Thursday 31 December 2009

The Noughties – The Decade of the People on the Hillsides

Commentators will find many obvious ways of summing up the last decade but the phenomenon of the Noughties, in my view, has been the rise and spread of left-wing governments in South America.

From Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to Evo Morales in Bolivia, these governments have inevitable flaws, their reforms often modest and the privileges of the old elites remain incredibly difficult to dislodge, but they are undeniably rooted in the genuinely popular power of the streets. In 2002, it was the poor from the barrios overlooking the Venezuelan capital Caracas who descended on the city to defend their democratically elected president after a US-backed military coup. In Bolivia, indigenous peasants and out of work miners descended from the poverty of the El Alto suburbs into La Paz to protest at the fire-sale of the country’s resources. In 2005, it was they that elected in a landslide victory Bolivia’s first ever indigenous president in the 470 years since the Spanish conquest.

But something else changed too: as John Pilger observes in his 2007 film The War on Democracy, “history is crowded with heroes who offer new beginnings. The respectability of great power and its games and deals and plunder always beckon. If these new leaders succumb, their biggest threat may not be from Washington, but from the people on the hillsides.”

Perhaps there is something peculiar to a continent that has suffered so much interference from outside (and in Chile’s case, outright fascism) that has created the conditions for South America’s democratic decade. Those who come down from the hills have demanded not only economic justice but also the return of the governance of their countries from tiny minorities who ruled for their own gain and in the interests of multinational corporations and US foreign policy. But a similar condition exists across the world. In Europe – in the UK – economic injustice may not be in any way as stark as faced by the poor of Caracas or La Paz, but the neoliberal experiment has been just as advanced.

And people, too, feel as distant from Westminster as they ever have. Yet in the aftermath of the MPs expenses scandal, a financial crisis that has seen little structural change in the way the banks operate and a heightened awareness that, in war, we are little more than a suzerainty of the greater American empire, it is depressing to realise this. In Britain, we are about to elect early in a new decade another right-wing government – possibly one even more right-wing than the privatisation-loving, corporation-friendly, Washington-obsessed governments of the Noughties.

So why are things so much more dispiriting? Is it that Britain has no people on the hillsides? Or is it that just there is nothing to inspire anyone to bother descending them for?

Another remarkable change over the last ten years has been how ‘anti-capitalism’ has become a recognised stand of political debate, a counter to the assumed invincibility of neoliberal dominance. We have travelled a long way since Seattle in 1999 and the global financial crisis and the threat of catastrophic climate change has added much weight to anti-capitalist arguments.

But we haven’t come as far as we sometimes might like to think. There is no recognisable ‘anti-capitalist movement’, more a disparate gathering of single issue groups, a dwindling number of advocates for the creation of ‘new worker’s parties’ and the occasional self-publicist. There is, nevertheless, a buzz of ideas, but these are still far from centre stage. In many ways this should be a surprise: debating the merits of and alternatives to the free market are no longer abstract discussions about the rights of individuals to buy a particular car or a pair of jeans, but about whether markets have been busy selling financial instruments that basically don't exist or whether governments have the right to sell our hospitals and schools to the highest bidder.

The political terrain was always going to be hard going but I think the problem often lies with us: with our inability to work together, to see the common enemy, to stop sniping at each other, to prevent ourselves becoming sidelined into ploughing enormous energy into the election of fundamentally flawed, unaccountable characters like George Galloway. More than anything else, it is about sometimes being unclear about what exactly we are against and what alternative we want to see – in the short term, as well as the distant future. So we oppose war because war is bad and about oil, speaking nowhere nearly enough in straightforward terms about American empire and war’s bounty for multinational business. We oppose climate change, arguing that market solutions will not work but finding the message that neoliberalism is an intractable barrier to carbon reduction is drowned out by the NGO messages calling for governments to ‘do the right thing’ (and then end up thinking that summit battles with the police are still some sort of victory).

And I also think we have a tendency to celebrate the successes of South America for their own sake, without seeing what lessons they may give to communities on our doorsteps. The victories of the people on the hillsides, the organisation of social movements of South America, are inspirations, not a reason to abandon political activism in Britain in despair (as some friends have already done).

But what about the short term? More collaboration, certainly, less scepticism about its likely outcome and for me, a very big step. I’ve never been a fan of electoral politics but willing to concede this. If, in my lifetime, politicians evolve out of a movement to defend the interests of unions, the working class and campaigning organisations, stand for and win elections on an explicitly anti-capitalist platform in opposition to both the mainstream political parties and the far right and then understand that if they succumb to compromise and the trappings of power, their biggest threat will come from the people on our hillsides, then I’d be happy. It would, at least, be a great leap forward.

How we reach even these dizzy heights is a matter for the next decade. Tonight is for marking the passing of the old, which for me means a few bottles of Singha and a plate of spicy noodles. Wherever my friends are, I hope they too have a very happy New Year.

New Year's Eve - Ten Years On

As we approach another end of another year, it seems hard to believe that a decade has already passed since everyone was getting ready to breathlessly celebrate the Millennium.

Thank goodness I was as far away as possible from the opening of the Dome and worries about the Y2K bug (remember that?). Instead, I was midway through my first proper trip anywhere - five weeks travelling around India.

A group of about twenty of us had been in Bangalore for my friends Phil and Supriya's wedding and we then travelled to Vagator in northern Goa to prepare for the Big Night. On 31 December, unaware that I had been made redundant whilst I was away, I had an early evening beer with some Aussies welcoming in 'their' New Year and then shared a meal with friends on the beach. Then we headed to 'Disco Valley' for an outdoor, all-night rave.

During the night, it was impossible to tell how many people there were out there in the darkness, although it was rammed. But after celebrating the UK's New Year at 5.30am, the sun came up and suddenly we were presented with this gurning madness:

This year's festivities promise to be far more chilled. And, a decade older, I'm really quite relaxed about that...

Wednesday 30 December 2009

PART TWO: Our First Time At A Coroner's Court

This is a guest post by Janet Alty.

Part one by Janet and Mota Singh can be found here. There is more on the verdict of the inquest into the death of Mikey Powell here.

Mota and I attended for much of the medical evidence, which was crucial for this inquest. We could see how difficult it was for the jury, because it was difficult for us once it got into technical details. However they did ask questions for further explanation and the Coroner also asked for clarification on occasion.

What was striking to us was the number of people that the police brought in seeking to establish death from exertion brought on by Mikey's sickle cell trait. But not one of them of them would say it was 100%. After all, the circumstances which lead to death from exertion among those with sickle cell trait are all well documented: dehydration, excess heat or carrying a heavy load. This has been fully examined among US army recruits, where it was established that an unacceptable number were dying during training. None of those circumstances existed in Mikey’s case, except the police claim he was struggling like “a bucking bronco”. Well, you wouldn’t expect someone just to lie down and be sat on by police officers, would you (the police say they didn’t, but witnesses said they did)?

One of the more bizarre claims emphasised by the police was that Mikey had been given a prescription of the stomach mixture sold as Gaviscon. They seemed to wish to involve this empty bottle as a reason for Mikey’s death. However, no pathologist would take this seriously.

The one pathologist who gave evidence who was able to give cause of death with absolute certainty was Dr Jack Crane, who is not only a Home Office pathologist, but also on the panel that selects these people and formerly a senior pathologist in Northern Ireland: it was hard to be better qualified than that. And to him the case for “positional asphyxia” was proven “beyond reasonable doubt” if Mikey was placed face down in the police van. And even if he was “on his side” then it was still “very probable”.

The last person giving medical evidence was the person who received Mikey into Accident & Emergency and oversaw the final attempt to revive him. She finally certified death and when asked, she said that she would give the time of death as 42 minutes before. In our estimation, that definitely put Mikey’s death as taking place in the van before arrival at the police station. She too was clearly concerned about the position the Mikey was in during transportation in the police van.

Sadly Mota and I missed much of the police evidence that followed, but those officers we saw being questioned as witnesses seemed to us to have been highly drilled in their answers. They took the oath and then, or so it appeared to us, just gave the responses the police wanted of them, even changing the evidence they had given in the previous High Court case. I’ve since been told by my friends in the legal trade that this is a common occurrence. Fortunately that must’ve been clear to the members of the jury too.

Equally significant was the way the police officers responded to the question asked each time by Rajiv Menon, the main family barrister. He asked each of them whether, knowing now that Mikey had died, would they do anything differently in that situation? It was both extraordinary and extremely upsetting to hear them say that they would not, and this despite the fact that much guidance has since been given to police about how to care for prisoners in their custody.

Highly significant was the evidence of the custody officer who came out of the police station to look into the van at the state of Mikey when it arrived, seven minutes after leaving his home. He confirmed exactly what Junior (a family friend) had said: Mikey was in the van, face down, with his head at the front. We weren’t there to hear it, but we were told that, after heavy police questioning, he was prepared to say that he was absolutely certain.

Then came a long discussion about the questions that the Coroner would give to the jury to guide them in their decision making. The Coroner’s first draft was greeted with some delight, because the family all felt it gave a clear opportunity for the jury to find in their favour, as it was not focussed on the “sickle cell trait”. I wasn’t able to be there the next two days, but from what Mota told me, the police barristers fought back long and hard and eventually the Coroner came back with questions which did not include “unlawful killing” and gave more prominence to the (police favoured) option of the “sickle cell trait”. However the list did still include “positional asphyxia”, and we just had to hope that the members of the jury would remember the clarity with which Dr Crane gave that as his opinion.

The jury retired on Tuesday lunch time. We were told not to expect a verdict until Wednesday lunch time so Mota and I arrived at 2:00pm. Over the next two days the jury came and went to ask questions of the Coroner, and we were summoned into the Coroner’s Court each time to hear them. It became clear that there was a major debate focused on the position Mikey was placed in the police van. We could hear some of the raised voices through the door to the jury room, which was next to the door to the Court room.

Eventually it came down to agreeing that a majority verdict of eight to two would be acceptable and that one question the jury could not reach a majority verdict on could be left out. Finally, on Friday afternoon, the jury gave its verdict: Mikey had died from “positional asphyxia” in the van between the house and the police station. The family all wept, and there were tears in the eyes of their lawyers too. Claris, Mikey’s mother, who had been holding herself together with total dignity throughout all those six searing weeks, broke down entirely.

As the members of the jury filed out for the last time, we all stood and clapped. Only when we reached the safety of the “family retiring room” could we all hug and cheer and weep with abandonment.

Films in 2009

Another year passes and it's time to reflect on the films I've seen this year.

Back in 2003, I undertook to see one film every week and post a review online, as a drunken bet. Having caught the bug, I've been a regular film-goer ever since. With 31 films this year, I've kept up with the level of attendance of last year (31 films) but I'm an awful long way from repeating the 60 cinema visits of 2004. Which is probably for the best.

In keeping with previous years, I only count actual trips to a cinema, not films on DVD, and I've rated the films I've seen.

You can find ratings for 2008 and 2007 on this blog and if you want to see the ratings for 2004 to 2006 and the reviews from 2003, visit

5 stars: Unmissable!
4 stars: Definitely worth seeing
3 stars: Decent film
2 stars: Disappointing
1 star: Pants
No stars: Why was this released?

In date order - five star films highlighted in bold

Slumdog Millionaire (****)
Milk (*****)
The Reader (***)
The Wrestler (**)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (***)
Che: Part One (**)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (**)
Gran Torino (****)
Revolutionary Road (***)
The Damned United (****)
The Boat That Rocked (*)
Let The Right One In (*****)
State of Play (****)
In The Loop (****)
Star Trek XI (****)
Che: Part Two (**)
Angels & Demons (**)
Public Enemies (***)
Moon (*****)
Inglourious Basterds (**)
Hurt Locker (****)
Mesrine: Killer Instinct (*****)
District 9 (****)
Dorian Gray (*)
The Soloist (***)
Zombieland (****)
Cirque Du Freak (**)
The Men Who Stare At Goats (***)
Harry Brown (***)
2012 (*)
Twilight: New Moon (****)

Monday 28 December 2009

Thailand Deports Thousands of Hmong to Laos

From the BBC website:

Thailand is deporting a group of about 4,000 ethnic Hmong back to communist Laos, despite international concerns for their safety.

Thai officials said unarmed soldiers had begun to close a camp for Hmong in northern Phetchabun province.

Thailand describes them as economic migrants. The Hmong say they face persecution in Laos because they backed US forces during the Vietnam war.

The United States has asked Thailand to immediately stop the operation.

The UN urged the Thais to call off plans to deport them.


"The United States strongly urges Thai authorities to suspend this operation," said the US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.

"We also urge the Lao People's Democratic Republic to treat humanely any Lao Hmong who are involuntarily returned, to provide access for international monitors, and facilitate resettlement opportunities for any eligible returnee," he said.

He noted that both the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Royal Thai Government have deemed many of the Hmong in need of protection because of the threats they might face in Laos.

"We deeply regret this serious violation of the international humanitarian principles that Thailand has long been known for championing," Mr Kelly said.

Thai government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn told the BBC that officials had concerns for about 100 of those being deported.

But Thailand had been assured that those people would be pardoned on their return to Laos, he added.


Col Thana Charuvat, who is co-ordinating the repatriation, said about 5,000 soldiers, officials and civilian volunteers had entered the camp in Huay Nam Khao village late on Monday morning.

"The operation started at 0530 (2230 GMT Sunday)," he told reporters. "The operation is expected to take one day."

He said the soldiers were unarmed although equipped with shields and batons.

More than 2,000 Hmong had been removed from the camp by mid-afternoon, he said.

They were being taken to a nearby staging area where they would be put on buses which would take them to the Thai border town of Nong Khai and then across to Laos.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said there had been no resistance among the camp residents to their deportation.

Journalists and other outside groups have not been allowed into the camp.

Sunai Phasuk, a Thai member of Human Rights Watch, said mobile phone signals inside the camp had been jammed so no-one could call out.

Hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled Laos after the communist Pathet Movement took power in 1975.

Many have settled in the United States, Australia and other countries, but a sizeable population remains in Laos and complains of persecution from the authorities.

Some Hmong have been fighting a low-level insurgency against the government since 1975.

See also: Thailand: End Detention of Lao Hmong Refugees

Sunday 27 December 2009

Pai: A Town Captured By Film Makers

If you walk around Pai, where I am staying at the moment, you soon notice that the street sellers are hawking some strange souvenirs: tiny red Thai postboxes, road mile-markers, tissue-paper floating lanterns, model Volkwagon vans. At the weekends, hundreds of young, smartly dressed, affluent Thais descend on the village from Chiang Mai to snap them up and to send a postcard to themselves, all because they feature prominently in a local film, an anthology of six apparently cheesy love stories that appear in Pai in Love (ปายอินเลิฟ).

I haven't as yet had the pleasure of seeing it (there's a review here and the trailer below) but seldom can one small, tranquil and fairly remote village felt such an impact as the result of one film. Today the streets have been blocked with silver minibuses and with day trippers and last night the night market was heaving - until there was a valley-wide power cut at around 9pm.

It reminds me of the impact that the children's TV programme Balamory has had on one small village in the Isle of Mull, but I'm struggling to identify whether there are any other towns, particularly in the UK, that have become so closely associated with a particular movie.

Suggestions - although not, in Pai's new custom, on a postcard - would be very welcome.

Friday 25 December 2009

LAZY FRIDAY - Dr Seuss at Copenhagen

It's just another Friday here in Thailand, even though it's Christmas Day. So here's another Friday lunchtime distraction:

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Waiting For Blair

With the Iraq Inquiry closed until the New Year, its first four weeks of hearings having revealed little that we didn’t already know, we wait in anticipation for what the Inquiry chair Sir John Chilcott calls “the most senior decision-makers” – more than any other, the former prime minister Tony Blair. Nevertheless, I fear disappointment - that the Inquiry members will find themselves so bogged down with dossiers, legal advice and UN resolutions that they fail to vigorously challenge Blair on his latest justification for the invasion of Iraq.

Blair’s television interview on 13 December was more illuminating about the government’s motivations in the approach to the invasion than any of the civil servants who have testified at the Inquiry to date. His admission that Britain would have supported military action to remove Saddam Hussein regardless of the existence of weapons of mass destruction, because he was a “threat to the region,” has drawn what probably constitutes a sharp rebuke from the normally mild-mannered former head of UN weapons inspection Hans Blix, who has said that Blair has given a "strong impression of a lack of sincerity".

Quite so, although Blair’s inherent insincerity is also far from a surprise to most of us. What is interesting, however, is that Blair has finally admitted that British and US decision-making was neither defensive nor moral, as he has previously asserted, but purely strategic. It wasn’t for the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, or to bring democracy in Iraq and it most certainly wasn’t because of the ludicrous attempts to link Iraq with Al-Qaida. The invasion was to protect Western strategic interests in the region – by which I think we can assume Israel would be highest on this list. No wonder no-one trusts Blair as a mediator in the Palestine conflict.

Just how much of a real threat Saddam posed in 2002, after years of crippling economic sanctions and in light of how close weapon inspectors were to showing after 700 inspections that there were no WMDs, is highly debatable. However, purely for argument’s sake, even if a desire for ‘regime change’ was in some way a legitimate strategic aim, it still doesn’t explain the need for an invasion and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The UN Charter’s article 33 placed an explicit requirement on Britain and the US to “seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement... or other peaceful means of their own choice”. And as we now know, on the eve of war, Saddam was desperate to enter into negotiations and Bush and Blair could have achieved everything they demanded from him without a shot being fired.

We know that throughout 2002, Bush was claiming repeatedly that no decision had been made about the merits of invasion and that “should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation, the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war” (there’s a useful summary of these statements on Think Progress). Blair said much the same in November 2002, suggesting that Saddam Hussein had to cooperate with the UN "but the choice is his - he can disarm peacefully, or be disarmed by force."

But we also know that these statements about the prospects for diplomacy were lies and that information was deliberately withheld from the public, emerging only in leaks long after the invasion had begun. In November 2003, the New York Times and Newsweek reported attempts by the Iraqis prior to the invasion to establish back-channel negotiations. These eventually led to promises to hold internationally-monitored elections within two years and even, astonishingly, to allow 2,000 FBI agents to enter Iraq and look wherever they wanted for banned weapons. According to Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA's former head of counter-terrorism, these proposals reached the White House but were "turned down by the President and Vice-President". Later still, in 2007, other reports circulated of an offer by Saddam to go into exile. This too was rebuffed. Despite increasingly desperate attempts by the Iraqi government to find diplomatic solutions to prevent war, the US and its allies appear to have gone out of their way to ensure war was inevitable, even though they obviously had Saddam over a barrel.

Anti-war activists have long been clear that the Bush administration rejected a negotiated agreement in Iraq, regardless of any concessions that were offered, because it was determined to secure unrestricted control over Iraq’s vast oil wealth and to pursue a foreign policy of global domination by means of military power. But if the Iraq Inquiry intends to maintain any credibility, it needs to probe Blair on his explanation for the failure of negotiations that would, by February 2003, have effectively meant ‘regime change’ without the bloodshed that followed.

If Blair cannot answer – and I find it hard to imagine how he can – then he stands branded as a war criminal not because of any disputed Security Council resolution or Attorney General’s interpretation of international law, but because he was an active participant in breaching the post Second World War settlement designed to end aggressive wars that is embodied in the UN Charter.

I supposed if a politician with an eye for his place in history plans to blatantly ignore international treaties, ignoring the really big ones is one way to write oneself into the history books.

Injured Worker At Stratford City Development Dies

From Construction News:

A worker injured at Westfield’s Stratford City development in east London last week, has died.

Shaun Scurry died a week after the incident on 9 December. London Ambulance was called to Westfield Stratford last Wednesday where, a spokeswoman said, they had reports a man was unconscious.

A statement from his employer Firesafe Installations said: “Shaun Scurry’s employer, Firesafe Installations, and all his colleagues were shocked by the accident and injuries he sustained on December 9 when working on the Westfield Stratford City construction site, and are now deeply saddened to learn of his subsequent death. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. Investigations into the cause are ongoing, both by the HSE and the company.”

A Westfield spokeswoman added: “A full investigation is already underway by the Health and Safety Executive and we are assisting them with their enquiries.

“Westfield would like to express its sincerest sympathies to the family at this very sad time.”

Saturday 19 December 2009

After Six Years, Family Hear Jury Find Police Restraint Killed Mikey Powell

From INQUEST and the Friends of Mikey Powell Campaign for Justice

The jury at the inquest into the controversial death in police custody in 2003 of Michael Lloyd Powell (known as Mikey) today returned a damning narrative verdict and found that the way that he was restrained resulted in his death from positional asphyxia (see below).

The inquest opened on 4 November 2009, over six years after his death in September 2003 and was heard at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall before HM Assistant Deputy Coroner for Birmingham, Stephen Campbell.

The inquest heard that Mikey Powell died after being detained by West Midlands Police on 7 September 2003. He was 38, had three children and worked as a team leader in a local metal factory and was at the time living with his mother. He had been unwell, suffering a mental ill health episode and smashed a window at their home. His mother called the police for help, assuming they would take him to hospital.

When the officers arrived they did not help. After Mikey broke a window in their car the officers then drove away and then came back driving straight at him as fast as they could. They claimed they believed he had a gun, which he did not. During the inquest his family’s legal representatives challenged the officers as the family suspected that the officers had arrived at their home with preset fears about their area and their community.

Mikey was injured but survived the collision, and a family friend held him in a bear hug to try and prevent further trouble. However the police discharged more than four times the recommended amount of CS spray on both Mikey and his friend, and hit him with a police baton. Up to eight officers held him down on the ground for at least 16 minutes. Mikey was covered in blood.

No ambulance was called. A friend told the inquest that Mikey was put onto the floor of a police van “like a dog”. He was driven to Thornhill Road police station on the floor of the van, lying between the seats. The van parked in the station yard and Mikey was kept in it for three minutes before he was carried face down 26 metres into the “drunk cell.” It was only then officers noticed that he was not breathing. CPR was commenced and paramedics were called but to no avail.

The central issue at the inquest was whether Mikey had been transported face down on the floor of the police van, and whether this had led to him dying of positional asphyxia. The police assertion was that he had been placed on his side and had died from the combined effects of his exertion against restraint and the fact that he possessed the sickle cell trait.

Despite the injuries he had sustained prior to the police’s arrival and during the collision with the police car, and despite what should have been obvious concerns about his mental health, he was taken to a police station and not to a hospital. Police stations are still routinely used as “places of safety” for those with mental health difficulties.

Mikey’s sister Sieta Lambrias said:

At long last the truth has come out – we have worked for six years to reach this point – the jury have found that the position the police put Mikey in killed him. Hopefully this will give some encouragement to other families who have lost someone in custody.

A chilling feature of this Inquest is that Mikey died in police hands. Officer after officer told the Court that they would do the same thing again. Most expressed no regret for Mikey’s death. We are alarmed about this, and think the community should be too. We will continue to fight to secure police accountability and stop future custody deaths.

Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST, said:

Mikey Powell was a vulnerable man in need of help and protection. Instead the police failed to treat him as a human being and subjected him to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment using methods of restraint known to be dangerous. The Chief Constable of West Midlands police force needs to explain why six years after this most disturbing death his officers can give evidence that they would do nothing differently if presented with a similar situation today. Have the police learned nothing from previous high profile deaths and the recommendations arising from inquests and inquiries?

Jane Deighton, the family solicitor, added, "tribute should be paid to Mikey’s remarkable family who, devastated by Mikey’s death, have fought for six distressing years to get to the truth and to hold those responsible to account."

The Narrative Verdict

The majority (8:2) jury finding was based on answers to the following questions.
  1. On the balance of probabilities what was the injury or disease causing death?

    Jury finding: Positional asphyxia

  2. On the balance of probabilities, how did Mr. Powell die?

    Jury finding: In the Police van prior to removal from it

  3. If you have found that the cause of death was either Exertional sudden death in association with Sickle Cell trait or positional asphyxia, on the balance of probabilities did he become more vulnerable to suffering death in the way you have found as a result of a combination of the following:-

    • Contact with a moving vehicle?
    • Being sprayed with CS gas?
    • Being struck by a Casco baton?
    • Being restrained on the ground in Wilton Street whilst suffering a psychosis?

    Jury finding: Yes

  4. If you have found that the cause of death was positional asphyxia (question 1), on the balance of probabilities:-

    Was the initial position in the van on his front or his side?

    Jury finding: His front

    Was he transported between Wilton Street and Thornhill Road Police Station on his front or on his side?

    Jury finding: In between

    Was he on his front or on his side when PS Williams saw him at the Police Station?

    Jury finding: On his front
The Powell family was represented at the inquest by INQUEST Lawyers Group members barristers Rajiv Menon of Garden Court Chambers and Henrietta Hill of Doughty Street Chambers, instructed by Jane Deighton of Deighton Guedalla Solicitors.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Day One in Chiang Mai

I've settled into Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, waiting for Zee's imminent arrival, and I really like it here. It is easy to explore on foot, far from frenetic and has none of the underlying sleaziness of Bangkok (which I avoided this time by coming via Kuala Lumpur) - and isn't overwhelmed with tourists. Apparently this is the busy period but you wouldn't know from looking.

Up and out early, I've spent most of today in one or other of the town's many temple, so here are a couple of photos. More on Flickr.

Sunday 13 December 2009

More On That Story After This Short Break

It has been a long, busy, fairly insubstantial year and so I've decided to take a break. Yesterday I checked out of the country and won't be back until 6th January 2010. Fabulous...

No more shivering mornings, cycling to work. No more irritating M&S adverts. No more endless festive 70s hits. No more gruesome Kirstie Allsop and her Homemade bloody Christmas.

Journeying abroad does, however, inevitably mean that my otherwise minuscule carbon footprint for travel (I cycle almost everywhere) is about to take a serious hit, as my journey to see my lil sis Zee involves a round-trip of 16,803 miles and the consumption of 5.59 tonnes of carbon - and according to the government's carbon calculator, that far exceeds the 4.23 tonnes I have used for everything else for the entire year.

I am offsetting, of course, at the cost of around £70 to PURE / The Clean Planet Trust, but I have a sneaky suspicion this is something of a cop-out.

Anyway, the purpose of getting away was to catch up with Zee and to really, really relax in warmer, more interesting surroundings. This should theoretically involve a temporary hiatus in daily blogging for the next three weeks and steering well clear of Twitter - although as I'm taking my laptop, I have a feeling that like so many other things I do, this is more of an aspiration. Suddenly having the time to follow the news and write whenever I like may have the opposite effect We shall see.

Until 2010 then. Normal service will resume in the New Year.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Please Stop Reading The Daily Mail!

Dear Mum and Dad,

You've both said to me many times that there are 'two sides to every argument'. That is, of course true. But eventually, unless a person wants to spend a life in permanent indecisiveness, the time must come to weigh the evidence offered by each side and reach a verdict, a best guess perhaps, but one based on enough to stand up to some scrutiny.

That's why it bothers me more than ever that you still buy the Daily Mail. It's bad enough that the paper is happily promoting travel to Burma, one of the most brutal countries on the planet, in direct contravention of the call by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for a tourism boycott. The travel companies that the paper publicises are on the Burma Campaign UK's Dirty List, which seemed to matter little to the Mail reporter Mark Palmer. There's two sides to every argument, of course, so presumably he went ahead and ignored the advice he had been given by those in the know on the basis of some other unspecified evidence - and not just for the free holiday.

But what really, really bothers me is the Mail's coverage on climate change. Here the newspaper has form. According to research by Max Boykoff and Maria Mansfield of the University of Oxford, the Daily Mail has a track-record of being more divergent from the scientific consensus on climate change than any other tabloid newspapers, particularly in its heavy reliance on 'contrarian' views that claim that humanity's role in climate change is negligible.

In its editorials recently, the paper has been at pains to argue that there is (here we go) “more than one side to this hugely complex argument - although anyone listening to the BBC or to any of our three main political parties might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.” Like some sort of dissenting missionary pamphlet, it has revelled in the recent leaked e-mails, the so-called 'Climategate' scandal, asking whether “the pernicious culture of spin and deception which ruined our belief in politicians has now infected the world of science”. It has been prepared to reluctantly accept that “there is compelling evidence that average temperatures have been rising over recent years” but has qualified this by suggesting that “there are many respectable scientists who believe questions still remain about the causes”.

Who are these 'respectable scientists'? We're not told. Instead the Mail relies on the likes of Christopher Brooker, a man who brings his history degree to the science of climate change and who also, incidentally, denies the overwhelming evidence on passive smoking. It also provides ample space to the thoughts of former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson, whose scientific background is limited to a PPE from Oxford but who is chair of the climate change denial group, The Global Warming Policy Foundation. If all else fails, the Mail resorts to scare stories about rising costs of flights attacking ordinary families or the threat of a climate 'stealth fuel tax'.

My point is this – the Daily Mail may talk about there being “more than one side to this hugely complex argument” but it only ever reports one side.

To find another perspective, it's always necessary to look elsewhere. One place might be the Met Office's website, which on Thursday produced a statement signed by scientists from all over the country expressing their “utmost confidence in the observational evidence for global warming and the scientific basis for concluding that it is due primarily to human activities.” The statement is followed by an impressive list, I think you'd agree. So who to believe? I'm not a scientist either. But if the choice is between those who talk about the “traceability of the evidence and support for the scientific method” or a newspaper whose coverage has been further than from the comprehensive scientific consensus than any other, one that provides a platform solely to the 'sceptics', then I know how to best weigh up the evidence and reach a verdict.

Until there is compelling proof to cast genuine doubt, I think the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that climate change is man-made, that it can therefore be tackled and that it is not beyond our ability to take the steps to do so. Now I know that in offering solutions, some environmentalists can seem particularly pious and annoying sometimes, especially when they seem to go on and on about polar bears, but climate chaos is fundamentally about the plight of people – in the vast majority of cases, the poorest people on the planet. And I know you raised me to be absolutely clear what side I stand on when it comes to defending those who are excluded from power.

So please, if you want to know what I want for Christmas, I'd really like you to stop reading the Daily Mail. I know there are two sides to an argument but it genuinely upsets me how the paper's immoral ambivalence keeps creeping into conversations with those I respect and care about more than anyone.

I'll see you in the New Year!

Your loving son,

Monckton v Gore - The Climate Change Rap

Friday 11 December 2009

LAZY FRIDAY - Hurt Feelings

Have you even been told that your ass is too big? Have you ever been asked if your hair is a wig?

Yet another brilliant Friday lunchtime distraction, from Flight of the Conchords:

Mass Gathering in Defence of Street Photography

I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist! invite all photographers to a mass photo gathering in defence of street photography.

Following a series of high profile detentions under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, including seven armed police detaining an award winning architectural photographer in the City of London, the arrest of a press photographer covering campaigning santas at London City Airport and the stop and search of a BBC photographer at St Pauls Cathedral and many others. PHNAT feels now is the time for a mass turnout of Photographers, professional and amateur to defend our rights and stop the abuse of the terror laws.

Saturday 23rd January 2010
Meet at noon at Trafalgar Square

Thursday 10 December 2009

War Is Peace

Barack Obama accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, 10 December 2009:

"The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity and enabled democracy to take hold. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity."
This is probably unnecessary, but here are some examples of the US not seeking to impose its will:

Korean War 1950-53Guatemala 1954Indonesia 1958
Cuba 1959-60Congo 1964Vietnam 1961-73
Laos 1964-73Cambodia 1969-70Lebanon 1982
Grenada 1983Honduras 1983-89El Salvador 1980s
Nicaragua 1980sLibya 1986Iran 1987-88
Panama 1989Philippines 1989Iraq 1991 to present
Somalia 1992-95Haiti 1994-95Sudan 1998
Yugoslavia 1999Afghanistan 2001 to presentYemen 2000-2002

Clearly Obama's BA in international relations from Columbia University seems more limited than one would expect of an Ivy League institution.

Newham Bookshop Presents: The Spirit Level

Newham Bookshop presents Richard Wilkinson discussing

The Spirit Level
Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
By Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Friday 12 February
Wanstead Library,
Spratt Hall Road,
London E11 2RQ

£5 from Newham Bookshop: ring to reserve on
020 8552 9993

Large inequalities of income in a society have often been regarded as divisive and corrosive, and it is common knowledge that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. This groundbreaking book, based on thirty years' research, demonstrates that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them - the well-off as well as the poor.

The remarkable data the book lays out and the measures it uses are like a spirit level which we can hold up to compare the conditions of different societies. The differences revealed, even between rich market democracies, are striking.Almost every modern social and environmental problem - ill-health, lack of community life, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness, long working hours, big prison populations - is more likely to occur in a less equal society. The book goes to the heart of the apparent contrast between the material success and social failings of many modern societies.

"The Spirit Level" does not simply provide a key to diagnosing our ills. It tells us how to shift the balance from self-interested 'consumerism' to a friendlier and more collaborative society. It shows a way out of the social and environmental problems which beset us and opens up a major new approach to improving the real quality of life, not just for the poor but for everyone. It is, in its conclusion, an optimistic book, which should revitalise politics and provide a new way of thinking about how we organise human communities.

Richard Wilkinson has played a formative role in international research and his work has been published in 10 languages. He studied economic history at the London School of Economics before training in epidemiology and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham Medical School and Honorary Professor at University College London.

Kate Pickett is a Senior Lecturer at the University of York and a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist. She studied physical anthropology at Cambridge, nutritional sciences at Cornell and epidemiology at Berkeley before spending four years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago.

Permission Granted for Permanent Menezes Memorial

From left: Jean's cousin Vivian Figueiredo and artists Mary Edwards and Chrys Vardaxi

From the Justice4Jean Campaign:

Today, on International Human Rights Day, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes can announce that permission has been granted for the official installation of a permanent memorial to Jean outside Stockwell tube station.

After hundreds of signatures were collected in support of a petition backing the mosaic and following discussions between the family and London Underground, agreement was reached to place it on the wall outside of the station.

The mosaic will serve as a permanent reminder of the Menezes family's fight for justice and will replace the shrine that has been maintained for four and half years outside Stockwell tube station.

The mosaic was created by artist Mary Edwards with help from Jean's cousin Vivian Figueiredo and Chrys Vardaxi.

Speaking on behalf of the family, Vivian Figueiredo said:
"All of our family are so happy this memorial has been approved and we thank London Underground for their support. The pain of never achieving justice for Jean's killing continues to haunt us everyday. But knowing his memory will be kept alive in the local community through this memorial is a tribute we could not have dreamed of. We thank all the members of the public who have supported us from the bottom of our hearts"
Jean's family will be joined by special guests to unveil the beautiful locally-designed mosaic at 9:00am on January 7th 2010 to mark what would have been his 31st birthday. Further information on this event will be issued in early January.


Jean Charles de Menezes
Memorial Mosaic

Thursday 7th January 2010
from 9am to 9.30am outside Stockwell tube station

View Larger Map

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Naomi Klein Critical of NGO's 'Hopenhagen' Rhetoric

Gaza Massacre Anniversary - Call for Action

The period from 27 December 2009 to 18 January 2010 marks the first anniversary of Israel's brutal assault against the besieged people of Gaza. The 22-day attack left more than 1,400 dead, the vast majority of them civilians including nearly 400 children, destroyed 3,600 homes and displaced 50,000 people.

Actions to mark the anniversary include a vigil outside the Israeli Embassy on 27 December (3pm, High Street Kensington, W8), 22 days of 'Waging Peace' in Manchester, Smash EDO's "Remember Gaza" action in Brighton on 18 January, the Viva Palestina convoy, and the Gaza Freedom March.

The Free Gaza movement is also calling on groups to:

Donations to Free Gaza for their next siege-breaking mission in early 2010 can be made at

Audit on Newham - What Was All The Fuss About?

Last week, I mentioned the indignation expressed by Newham's Mayor Sir Robin Wales because the Audit Commission's new way of measuring the performance of local councils.

And I need to make a correction and apology: the Mayor's anger and the Newham's Partnership Board's declaration that the process had been "a waste of time" was not because the Audit Commission had found that services in a number of areas were specifically unsatisfactory.

The reason was far more arrogant: it was because the Commission had failed to sing the praises of the Mayor's regime in the way that Sir Robin clearly believes he deserves.

This morning the Audit Commission's OnePlace website was launched and the assessment report (PDF) on Newham is about as mild as it could possibly be. It is hard to imagine why the Mayor amd his friends have wound themselves up into a hissy-fit over so little. It is extraordinary that Newham's Partnership Board has chosen to use such inflammatory language in receivng the report and has indicated it may join two Tory councils, Wandsworth and Hammersmith & Fulham, who have already announced that they will no longer participate fully in future "due to the excessive demands on their time and finances".

The people who have greater cause to be really angry are the borough's voluntary and community groups. They are supposedly a 'partner' in local decision-making but barely receive a mention in the entire assessment report. Promises were made by Adewale Kadiri from the Audit Commission that the concerns raised repeatedly with him by local independent groups about the way that are consistently sidelined would be listened to and reflected in the assessment. This has proven to be about as believable as every promise that comes out of central government.

Newham's Mayor and his minions are fortunate that those responsible for measuring their performance are so timid and pliable. But apparently, nothing short of a ticker-tape parade is enough for the Mayor.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Atlas of Global Resistance

A useful resource from the Climate Justice Action website:

View Atlas of Resistance and Climate Action! in a larger map

Next Wednesday, at the start of the high-level “ministerial” phase of the two-week UN Climate Summit, the 61 global justice organisations that make up Climate Justice Action have called for the takeover of the conference for one day its transformation into a Peoples Assembly. They say:

Our goal is to disrupt the sessions and open a space inside the UN area to hold the Assembly. The assembly will give a voice to those who are not being heard, it will be an opportunity to change the agenda, to discuss the real solutions, to send a clear message to the world calling for climate justice.

There will be a legalised starting point, which will be announced to the media and the police. From there, the climate justice bloc will move on towards the Bella Center. Affinity groups will make their way to the border of the conference area from various directions. The aim is for all groups coming from the outside to start entering the UN Area at 10am. At the same time, groups inside the Summit will start to disrupt the sessions and mobilize people to leave the negotiations and participate in the Peoples Assembly. The assembly will start at 12pm at the main entrance to the Bella Center inside the UN Area.

Reclaim Power! is a confrontational mass action of non-violent civil disobedience. We will overcome any physical barriers that stand in our way – but we will not respond with violence if the police try to escalate the situation, nor create unsafe situations; we will be there to make our voices heard!

The Peoples Assembly, in opposition to the false solutions being negotiated at the Climate Summits, will highlight alternatives that provide real and just solutions: leaving fossil fuels in the ground; reasserting peoples’ and community control over resources; relocalising food production; massively reducing overconsumption, particularly in the North; recognising the ecological and climate debt owed to the peoples of the South and making reparations; and respecting indigenous and forest peoples’ rights.

After 15 years of negotiations and no real solutions to the climate crisis, we say enough! No more markets based solutions, no to corporate greed and short term politics deciding our future! No to colonialism and the land-grabs taking place in local and indigenous communities!

In December, we, from our many different backgrounds and movements, experiences and struggles, will come together. We are indigenous peoples and farmers, workers and environmentalists, feminists and anticapitalists.

Now, our diverse struggles for social and ecological justice are finding common ground in the struggle for climate justice, and in our desire to reclaim power over our own future.

Cop Out Camp Out Aiming For Fortnight in Trafalgar Square

For those who are around and in London in the approach to Christmas, a message from the Climate Camp Trafalgar Crew:

At 4pm on Saturday, following The Wave of 40,000 concerned individuals, London Camp for Climate Action and friends went further and occupied Trafalgar Square successfully for the planned 48 hours. However, with the doomed Copenhagen Climate Conference only just beginning its two week corporate sponsored farce, we're now not going anywhere.

The Camp will hold the space for the entire conference, reclaiming one the busiest locations in the world to push for genuine solutions to climate change.

So, if you're not off to Copenhagen then this is the place you need to be. Bring your tent, warm clothes, and ideas for action!

When the tripods first shot up and the rocket stoves got burning, it wasn't long before the actions started rolling. Prior to the talks beginning, 20 Santas took over the departure lounge at London City Airport as the last flights of hypocrisy left for Copenhagen. Then on Monday, with the summit beginning, activists blockaded the European Carbon Exchange offices sending a clear message that the false solutions on the table will be stopped every step of the way. Meanwhile campers continued cooking, discussing, and plotting as requests to leave were ignored.

Surrounded by opportunity, the camp is preparing for our two week stay. We are the Christmas present under the square's enormous tree this year, already working well with community groups to collectively push for climate justice during this season of festivity. Those of us remaining in the UK need to demonstrate we are not simply sitting back and letting our "leaders" tear apart the planet, but are enacting the change we need ourselves. But this will only succeed if everyone gets involved for as little or as long as they can.

What to bring

Simple. Just a tent, warm and waterproof clothes. Oh, and all your friends!

Wish list

Vegan food, blankets, tarps, pallets, party/frame tents, cardboard, banners, big water bottles + anything else you think may be helpful...

We look forward to greeting you with a hot cup of tea.

BBC Gives Platform To Dodgy Copper's Musings

Remember Andy Hayman? He was the former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner who was criticised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission for misleading senior officers, by failing to tell them that Jean Charles de Menezes was not a wanted suicide bomber but an innocent man.

In 2006, Hayman was forced to apologise to two of my neighbours who were freed without charge after an anti-terror raid at Forest Gate led to one of them being shot. He was also found to have conducted an "unlawful" investigation into one of his own colleagues, Met police superintendent Ali Dizaei, included tapping Dizaei's phones. And then, in 2007, he was forced to resign after reports that he was facing an investigation into his expenses claims.

Hardly the ideal candidate to pronounce on the future of policing, you might think. And yet yesterday saw the first part of Hayman's three-part series on Policing Britain on BBC Radio 4. A article trailing the series appeared in yesterday's Times.

The programmes include a rogues gallery of current and former Met and ACPO grandees: Sir Hugh Orde, Denis O'Connor, Gloucestershire's Chief Constable Tim Brain - and the Met's Chris Allison, who lied to the BBC's Panorama programme in July by claiming that protesters were not prevented by police from leaving the Climate Camp protest on 1 April.

Whatever a former officer as tarnished as Hayman has to say policing in Britain should carry about as much weight as a the views of an irate cabbie. So why give him a BBC radio series?

Monday 7 December 2009

Photos from The Wave

A few photos from Saturday's Wave protest. Unfortunately my camera jammed so none of the pictures from Climate Camp at Trafalgar Square have come out... [click on the pictures to enlarge]

The friendless deniers: note the unfortunate salute of the person with the question mark!

Hang on - does the placard on the left say "Yes You Con Obama"?!

Sunday 6 December 2009

Attending The Wave

Yesterday's Wave climate change protest attracted 20,000 if you believe the police estimates, or more than 50,000 according to the organisers. I think the reality was somewhere in between. It was undoubtedly large, noisy, good humoured and brought together people who were far from typical protesters: I had to laugh at the sight of Trotskyist newspaper sellers forlornly trying to peddle their wares to people marching with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or carrying Cooperative placards.

But unlike the last big push by mainstream charities and the churches to mobilise, the threat of climate chaos is too complex an issue to reduce to a slogan as straightforward as 'Drop the Debt'. Walking alongside one enthusiastic group of protesters, it was evident that one of their number who had a megaphone was struggling to think up chants. "What do we want? Carbon reduction!" It doesn't exactly trip off the tongue and the best reactions seemed to come from simply shouting, "make some noise!" The Wave was, in all honesty, fairly apolitical, more a call for 'something to be done' without a clear message about what exactly protesters want from next week's Copenhagen summit. It would be churlish not to see the potential for a new mass movement for climate action, but vagueness enabled Gordon Brown to attempt to appropriate the message by giving the Wave his endorsement and even the Liberal Democrats managed to turn up at a march, with a partisan banner proclaiming themselves the only party with the 'courage' to combat climate change. They were embarrassing more than anything else.

The anti-capitalist bloc failed to attract more than a dozen people at Berkeley Square, which hardly bodes well for the wilder predictions being made about direct action in Copenhagen, but the 'irony bloc' was fun and far outnumbered the three friendless climate change deniers with their 'Climategate' banner on the plinth at Nelson's Column.

When my friends and I arrived at Parliament at 3pm, the police seemed to have become somewhat confused by the numbers milling around and as the text message came through from Climate Camp to head over to Jubilee Gardens, we were unable to cross over Westminster Bridge and instead funnelled towards the coach pick-up point. By the time we made it to Hungerford Bridge and across to the South Bank, people were already starting to head off to the real location of the Cop Out Camp Out - Trafalgar Square.

After stopping off for a beer, I headed over to the Climate Camp, which by this time was settling in for the night. Pop-up tents, yurts and a marquee had appeared around the Norwegian Christmas tree in the square and the rain had started to fall, but the police presence was minimal. I wasn't able to stay - I had a surprise birthday party to attend in Ilford - but it must have been a damp night. I was soaked to the skin by the time I cycled home.

I'm heading back into town soon to see what is happening at Climate Camp today. I'll post photos from the Wave later - meanwhile, see Climate Camp's Flickr photostream for pictures from yesterday evening.

Saturday 5 December 2009

The Wave - Details For Today's March

This afternoon, ahead of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life will march through the streets of London to demonstrate their support for a safe climate future for all.

The Wave leaves Grosvenor Square at 1pm with the aim to encircle Parliament at 3pm. The route goes through Berkeley Square, down to Piccadilly, passes through Piccadilly Circus and down Haymarket to Trafalgar Square, then along Whitehall to Parliament.

The anti-capitalist bloc will be meeting up at 12.45pm in Berkeley Square, next to the statue in the middle of the green. Climate Campers are apparently meeting at the north end of the square. To get to Berkeley Square, turn left out of Green Park Tube Station and then left again up Berkeley St (opposite the Ritz).

Latecomers (I mean you, my east London friends) should probably head for Trafalgar Square for around 2pm and join up with the march there.

Climate Camp has announced a 48-hour action after the Wave - see here for details.

If you see someone wearing a blue 'Domestic Extremist' shirt, that may well be me. Come and say hello!

Friday 4 December 2009

Newham Throws Hissy Fit Over Audit Commission Report

For years, many of us have been arguing that the London borough of Newham is rather better at talking up its achievements than actually delivering them - which may explain why one of the poorest boroughs in the capital spends more on publicity than any other London council. And for years, the Labour government has believed what it has been told about the successes and innovation under the leadership of the Great Helmsman, Mayor Sir Robin Wales.

But eventually, even in Newham, the chickens must finally come home to roost.

Back in 2007, the government introduced a new system for assessing local public services in England called the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA). It aims to examine how well councils and other public bodies, working together, meet the needs of the people they serve. According to the Audit Commission website:

Local public services will be held collectively to account for their impact on improving quality of life for residents. This means that CAA will look across councils, health bodies, police forces, fire and rescue services and others responsible for local public services, which are increasingly expected to work in partnership to tackle the challenges facing their communities.
Since April, six different inspectorates have been gathering evidence locally and on 26 November, the final report for Newham was presented to the borough's Partnership Board.

However, to the indignation of its chair, Sir Robin Wales, a number of services had received 'red flags', meaning that there is "significant concerns about outcomes and future prospects for outcomes, which are not being tackled adequately". A red flag means that the inspectorates have jointly judged that something needs to change in the local delivery of employment initiatives, community engagement and the borough's Children and Young People Service.

But rather than take this on the chin, Wales and his pals on the Partnership Board spluttered and huffed and then, astonishingly, "expressed its displeasure with the incompetence in the production of the CAA report and took the view that the entire exercise was a waste of time". The Chief Executive, Joe Duckworth, even plans to ask the council's "Legal and Finance departments to review the value for money of the CAA process".

The Audit Commission plans to publish its assessments on a new Oneplace website next Wednesday. Quite how the Great Helmsman plans to wriggle out of this one should be fascinating!

LAZY FRIDAY - Eighties Stylophone Medley

Yet another brilliant Friday lunchtime distraction:

Newham School Campaigns Against Death Penalty in US

The following article is by Roger Silverman, a teacher from Lister Community School in Newham whose father Sydney Silverman MP introducted the private member's bill that led to the abolition of the death penalty in Britain. It appears on the Independent website:

If it’s not ill-discipline, it’s falling standards or bullying. The welter of negative stories about schools in the national media is unremitting. As a teacher in an east London school I feel the impact of this every day, and frankly I resent it. Why? Because school students deserve a better deal than this. Let me give an example of what they are really capable of.

Last week, on 26th November, my school - Lister Community School, a multi-ethnic comprehensive in Newham, east London - played host to a 42-year-old American woman called Martina Correia. Of all things, she was telling an audience of 100 13-15-year-olds about how her brother Troy Davis is on death row in the US state of Georgia and how for 18 years she’s been campaigning for him to be released.

I teach English, so why should I be arranging talks like this? Because teaching students to be responsive and articulate is not something to be confined to four hours a week in a classroom. For several years my proudest achievement has been to help our students bring out a unique independent student magazine called CARBOLIC, which has unearthed priceless nuggets of subterranean literary and journalistic talent. This little publication, a work of real pride for our students, has earned plaudits from the likes of the Times Educational Supplement, and writers and poets including Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and John Agard.

Last week's Troy Davis meeting belongs to a proud and unparalleled tradition. Previous events organised by CARBOLIC have included meetings with the former Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg, campaigners for justice for Zahid Mubarek, the Asian teenager murdered in his prison cell, and a protest rally against the invasion of Gaza, where both Muslim and Jewish speakers spoke in solidarity with the Palestinians. Up to 200 students have stayed after hours to crowd into these meetings.

Martina is an electrifying speaker who held her audience totally rapt. People who imagine typical modern schoolkids to be always sullen or de-motivated ought to have been there as these bright-eyed students were inspired by Martina’s account of her fight for justice for her brother - wrongly-convicted, she maintains, for a crime he didn’t commit. Not only that, but they also heard from De’Jaun, Martina’s 15-year-old son, an inspiring and funny speaker in his own right, who immediately struck up an amazing rapport with his peers in east London. Amnesty speakers talked about the global campaign to abolish capital punishment and Richard Hughes, the drummer from rock band Keane, added his own insights after visiting Troy Davis this autumn.

For me the meeting had a special poignancy. It’s 44 years since Britain had the death penalty on its statute book. I know, because it was my father Sydney Silverman who, following a lifelong campaign, finally brought the private member’s bill through parliament which abolished capital punishment. The son of a penniless refugee, as a young socialist war resister during the First World War he had refused conscription and been jailed twice for mutiny and desertion. In prison he had gone on hunger strike and witnessed fellow prisoners beaten to death and carted off for execution. He went on to become Britain’s first pro bono lawyer, earning the plaudit “our biggest enemy” by the Liverpool police for his defence of evicted tenants and victimised trade unionists. For 35 years he was a Labour MP, at a time when that still meant anything.

So, in a way, this special event at our school formed a sort of historical “loop”. Recent British history and a modern US debate over capital punishment came together in a dynamic session that textbooks could only hint at.

A full hour after the close of last week’s event, it was still impossible to drag our students out of the hall, as they exchanged stories and jokes with De’Jaun and the other speakers, queued up for stickers, and eagerly collected start-up packs for the new youth branch of Amnesty they’d decided on the spot to set up.

This is no small thing. As a former full-time socialist activist, I know that mass education was only won after bitter struggle, and as a current teacher of English I have never been able to separate education from the fight for a better society.

Who says young people today have a short attention span? Who says they are non-political? Give them something worth listening to, and something worth fighting for, and they'll soon surprise us all.

Roger Silverman is a teacher at the Lister Community School, in Newham, east London

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.