The Women’s Institute and the Bolshevik tendency

If there are climate talks, then we must be marching. I’ve been coming to the big, annual <a href="h

If there are climate talks, then we must be marching. I’ve been coming to the big, annual Campaign Against Climate Change march for years, and it has been exponentially bigger every time. This year’s event on Saturday was no exception.

The focus of CACC is to press for international agreement on effective carbon dioxide emissions cuts. So, with the US holding this up ever since George Bush took power, the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square is always the focus of activities, either starting or ending the march.

This year, we began with a rally in the square. Seize the Day provided music between speeches from, among others, CACC vice presidents Norman Baker MP, Green MEP Caroline Lucas and writer George Monbiot. George’s speech was the most startling – he warned activists sternly against too much ‘doom and gloom’ in our campaigning.

He pointed out the disturbing fact that erstwhile climate deniers are changing their strategy and attempting to switch from blocking action by pretending there isn’t any problem into blocking action by painting climate change as too far gone to bother. With most sane people now in a mid-position where we recognise the problem at the same time as recognising a lot of really obvious solutions, he argued that we should tone down our rhetoric, be positive and get some action going at last - or we’d be just as culpable for the consequences. Harsh stuff, but it was something fresh we needed to hear.

On the more political side of things, Caroline Lucas warned Tony Blair that the time for delay and fudge was over. She said that failure to negotiate a fair and effective international treaty is morally negligent and called for real UK leadership in negotiations this week at climate talks in Nairobi.

Setting off for Trafalgar Square, I was struck by the vast range of different groups marching together. Along with the familiar CACC greenhouse, Friends of the Earth flags, a big Green Party contingent and of course our own Alliance Against Urban 4×4s' lollipop man, people dedicated to campaigning on individual issues were everywhere.

I tried to emulate John Reed, author of revolutionary epic ‘Ten Days that Shook the World,’ by collecting as many leaflets and postcards as possible and I now have a fine collection of literature from the likes of Plane Stupid, RoadBlock, Group Against Motorway Expansion, Airportwatch, World Naked Bike Ride, Rising Tide, the Vegan Society, Christian Ecology Link, Stop Stansted Expansion, Come Off It, and the DOVE campaign against the Newhaven incinerator (if I missed your group – sorry!)

Also notable was the rising number of political parties in the mix. I saw placards by the Greens, LibDems, Respect, Socialist Workers and even the Bolshevik Tendency being carried, and speakers from the platform at the Embassy also included Zac Goldsmith for the Tories and Labour MPs.

Arriving at Trafalgar Square, all thoughts of party politics were banished, however, as the CACC march joined thousands of people filling the square as part of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition’s ‘I-count’ rally. Groups supporting the coalition are an even more diverse collection than the activists on the march and include the Women’s Institute.

Instinctively piqued at the lack of real political fire coming from the actors, comedians and pop stars on the stage (no politicians were allowed on the bill), I tried to put my feelings aside at the sight of the huge crowd they had brought along to the day’s set of actions, many of whom wouldn’t have felt comfortable with the radical types outside the US Embassy.

Phil Thornhill, the founder of CACC, started this traditional day of action single-handed in 2001 after the USA pulled out of the Kyoto agreement, and it is the sign of a great achievement that this day is now both a mainstream and an international event, adopted by such a wide range of groups and nations.

Forty-eight countries around the world saw demonstrations on Saturday, including 90,000 in Australia and an inaugural event in Taiwan. Maybe soon we’ll see some results.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.