Thursday 10 November 2016

Trumperdämmerung - Don't Mourn, Organise

I'm seeing a lot of American friends talking about the need to organise to defend civil liberties in the aftermath of Trump's election. That seems entirely reasonable given his calls for doing away with fundamental elements of the Constitution (freedom of religion), calls for extra-judicial punishment ('Lock her up!'), using the state to harass those critical of him, and calls for the US military to engage in actual war crimes (collective punishment of the families of terrorists). As I've been involved in opposing similarly regressive UK government reforms with respect to disability rights since before the end of the last Labour government I thought it might be an opportune time to talk about ways of opposing government policy.

With respect to my title, which comes out of American history, I think there's actually room for both mourning and organising, and mourning is important to self-care, but this is mostly about organising. The initial version of this was something I posted in response to an online acquaintance asking how people organise to resist when they're spoonies with available physical and mental resources compromised by disability, but in writing it I realised it has wider applicability, so I'm turning it into a blog of its own. This still focuses on the disability side of things, when there's potentially so much more at risk in so many areas, but disability campaigning is where my experience lies. Hopefully most of the lessons should be common to most areas of equality and human rights activism. Anyway:

Most of my disabled friends were fairly apolitical until near the end of the last Labour government, when we realised how bad the new Work Capability Assessment was. Then under Cameron's ConDem government, and now the Tories alone, things got rapidly worse, with a calculated plan to demonise disabled people as lazy scroungers, and pretty much all of us were radicalized into activists of one type or another.

The more active types formed Disabled People Against the Cuts and Black Triangle and protested on the streets. The spoonies, my people, the ones who can't, who may struggle just to make it out of bed, went the web route.* There were several news/blog sites which formed, and which became influential in documenting what was going on, analysing the reality, and reporting lived experience of harassment and the like, including the casualties as disability welfare reform started to leave people dead**. We started to get journalists following what we did, and recycling our news into national media. In some cases we were invited onto national media to speak directly, and we even had government ministers refusing to appear opposite some of our spokespeople. There were also a small group of journalists who were themselves disabled, and working on social stuff, and who were very useful links.

*Note that you will encounted activists who claim the only valid form of activism is on the streets. 1) they're idiots, 2) they're engaging in ableism, which makes them part of the problem, not the solution.

** If Trump axes Obamacare, then reporting the cost in lives is something that will be necessary, and a powerful message to lay at his door.

A second prong was analysis of government proposals and data to show the actual reality. What became known as the ''Spartacus Report', written by people I know, showed that the government had lied in claiming that disabled people had backed their reforms in a consultation (it was actually somewhere around 2000 against, 12 for). This forced the first defeat on Cameron's ConDem government in the Lords since it had taken power, though they reversed it in the Commons. The Spartacus team followed it with further influential reports (it helped to have a statistician in the core group) that didn't just demonstrate the problems and lies in government proposals, but went deeper to analyse the underlying issues and produce alternate proposals which will work. It's possible to do meaningful work here even on an individual basis. I'm in the process of finalising a piece of work that demonstrates a new policy is actually substantially weaker than the one it replaced, not the stronger replacement the government claims.

A third approach was using pro bono law firms to force Judicial Reviews on the government to rule on the legality of their policies (the sort of stuff ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center does in the States). This has rarely stopped them dead, but has been very useful for publicity purposes, so that people see what policy actually means, and very good at forcing the government to produce Mark 2 versions of policy that are slightly less offensive than the initial versions. Often these need someone affected by the policy change to serve as their focus, which can be gruelling.

Another route was activism within political parties, proposing disabled friendly policies at their annual conferences, making sure our voices could not be forgotten, and forging links with politicians who would give us a hearing. We also had the support of several disabled members of the House of Lords who sit as independents and are acknowledged as disability experts. Identify the friendly politicians and allies and cultivate links with them.

It may also be necessary to target supposed ally groups. There has been a very successful campaign to shame charities involved in the government's workfare scheme, often at complete variance to their own declared principles. I personally found it necessary to administer a public rebuke (it trended!) to the crowdsourced campaigning group 38 Degrees, which was deliberately ignoring disability issues, even when its own processes said it should be campaigning on them as a priority. It got somewhat better as a result, but it cost us the opportunity to make a real difference.

A necessary caveat is that most of us have burned ourselves out, to greater or lesser degree. Self-care is important, but burn-out is probably inevitable for a percentage of those involved, so take care of yourselves, and try to keep recruiting new blood.

Ultimately our protests haven't stopped the government, but they have ameliorated the effects, and we caused so much damage to the reputation of some of the firms involved in implementing policy at the point of delivery that one, Atos, actually walked away from a contract worth hundreds of millions, because our campaigning was destroying the value of their brand.

However restricted your abilities, there will be some way to involve yourself, even if just by personally testifying to the effects in blog postings or directly to those around you.

Keep fighting the good fight.

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