Monday, 22 August 2011

LSD Magazine interviews Activist John Jackson (issue 7)

As the proverbial winds of change sweep afresh through the geopolitical status quo and fan the eternal flames of liberation, John Jackson and Steve Crawshaw have, with a sublime sense of timing published a truly unique book that scythes through the miasmas of the macro and illuminates the core of revolutionary movements. Refreshingly free of anaylsis, commentary and opinion, this seminal book sidesteps the paternalistic and offers up an astonishing array of stories and resonant anecdotes detailing the courage, the symbolism, the raw imagination and the indomitable essence of the human spirit breaking out of the physical and psychological bondage of institutionalised repression. Laden with poignancy, mischief, humor, and profound insight both into the fabric of resistance and the unsung communal heroism of peoples finding their voice despite all the controlling odds, Small Acts of Resistance is revolution from the bottom up.

Can you tell us a little about your campaigning background and some of the projects that you’ve been involved in...

Heading way back in time, my first campaign was Cambodia around 1989. I had studied politics, had a keen interest in international relations and at the time there was no real voice being given to the fact that Cambodia was being represented at the UN by a coalition dominated by the Khmer Rouge. What with no internet reeling off lists of options, I spoke to various campaigners and solidarity groups and on discovering that the issue had no representation, I and a couple of friends set up a small group called Friends of Cambodia which subsequently created a network of 22 affiliated organizations in the UK who all got involved in a letter writing action to the British government. John Pilger’s documentary, Year Zero had just come out and of course The Killing Fields was drawing attention to Cambodia’s plight in cinemas worldwide, so there was a groundswell of public awareness about the genocide, but no specific advocacy – a void we immediately stepped into. During this initial foray, I began learning the skills that I went on to use in the Burma campaign which I founded with another group of people. Also, despite being an atheist, I started working for Christian Aid on the South East Asia desk by day while helping to get the Burma campaign off the ground in my own time.

The first really valuable lesson I learnt was how to raise money for campaign groups, not least because Christian Aid was an agency that directed funding to groups like the ones I was busy setting up. And while many might assume Christian Aid to be a conservative organisation because it is faith based, it was actually one of the most radical aid agencies of the 80’s and 90’s. It housed the South Africa Coalition at the time when Oxfam was brought before the Charity Commission for its activities in South Africa, and its 3 main priorities were frontline Palestine, Cambodia and South Africa. So it was an exciting period and I learned a huge amount over and above the political and development issues. Naturally fund-raising was key, but I also got some training in the framework and logistics of developing campaigns and the techniques required to gain both media publicity and force an issue onto the desks of government departments and parliamentarians. I eventually became head of campaigns at Christian Aid for a short while before going on to direct and help build the Burma Campaign UK.

How much time were you actually spending on the ground in these places and how did the realities differ from your perceptions while working the issues from the UK?

There’s a massive difference. I spent time in Cambodia on assignment for Christian Aid in preparation for its landmines campaign. I travelled to Kompong Thom province in the north of the country where the Khmer Rouge were still pretty active. I saw what was happening there, the trail of destruction, the obstacles to development, lack of funding and the desperate need for an international land mine ban. Part of my job was to bring back stories and images for use in the campaign to ban landmines as well as for raising development money to rehabilitate both the land and the injured, including building alternative livelihoods where necessary. The advocacy I was then working on was very much grounded in the experiences I had just lived and the conversations I had just had. Likewise with Burma where I spent time on the Thai / Burmese border, went across to the liberated zone, met with ethnic leaders and refugees and saw some incredible destruction of villages by the Burmese army near the front line - all of which informed the nature of the work I subsequently did on the campaign.

One thing that stands out there is this idea of bringing back images and stories to help promote – and more importantly, emote the campaign. Was this your first introduction to how powerful individual stories – small acts are when set against a backdrop of statistics. Stalin’s famous quote ‘the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’ springs to mind.’ 

Absolutely. Statistics and dry facts are very abstract for people who haven’t been in a particular situation – they just don’t translate very well. Statistics have their place for think tanks, policy makers and potentially for politicians, but for someone going about their daily business in a Western metropolis, the bigger the statistic and the more abstract the facts, the more difficult it is for them to have some sense of what the experiences of people on the other side of the planet are actually like. Even with the massive advances in communications technology and social media, the communications which tend to have the biggest impact, that really ignite people’s imaginations and dig deep into their powers of empathy tend to be human stories. One of the biggest issues with Palestine for instance is that people are simply not aware of the daily lives of Palestinians. They aren’t aware of an everyday, ongoing, economically suffocating and brutal occupation. What they do finally see is the reaction to an occupation without seeing the occupation itself. Without context the chronology of events and process is shown in reverse, the victim becomes the perpetrator.


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