- Category: Fighting Oppression
- Published on Wednesday, 23 April 2014
- Written by David Renton
David Renton has been blogging for the last month about Blair Peach and the poems and articles referred to in this piece can be found there. He will be publishing a pamphlet with Defend the Right to Protest in June setting out the content of the Cass report into Peach’s death
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Monday, 21 April 2014
- Written by Mark Boothroyd
Return to Homs – the capital of Syria's revolution destroyed
Directed by Talal Derki
Return to Homs was screened by Human Rights Watch on 28 March, followed by a Q&A with the producer Orwa Nyrabia.
The story told by Return to Homs is the story of the Syrian Revolution – from its start as peaceful protests against the Assad regime calling for reform, through the vicious repression of those protests and the ensuing militarisation of the revolution, to the present-day state of siege and total destruction of the country at the hands of the dictatorship.
The documentary, entirely filmed and directed by Syrians, is not the first to be produced by revolutionaries, but it is the first to receive widespread circulation across the world. It was filmed over two years from August 2011 to August 2013 as the revolution developed from peaceful protests into armed resistance.
The film tells the story of the revolution through the friendship of two young men from Homs, Abdul Basset Saroot and Ossama Al Homsi. Before the revolution began, Basset was the second best goalkeeper in Syria, touted for the national team. When the protests began they both joined the revolt, Basset leading the crowd with chants and songs against the regime, while Ossama became a media activist filming the protests and demonstrations.
The first scenes are a testimony to the genuinely popular character of Syria's revolution. We see crowds of thousands in the streets, singing and dancing for freedom and against oppression. Basset’s popularity and charisma are evident as thousands join him in song, and he is cheered and hoisted onto the shoulders of protesters wherever he goes.
The film is remarkable for its view inside the revolution. The footage of peaceful protests is interspersed with footage from the activists’ safe house where they upload videos, discuss the situation, give interviews to foreign journalists and sing songs against Assad. Basset rails against the regime, its violence and oppression and unwillingness to concede. We see the transformation of peaceful protesters into armed resistance fighters. As the violence against protesters mounts, the activists no longer wield just laptops and cameras, but AK-47s and pistols as well. Crowds no longer throng the streets, driven away by snipers and bombs. Instead they hold funeral marches for those martyred by the regime.
The resilience of the Syrian people is shown throughout. At one point the regime builds a barrier over the only road joining two pro-revolution districts in Homs, trying to prevent activists and supplies spreading between them. One of the media activists filming the scene remarks, “They don't know who they're messing with,” as a truck proceeds to drive over the barrier, and local youth on bicycles dig up the barrier with their bare hands, only stopping when they come under sniper fire.
The footage captures the desperation and isolation of the revolution as the repression mounts. Neighbourhoods are reduced to rubble, and Basset and his militia are forced to crawl house to house, waging a guerrilla war against the Syrian army’s superior firepower and aerial bombardment. Their isolation in their liberated districts, under siege and alone, reflects that of the revolution internationally.
During this Basset continues to sing and inspire those around him. His determination is phenomenal. Looking out over part of Homs completely reduced to rubble, he is asked: do you think victory is possible? Gazing out at his destroyed city, at miles and miles of destruction, he pauses for a moment, then comes the firm reply: “Yes, we will make them hate their lives, then they will leave.”
Death is frequent in the fighting. Many are injured, including Basset and Ossama. Ossama appears more visibly traumatised by his ordeal, but all the young men are affected. Despair and desperation creep in, how can it not. They have gone from being labourers, blacksmiths, factory workers, teachers and footballers, to fighting one of the most brutal and totalitarian regimes of the modern age, with a massive imbalance in firepower and support. And yet they keep fighting. And singing.
Basset is still in Homs. Still fighting under siege. Still trying to liberate his country. Orwa Nyrabia, the film’s producer, commented after the film screening, “There is a Basset in every town in Syria. I speak to many of them regularly, but the media does not talk to them or about them.” Orwa stated the mainstream narrative, that it is the regime versus Islamic fighters, is false, that the vast majority of those fighting are moderates, but they receive little or no coverage. This must change. But it will require action, action which has not been taken by many.
Orwa remarked during the Q&A, “When the West threatened to attack the Assad regime, which did not actually happen, tens of thousands marched around the world. When the regime used gas on Ghouta, and killed 1,500 people, not a single march was held anywhere.” Alongside the brutality of the regime, this memory will linger for a long time, the lack of aid given by much of humanity and its progressive forces to the Syrian people.
All progressive and anti-war activists must feel a deep shame at the lack of support for the Syrian Revolution which has left it isolated and battling the world superpowers alone. This feeling should be used to motivate, not as an excuse to ignore what is happening. There is much we can do, if we are willing to spend the energy.
The Syria Solidarity Movement is a new organisation formed to provide political and practical solidarity to the Syrian Revolution. Join it and get involved in its activities. The next action will be a global protest at the BBC on 10 May over its biased coverage of the Syrian Revolution.
Hand in Hand for Syria (HIHS) is a registered UK charity which provides humanitarian aid to refugees and those in the liberated areas of Syria. HIHS runs bakeries and hospitals and provides necessities to those in refugee camps. You can just make a donation, but Syria needs long-term commitment. Get involved in one of their regular Big Aid Drops by hosting a collection point in your area, or organising a collection in your workplace to take to one of the collection points.
If you’re an Arabic speaker and have practical skills, consider joining one of the aid convoys organised by One Nation UK. They deliver aid, medical supplies and ambulances to Syria on a regular basis.
For another view of the revolution in Homs, watch this Panorama documentary ‘Homs, Journey into Hell’.
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Friday, 18 April 2014
- Written by Simon Hardy
Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity by Micah Uetricht
Published by Jacobin/Verso 2014
Review by Simon Hardy
Read this book, I can't recommend it enough. In fact, every trade unionist and socialist worth their salt should read this book. It tells the story of how a rank and file caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) won the leadership of the union, then led it in an all out strike in 2012 against budget cuts and attacks on terms and conditions that lasted 10 days before achieving significant victories. What makes this feat pretty amazing is that they went from a meeting of 5 people to leading an all out strike in less than 5 years, and the union itself hadn't had a strike since 1987.
When the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) was set up it was largely due to the defeats of previous attempts by the left to win the leadership and transform the union. Notably, after a disastrous "left" leadership in 2001-04 when Debbie Lynch signed a terrible deal with the Chicago Board of Education and then tried to sell it to union members as a "left" victory. The return of the old conservative leadership who were unwilling to do anything about school privatisations, closures and endemic racism across the city against young black students led to the formation of CORE, a rank and file initiative that hoped to learn the lessons of previous defeats. They started off as a small reading group discussing The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, within a few months they had pulled together a network of activists across the city who wanted to do something about the destruction of public education in the city.
When they won the leadership elections in 2010, CORE members set about transforming the union from top to bottom, turning it from a typical top down 'negotiation and services union' into a fighting union that coordinated actions from the bottom up. How did they do this?
- When they won the leadership they put every elected official of the union and organiser on the average teachers salary in the city.
- They reallocated resources from office based departments to activism, getting full timers out alongside members in schools to build joint meetings with parents and teachers about the attacks coming from the Democratic Party mayor (Obama's right hand man Rahm Emanuel).
- They held readers group for their organisers, discussing key texts from the history of militant trade unionism like Farrell Dobbs' Teamsters Rebellion.
- They politicised the strike (as much as they could within the limits of the anti-union ordinance of the city) and made sure that the members were engaged and driving the action forward.
- As soon as they were elected they prepared for their strike which happened two years later - they knew if they stuck to their convictions it would lead them into a headlong confrontation with the Mayors office and the board of education and they made plans for it from the start.
- When they were offered a renegotiated contract after a week of strike action they didn't agree it, they made sure every CTU member had a copy and read it and discussed it at their daily delegate meeting which ran the strike before anything was agreed.
The important lesson here is that they didn't just win the leadership, they used that position to transform union democracy from top to bottom. They didn't want to end up like Lynch, well meaning but trapped in the bureaucracy with no way out who ends up betraying her principles. How many times has this happened in our trade unions? Whilst the outcome was not a total victory, some concessions were won by the bosses, the ultimate feeling of the strikers was that the strike achieved its goals, because the members were mobilised, empowered and they forged bonds with local parents and community groups which turned around years of anti-teacher rhetoric from the media and the Democratic Party. it is very hard to win an outright victory in an age of austerity, but what the CTU showed is that you can hold back the tide and even win some victories, for instance they defeated an attempt to remove the cap on class sizes and they won higher classroom budgets.
The book is well written by Uetricht, it has a clear and accessible style and he carefully balances the political side of it with sometimes funny anecdotes (my favourite being about the first pamphlet that CORE issued with a disastrous typo on the front page) and really shows the tremendous solidarity that the people of Chicago had in support of the teachers strike. It is actually quite an emotional read, considering how working and poor people rallied to the teachers dispute years of teacher bashing and right wing propaganda in the press. It shows you what can be done with a rank and file movement that has a clear strategy and fights to win, knowing how to combine leading a union with grassroots activism by the members.
Clearly not every strike strategy can be replicated in every other place - but the CTU strike is rich with lessons which at the very least can inspire trade unionists that these kind of actions are possible. That the CORE led union managed to get a 90% turn out with a 92% yes vote for strike action demonstrates that they must have done something right to engage members and win the argument for action. The CTU strike of 2012 is an inspiration that we should all look to.
Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity is available from VersoBooks.com