Each year ONCA gallery in Brighton, UK, takes part in an international programme of events as part of Lost Species Day. In 2018 ONCA hosted an artist’s residency and series of events responding to themes of biodiversity, racial justice, and environmental justice. This was curated by Imani Robinson, artist and member of SYFU (sorryyoufeeluncomfortable) Collective.
As part of this series Mads Ryle of the Democracy Center hosted a talk and discussion with Joshua Virasami of Black Lives Matter UK and art historian TJ Demos, Director of the Center for Creative Ecologies. The audio recordings and accompanying transcripts are divided into three parts. In Part Three Joshua responds to questions from the audience in the gallery.
MADS: Thanks everyone for sticking with us, I hope you have been enjoying the conversation so far. We’re just going to carry on with a kind of conversation between us now. So please feel free to ask questions about anything you’ve heard so far or anything you haven’t heard so far but would like to hear. Have we got anyone from the audience who’d like to kick things off in this second part?
FEN: I thought it might be interesting but also a bit edgy possibly to think about why the environmental movement is reluctant to – is so white, and is reluctant to become more intersectional in this moment.
[sorry, I didn’t hear the question would you like me to? – no I am happy to -]
MADS: It would be interesting if we push ourselves to think about why the environmental movement is so white and so resistant to being intersectional.
JV: I haven’t had much time to think about it. But something I’ve been thinking about and talking about recently with other people is that it is important to understand the genealogies of the places we organise in. And I don’t think – actually one of my friends is writing an article on this that kind of touches on this stuff, and she’s like, there’s not much research into what the genealogy of the environmental movement in the UK is. What the people who’ve been part of Reclaim the Power or Climate Camps, or different parts of the environmental movement – what are the schools they’ve come from? So my answer is that I think we need to do more looking, more introspection and understanding the genealogies of our movements here, to understand. To look at the constitution of a movement you have to understand where it came from. I mean, the only way you can understand me is to know who my parents were to understand why I’m non-white. I think, from what I do understand – well I mean, I want to invite, does anyone know a bit more about the genealogies of the movement here? And maybe you are also talking about why it remains that way? I think. Let’s take the Extinction Rebellion as an example –
FEN: – I guess specifically the resistance –
JV: To want to do that? Well I can’t speak about that because I am not one of those white people who are resisting that, and if you are a white person here who does resist that then if you are brave enough to speak about – maybe you’ve changed and your understanding has changed and you can speak about that. But, one of the things I’ve been told, so, from somebody who – Extinction Rebellion – I think there’s good things and there’s bad things, I think it’s a wide movement and I’m for it flourishing. That’s where I come from, I come from a place of love with it. So people who were involved with it in its first iteration – because it follows a methodology whereby it’s trying to come up with new iterations that catch a moment, and then the fire goes and it’s part of the momentum methodology for people who don’t know it. In the beginning the people who were involved with it that I know were pushing for it to be intersectional and for it to be taking on – and they themselves were working in parts of the climate movement where they were pushing forward the narrative and trying to really broaden how the climate movement speaks. That force of how the climate movement speaks is something that has its own momentum.
I was in – can I say this? – I was in a big NGO the other day, a big environmental NGO, that was meeting with myself and the team I work with in a creative studio, and they’re like, ‘We wanna do a new project which the outreach is a video and we really want to think about how we speak, and as this big environmental NGO who we are speaking to, and how we are speaking and how we include people’. This thing had its own legs. And in Extinction Rebellion that was there, but by the time it came to the second or third iteration, that had been abandoned. And the logic was that it was too cumbersome. It’s too, it’s – we were speaking about it before, it feels to some people like you’re trying to put a square in a circle, and if you have a methodology for example that’s about speed and momentum, literally, then that can seem like a difficult task, and it is a difficult task. To think about how to be intersectional – and I want to say that I don’t think intersectionality is a perfect theory – to be that way, to rework, because the trajectory of the environmental movement is from where it’s come, and a lot of it comes from anarchist movements and the trajectory is towards more whiteness. So it’s hard work and I think for some people – and I am going to put my neck on the line, I don’t have much research – I think it’s quite cumbersome, and especially with Extinction Rebellion, from what I’ve come to understand is, that it’s quite cumbersome and therefore out the window.
MADS: I wonder if I can just come back on some of that. Because I know you’ve done a lot of thinking and talking about movements, about how they operate, about how they can be kind of more effective in the way they come together, the role of organising within that. And so, just to kind of maybe push this conversation in a, you know, a sort of a constructive direction, and think about what the ways of organising that could be brought in that could address some of that. Just to pick up on what you were saying there about kind of the cumbersomeness, the cumbersomeness and the speed and all of that. Cos it’s interesting, Extinction Rebellion is something that’s based on direct action and getting bodies on the streets, and something that’s physically present, but at the same time its speed has relied on the way it’s moved through digital networks. And that, I don’t know, like is there a tension there around this cumbersomeness? That bringing lots of things together under one umbrella when in a speedy digital world you want to have one clear aim, you don’t want to muddy the waters, so you want to keep things clean in terms of what your aims are, you don’t want to make it too complex. So, yeah, and I think, how all those considerations relate to this question of how we organise and what the spaces are that do that and can address some of these things we are talking about today.
JV: I didn’t fully understand.
MADS: To simplify: to – just really, what are – in terms of movement building – what are some of the ways of organising that you think could address some of the things we’re talking about here, and which could produce (for want of a better term) a kind of more intersectional approach within – maybe not within the environmental movement because we don’t need to necessarily to have those things within an pre-existing environmental movement. But what is a way of organising that addresses all of these simultaneous concerns? You don’t have to have all the answers!
JV: I think… I think one of the answers is to explore what solidarity means to you in your organisation. Um, So take time to think about what that means, and what that means in terms of your practice. If you are an environmental organisation, I think, I feel like it’s natural, or you are a group that’s doing campaigning, I think it’s natural, for me solidarity would mean for example housing struggles in this country. They’re mainly about secure, quality, secure and quality housing. And that touches on in so many ways environmental racism. When I was born, I was born onto a tower block in West London that historically has had a lot of, a big migrant community, because it’s next to the largest sewage works in England. And that’s not accidental. So when we talk about secure, quality housing, we are talking about housing estates that are next to the busiest roads, we’re talking about environmental racism, we’re talking about the environment.
When we’re talking about – if you look – I’m just going through some of the biggest movements here – some of the movements that I know around me, Decolonising the University, a lot of people are doing work around the university. Today we’ve heard about knowledge systems, and how knowledge systems are where it starts when we talk about the destruction of the environment and dominant epistemologies. So the work of Decolonise the University is intricately tied to the environmental work.
Or if we are talking about war and neocolonialism and global justice. That is intricately – the depleted uranium – for example, my family is from Mauritius and there is an island next to that called Chabos Island and there’s a place called Diego Marcia, which is where there is a US military base. And to build the US military base they pushed people off that island and those people are now migrants. And actually if we are looking at their struggles against the hostile environment here, the biggest cause of forced displacement in the next 50 years is going to be climate change. For me, that work is about just looking around you and finding the connections between the movements around you here. There is far more commonality in the struggles than there are differences, and I think that instead Extinction Rebellion made a Muslim Facebook group, a Women’s Facebook group, a Black and POC Facebook group. That’s just shit. Like, when you could instead go about and be speaking to these different struggles. And be like, look, there is so much common cause here, and if we don’t do it now there is going to be far more common cause later down the line. We should be finding ways to come together because the forces of capital will come together, they don’t give a fuck, they’ll come together, even if they have so many tangential opinions they will find ways to work together. But for some reason we struggle to do that. I think Mandela always said that – the five fingers made the fist. I don’t know if that answers your question.
MADS: You’ve raised more interesting things.
Q: I thought I could maybe give insight into the Climate Camp movement 2006-2011. It was a pretty organically amorphous group made up a lot of different political approaches and agendas that really kind of embraced this reaching out. The kind of mission was to create a mass movement. Which kind of happened for a while, but then everyone burned out… It was interesting, I think, to observe how that movement kind of flowed out from the G8/G20 ways of organising, and the processes of like, camping as a process, was something that flowed from the student movement in the 60s. A lot of the decentralised processes of mass meetings and creating kind of universities in a field. You know, basically about two weeks of international talks and people in an interesting forum, and diverse – not as diverse as it should have been – that’s probably just a reflection on privilege and the usual patterns of dominance.
Q: So, sorry, what you were talking about there was present in ‘99 at the WTO protests as well. Certainly that way that different groups converged on the City and then ended up having big meetings, things like Open Space and these new decentralised ways of working were present in that.
Q: It certainly felt like a handing down of activist kind of support as well – more experienced people, you know, how to deal with the police, that sort of awareness and knowledge, that legal knowledge…
Q: You were saying earlier where the whole ecological, where environmentalism comes from in this country. I’m wondering how far back you want to go? Because eventually we end up with Beatrix Potter and the National Trust and er, movements that are very much organised from the top down by wealthy people deciding that certain bits of land should stay as they are. And it’s only in the 50s and 60s that we get alternative voices coming in, other classes being involved in the movement.
MADS: Yeah, and I think it’s think always interesting to think about how useful this term ‘environmentalism’ is. I don’t know if you want to come back…?
JV: Yes, just to that point. I think there is something else in that. There’s the purposeful – for example the cumbersome thing – but then there’s the, shall we say, the accidental – which is like, how you organise can be exclusive and exclusionary. Like – this is absolutely no shame meant on, for example, Grow Heathrow – but – I live down there and I know lots of people who live round there and a lot of people from parts of the world that are impacted by that. So maybe it was how long the meetings were? Was there childcare? What time of day? How accessible was it to working class people in the area? Is it in the community centre? Is it not at the community centre? Is the dialogue inclusive of – does it have reference points for – people that are from different parts of the world? Are people speaking slowly so that people for whom English isn’t a first language they can understand it? I think there’s a lot of accidental things we do in the movement – which is itself totally middle class – that is exclusionary. And then, so many times in the meetings, that Friends of the Earth thing, when they’re like, ‘We just don’t know why there’s no people of colour here.’ I almost feel like you haven’t had the introspection. And I said, what about that Bangladeshi community you’ve been talking about? You know, have you found ways to link up with them and find out what they know about how they’ve found ways to resist and work with… climate change? No we haven’t. Yeah, so I think there’s those accidental things as well.
Q: I’ve got maybe like two points. So, one of my questions is around exclusionary tactics involved in activism. Cos I always thought that one of the reasons that groups like Extinction Rebellion was quite exclusive and quite white is that their tactics heavily involve, like, mass arrests. Which is a thing that people in precarious situations – specifically people of colour, um, and immigrants – can’t always be a part of. Cos, obvious reason, plus police brutality. Like, have you been in any conversations with those sorts of groups to address that issue? But also, I always found it really weird when, I guess with the Rebellion it was a big thing that there were so many white people who were prepared to put their like, their lives on the line for this issue, but when it came to things like Black Lives Matter and where we probably would have needed white people on the front lines, people who are less likely to be arrested or face police brutality, those people weren’t there. And yeah, is there, like, is there any conversation about that, around solidarity? And how we could also, like, yeah, show solidarity both ways, in both situations?
JV: It is terribly, terribly sad. The one way or no way solidarity between different movements here, and in particular I guess between the environmental movement and, er, various social justice movements here. Um, I remember there was the annual UFFC March – does anyone know about that, the annual UFFC March? Good, you’re not the only person, does anyone else know about the annual UFFC March? Wicked. The UFFC are the United Friends and Families Campaign. They’re a campaign made up of the families and loved ones of people who’ve died in police custody. Since 1990 over 1650 people have died in police custody in this country, and the figure goes to over 5000 if you’re talking about people who’ve died in prison as well, which is also in state custody.
And on that date did the annual procession. And the annual procession never garners more than 3 or 400 people, several hundred people max, right. It’s, it’s unbelievable. It’s been going on for 25 years. And on that day there was a huge, like, march for animal rights and stuff. I won’t go into it, but the engagement between the two was horrific. And yeah. I don’t know what to say other than that it’s pretty tragic. In terms of the lack of engagement between the two. In terms of exclusionary tactics, it’s a funny thing, because one of the things Extinction Rebellion says is that they call upon the tradition of the civil rights movement in that they employ mass arrests. Um, but it is very de-contextualised how they speak about it, and the point it played, the point in time it played temporarily in that movement was very important, and the way the jails are figured there is very important. And it gets worse with how people at the core of that movement have spoken about what it’s like to be arrested. You know, comparing it to, um, holiday. Saying that, one of the core organisers saying that it’s like taking a holiday from the wife and kids. Which is horrific, which for me just demonstrates that you have not had conversations with prison justice movements in this country. You have not. Cos the reality of prisons in this country is that there are a lot of old Victorian prisons. And the ones in Birmingham where they have had riots recently are just despicable conditions that people are living in in those prisons. So there is clearly a non-communication between a lot of organisers in various parts of the movement here. There is a lot of interesting dialogue happening, for example, like what happened today, all around the country around what it means to have a deeper solidarity based environmentalism, and that movement – or the organisers of that movement to be clear – circumnavigated that conversation, and said rather than dig in and take this, we are going to just go and employ this methodology that also has its own context from the US where it was built. It’s just a shame really, it’s just a shame. But from what I understand, a lot of people… So there’s the organisers, and then there’s the participants, and a lot of the participants are having very, very fruitful, er, workshops and facilitated conversations about how to respond to the critiques and the constructive criticisms of the movement itself. I think there’s an awareness growing.
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