Category: Activism

Old school methods of building events and communicating…

We live in an age of digital communications and social media and we have to accept that and use them as best we can. However, call us old school if you want, we think that social media has downsides when it comes to building support for events. Sure it’s an effective way of getting the attention of a large number of people that you’re organising something. A fair number may well click on the button to indicate they’re going. However, as anyone who’s organised an event on Facebook will tell you, there’s always a disparity between the numbers clicking the button saying they’ll be attending and those that actually do manage to turn up. There are no prizes for guessing that the numbers who physically turn up to an action always falls short of the numbers promised on Facebook…

I’m old enough to remember life as an activist before the advent of the Internet and it we managed to build events and actions by the use of printed propaganda and actually taking to people face to face for however long it took to persuade them to take part. Those old school methods worked. Sure, the Internet can be a useful tool but analogue methods still play a vital role in building and promoting events.

The same applies to communicating. Again, the Internet has it’s uses but the long list of unread / unanswered e-mails and messages tells it’s own story… Phone calls tend to be more productive and positive ways of communicating than sending e-mails / messages and hoping for a response. Obviously, face to face is always best but it’s not always possible for that to happen…

When it comes to discussing contentious issues such as multiculturalism, identity politics, the minefield that’s gender identity or intersectionality, the Internet has it’s uses in bringing together people who are scattered over a wide geographical area. That’s something we’re more than happy to acknowledge… However, if people are geographically quite close to each other and want to discuss a controversial issue, in our experience, face to face discussions are always more rewarding and productive way of doing things. On the Internet, there’s always the possibility of misunderstandings and subsequent pointless rows. Face to face, while there can be disagreements, it’s easier to resolve them or agree to disagree and still be on speaking terms. Although it has to be said, with gender identity, even face to face ‘discussions’ have sadly turned out to be somewhat heated…

Then there’s digital exclusion… Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) have found that building an event on an estate only works if door knocking and talking to people are involved. Social media doesn’t hack it simply because a fair number of the people BASHA want to talk to on an estate are too skint to even own a smartphone or if they do, frequently can’t afford what it takes to stay online. So, there’s no option but to resort to the hard graft of going out to knock on people’s doors and talk to them…

Lastly but by no means least, there’s the issue of security. For us tracking the antics of the far right has never been easier as the Internet has given them a stage and we can all sit back, watch and laugh… However, the malign forces of the state (and the far right) have also found it easier to track what we’re up to because we put way too much in the public domain that’s actually best kept between ourselves. That’s something to think about given that Theresa May’s government has authoritarian tendencies. Can we all get a bit smarter in how we use communications to build events, communicate and discuss contentious issues? Those of us who tend to be old school in our approach do hope so…

Dave (the editor)

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It’s the end for The Estuary Alternative…or is it?

The Estuary Alternative blog was set up just over a year ago after the Southend Radical Fair. The aim of the blog was to help bring together the numerous grassroots community action groups operating in the area. We hoped there would be a sharing of experiences, a buzz of ideas and a lot of groups and people contributing to a lively blog that would give a boost to grassroots activism in the southern half of Essex.

Sadly, we’ve not achieved this aim. Not only that, the viewing figures for The Estuary Alternative blog have been consistently disappointing. There are a complex variety of reasons for this which a) we still don’t fully understand if we’re being honest and b) if we did, it would probably take ages to explain! We’re not apportioning blame to any group or individual for this project not taking off – it’s just one of those things. Sometimes you have to try, fail and then learn what you can from the experience.

We’re not going to be deleting The Estuary Alternative. Although it was part of the South Essex Radical Media family which included this blog and the South Essex Stirrer, The Estuary Alternative stands alone from them on a separate platform. Which means that if anyone who buys into the idea of a blog bringing grassroots community action groups and projects across southern Essex together wants to take over the running of The Estuary Alternative, it’s ready and waiting for you. Obviously we’ll want to meet you to check out that you genuinely want to take this project on – if you’re interested, we can be contacted here: seradicalmedia@protonmail.com

Downloadable publications

We’ve created a publications page on all three of our blogs where you can download printable PDFs of what we think are our more important pamphlets and documents.

Publications – South Essex Stirrer
Publications – On Uncertain Ground
Publications – The Estuary Alternative

Below are details of the three publications that we have put up so far on this blog. Obviously as this project develops, what pamphlets and documents go up depends on the purpose of and audience for each of the blogs we run. Eventually there will be a divergence as what may be of interest to readers of On Uncertain Ground will not be relevant to readers of The Estuary Alternative and vice versa.

A better future for the 3/4 estate in Vange
This was the final presentation we produced at the end of the Creating A Positive Revolution In Southend course facilitated by Graham Burnett and Sherry Fuller. The presentation is a long term vision for the future of the 3/4 estate in Vange which is on the southern fringes of Basildon in Essex. Along with Basildon & Southend Housing Action, we’ve been facilitating the work of the Vange Hill Community Group in empowering residents to start making their estate a better place to live.

Building the base for radical change
This is an explanation our strategy of building a movement for change from the grassroots upwards in our neighbourhoods. While it refrains from any criticism of other strategies and tactics to achieve radical change, it argues the case that there has to be a strong base in our communities. This piece draws on our experiences of working alongside Basildon & Southend Housing Action and facilitating the work of the Vange Hill Community Group.

Is cultural identity fixed or does it change? | Intersectionality – some tentative thoughts
These two pieces are basically me thinking out loud on the issues of cultural identity and intersectionality. Constructive criticism and civilised debate on what I’ve written are more than welcome.

Building the base for radical change

Our long term aim is to achieve a revolution that will bring about an equitable, sane and sustainable society free from hierarchies and oppression. The question is – how do we get to that point? What this piece will attempt to do is explain the grassroots, community based approach to achieving this we take out here on the ground in southern Essex. This isn’t intended to be a definitive guide let alone a grandiose statement that our way is the best – all we’re trying to do is put some ideas and experiences into the mix and see what people think of them.

Fractured communities

In an age of rampant neo-liberalism, society is becoming ever more fractured, atomised and polarised. With increasingly precarious employment conditions that are dumping more and more people on zero hours and short term contracts, solidarity in the workplace is under attack. With the housing crisis, an increase in buy to let and homes of multiple occupation, our neighbourhoods are becoming more atomised with community solidarity crumbling as a result of people moving in and out on short term lets and not staying long enough to generate a sense of belonging.

This is exactly what the neo-liberal elite want, fractured workplaces and neighbourhoods where people are focused on just surviving in a dog eat dog world and becoming ever more individualistic in their approach to life. People who take this approach to dealing with what life throws at them are less inclined to favour collective solutions in either the workplace or their neighbourhoods. It’s these people who are unwittingly doing the bidding of the neo-liberal elite.

Where we operate, we’re dealing with the consequences of forty years of neo-liberal doctrine which has led to a growing number of estates becoming marginalised, fractured and all too often, fearful places to live. We’re dealing with an unprecedented level of demoralisation on the estates that has led to many people giving up hope for a better life as they struggle to get by from day to day.

People on the estates feel they’ve been thrown under the bus and have lost faith in the political system – this is reflected in low voter registration and turn outs at local and national elections. This creates a political vacuum which the far right, when they periodically manage to get their act together, are only too happy to try and fill. This is why we see having a presence at the grassroots on the estates as one part of the strategy needed to fend off the threat from the far right.

Radical change has to have a base

Radical change will not happen without the willing participation of the working class. To build that participation, there has to be a base at the grassroots in our neighbourhoods as well as in our workplaces and colleges. The challenge of re-building solidarity in the workplace is starting to be met by the rise of militant so called ‘fringe unions’ such as the United Voices of the World Union who we offer our unconditional solidarity to. As community activists, our focus of operation in building the base needed for radical change has to be the neighbourhoods we live in.

Working at the level of the neighbourhood, our task is to do whatever is needed to empower people living on the estates. The ultimate aim of this empowerment is to give life to the old Independent Working Class Association slogan: Working Class Rule In Working Class Areas. This is very easy to say – putting it into practice is a hard slog where we’re constantly learning lessons from our experiences and using them to alter and refine our approach. To achieve results in doing what we do, we can’t afford to stick to a rigid dogma – we have to be flexible and pragmatic while at the same time, bearing in mind our ultimate objective of revolution.

Empowering people on the estates and encouraging them to become more ambitious in their demands and aspirations is a step by step process. Being a part of this process means accepting that we’re in this for the long haul. The hope is that what we do on the few estates where we do have a presence a) inspires more people on these estates to get involved and b) inspires people on other estates to start doing the same.

The people we work with on the estates

Working at the grassroots with people who in the main are fairly apolitical but also cynical about what politicians at local and national level can offer presents an interesting mix of challenges and opportunities. With people being apolitical, their views are formed by a combination of life experiences, how they discuss issues with friends, family and neighbours and to a certain extent, influences from the media. Which often means it’s hard to pin people down on any particular part of the political spectrum. One person can be pretty progressive on some issues but on others, may have a bit of a reactionary take.

We’ve been working for a while with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and more recently, the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) on ways to encourage residents on the Vange Hill estate to get involved in making their neighbourhood a better place to live. VHCG was set up last year, partly as a result of a meet up and estate walkabout involving local residents, BASHA and a rare appearance from the two ward councillors. VHCG have quite a lively Facebook group.

The VHCG Facebook group can best be described as a broad church that reflects the range of opinions that will be found on any estate. Which means that sometimes opinions will be aired that we will not agree with. Opinions that some people in the activist circles we know will deem to be beyond the pale. Opinions that may well prompt some activists to ask what on earth are we doing working with VHCG in the first place. A caveat – it has to be noted that the few people who do express opinions that some will regard as dodgy have never, ever been seen on any of our community clean ups. The people from VHCG whose work we do facilitate such as the clean ups and lobbying are pretty sound as far as we’re concerned.

The VHCG Facebook group gives us an insight into what people’s concerns (and occasionally, prejudices) are. Which means we can intervene by whatever means necessary to offer our viewpoint on a contentious issue and work to change people’s opinions. It’s a continuous process that won’t get instant results but if we stick at it for long enough, we gain people’s respect and that’s when we can start to change minds and win people over. It’s pretty much what we did way back in the 2000’s when we were involved with the Independent Working Class Association – direct engagement with working class people.

What we do on the estates

Our ultimate aim is an empowered, progressive working class who want to see radical change. Empowerment means starting off with relatively easy goals to attain and moving onwards and upwards from there. The process involves a range of tactics from facilitating residents in lobbying the council to practical actions aimed at improving conditions on the estates.

With regard to facilitating the lobbying of councils, we realise that the more purist anarchists will see us as little more than a neighbourhood pressure group. We’re not and here’s why. The key is the use of the word facilitating. We facilitate the Vange Hill Community Group in lobbying by offering support, advice and logistical backing as and when necessary. When lobbying pays off with a result, it empowers those involved in it to not just carry on but also to become more ambitious in their demands. As this proceeds and the barriers to what can be squeezed out of a council are hit, we use our propaganda to place in context what most people instinctively understand about the limits of the state in an age of permanent austerity. It’s a combination of empowerment and political education that we’re doing our level best to implement.

Then there’s the direct action. Which at the moment in the case of the Vange Hill estate, is a combination of community clean ups and guerilla gardening. With the community clean ups there is some degree of co-operation with Basildon Council in that we’ll tell them we’re having one, there will be sacks of rubbish and other bulkier items for them to collect when we’ve done and generally that’s what they do. When it comes to the guerilla gardening on the estate, we just get on with it and don’t even think about asking for permission.

Our longer term goals on the direct action front are best described in this piece we wrote about our vision for the Vange Hill estate: A different way of thinking about community activism. It’s a step by step process that involves increasingly empowered residents taking on more responsibility for their estate and in so doing, starting to take what power they can down to the grassroots. Obviously, there will come a point when barriers will be hit as the council refuses to relinquish any more power. The hope is that when this point is reached, people are politicised enough to push things forward in taking on the powers that be and start fighting for real change.

Conclusion

At all times we bear in mind our ultimate aim of radical political, social and economic change. There’s no single, easily defined route to get to that point. It’s a case of nurturing quite a few different strands and over time, gradually bringing them together and picking up momentum along the way. Which is why we deploy a variety of tactics to support our overall strategy.

What is heartening is that we’re not alone in understanding the need to work at the grassroots with people as they are and build from there. This extract from the Statements page of the Anarchist Communist Group pretty much chimes with how we operate: Without being part of working class struggles we cannot hope to convince people that a revolution is both desirable and possible. In addition, we need to be explaining to people what anarchism is, giving possible ideas of what a future society might look like as well as give an anarchist analysis of what is going on at the moment. We cannot get anywhere by staying within our own ghettos, relating only to people who agree with us and writing for social media sites that are only read by the already ‘converted’. The tendency towards practices that are inward-looking, destructive, self-referential, etc. is not revolutionary. You need an outward-looking, expansive, genuinely inclusive approach that accepts degrees of difference if you want to change the world – or simply save your local library or support a group of workers in struggle.

To conclude, this is the gritty, messy and complicated reality of what we deal with out here along the Essex shore of the Thames estuary. It’s not easy and there are times when we’re tearing our hair out in frustration – however, it has to be done. We’re not asking for plaudits or kudos for the way we work. All we’re asking for is an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve in terms of engaging with and winning over working class estates to a broader vision of change.

Getting to where we want to be is a learning curve and there’s a lot of trial and error and subsequent reassessment of strategy and tactics along the way. We’re happy for what we do to be open for constructive criticism and discussion.

Just imagine what could happen when Trump visits the UK

The working visit of Trump to the UK on 13-14th July has predictably generated a lot of excitement in many sections of the left and also in a fair few sections of the anarchist movement as well. There’s already discussion and debate about what form the protests against Trump’s visit should take. Suffice to say, it looks as though there will be a variety of actions and protests to mark the occasion. It’s also a reasonable assumption that whatever takes place on the streets in central London will be met with a heavy police presence. One that could well drain police resources away from other areas of the capital and from surrounding counties.

Let’s play a game of imagining what could happen with a mass of cops in central London and the rest of the capital somewhat short of cops on the streets. What if there were enough motivated class struggle activists across the capital who could see the opportunity provided by the distraction of the protests against Trump, and the cops diverted to police them, to use the 13-14th July to undertake actions that will aid our class? It’s not hard to draw up a list of issues that could be highlighted by a series of nimble, well planned, creative actions if you want a bit of a thought experiment.

Purely as an exercise, these are these are the ones we’ve thought of. Abandoned council estates awaiting the right offer from a developer that could be re-occupied. High end estate agents complicit in the agenda of making London a welcome home for the super rich while ordinary people are socially cleansed from the capital – could it be that they may experience some creative ‘inconvenience’? Housing associations actively complicit in socially cleansing people from London being paid a visit by people who refuse to be moved away from friends, family and support networks? Exploitative outsourcing companies who treat their precarious workforce like dirt perhaps being given a lesson in manners? The list could go on if you really want it to…

The point we’re trying to make, without getting done for incitement, is that a) in situations like this, the left and a fair number of anarchists could do with being a lot less predictable and knee jerk reflexive and b) we need actions that advance our class interests rather than those that make the participants feel good about themselves but have no impact on the real world.

A diversity of tactics

The way we (South Essex Stirrer and Basildon & Southend Housing Action) operate depends very much on the circumstances prevailing at the time and the task in hand. In the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, those tactics are a mixture of lobbying, propaganda, education and direct action. Our ultimate aim is the empowerment of people on a working class estate so they reach a point where they will embrace our project of radical political, social and economic change. Obviously, we’re a long way from that point and have to work from where we are.

An immediate aim is the improvement of conditions on the estate. That involves a mixture of facilitating residents in lobbying Basildon Council, Essex County Council and the various housing associations to do their job properly on the one hand and community clean ups and guerilla gardening on the other. These activities are supported with propaganda in the form of posts on the South Essex Stirrer. We also produce the occasional leaflet and flyer and have plans for a newsletter in the long term.

Our long term aim is empowerment of the residents and we work very closely with the Vange Hill Community Group in achieving this. The aspirations for the estate are expressed here: A better future for the ¾ estate in Vange. Essentially what we are trying to achieve is starting to build a new world in the shell of the decaying, dysfunctional and dystopian one we currently endure. That can only be done from the grassroots upwards.

Working at the grassroots with people who in the main are fairly apolitical but also cynical about what politicians at local and national level can offer presents an interesting mix of challenges and opportunities. The challenges are that with people being apolitical, their views are formed by a combination of life experiences, how they discuss issues with friends, family and neighbours and to a certain extent, from the media. Which often means it’s hard to pin people down on any particular part of the political spectrum. One person can be pretty progressive on some issues but on others, may have a bit of a reactionary take.

We could through our toys out of the pram and walk away in a huff on encountering reactionary sentiments but as we’ve already written before, that won’t achieve anything: A few words on how we work. On the propaganda front, this is how we try to resolve contentious issues: A few thoughts on neighbourhood community halls. Regarding the issue dealt with in this piece, negotiations are underway between the parties concerned with the aim of coming to a resolution.

As for facilitating the lobbying of councils, we realise that the more purist anarchists will see us as little more than a neighbourhood pressure group. We’re not and here’s why. The key is the use of the word facilitating. We facilitate the Vange Hill Community Group in lobbying by offering support, advice and logistical backing as and when necessary. Regarding the lobbying, it’s generally aimed at the council officers responsible for a particular service on the estate with the two wards councillors (both Labour) being copied in. There have been occasional sightings of the two ward councillors but efforts to constructively engage with them have rarely been successful.

When lobbying pays off with a result, it empowers those involved in it to not just carry on but also to become more ambitious in their demands. As this lobbying proceeds and the barriers to what can be squeezed out of a council are hit, we use our propaganda to place in context what most people instinctively understand about the limits of the state in an age of permanent austerity. It’s a combination of empowerment and political education that we’re doing our level best to implement.

Then there’s the direct action. Which in the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, is a combination of community clean ups and guerilla gardening. With the community clean ups there is some degree of co-operation with Basildon Council in that we’ll tell them we’re having one, there will be sacks of rubbish and other bulkier items for them to collect when we’ve done and generally that’s what they do. When it comes to the guerilla gardening on the estate, we just get on with it and don’t even think about asking for permission.

At all times we bear in mind our ultimate aim of radical political, social and economic change. We realise that getting to the point where that can start to happen is a long journey – we’re in this for the long haul. There’s no single, easily defined route to get to that point. It’s a case of nurturing quite a few different strands and over time, gradually bringing them together and picking up momentum along the way. Which is why we deploy a variety of tactics to support our overall strategy.

Getting to where we want to be is a learning curve and there’s a lot of trial and error and subsequent reassessment of strategy and tactics along the way. We’re happy for what we do to be open for constructive criticism and discussion.

A few words on how we work

Recently on our sister blog, The South Essex Stirrer, we posted up this piece: A few thoughts on neighbourhood community hallshttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/a-few-thoughts-on-neighbourhood-community-halls/ It’s about concerns expressed by a number of residents on the ¾ estate in Vange over safety issues relating to parking and traffic on Fridays when the neighbourhood community centre is used as a mosque. It’s one of those issues that if we don’t get involved with our analysis of it, there are those on the right and possibly, the far right who will be only too happy to take ownership of it. That would make it very difficult for us and our partners to continue to operate on the ¾ estate.

We’ve been working for a while with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and more recently, the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) on ways to encourage residents on the ¾ estate to get involved in making their neighbourhood a better place to live. This has involved practical actions such as community clean ups as well as using what resources we can muster to put pressure on Basildon Council to get their act together and do the job residents pay them their council tax for. VHCG was set up last year, partly as a result of a meet up and estate walkabout involving local residents, BASHA and a rare appearance from the two ward councillors. VHCG have quite a lively Facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/180311358699122/

The VHCG Facebook group can best be described as a broad church that reflects the range of opinions that will be found on any estate. Which means that sometimes opinions will be aired that we will not agree with. Opinions that some people in some of the activist circles we know will deem to be beyond the pale. Opinions that may well prompt some activists to ask what on earth are we doing working with VHCG in the first place. A caveat – it has to be noted that the few people who do express opinions that some will regard as dodgy have never, ever been seen on any of our community clean ups. The people from VHCG whose work we do facilitate such as the clean ups and lobbying are pretty sound as far as we’re concerned.

The VHCG Facebook group gives us an insight into what people’s concerns (and occasionally, prejudices) are. Which means we can intervene by whatever means necessary to offer our viewpoint on a contentious issue and work to change people’s opinions. It’s a continuous process that won’t get instant results but if we stick at it for long enough, we gain people’s respect and that’s when we can start to change minds and win people over. It’s pretty much what we did way back in the 2000’s when we were involved with the Independent Working Class Association – direct engagement with working class people. As we have stated many times before, anyone who wants to see fundamental change is going to have to have the working class with them because without us, you will not achieve your goal!

Working in the way we do with BASHA and VHCG means there are inevitably a few grey areas. We know what we want to get out of this process so keeping that in mind, we can deal with the grey areas. Working at the coalface on isolated, deprived and forgotten estates on the fringes of a failing new town means finding an ideologically pure community group to work with is an impossibility. We have to work with what we find which means things can be a bit messy and complicated sometimes. We accept that and just get on with the process of engagement as best we can.

We could get huffy, throw the toys out of our pram and refuse to work with community groups that may include people whose views we don’t agree with. We could retreat to a hermetically sealed activist bubble where everything we hear confirms our world view and refuse to engage with those whose views we find disagreeable. We could but – it would be a massive abrogation of duty. Retreat raises the question ‘if not us, then who?’ Well, there’s a motley cast of UKIPers, ex UKIP ‘independents’, and lurking in the shadows, a few people off to the far right who would be only too happy to step in and fill the vacuum. So, this is why we work in the way we do with BASHA to make sure that there are at least a few estates in Basildon where these elements won’t be able to make an appearance without reckoning with our input.

This is the gritty, messy and complicated reality of what we deal with out here along the Essex shore of the Thames estuary. It’s not easy and there are times when we’re tearing our hair out in frustration – however, it has to be done. We’re not asking for plaudits or kudos for the way we work. All we’re asking for is an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve in terms of engaging with and winning over working class estates to a broader vision of change. As ever, constructive criticism and informed debate on the issues raised in this piece are always welcome.