How radical is the Greenbelt festival?

The following article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 2nd September 2017. I wrote it after attending the Greenbelt festival the previous weekend.

Last weekend communist theologian Marika Rose called for the abolition of the police.

It’s nothing remarkable: she has been expressing such views for years. What was different this time is that she was addressing an audience at one of Britain’s largest religious festivals.

Greenbelt is a Christian-based festival of music, comedy, arts, talks, debate, politics, worship and theology. In recent years, it has projected a clearly left-of-centre image.

Taking place every August, it is now held in east Northamptonshire. It attracted over 11,000 punters this year, as numbers rose after falling from the high point of 20,000 some years ago.

Mariks’a comments triggered a mixed response. One festival-goer told me she was delighted to hear such radical views at a Christian event. Another wrote: “Shame on you” to Marika.

The controversy provoked a minor Twitter storm, with some apparently angry that such a view should be given a platform at Greenbelt. Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that there would have been more anger a few years ago.

This is not to say that Greenbelt is centre of communist activism, however its conservative detractors portray it. It has been described as “the Guardian does Jesus.” While this criticism comes from right-wing critics, there is a certain accuracy to it.

Like the Guardian, Greenbelt is liberal and centre-left, preferable to the powerful interests on its right, but broadly accepting of capitalism and compromised by its role as a large commercial institution.

You can hear repeated attacks on poverty and austerity at Greenbelt, but they often focus on specific policies rather than any deeper challenge to class structures.

Thankfully, there are exceptions: this year’s highlights included Teresa Forcades I Vila, often described as “Europe’s most radical nun.”

Pacifist activists Sam Walton and Dan Woodhouse spoke about their attempts to disarm a BAE warplane destined for Saudi use in Yemen. Anglican priest Rachel Mann offered a complex but accessible analysis of the link between militarism and masculinity. Interfaith events looked at how Christians can support struggles against Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Greenbelt has been a truly liberating event for many people. In the early 2000s, it was the first Christian event at which I saw a same-sex couple holding hands. Nowadays you can see almost as many same-sex couples there as mixed-sex couples.

At most Christian festivals, this would be unthinkable. For countless LGBT+ Christians, Greenbelt was the first place in which they could be open about their sexuality or gender identity.

Socialists at Greenbelt this year welcomed a new tent hosting stalls from co-operative businesses and discussions on the co-operative movement.

There was for the first time a women-focused venue on site: the Red Tent, with a number of events open to all who define themselves as women. This seems particularly important when transphobia is so prevalent in churches, and when even some on the left wish to deny trans people equality.

There were a number of firmly progressive groups running stalls in the middle of the festival, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a radical peace organisation), Church Action on Poverty and groups promoting resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In important ways, however, Greenbelt fell short. The theme of this year’s Sunday morning communion service (the main event at Greenbelt) was disability.

There was an inspiring sermon by a disabled teenager as well as contributions from other disabled people about ways in which they are included or excluded.

Remarkably, however, despite all the discussions of poverty at the festival, not a single word was spoken in the service about the way in which disabled people are facing systematic attacks on their livelihoods by a government that is slashing and burning the welfare state.

And over it all hangs the shadow of an incident in 2011, when festivalgoer Ceri Owen was dragged from the festival by police as she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

The most positive interpretation is that Greenbelt organisers overreacted and misunderstood the situation when they called the police. But far from apologising, they continue to defend their behaviour and Ceri has been banned from Greenbelt ever since.

At the same time, she has become an increasingly prominent mental health activist, frequently appearing in the media to speak about cuts to mental health services.

The importance of Greenbelt for promoting progressive views among Christians should not be underestimated. For some LGBT+ Christians in particular, it has literally changed their lives.

But as Ceri’s exclusion demonstrates, when push comes to shove large institutions tend to veer towards self-justification and conventional power dynamics.

Such problems can also be seen in a number of secular left organisations, including certain trade unions. Radical change requires people working at the grassroots from the bottom up.

Thankfully, the more radical punters at Greenbelt will soon be joining in with the large number of protests, vigils and direct actions planned for the run-up to the London arms fair.

Despite Christianity’s many compromises with wealth and privilege, we still have Jesus’s example of standing up to the rich and powerful. The reign of God is not compatible with the power structures of this world.

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Death, mental health and Andreas Lubitz

My first reaction to the news of last week’s aeroplane crash was, of course, horror. Millions of people reacted in a similar way. For the friends and relatives of those killed, the reaction was naturally more intense. It is hard to imagine what they are going through, as for all those bereaved suddenly and without explanation.

The news that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately crashed the plane added a further level of stunned horror. In such a situation, some will naturally seek to understand, others to blame, others to prevent such incidents occurring in future.

Some airlines have said that they will change procedures so that no pilot can lock themselves in and operate the plane alone. While I can’t claim to know much about airline procedures, that seems to be a sensible decision.

In all this discussion, we seem to have forgotten just how rare such incidents are. I mean no disrespect to the dead and bereaved when I say that we should accord just as much respect to the hundreds of people killed every year in British road accidents and of course to the millions around the world who die of hunger and preventable diseases.

We have a hierarchy of death. When someone dies in an unusual way, we ask how to prevent it in future. When death occurs in a way we find routine, we simply allow the routine to continue. Questions of road safety, let alone global hunger, are rarely addressed as urgent questions.

Much of the media reaction to the tragedy in the Alps has been very sensational. But it is far worse than this. In seeking to understand, to blame or to sell newspapers, they have talked of the co-pilot’s mental health in a way that demonises everybody with mental health problems.

It is years since British newspapers produced such prejudiced front page headlines about mental health as we have seen over the last few days.

It has been suggested that Andreas Lubitz should not have been allowed to fly because he was depressed. Let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of people with depression and other mental health problems will never kill anyone. They are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others. The vast majority of people who kill themselves do not kill others with them. Behaviour such as Lubitz’s is very, very rare.

There are some who want to prevent people with mental health problems from holding responsible jobs, or jobs at all. Of course some people with mental ill-health are not able to work. They are as entitled to society’s support and respect as anyone else. Many other people with mental health problems (myself included) have jobs. There are so many of us that much of society would collapse if we were all prevented from working.

Certain newspaper editors and columnists seem to think that people with mental health problems should not be allowed to work, but those same editors and columnists would be the first to complain if such people received benefits as a result of giving up their work.

People with mental health problems are not some distant and scary group. They are people we meet at work, pass in the street, chat to after church. They are people who serve us in cafes and shops, drive our buses, teach our children, treat us when we are sick, preach to us on Sundays and yes, work as aeroplane pilots.

Why I’m helping to block a road

Tomorrow (Monday 9 January), I will join in nonviolent direct action by blocking a central London road in protest against reckless driving and the policies of central and local government. This is why.

On two days each week, I work in a building on the Euston Road in London. Leaving the building at rush hour, I attempt to cross the road to reach Euston station and use the tube. I say “attempt” because this is a far from straightforward procedure.

There are traffic lights, but they make little difference to the movement of vehicles along the road. The cars are usually going very slowly, and when the lights turn to green for pedestrians – and red for traffic – a good many drivers choose to park across the area designated for pedestrians to cross. Getting to the other side of the road can be a perilous matter of squeezing between half-moving cars.

And that’s for me. I walk fairly quickly. For people who walk slowly, or with assistance or not at all, it must be much, much harder. My partner uses a wheelchair, as do several of my friends, and I am well aware that they would not be able to get through many of the spaces through which I squeeze on my mission to get from one side of the road to the other.

Of course, not all London drivers are inconsiderate. Some stay behind the line at traffic lights and are attentive to the needs of others. I really appreciate them.

That should not stop us asking why the authorities are so relaxed when it comes to reckless drivers in the city centre. Spend a few hours in the city and you are likely to find yourself wondering why so many people can get away with driving over zebra crossings when there are pedestrians present, overtaking other drivers when it’s unsafe to do so and treating cyclists and pedestrians with contempt.

The real mystery is why there are so many cars in central London at all. I moved to London in 2005, and I’m told that the number of cars was even higher before the introduction of the congestion charge. Of course, there are some people who do need to drive in central London. People with mobility impairments are particularly likely to need to do so, given the appalling inaccessibility of most of the London Underground. There are those transporting things that would be difficult to carry by public transport, and there are people who may feel nervous about travelling by bus or tube late at night. I am prepared to admit that there may be other good reasons which have not occurred to me.

Nonetheless, the reality is that the majority of people in central London have no need to drive. Much of the time, they are likely to reach their destination at least as quickly on the tube. This glut of pointless driving not only harms the environment but makes life harder for pedestrians and cyclists. It slows down people travelling by bus, as well as those who have a good reason for driving. The inconsiderate behaviour of many (but not all) drivers comes on top of this already scandalous situation.

Despite this, those who defend the interests of the motoring industry have a lot on their side: the government, the opposition, Transport for London and the right-wing newspapers. A recent plan by Westminster Council to introduce new parking charges triggered a reaction laughably out of proportion to reality, with the Evening Standard comparing it to the Poll Tax. Westminster Council’s earlier (and now thankfully defeated) plan to criminalise rough sleeping received relatively little coverage by comparison.

Tory MP Philip Hammond, appointed Transport Secretary in Cameron’s first cabinet, said he was going to end the “war on motorists”. There is no war on motorists. It would be more accurate to say that the “cars above all” lobby are waging a war on pedestrians, a war on cyclists, a war on public transport users and a war on disability rights. Hammond has now become Defence Secretary, an alarming development given his tendency to believe that non-existent wars are being waged against him.

It is possible to challenge the power of the motoring lobby, and the oil industry which benefits from it, without attacking motorists themselves. Vast swathes of rural Britain have no meaningful public transport at all. In much of the UK, people have little choice but to drive cars, given the appalling state of public transport. To suggest that these people should have the opportunity to use a bus or a train is to wage a war in favour ofthem, not against them.

The situation is different in London, where the majority of people have no need to drive. From 6.00pm tomorrow Monday (9 January) I will join other pedestrians, cyclists and disability equality activists in taking nonviolent direct action outside King’s Cross station (where York Way meets Pentonville Road and Euston Road). With the authorities unwilling to control the traffic, we will take measures to control it ourselves. The action is supported by Bikes Alive, Transport for All and the Green candidate for Mayor of London, Jenny Jones. Ethical drivers can support this action as much as cyclists and pedestrians. This is a struggle for dignity and equality.

Coming out as disabled

A few weeks ago, I was sorting through some old papers and came across my first ever published article. It was a piece on Christian attitudes towards mental health, published in the (now defunct) New Christian Herald in October 1998. I was 21. It was several years before I began to make my living from writing.

The topic may surprise people who are familiar with my more recent writing. I haven’t mentioned my mental health problems publicly for a long time. Today is World Mental Health Day, and it seems an appropriate time to talk about them. This is not least because people with mental health problems, like disabled people generally, are under attack from the ConDem government and its cuts agenda.

Ill health is real and can be experienced anywhere. The mental distress I experience is real. Just like physical pain, it can be found in any society and culture. I would much rather not have it. Pain, distress and impairments do not exist solely because of society or culture.

But do they lead to disability? What sort of disability? Whether an impairment is disabling is dependent on society.

A society that stops people with mobility impairments from accessing buildings is disabling them. A culture that treats deaf and blind people as objects of pity is disabling them. An employer that refuses to employ someone with dyslexia is disabling them.

We are disabled by society.

This understanding is commonly known as the social model of disability.

The right-wing press seem intent on further disabling large numbers of people by portraying them as scroungers. The government are forcing benefit claimants to be re-assessed by Atos. Atos know that the government want people to be thrown off benefits. Their willingness to find people fit for work would be comical if the consequences were not so horrific. I recently heard from a partially sighted woman who was told by Atos that she had “no difficulty seeing”. This was the first time that any test on her had reached this conclusion and she was deprived of benefits. In York, a woman was reportedly found fit for work despite being sectioned under the Mental Health Act at the time.

The evidence is not only anecdotal. Around 40% of appeals against Atos decisions have been successful.

David Cameron last week claimed that people had been able to receive disability benefits with “no questions asked”. This is a lie. It’s a measure of this government’s approach to society that it is now considered acceptable to demonise disabled people.

In my early twenties, I did a lot of campaigning on mental health issues. I co-founded the Churches’ Campaign for Awareness of Depression (CCAD). It was a short-lived organisation, but I still think it was worth it. Since then, I’ve campaigned on other issues – such as war, the arms trade, sexuality, education and economic inequality.

I’ve not avoided mentioning mental health, but it’s not been a major focus of my work. It’s still a vital issue in my life. I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I experience anxiety and sometimes panic attacks. In the past, I had depression, but I’ve been very lucky and not experienced depression for some years. The severity and frequency of my mental health problems varies considerably. Sometimes I am really quite ill, while at other times my health is pretty good. I am usually somewhere in between.

My difficulties with mental ill-health have also varied a lot depending on the context of my life and work. When I worked office hours in Monday-Friday jobs, it was much harder to deal with my mental health than it is now that I am mostly freelance and can to a large extent manage my own time.

This style of work has a less disabling effect on me. I can, for example, work in the night if I can’t sleep. I can be more flexible about timing to include things that help my health, such as walking or talking with friends. Most people are not so lucky.

I am less disabled because I am not forced into work patterns that make me more ill. But I am still disabled by society’s prejudices, assumptions, structures and economic set-up. When I describe myself as disabled, I am not putting myself down or asking for pity, but describing my experience of society’s priorities.

It is no surprise that many people prefer not to mention health problems or impairments which are associated with prejudice. Some years ago, when desperately looking for work, I was reluctant to mention my mental health problems when applying for jobs. I don’t judge anyone for choosing not to do so.

But when we can identify ourselves as disabled, we take a stand against the structures that disable us. At this moment in particular, we speak out against the assault on disabled people perpetrated by Cameron and the Daily Mail. We make clear that we mention disability not as a cause of shame or pity, but out of a desire for social change.

Speaking in a different context, the gay US politician Harvey Milk said, “The most political thing you can do is come out”. Today, I am publicly coming out as disabled.