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Behind the Rent Strike – Nick Broomfield (1974)

2 May

I saw this wonderful film the other day as part of the Bread and Roses film festival – Nick Broomfield was there to answer questions afterwards so we learnt a little more about the making of the film. I enjoyed the film so much I wanted to write a short piece to encourage others to watch it. 

The film opens with a middle aged woman putting Nick Broomfield firmly in his place. As a middle class film-maker he can never understand the lives of the working class and will never produce films that will reflect their realities. Ethel was certainly right to bring this young arrogant film maker down to earth, and his inclusion of scenes like this perhaps reflect his willingness to acknowledge and interrogate these limitations, of both himself and his medium. Yet, despite his privileged position, Broomfield’s documentary of life in Kirkby, Liverpool during the rent strike of 1972/3 does succeed in vividly portraying the difficulties and determination of the community.

There are many wonderful scenes which subtly, and sometimes a lot more explicitly with Ethel, get to the root causes of the issues faced by community. Broomfield takes his camera into the local school, where the emphasis on discipline acts as a cover for the real issues of poverty and unemployment. As Ethel notes, when the school send in the careers advisor, they might as well send along someone from the dole office as well. He also films in the local Birdseye chicken factory where an incredible scene of lines of women dismembering chickens was filmed with Broomfield being pushed on one of the factories trolleys around the room. Broomfield and the trolley pusher had failed to communicate beforehand when his assistant would stop pushing the trolley, and so they ended up doing the entire length of the factory.

Broomfield described in a Q&A how the women were the ones who were more active in the day to day organising of the strike, although in the meetings it was the men who tended to dominate. He conveys this well in the film through his interviews with Ethel and another woman whose thoughtful observations and reflections on the strike very much show that they were at the forefront and how significantly the struggle impacted on their lives. Broomfield lamented slightly that he hadn’t filmed more of the daily conversations held by the women – with a set amount of film that he could use, he saved it for the set pieces such as the strike meetings. He states that he would make a ‘less direct film now’.

Despite what it could have been had more film been available, Behind the Rent Strike is a beautiful and important film. Although exactly 40 years ago, the words of the residents of Tower Hill Estate strongly resonate today. They faced increasing rents for their poor housing conditions whilst their wages stagnated. The situation was intolerable. As one resident described, ‘the law doesn’t work for us, we have to take it into our own hands’.

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Adventures at A4e

13 Apr

Adventures at A4e

‘Izzy, nothing is impossible…’ he tells me reassuringly, he starts to read one of the many motivational quotations that are stuck all over the walls and on the desk around which the group is seated. I stare back at him blankly, horrified. Then the man next to me starts reading out loud the Oprah Winfrey that is in front of him.

This was one of many surreal moments of an A4e training course ‘finding and getting a job’ that I was coerced into attending by my job centre advisor. She had told me that it would help me with my CV, however, it seemed that the trainer of the course had much grander ideas – he was determined to change my ‘being’ which was apparently what is preventing me from getting a job – rather than, say, an economy that is heading back into recession and a saturated job market. And so, for two days I sat with ten other unemployed people being told that we needed to ‘talk, breath, eat, shit belief in yourself’ and being compared to iPhones. The experience was like being in some sort of strange comedy sketch that just went on and on and at times bordered on feeling like a cult. Even the toilet signs were plain weird – the sign for disabled has a man with a broken leg that appears to be bandaged up with toilet roll.

Barbara Ehrenreich charts the rise of positive thinking in the US in her book Smile and Die – it seems that this is yet another US import, like workfare, that is being used to punish the poor. Does the government honestly think that sending unemployed people to these courses, where we are bombarded with pseudo psychology about positive thinking, will actually make any difference at all to unemployment? I would argue that they are actively harmful to unemployed people who spend the time being blamed for the situation that we find ourselves in and being offered ‘solutions’ that will make no difference whatsoever, and may even reduce one’s job prospects – for example we were told ‘no need to be nice and fluffy about it, tell them straight up. ‘I am the one you’re looking for.’ Like the Matrix – ‘I am the one’ – it was only when he believed he was the one that he became the one’. As well as being at best a waste of our time and at worst mentally distressing and incredibly manipulative, is this really good use of tax payers’ money who are paying A4e for this nonsense?

The entire course was simply one long motivational talk with very little actual real content. (Of course, even if it had been a course that was well structured with decent advice, this will make no difference when the problem is lack of jobs). The main point which was hammered home time and again was that if we believed we could get a job, then it would happen. It was simply our mindset that was the barrier and he seemed intent on us all having mini epiphanies there and then.

James had found himself unemployed for the first time in his life at the age of 60. He had worked in retail but despite his experience he could not find work now because of his age. The employers only want young people. His agent had confirmed to him that it was his age that meant he wasn’t getting past an interview and had suggested to him that he start lying about his age. But our trainer did not accept that it was age discrimination and a saturated job market that were the issues here, rather it was the barrier that James had created in his mind about his age. ‘We are a product…if we’re not talking and bigging up that product, then we can’t expect anyone to buy that product.’ ‘Age is not a barrier, the only barrier is here [pointing to his head] we create it’. He kept on ‘working’ on James as he said it ‘takes a bit of breaking down’ to create an ‘opening’.

I was getting really frustrated by this point with this focus on the individual so I said that it wasn’t James that was the problem, it was age discrimination, and that there was very little he could do about it, that it was an issue that we needed to address as a society. That young black men have an unemployment rate that is 50% so the issues here were discrimination and that however positively they thought, this would not change the reality. That we need to look at the bigger picture and not focus on the individual. He laughed at my idea that we should deal with this issue as a society and then he turned it all back onto me – ‘you’ve got all these hooks on you…it’s your way of being…you need to shift the way you look at it. You’ve got all this anger and frustration and that’s stopping you from getting a job. It comes across in your CV’. I’d just like to point out that he has never seen my CV. He later told me, in a personality assessment that he did for all of us at the end, that he liked my fire and passion and that he wanted to help me channel my fire so that it could shine brightly.

His attempts to modify our individual ‘beings’ in order for us to ‘create’ jobs through our new attitudes bordered on ludicrous at times. He picked up a pen and asked ‘what is this?’ ‘a pen’ I responded rather stonily. He then went around the class – whilst a couple of others stated that it was a pen, others caught on that maybe it wasn’t a pen… ‘it’s a tool’, ‘a writing implement’. He put us out of our misery ‘it’s a long piece of plastic with a small bit of plastic on top, and when you open it up, it’s a pen’. I honestly missed the point of this. He then stated a little later – ‘a pen is a pen, a cup is a cup’ much to my confusion and bemusement.

In an attempt to show us how it’s really done, he told us of his own experience getting his job at A4e. ‘When they said, ‘why do you want to work here?’ I said [pause for dramatic effect] Because I believe in human beings’’ There was genuinely a hushed silence. That explains why I don’t have a job yet, because at my last interview I told them I believed in unicorns. And he continued, ‘because I am part of the human race’. The man next to me was so impressed – ‘you out-foxed them there’.

Whilst at times, there were very funny moments, which I was able to tweet about which helped pass the time, the seriousness of what we were sitting through was brought home to me when he told us of another course that he had just started running called ‘Launch Pad’ for single parents, mostly mothers. The course involves 4 weeks in the classroom, 4 weeks in the workplace. In his first group of 7 – all of them got a job apparently. In the second group of 7 he said that they all went onto work placements. I am greatly concerned that the work placements sound like workfare. And I am horrified at the idea of this man ‘training’ single parents for 4 weeks. My mother was a single parent when she brought me up – she received pitiful benefits for the incredible amount of work that looking after me involved. She suffered from severe depression as well. The idea that she would be told the mantra of choice and responsibility and forced into work terrifies me.

Disabled people too may be forced onto these training courses. Will they be told that their disability is in their head and can be overcome by changing their attitude?

I spent two days being told to sell myself like an iPhone. I tried to point out that however many apps I had, or however many megapixels the inbuilt camera had, the market wasn’t interested. Instead of blaming the individual we must look at the wider picture at the structural causes that have caused unemployment, and act collectively to bring about real change. These programmes are incredibly manipulative and judgemental and a distraction from the real problems. They could cause real harm to vulnerable people. The trainer told me that anger was not productive, but we have every right to be furious at our treatment by this government and A4e.

 

 

 

Thanks to everyone on Twitter who gave me messages of support – it made the whole experience so much more bearable. I would really encourage others who find themselves sent on one of these courses to tweet and write about their experiences so that we can challenge this crap together.

I took notes so that job seekers could perhaps skip the course and get the main points here – maybe the government could just give us the money that would have been spent on the course.

‘I call it – what we know what we know (sic) – we’re just taught what we know’. To try and explain this a little more, basically, we are told these things, such as you’re too old, and then we believe them and don’t challenge them and that explains our position in life, rather than there being any systemic inequalities…I think that’s what he was saying.

‘but if you believe in yourself and believe in what you have to offer…then you create it’

‘you have to change the programme a bit…the way we talk about the product is the way we should be talking about ourselves…there’s nothing broken, there’s nothing to fix’.

Responding to my pleas to look at the reality of the situation using job statistics – ‘all those things in the way – they’re real, if we’re going out there to get a job, then we need to be the best…you have to think the best’.

His impersonation of an unemployed person’s day ‘You wake up, maybe a bit late, you have some breakfast, a cigarette, by the time you get round to job searching, it’s 11 o’clock, you do half an hour, then you think, oooh, I’ll make lunch and do it in the afternoon.’

‘one of our biggest enemies is ourselves’

To one member of the class ‘stop wasting your life…for you its responsibility…you’re lacking responsibility. Your life right now is a choice. You choose it to be that way, you can make it another way.’

‘how we use our words, how we language it, really matters’.

‘Each of you are professionals in your own domain. If you speak of yourself as a professional, your attitude changes…why not be a professional all of the time –it resonates…’

‘body language is real – it’s part of communication – it’s key’

‘The whole game is a conversation, [say to an employer] ‘this is who I am…If you want to be with the best, I’m the best’

how many of you guys look at a woman and think ‘ooooohhhh’ and then when they open their mouths and speak to you, you’re completely put off’.

On your CV ‘instead of writing excellent communication skills, write ability to communicate at all levels’.

‘you are the product – you either believe it or you don’t’.

Don’t use boxes on your CV ‘If I took you and put you in a box, what am I doing to you, how will you feel in the box?…They have their judgements – if you start to put boxes on it shows we’re restricted, we’re not explosive and out there’.

‘It’s like a date, you go out, you flirt…either you want to continue it or not. Your cover letter and CV is like your first date. You don’t tell them everything on a first date’.

And, finally, in our ‘Stay Positive During Your Job Search’ leaflet it informs us that whilst it is ‘unrealistic to think you will be 100% positive each moment of the day’ you should only allow yourself ‘thirty minutes, one day a week, to lament your situation and then get back to the search’.

 

 

Harry Potter protest signs

20 Jan

We may be the generation that was given the boy wizard, but that doesn’t mean that you can fuck us over with cuts. Here are some Harry Potter protest signs that I’ve come across on various protests over the last year.

‘How the fuck can I afford Hogwarts now?!?’ Leeds student march 2011

‘Dobby Dies – Now this!’ March 26th 2011, Fortnum and Mason. Sorry the sign isn’t very clear, it was chaotic so I couldn’t get any nearer!

‘What would Dumbledore do?’ November 30th 2011 public sector strike

 

 

‘House elves against workfare!’ March 3rd 2012 National Day of Action Against Workfare

Touring London on N30 – Inspiration and police repression

9 Dec

My absolute hatred for everything this government is inflicting upon our society is perhaps one of the only things that would see me wake up at 6am as we did on N30 and spend the next 12 hours out on the streets. We were heading to Liverpool Street Station to join Occupy London’s secret action. On our cycle ride toLiverpool Streetwe saw street cleaners out on the streets in the darkness which filled me for immense respect for them. These would have been traditionally public sector jobs, however, these workers were not out on strike today because much of our street cleaning services have been outsourced. The previous day I had been at the hospital where the staff looked after me with incredible care. My mum is absolutely dedicated to her work at Brixton library for which she receives very little recognition. It is fair to say that I have a lot of love for the public sector and am outraged at the government’s action to make these hard working people pay for a crisis that they did not cause.

At Liverpool Street Station we found the gaggle of fellow protestors which built up – Rhythms of Resistance were playing, bringing samba sounds to the dreariness of the station. We danced on the spot and people unfurled banners from the balcony. I love the spectacle of something ‘unordinary’ happening in City spaces which often have strictly prescribed uses – e.g. transit space, shopping space, work space, and nothing else, no fun, no interaction or meaningful engagement, no assisting each other. We followed the samba band and danced through the streets of the City of London, which sadly looked as if it had been unaffected by the strike – people were carrying on as normal as if all the things vital to our lives – health, education, a clean environment – were of no concern or use to them as they went about trading their invisible monies. As we walked the streets ofLondon, the police, rather than facilitating peaceful protest, seemed to think that their job was to ensure the free flow of roads, and attempted to restrict our movements to the pavement. On the south side ofSouthwarkBridgethey formed a sort of kettle around protestors on the street. At this point, after watching in solidarity with our fellow protestors for a while, we decided to cycle off as we had a picket to support outside Brixton library.

Our cycle ride from the City to Brixton saw us pass pickets outside South Bank University, as well as a few along Brixton Road. We cheered, dinged our bells, and shouted our love for public sector workers as we passed. OnBrixton Roadanother cyclist joined our cheering to the pickets. We joined my mum on her picket outside Brixton library where they were chanting ‘What do we want?’ ‘Pensions’ ‘When do we want them?’ ‘Before we die!’ Because of my age, I don’t have much experience of strikes, but seeing the workers and their supporters joining together for a common cause, made me realise their significance. In a society which constantly promotes a hyper individualist and consumerist culture, coming together and acting collectively is a unique act. In front of the library on the large square, many more people were gathering for a rally – people from other picket lines came and congregated along with members of the community. At 11.30 we marched together down Brixton Road. A man on the street approached me and said ‘Thank you for striking’ which was lovely of him. I love those moments of unexpected encounters. The large group of several hundred disappeared into the tube station and we cycled off to join the student protests at ULU. The student group at ULU was smaller than the student march on Nov 9 which is shame because there should have been a large presence of students and lecturers. Perhaps the ‘total policing’ tactics of Nov 9 had put students off and quite understandably too. However, as we weaved our way through the streets joining other strikers it was clear that there were many thousands of people out on the streets to defend fair pensions and express their anger at this government. Our march was so large that it took three hours to walk the route of the march, however people were very good natured and there was a strong family presence with children sitting on their parent’s shoulders. UK Uncut were out serving SolidariTEA. An Occupy London bloc had a disproportionate police presence fearful that we would occupy yet another space. Yet they are doing everything in their powers to ensure that we cannot protest outside (or inside) state and financial institutions. The road toWhitehalland access toTrafalgar Squarewere completely blocked off by huge metal barriers – of a kind I have not seen before. Perhaps the police are getting their Christmas presents early. In fact, I’ve caught a glimpse of their Christmas list in today’s Guardian, and they’re hoping for a £4 million water canon with which to police protests. I think Santa should give them lumps of coal for that audacious and useless request. More and more of the city is out of bounds to protest. It is an extremely worrying development.

An hour into the march, we were feeling pretty exhausted from our early morning and cycling tours to and from the centre ofLondon. We wanted to cut a corner of the march and join it further down the road. We had overheard a police man saying that this was fine. However, when we tried to leave the route to rejoin it further down, a different police man stopped us saying that we must stick to the route, and that as marchers we could not leave the route or that would be an arrestable offence. I misheard him and thought he called us ‘Marxists’ so there was some confusion in our interaction. Simply because we were protestors meant that we did not have access to other streets in the city. As a life long Londoner it is incredibly frustrating to be denied the right to walk in the city that I know so well. This was the first of three incidents of over zealous policing which seeks to criminalise and intimidate protestors. Reaching the march’s end point we headed back towards Piccadilly as we had heard via Twitter that there would be an Occupy action happening there. On our way throughTrafalgar Square, which we were lucky to even be able to enter – there was a small gateway in the metal barriers through which we entered, but even then, police were monitoring who could come through. One of them did look as if to stop Luke from getting through. It was a strange scene inTrafalgar Square– gated with the huge metal sheets at the bottom, it was eerily quiet. At the top ofTrafalgar Squarejust outside the National Gallery we saw a large group of police with a small group of protestors. One of them was gesturing wildly to some other police nearby to join them, as if they really needed reinforcements. It seemed very strange that a small group of protestors were being stopped and searched, and two of them arrested, here outside the National Gallery. They seemed to have done nothing at all wrong. I was keen to stand close by to keep an eye on proceedings, but Luke was scared they would then turn on us, because we had protest things on us – a Unison flag and an NUT sash. It is ridiculous that the over zealous policing we have witnessed over the last couple of protests is having such an effect on us – that we felt we were somehow arrestable for standing in Trafalgar Square with a small Unison flag stuffed in Luke’s back pocket. We might as well just go along to a police station and hand ourselves in for a crime we have yet to commit, for this seems the way in which our justice system is moving. I was feeling very stubborn, so refused to move away, and we went over to one young man who was being stopped and searched to make sure that he was OK. We had seen the police open his wallet and record his name from his credit cards and we felt that they were acting in a somewhat legally dubious manner. We spoke with the young man and then stood closely by watching. A senior officer came over to speak with us and tried to suggest that we were ‘obstructing’ them, using language that could lead to our arrest. Our second almost arrest of the day. We took their police badge numbers and spoke with the man afterwards. The police had treated him in a bullying way.

Shaken by this incident, whereby we witnessed our freedoms being increasingly eroded, and the police acting in an unaccountable and threatening way, we made our way toPiccadilly Circus. Walking alongHaymarket Streettwo large Greek men emerged from a side street chanting Greek football songs. As we made our way towards the statue of Eros, we saw lots of sky blue soft caps of the riots police standing around the statue, and hundreds of Greek football fans filling the area. It was an incredible sight and a wonderful coincidence. We were not able to spot any protestors as they had been seemingly swamped by Greek football fans. We found a small group of Rhythms of Resistance who were walking back towards Haymarket and decided to follow them. Suddenly hundreds of protesters emerged from nowhere and went racing down Haymarket. Someone lit a bright red flare and we watched the flare fly down the street. It was a carnival atmosphere as people ran down the street with the sound of samba drums behind a glaring red flare. It was a beautiful sight. It felt exhilarating to watch after the restricted experience of the march and the incident atTrafalgar Square. However, we were too scared to join in because we knew the police response would be huge. So instead of joining in with the carnival, we walked along and watched in awe from the edge. A group ran into Panton House and get to the roof where they unfurled a banner. We stood below in the street, a fair distance from Panton House. Police back up came swiftly. And someone alerted us that they were running to kettle us. We tried to walk away down Haymarket, when a police man came running at us, his arms outstretched to stop us passing him. We jumped on our bikes and cycled down a side alley with several others. We had dodged our potential third arrest of the day. We returned to the scene a little later to see the whole street cordoned off and a kettle implemented. We could still hear Rhythms of Resistance drumming away. More and more police vans arrived, for a group of under 100 peaceful protestors. A van of police dogs arrived. It was a complete over reaction to a group of people occupying a building.

We cycled back through the dark streets exhausted from our day of protest and wondering where we go now…our experiences today show how the police are set on stifling any form of protest that does not march on a designated route with an intimidating police presence. More and more of the city is becoming off limits to protest. Our bodies and our streets are under police control.  It seems like incredibly sad times that we are having to protest for our right to protest.