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Calls for an end to nuclear weapons are growing--including in
British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation's website (www.thenation.com).
HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?
BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.
Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to
HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice
BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.
My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.
HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?
BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.
HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.
BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.
HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.
BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.
How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?
HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?
BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.
HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English, it's personal--it means different things to different
HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.
BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.
I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.
England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.
One of the biggest problems Palestine's supporters face is
The numbers and diversity of the April 20 protests in Washington
represented a giant step forward for the antiwar movement. The weekend's
events dealt a lethal blow to the notion--stoked by media and government
alike--that all Americans uncritically support George W. Bush's policies
and value Israeli lives more than those of Palestinians.
That morning activists held two antiwar rallies, each of which drew
thousands, almost within sight of each other. One, organized by ANSWER
(Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), was on the Ellipse, near the White
House. The other, sponsored by the National Youth and Student Peace
Coalition (NYSPC), among others, and perhaps misnamed "United We March,"
was held at the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, the Committee in
Solidarity for the People of Palestine protested the meeting of the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at the Washington
Hilton, while the Mobilization for Global Justice and numerous
anarchists protested the IMF/World Bank meetings.
In the afternoon, all the morning rallies converged in a march. "In the
end," said Erica Smiley of the Black Radical Congress Youth Caucus, "we
realized we were all fighting the same thing." That march ended in a
rally by the Capitol of 50,000 to 80,000 protesters by several
organizers' estimates, the largest pro-Palestinian gathering ever in the
United States. Middle Eastern families--women in headscarves, strollers
in tow--marched alongside pink-haired, pierced 19-year-olds. Samir
Haleem, a Palestinian-American veteran who wore a Palestinian kaffiyeh
and carried an American flag, said, "We have never seen so much support
for Palestine in this country. Today is a beautiful day."
The afternoon's unity was a triumph over deep divisions, which at first
glance looked like symptoms of that old left affliction, the narcissism
of small differences. While the various groups had originally been
planning events on different days in April, ANSWER moved its event to
April 20 to avoid the turnout disaster of competing marches. Why not,
then, hold one big rally and march? Student organizers cited many
reasons for their desire to maintain independence from ANSWER, including
the group's politics (it is closely related to the Workers World Party),
its undemocratic structure and its reputation for unattractive behavior,
including taking credit for work done by others. ANSWER organizers, for
their part, felt the student coalition was too slow to take up the
Jessie Duvall, a recent Wesleyan graduate who was organizing the NYSPC
rally, said diplomatically that the separation of the two rallies was
"important for the integrity of both coalitions." ANSWER's rally--and
pre-rally publicity--focused entirely on Palestinian solidarity, and it
drew thousands of Middle Eastern immigrants, many of whom came on buses
sponsored by their mosques. By contrast, while most speakers at United
We March addressed the plight of the Palestinians, the pre-rally
publicity emphasized the coalition's founding concerns: Bush's "war on
the world" and its effects at home, particularly on students and young
people, who dominated the crowd.
The students' fears about ANSWER turned out to have been well founded.
"I'll make a deal with you," said an ANSWER organizer at the Capitol
rally to Terra Lawson-Remer of Students Transforming and Resisting
Corporations (STARC), who was coordinating media outreach for the NSYPC
event. "We won't play the Mumia tape again"--ANSWER had already
broadcast a taped speech by Mumia at the Ellipse--"if you'll tell the
press we had 150,000 people here." Lawson-Remer was in a bind; she
didn't want them to carry out this threat, but she believed the turnout
was in the 50,000 to 75,000 range. The ANSWER organizers pressed the
point, arguing that whatever they said, the media would report fewer.
This was not a difference of opinion about the truth. "It's not about
accuracy. It's about politics. It's not about counting," said ANSWER's
Tony Murphy condescendingly. "It's us against them. [The pro-Israel]
demonstrators had 100,000 here last week." (Responding to a web version
of this article, ANSWER's legal counsel called this account a
"disgusting fabrication," but I can attest to its accuracy because I was
ANSWER is notorious for inflating its demonstration numbers--and
clearly, its organizers don't play well with others. Yet they are also
very good at calling a rally on the right issue at the right time and
publicizing it widely. Both coalitions played an essential role in
attracting very different constituencies, and turnout far exceeded
expectations. Organizers on both sides acknowledge that working together
was difficult, and neither looks forward to doing it again. But to build
on April 20's momentum, activists may have to live with such alliances
and, of course, enter into others.
Organized labor's absence from the weekend's events was hardly
surprising; most of the events were antiwar in focus, and the mainstream
labor movement supports George W. Bush's foreign policies. But in
September, when anti-IMF/World Bank activists plan a large-scale protest
around those institutions' meetings, labor and globalization radicals
will have to work together.
The weekend also highlighted the growing Palestinian solidarity
movement's need to distance itself from the anti-Semitism of its most
ignorant adherents. STARC's Lawson-Remer, who is Jewish, says of some
pro-Palestinian activists: "Their attitude toward me makes them as bad
as Bush." In the middle of our conversation, I looked up and saw a sign
that said "Chosen People": It's Payback Time. Some demonstrators' signs
bore swastikas and SS symbols--intended to draw parallels between Hitler
and Sharon, but easily construed as pro-Nazi.
Given these problems, the presence of Jewish protesters who stressed
their own identity was all the more important. On Monday evening, when
some 4,000 people gathered to protest the AIPAC meeting (addressed by
Sharon via satellite), many carried signs with messages like Jews
Against the Occupation and I Am Jewish and AIPAC Does Not Speak for Me.
Despite the squabbling and the dearth of media coverage, the success of
A20 should be heartening to the antiwar movement. Lawson-Remer says,
"This is such a demonstration that the consensus is not what they say it
is." Marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Latifa Hamad, a middle-aged
Palestinian woman wearing traditional head-to-toe coverings agreed,
saying simply, "We needed something good."
On the morning of April 20, in the nation's capital, activists held two anti-war rallies, each of which drew thousands, almost within sight of one another.
Do Not Employ Arabs, Enemies Should Not Be Offered a Livelihood and We Will Assist Those Who Do Not Provide Work For Arabs are just a few of the slogans covering billboards throughout Jerusalem. These placards refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel. One poster even provides a detailed list of taxi companies that employ Arab citizens and companies that don't. Jewish history, it seems, has been forgotten.
This kind of blatant racism is now common in Israel; it feeds off the widespread fear of suicide bombings, which have also managed to change the Jerusalem landscape. Downtown streets are almost empty, and most businesses have been seriously hurt because of the dramatic decline in clientele. A recent poll suggests that 67 percent of Israelis have reduced the number of times they leave their homes. The only companies that have been thriving in the past months are security firms. Every supermarket, bank, theater and cafe now employs private guards whose duty is to search customers as they enter the building.
One of the effects of this new practice is that profiling has become ubiquitous. Arab-looking residents refrain from using public transportation and from going to all-Jewish neighborhoods and shopping centers. It is not unusual in the city to see groups of Arab men searched at gunpoint by Israeli police, their faces against the wall and their hands in the air.
On the national level, politicians have been exploiting the pervasive fear, using it to foment a form of fervent nationalism tinged with racism. Effi Eitam, the new leader of the National Religious Party, recently approved to become a minister in Sharon's government, has characterized all Palestinian citizens of Israel as "a cancer." "Arabs," he claims, "will never have political rule in the land of Israel," which in Eitam's opinion includes the West Bank and Gaza. Support for Sharon has also risen from 45 to 62 percent following the latest Israeli offensive. The fact that Palestinian citizens, who make up almost 20 percent of the population, adamantly oppose Israel's military assault suggests that only one in five Jewish citizens is against Sharon's war. Most Jews consider themselves victims in this conflict, not aggressors.
The deeply rooted victim syndrome has been manipulated over the past year by the mainstream media in order to rally the public around the flag. For television viewers, Palestinian suffering is virtually nonexistent, while attacks on Jews are graphically portrayed, replayed time and again, thus rendering victimhood the existential condition of Israeli Jews. Radio and television have practically turned into government organs, allowing almost no criticism of Israel's policies to be aired.
It is within this stifling atmosphere that one must understand the slow resurgence of the Israeli peace camp. There are now about 400 new combat reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, joining a similar number of refuseniks from Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"). "We will not go on fighting beyond the 'green line' for the purposes of domination, expulsion, starvation and humiliation of an entire people," the soldiers wrote in an open letter. Since the eruption of the second intifada, eighty-seven conscientious objectors have been incarcerated; thirty-five are currently sitting in jail, more than in any other period in Israel's history.
On April 3, 4,000 Jewish and Arab protesters marched together from Jerusalem toward Kalandia checkpoint, located on the outskirts of Ramallah. The procession was led by women and included four truckloads of humanitarian aid. The demonstrators were stopped by a police blockade only minutes after they set out. As a member of the negotiation team, I was on the police side of the blockade when scores of tear gas canisters and stun grenades were thrown into the crowd. Policemen immediately pursued the protesters, trampling and violently beating them with their clubs. Among the injured were three Arab Knesset members. Later, while waiting for the trucks to return from Ramallah, a police officer explained that a woman precipitated the outburst: "She spat on one of the officers."
The next day, protesters gathered in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to call on the US government to stop Israel's military incursion. The group was mostly composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel, although there were quite a few Jews. Again, the police assaulted the demonstrators, this time because one of them was carrying a Palestinian flag.
Two days later, on April 6, 15,000 people marched from Rabin Square to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, calling on Sharon to immediately withdraw all military forces from the occupied territories and to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. "The occupation is killing us all!" the demonstrators shouted. Channel 2 spent twenty seconds covering the event; Channel 1, Israel's public station, ignored it.
Not everyone disregarded the protest. Likud Knesset Member Gideon Ezra called upon the secret services to begin monitoring more carefully the activities of leftist organizations and blamed the only two journalists who continue to document what is happening on the Palestinian side--Amira Hass and Gideon Levy--for encouraging the campaign against Israel. Given the increasingly repressive atmosphere inside Israel, it appears that without massive pressure from abroad--not unlike the sanctions imposed on South Africa--Israel will not withdraw from the occupied territories, nor will it cease to oppress and subjugate the Palestinian people.
"... Come my friends,
'tis not too late to seek
a newer world, ..."
I offer these brief remarks today as a prayer for our country, with love
of democracy, as a celebration of our country. With love for our country.
With hope for our country.
It just got a little harder to ignore the dissenters in America's War on Terrorism.
A report from Porto Alegre on the "antiglobalization" movement.