manicured but precarious existence.

I recently watched the film Searching for Sugar Man. It is the most beautiful story about how the white anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was inspired by a mysterious Native American musician known as Rodriguez. And so, Europe finds itself in its own ‘before-Mandela moment’. It is an exciting time and full of promise. The question is: are we going to rise to it? and would we know Sugar Wo/man if we stumbled across her? 

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* the title of this blog is inspired by W.E.B. du Bois’ Credo: ‘I believe in Pride of race and lineage and self; in pride of self so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves; in pride of lineage so great as to despise no man’s father; in pride of race so chivalrous as neither to offer bastardy to the weak nor beg wedlock of the strong’ (in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, 1920, page 3

The Roma from ‘extra’ to ‘ordinary’: meaning is in the eye of the beholder  

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We all see the world through thick distorted lenses. By the time we grow up, we acquire tunnel vision, limited by the many personal knocks we have suffered; by the fears of things that happened or we think may happen; but limited most of all by the prejudices that surround us like a deep fog, by ancient beliefs we unthinkingly inherit from family, teachers, the media and society at large.

Meanwhile, reality moves on, changes and evolves. Even individuals we thought we knew grow and transform and make new lives for themselves. But groups of people, nations and peoples as well enter new spaces, physical and imaginary, and within a generation, they may be nothing like their ancestors.

And still, the weight of unexamined and unchallenged pre-conceptions robs us of the miracle of this transformation – of ourselves and others. We look but we cannot see. Family, group and national history bears down on us without our knowing it, and forces us to believe what is no longer true, or perhaps never was.

Tomorrow, an exhibition I am curating opens at the Romanian Cultural Centre. The Roma – from ‘extra’ to ‘ordinary’  is an invitation to make a conscious effort of moving beyond, moving out, moving towards those people from whom we have been separated by prejudice, fear and passivity.

The exhibition is but a small step towards the Roma people, who for centuries have been stolen from us by the distortions of slavery, racial profiling, state-sponsored xenophobia, economic inequality and yes, romantic notions of ‘a different race’. And for all that time, in reality – they were just people like us, thoroughly ordinary and as different from each other as we are from our neighbours.

The organisers, Roma and non-Roma activists, academics and artist want to challenge you, the visitor, to look again at those we used to call a number of pejorative names and today, we call respectfully ‘Roma’ (meaning person). As you move through the displays, try to keep in mind a phrase from that great academic and film maker, Trinh T Minha, ‘I see life looking at me’. Allow yourself to take three different viewpoints:

As you walk up the stairs, take a different look at the corrosive media messages that surround you like a thick coat. Do it through the eyes of Roma actor and activist: what do you see? do you see differently?

As you walk into the dark room, take a different look at your own history. Look squarely at slavery and the holocaust through the eyes of those caught up in those horrors: what do you notice? what do you learn?

Finally, as you walk into the room of light, take a fresh look at ordinary Roma lives, at people living, loving, working, celebrating, immigrating, raising children, making art, organising, sharing history. Try to look through ordinary Roma eyes: what do you feel? what if these people became your friends? or family?

Then take a moment to reflect and tell us what thoughts or questions your visit has engendered. Ask again that ancient question: who is going to steal our children? Perhaps it’s no other than ourselves, by failing to make the effort to go find out what racism has done to our minds and by failing to keep up with them, our children, whose reality is ever-changing.

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The morning after the count – victory is sweet

 

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Before you ask, no, I didn’t win a seat in the Lewisham local council elections. I came 5th I think with over 1,200 votes. However, the victory is much bigger and deeper and more meaningful. Hanging out with my Green Party mates at the vote count that went on throughout the night, it suddenly dawned on me that I had achieved (in England no less!) what I’ve wanted all my life: a sister-and-brotherhood who would fight all out for what they believe in, who would treat each other with deep respect and who would be there for the long haul.

Growing up as a bright-eyed teenager in communist Romania I always knew that was possible, since in Romania (get this Mr Farage!), people really know how to fight for each other and nobody is as alone as they are in good old England. Yet somewhere deep inside me, under the onslaught of consumer society and the desperate isolation of London life, I was not sure whether people could really come together in a meaningful way to challenge all that, in the pursuit of a bigger and better world. Now I know they can, and I hope I don’t forget it – I’m writing this blog as a reminder to myself.

Of course, the triumph was made SO much sweeter by Cllr John Coughlin winning his first election and thereby holding the historic seat of Brockley with 1,495 of the votes. That seat has been Green since 2002, and winning it means a huge amount for local residents, for the Green Party and for us activists. We go forward with a spring in our step, knowing that we are the official opposition to Labour in Lewisham, and not only because of the Brockley ward result: Greens consistently came second behind Labour in the vast majority of the wards. The share of the vote, when all numbers are crunched, will bear this out.  But beyond the election results, in no particular order, this is what I will most remember from a hard-fought and hugely successful local elections campaign:

  • sheltering from the pouring rain on the doorstep of a Green supporter, getting completely wet and feeling happy, alive and determined to knock on those last few doors before the big day
  • distributing leaflets at Brockley station under a glorious sunset, only to be told by the majority of commuters that they didn’t need a leaflet as they had already voted Green
  • talking about feminism, Greenham Common, fighting racism, the nuclear disarmament movement and ending war with some amazing female Green activists, on the margins of the vote count, just before Brockley was called
  • the nail-biting suspense of waiting for the announcement of the Camden result and the email from our campaigns manager, saying ‘Sian Berry won! I’m coming over to Lewisham.’
  • having an ordinary woman to woman chat with Natalie Bennett, while walking to the station after her visit to the Brockley activists
  • laughing at anything and everything in Darren’s house at 3 am after the vote count
  • seeing the tension drain from activist shoulders, and glimpsing the gorgeous people that they are when, for a split second, they don’t have to worry about the future of the planet, because one small battle has been well and truly won

So this is my fight: to be part of this movement and see it steadily grow in strength. And this is my victory: to be with people in the midst of the struggle, not on the sidelines.

Eve of polls – what have I learned? A passion for grassroots politics and for all things Green.

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With the last bit of canvassing and leafleting done, I have a couple of hours to reflect on what being a Green Party candidate has brought to my life.

First things first: I have fallen in love with many of the people in the party. It has been both a privilege and a humbling experience getting to know people who have worked day and night (it seems) for the past 20 years to represent their local community and build up the Green vote; people (not just one!) who upon being made redundant, threw their all into the campaign instead of looking out for number 1; the Young Greens who sweep like a welcome whirlwind through the party and the UK political landscape, indomitable, inspiring and supremely cool; Jean Lambert who years ago found the time to talk to me, a mere visitor, at the European Parliament, about international development, and did it with incredible competence; the inspiring friend who 3 years ago told me he was determined to become a local councillor and has never wavered in his commitment. The list as they say could go on…

Then again, I fell in love with the whole party. Its principled stand on so many issues: inequality; living wage; the environment; immigration; plus seeing Caroline Lucas arrested over fracking and then winning her case was a definite highlight.

But most of all, I have learned something that an old friend of mine, a union organiser, once taught me. That it is not through big speeches, or simply through leaflets, or through attacking others that we win the big battles. Instead, what counts is the painstaking organising and hard graft; the building a movement and sticking with it over the long haul; the person to person relationships, the listening, the respect for one another – these are the real gains, and these are the things that actually change the world.

I will never forget the lovely German woman who befriended me as a total party newbie and came to my house and understood how to draw me in and get me leafleting; the gorgeous Algerian guy who personally asked me to stand as an MEP candidate; the lovely election agent who made sure my candidate form was filled in properly, and made me do it again in case a tiny wrong detail would invalidate it; my amazing fellow candidates in Lewisham who are open and real with me every time I meet them; the guy who organised countless ‘local election bootcamps’ at the party conference and spent seemingly hours answering questions afterwards;  the ‘high-ranking’ working class Green activist who never forgets my name; and the couple of lines addressed to party activists at the bottom of many an internal newsletter: ‘don’t forget to be kind to each other’.

This is why I firmly believe in the Green Party of England and Wales and why I am not surprised in our popularity soaring in the polls. I know that we are here to stay and that we will by and by become a big political force in this country and beyond. It is because we know how to organise.

I can’t wait til tomorrow and the weekend, not because we may win a lot of seats in the local and European elections (although that will be encouraging) but because after so many weeks of campaigning I finally get to see my ‘running mates’ at the vote counts. That will be worth the wait.

#2mycomrades (you know who you are)

 

Oops Mr Farage! OR United we stand, divided we fall

Oh goody! The gloves are finally off and Nigel Farage has named the beast that haunts his dreams. It is none other than us, Romanians.

I find it is always satisfying, when you’ve known for many years that those around you harbour that little bit of resentment against your people, to have it out in the open. So, with his party leading in the polls, Mr Farage finally feels confident enough to air his views without trying to appear politically correct. Satisfyingly, even The Sun is calling him a racist, but the problem as I see it is not with Farage personally. 

Let’s face it, he would never have been able to say what he said in that famous interview were it not for the fact that:
1. Many in the UK have their own, either dormant or alive and kicking, prejudices against the Romanian people (such that old favourite – ‘Romanians are related to vampires’)
2. Quite a few UK dwellers are confused (just as Mr Farage seems to be) about Roma/Romanians/criminals – which bit of the racist Zeitgeist is he picking up on? Does he even know?
3. The large majority stood by and did not very much when the first rumblings of anti-Romanianism started raising their ugly head back in January.
4. I wager almost all those living in Western Europe harbour some latent anti-communist feelings and thoroughly disliked anything that comes from the East and smells of revolution.

As it happens, unlike Mr Farage, I have the luxury of feeling pretty relaxed at this very moment, for a number of reasons:
1. I am fully engaged in progressive politics in the UK, and I spend my time actively raising my voice and against prejudice of any form, whether it comes at gay people, Jews, Eastern Europeans or Romanians. This makes me feel rather safe, knowing that I have allies in all these groups.
2. I am backed by my fellow Green Party members who even as I was writing this blog, were tweeting up a storm of support for Romanians. There’s nothing as sweet as being engaged in a common struggle.
3. I personally know a huge number of both Romanians and Roma people (many of them having lived not next door but in my tiny London flat), and I can guarantee that they are a benign and friendly lot.
4. I trust the UK public to see through racism, as it has on many occasions. Hey even The Sun and the Daily Telegraph are on my side on this occasion.

Still, I would feel even happier if those people who think politics is nothing to do with them woke up and smelled the coffee (served in cafés up and down the land by my compatriots), and realised that when UKIP takes aim at them, they may not be as lucky as I am. We all need a bunch of fierce and open minded activists around to defend us when the chips are down. It’s high time we all got off our backsides and built such a gang.

Conchita unstoppable; but what about the rest of us?

I cannot even begin to unravel the layers of meaning behind the success of Conchita Wurst at the Eurovision 2014 song contest. I confess to being if not entirely, then at least in great part ignorant of the trans culture that Conchita represents so openly on a big stage. Living in London, I have caught glimpses of it and have been trying to learn as fast as I can. (And before my critics can jump in and twist my words, can I just point out that most of us straight people, in spite of our assumed street cool, don’t know the first thing about a constituency that is still living under a huge veil of denial and oppression.)

Yet in all my ignorance, I cannot but be glad of the Eurovision result. Eurovision reflects a certain Zeitgeist across a certain section of the European population, and if a liberation-themed song can win it, then that Zeitgeist is moving in good directions.

Back to Conchita. I think she held up a mirror to us, having the audacity to be powerful and sublimely elegant on stage, but also thoroughly vulnerable and looking scared (in those moments after the big win) off stage. How many of the other artists could pull off such a feat of emotional eloquence? For me, the moment when the slick Danish presenter presumed that Conchita was far too overcome to speak was hugely poignant. Not only did Conchita speak, but she fought for her space on stage among the bustle and panic of those last moments and said what she obviously meant to say all along: that she was brought this far by a group of people (‘you know who you are’) and that ‘we are unstoppable’.

I suspect Conchita will have a hard time now, like all sudden celebs. She will have a harder time than most because coming out like she did is still massively dangerous in our day and age. Conchita says it herself in the song: ‘act like you’re free\no-one could have witnessed what you did to me’.

Already the attacks and jibes are coming fast on the internet. Can I suggest that those of us who watch her (the bystanding public) have a job to do here? We need to speak up and speak out in solidarity with Conchita. We can do this by deciding to stand up and be counted in as many ways as we can imagine – politically, socially and publicly.

One of my favourite ways of doing so is this, tweeted by my friend Amelia: .@YoungGreenParty Love #Eurovision #VoteGreen2014 – go watch!

PS. I won’t go into this now, but one way in which Conchita’s success is used in not such good ways is to do some Russian-bashing. Plus ca change…