Monday, 31 May 2010

Concern for Scots on Gaza aid flotilla

At least three Scots are understood to have been on an aid ship which was stormed by Israeli commandos as it sailed towards Gaza.

More than 10 people were killed when the six-strong flotilla of boats was intercepted in international waters.

The largest vessel in the flotilla was boarded by soldiers who fired at some of the 500 people on board.

Scotland's Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Israel's actions had been "rightly condemned around the world".

The Israeli government has said its forces were shot at and attacked with weapons when they boarded the ship overnight.

Ms Sturgeon called on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza, and expressed her "deep sadness" at the loss of life on the flotilla.

Continue reading the main story

"On his last posting on Facebook he made mention that Israeli ships were spotted on the radar and since then we have heard nothing from him"
Haq Ghani
Father of Hassan Ghani

She added: "My primary concern is for the safety of the Scots that are on board. The Israeli government must provide immediate reassurance of their current situation and well-being.

"This use of violence against a humanitarian convoy carrying medicine and other aid is being rightly condemned across the world and demonstrates the increasing need for Israel to lift the blockade.

"The blockade of Gaza is causing untold suffering to ordinary Palestinians who want to go about their everyday lives in peace and must be brought to an end."

Ms Sturgeon said she had heard reports that at least three Scots were involved.

Among the Scots believed to have been on the vessel when it was boarded was journalist and documentary maker Hassan Ghani, 24, a former Stirling University student from Glasgow.

He added: "I am extremely angry, dismayed and shocked upon hearing about the deplorable loss of life upon the peace flotilla, as a result of typically disproportionate and aggressive actions by the Israeli Defence Forces.

"On a personal note, my family and I are fraught with worry for our son. On his last posting on Facebook he made mention that Israeli ships were spotted on the radar and since then we have heard nothing from him.

"I have been in touch with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but they have not heard any more information from the Israeli government."

Also understood to have been on the ship was Theresa McDermott, a Scottish activist with the Free Gaza campaign group.

Last year, 43-year-old Ms McDermott was found in Ramleh prison four days after being forcibly removed from a sea-borne Lebanese aid mission to Gaza.

Scottish Palestinian Forum secretary Alison Phillips said: "I know Theresa McDermott personally from my own involvement and met her in the Scottish Parliament only last month.

"This morning's attack on the flotilla took place in international waters and was thus a grave violation of both international maritime and humanitarian law.

"I ask that the Israeli ambassador be summoned to the Foreign Office to explain these actions."

Protests against Israel's action were due to be held in Glasgow and Edinburgh on Monday afternoon.

The flotilla, which was carrying some 10,000 tonnes of aid, left the coast of Cyprus on Sunday and had been due to arrive in Gaza on Monday.

It was attempting to defy a blockade imposed by Israel after the Islamist movement Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007.

Israel had repeatedly said the boats would not be allowed to reach Gaza.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Homicidal New Orleans Cops

Katrina: Danziger Bridge Cover-Up Exposed

Workers Vanguard No. 959

21 May 2010

The notorious New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has been so flagrantly kill-crazy since Hurricane Katrina that newly elected mayor Mitch Landrieu called in the federal Justice Department earlier this month to help “clean up” the NOPD. Last year, the Feds raided the NOPD’s homicide department as part of investigations into killings by the cops on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge, six days after the hurricane, as well as their subsequent cover-up and other atrocities that had been exposed in the national media. Almost five years after the events, with the statute of limitations set to expire, four former police officers pleaded guilty in federal court to charges relating to the shootings on Danziger Bridge. But these federal investigations are not about “justice”; they are a con game to rehabilitate the NOPD and “help repair the enormous breach in public trust the department now faces,” in the words of an editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (25 February). It’s all so the NOPD can better do its job of terrorizing working people, the black poor and just about everyone else.

Hurricane Katrina threw a spotlight on the reality of black oppression in the U.S. and exposed the venality, class arrogance and utter ineptitude of the capitalist government at all levels, from the mayor on up to the White House. In the hurricane’s wake, the raw violence at the core of the capitalist state was stripped of its democratic facade as a tidal wave of police and white vigilante terror was unleashed against black New Orleans residents. National television broadcasts of thousands of desperate survivors trapped in the Convention Center evoked the horrors of the Middle Passage. Barely a day after the flooding, the government and its media mouthpieces made the victims out as “criminals,” spreading vile tales of black looters and rapists (while white residents resourcefully “found” food and water and cops helped themselves to Cadillacs from a local dealership).

Fanning this racist hysteria, Ray Nagin, then the black Democratic mayor, ranted, “Anybody who is caught looting in the city of New Orleans will go directly to Angola,” one of the U.S.’s most notorious prisons. “God bless you if you are there,” he warned. The authorities wasted no time in constructing a prison camp in the parking lot of the Greyhound bus station—the notorious “Camp Greyhound”—using Angola prison labor. The warden from Angola prison declared that this was the first step in the rebuilding of New Orleans: “You can’t have the security until you have the jail” (see “Notes on New Orleans” by Joe Vetter, WV No. 955, 26 March).

Introducing its investigative series “Law and Disorder: Police Shootings in the Week After Hurricane Katrina,” the Times-Picayune (12 December 2009) wrote, “New Orleans police shot 10 civilians, at least four of whom died, according to interviews and internal police documents.... In the week after Katrina, New Orleans police killed and wounded as many people as they do in a typical year.” At least eleven black men were hunted down by white “militia” patrolling the Algiers district with the support of the NOPD. The 2006 Danish documentary Welcome to New Orleans shows one vigilante gloating, “It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.” These killings are only the ones that have been documented. With the massive police and state cover-up, the extent of the deadly racist frenzy probably will never be known.

Most notorious are the shootings at Danziger Bridge, where, according to the New York Times (5 May), police accounts describe “the strafing of unarmed civilians.” The Times-Picayune (18 February 2007) recounted:

“Shooting victims and police agree on only a few points: that about 9 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2005, six people were shot by police, five of them on the eastern side of the Danziger Bridge. The Bartholomew family—Leonard Bartholomew III, his wife, Susan, and their teenage daughter, Lesha—jumped behind a concrete barrier with a relative, Jose Holmes, and his friend, Brissette. The four survivors were repeatedly hit by police bullets: Susan’s right arm was partially blasted off, Lesha had four wounds, while Leonard was shot in the head, back and left heel.”

James Brissette died on the spot. He was 19 years old and, according to the police report, he had seven gunshot wounds to his arms, neck, buttocks and leg. The family had been trying to get to a Winn-Dixie grocery store on the other side of the bridge. Also heading east were two brothers, Lance and Ronald Madison. They ran over the bridge to flee the shooting; Ronald was shot and killed by a cop in the driveway of the former Friendly Inn Motel at the foot of the bridge. He was 40 years old and, according to his family, mentally disabled. Lance Madison was arrested on trumped-up charges of attempted murder.

Police lieutenant Michael Lohman arrived at the bridge shortly after the killings, along with a host of other police, and instantly began to orchestrate the cover-up, including making sure that the gun cops planted at the scene was not traceable (the victims were all unarmed) and rewriting the official report to be more plausible. In the Times-Picayune (7 March), reporter James Gill described how Lohman played an instrumental role in protecting the cops from murder charges in 2008 related to the Danziger Bridge shootings. Lohman claimed he was shown secret grand jury testimony by an assistant district attorney, leading the judge to dismiss the case. Gill noted that the other assistant DA working the case, who was at the meeting where Lohman was allegedly shown the transcript, “says it just didn’t happen. It was just a ploy to get Lohman’s men off the hook.” Later, Lohman became the first cop to plead guilty to the federal charges over the shootings.

Three other cop shootings the week after Katrina were investigated in depth in the Times-Picayune series. Police shot Danny Brumfield Sr., a black 45-year-old grandfather, in the back outside the Convention Center and left him to die. Matthew McDonald, a white man, was also fatally shot in the back by a cop with an AR-15 assault rifle; cops told McDonald’s relatives that an unknown murderer had done it. Keenon McCann, a black man standing by a bottled water truck, was shot multiple times. Police claimed he had a gun, though it was never found. He survived his injuries; when he was released from the hospital, police sought to jail him for aggravated assault. The Times-Picayune (12 December 2009) reported that, in the period immediately following Hurricane Katrina, the NOPD superintendent “instructed police on the scenes of officer-involved shootings to write up only a brief report and mark the incident as ‘NAT,’ the police code for ‘necessary action taken’.”

The Feds are also looking at the death of 31-year-old Henry Glover, a case first brought to light by the Nation in December 2008. Glover was shot by an unknown person four days after the hurricane. When a helpful passer-by, William Tanner, drove him to a nearby school commandeered by the NOPD, Tanner was handcuffed and beaten by the cops, who confiscated the car with Glover in it, still alive. Weeks later, Tanner found his car, burnt out with Glover’s charred remains still inside, behind a district police station.

The New Orleans Police Department has a long, sordid record of brutal racist murder and cover-up. This is not a matter of “rogue cops”; any illusion that the NOPD, or any other arm of the capitalist state, can be reformed is dangerously misguided. The police street thugs are a force of organized violence to protect the capitalists’ class rule and private property. As for the Feds, look at their history of setting up civil rights activists for murder, from Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965 to the Greensboro, North Carolina, massacre of leftist anti-Klan demonstrators in 1979. In the U.S., a country founded on chattel slavery, the ruling class depends on the forcible segregation of the overwhelming majority of the black population at the bottom of society, inflaming racial divisions to keep the working class divided and misled. It will take a socialist revolution to end the savage exploitation and brutal racial oppression of capitalist class rule and the barbarism through which it is enforced. Our purpose is to build the workers party necessary to lead the proletariat in that struggle.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Defiant Red Shirts go back to their home villages

The Red Shirts have returned to their home villages, leaving Thailand wondering whether they will be able to re-start the protests which ended in bloodshed and destruction.

By Ian MacKinnon in Chiang Mai province and Damien McElroy in Bangkok
Published: 5:36PM BST 22 May 2010 DAILY TELEGRAPH

The Red Shirt protesters came home like a conquering army, fists punching the air as their trains drew into Chiang Mai railway station. Photo: REUTERS

They came home like a conquering army, fists punching the air as their trains drew into Chiang Mai railway station.

Music was blaring from loudspeakers and red flags fluttered bravely from the carriage windows as their waiting families cheered.

The defiance shown by defeated Red Shirts returning to the north from the capital Bangkok showed their spirit remains undaunted - strong enough perhaps to mount a new attempt to overthrow Thailand's elite, even though last week their 10 week protest was ruthlessly crushed by soldiers.

Thais were asking last night whether the Red Shirt movement was finished - or whether it will spring back into life, perhaps in a more violent form.

"This is not the end for the Red Shirts," said widow Malanee Boongen, 49, with steely-eyed coolness.

"Red Shirt members are still all over the country in every province. Nothing has changed. It's going to continue. I will go on fighting because in my heart I want democracy, and this government isn't democratic."

The focus of their anger is Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, branded a murderer by the Red Shirts for sending in Thailand's Army.

As an uneasy peace descended on Bangkok this weekend, the Eton-educated prime minister made an attempt to reassure by offering a five-point reconciliation plan.

He optimistically suggested that he could now lead the shocked nation back to an economic recovery and social harmony.

For now the protests have ended. Most of the 22 members of the leadership committee are in custody.

So is Jeff Savage, a 48-year from London who joined the Red Shirts' protests.

Thais are nervously wondering how many supporters will rally to the Red Shirt standard if protests start again.

But the Red Shirts have recovered from setbacks before, and in the rice paddies and pretty villages around Chiang Mai, a northern city and Red Shirt stronghold, the mood was far from harmonious.

Thousands of protesters who spent months camped in central Bangkok have gone back to their little farms and day labourer jobs. They thought they were close to victory, so now few are willing to accept the old order - even though the violence left the ordinary peasant supporters of the Red Shirts deeply shocked.

Rice farmer Somanat Upala, 47, pawned his wife's gold jewellery to pay for living expenses and petrol for his pickup truck to drive the nearly 400 miles between the Red Shirts' camp in Bangkok's shopping centre and his little farm, where he returned every few weeks to tend his crops.

"I haven't got the jewellery back yet, and won't until we get the money from the harvest," he said.

Weeks in the Red Shirts' camp, behind barricades of sharpened stakes, heightened his hatred of a government which panders to Bangkok's metropolitan elite, he believes.

He wants what he calls "true democracy" - one that treats all Thais equally - and so do farmers throughout impoverished villages in the north, places which have seen little of the economic growth Thailand's cities have enjoyed in recent years.

Mr Somanat, who watched the final stages of the struggle last week on television, was shocked when the army turned its guns on his friends and comrades, killing around 50 of them.

But he was also horrified when looters and hooligans afterwards burnt 39 buildings in Bangkok - banks, shopping centres and the stock exchange.

"When I saw those scenes on television of the burning buildings I initially cheered," said Mr Somanat. "But afterwards I began to realise it was not good and totally at odds with the non-violent path we had mapped out. It definitely damaged us."

Jamalat Looma, 53, another rice farmer in Nhong Sae village, was also defiant. "What happened in Bangkok will only stiffen our resolve and make us stronger," he said.

He even predicted an armed struggle, a fear that haunts Thailand, although so far there is little evidence to suggest it may happen.

The political awakening in the countryside began with the election of the billionaire telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra - an unlikely champion of the downtrodden - and gathered momentum after the coup that pushed him out of power.

Two successive elected governments made up of Thaksin loyalists were removed from office by disputed court rulings, then Abhisit Vejjajiva's minority Democrat Party was ushered into power in back-room deals brokered by the military - causing outrage among the rural poor who flocked to a growing political movement.

Adding to the Red Shirts’ anger, the offer of a November election made by the prime minister a few weeks ago in hopes of ending the protest was withdrawn because they insisted on a government minister being sacked.

Had they settled for that deal, they could have claimed victory - but now there is no prospect of a national vote.

"Our movement has gone beyond Thaksin Shinawatra," said Mr Jamalat. "We want democracy."

Thais fear that the protests could now move to their strongholds in the north and east. Even before the protests of the past month, Northern cities saw demonstrations of 100,000 people earlier this year.

Now security forces have been beefed up in case big street protests break out in cities like Chiang Mai, where there have been only sporadic outbreaks of protest and a few arson attacks in the past week.

In Bangkok, where a billion dollars of damage was wreaked in an orgy of violence throughout the city, the Red Shirts were blamed.

A week ago the Yum and Dum Thai cuisine restaurant, in a glittering hive of expensive shops and restaurants called Central World Tower, was one of the hottest places to eat in Bangkok.

Now it is a charred wreck after a fierce blaze on the floor above.

"My restaurant really was a place where Bangkok families, as well as expats and tourists, wanted to come and hang out at the weekend," said the owner Sorat Wongphaet, a wealthy Bangkok businessman aged 39.

Thais fear that as much harm has been done in the past week to the economy as was caused in the 2004 tsunami, with tourist numbers slumping and foreign investors eyeing Thailand warily.

"The hurt that Thaksin and the Red Shirts has caused is beyond imagination," Mr Sorat said. What he has done is to put himself in a position to divide and rule. He is using all his money to come back to power - it is scary."

Mont Faichanda, 40, a party organiser whose business has suffered, compared the past week in Bangkok to the effects of the attacks on New York in 2001 - the great buildings in the heart of the city blackened and wrecked, the acrid smell of burning, and ash covering the pavements.

"People from parts of society that have been suppressed for centuries have been made aware and want to be more equal," she said.

"The system needs an overhaul from the bribery and networking culture to one in which fairness is rewarded."

Thittinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said that what happens next will depend largely whether the government can deal with the greivances of the countryside.

"If it doesn't, that will bring into question whether Mr Abhisit is the right man to supervise the reconciliation.

"The early signs aren't good. There's vindictiveness in the air."

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Bangkok in flames as protesters refuse to back down

Bangkok is in flames as the government admits it lost control when protesters set fire to key buildings in the city following a day of running battles with troops which left 12 dead and 60 injured.

Damien McElroy and Ian MacKinnon in Bangkok
Published: 8:45PM BST 19 May 2010

Rioters set fires at the stock exchange, electricity headquarters, banks and government offices. Siam Theatre, a much loved city institution, collapsed in flames. Hundreds of people had to be rescued from the burning headquarters of Channel 3 television. The death toll since fresh outbreaks of violence on Thursday now stands at 51.

The government issued "shoot on site" orders for a dawn raid as troops tried to disperse 2,000 Red Shirts who had been camped in Rajprasong, the capital's premier shopping and office district, for more than six weeks.

Seven of the Red Shirt leaders surrendered to police but militant gangs waged an arson and looting spree. The vast Central World shopping centre was torched as government troops shot to kill in a last ditch effort to defend it.

When the army finally marched cautiously into the protesters' former stronghold they discovered that the 2,000 strong crowd had dwindled to one woman.

Kuesadee Narukan, an elderly nurse, stood holding a red flag in the deserted arena. The sound system remained on and rice was cooking on the boilers. "I am not afraid. I am ready for my punishment," she said. "I am a fighter for democracy.

A few lame stragglers on the makeshift beds were arrested. The others had left for a sports stadium to be loaded on to buses for home.

A Red Shirt commander yesterday said that the violence would continue. "All this area will burn and wherever I go I am okay because the army is fighting ghosts far behind me," the self-styled Commander Toei said. "They are attacking the Red Shirt stage but all of Bangkok is supporting our effort."

An offer of early elections from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a 45-year old Old Etonian, has failed to defuse the impasse. In a televised address last night Mr Abhisit said that he would "get through" the crisis and "return peace" to the country.

"I would like people to feel confident that my government, all officials and I strongly intend to get through this and we will return peace to the country and recover", he said.

A curfew from 8pm to 6am was in place last night to stop the violence but there were doubts it would hold. With the police acting as bystanders, the army is the only force that can impose order street-by-street during the first curfew in 18 years.

In a mark of how widespread trouble had become the curfew was later extended to 23 province.

The protesters wants the dissolution of parliament and rehabilitation of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister deposed in 2006.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister who commands the loyalty of the Red Shirts, was however officially branded a terrorist last night.

Mr Thaksin yesterday denied he had control of the Red Shirts and said: "A military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas."

International concern over the violence in Thailand has grown more acute. Japan became the latest nation to call for a negotiated solution and the Foreign Office has strongly advised against all travel to the country.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Death of rebel Thai general sparks fears of renewed violence in Bangkok

Thai redshirt leader Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, who died in hospital this morning. KPA/Zuma/Rex Features

Death of rogue Thai general sparks fears of renewed violence in Bangkok

General known as Seh Daeng dies five days after being shot by sniper as redshirts call for monarch to intervene in crisis

Associated Press in Bangkok, Monday 17 May 2010 07.57 BST

A rogue army officer who became a figurehead for Thailand's anti-government protesters died in hospital today after being shot in the head by a sniper five days ago.

Major General Khattiya Sawasdiphol, known as Seh Daeng, was accused of creating a paramilitary force for the redshirt protesters. His shooting on Thursday triggered five days of street fighting between redshirts and the army in central Bangkok, and his death raises fears of renewed violence.

"Seh Daeng has accomplished his duty. All of us here have the duty to carry on the quest for justice," a redshirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said. He said that only intervention by Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej could now end the violence.

The 82-year-old monarch, who has been in hospital since September, has remained publicly silent on the crisis, in contrast to previous outbreaks of bloodshed after which he intervened.

The redshirts have been protesting since mid-March demanding the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the dissolution of parliament and new elections.

The Thai military has defended its use of force, and the government flatly rejected protesters' demands that the United Nations intercede to end the chaos.

Rapid gunfire and explosions echoed before dawn today outside luxury hotels bordering the barricaded protest zone, where the military has attempted to seal-in thousands of demonstrators camping in the downtown streets. Guests at the upscale Dusit Thani hotel were rushed to the basement for safety, and the management asked all guests to check out by noon.

Reporters at the scene said gunfire came both from government forces and protesters holed up inside the encampment who appear to have stockpiled a sizable arsenal of weapons.

Yesterday, towering plumes of black smoke hung over city streets where protesters set fire to tires, fired homemade rockets and threw gasoline bombs at soldiers who used rubber bullets and live ammunition to pick off rioters who approached their lines. Leaders of the protesters said they wanted talks mediated by the UN, provided the government agreed to an immediate ceasefire and pulled its troops back.

However, government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said a pause was unnecessary since troops were "not using weapons to crack down on civilians." The government maintains it is targeting only armed "terrorists" among the demonstrators.

Authorities insisted they would continue the crackdown aimed at choking off the redshirts, who have occupied a square-mile (3 sq km) protest zone – barricaded by tires and bamboo spikes – in one of Bangkok's upmarket areas since early April. Soldiers have encircled the core protest site and cut off utilities to the area. Protest leaders told women and children with them to move to a Buddhist temple compound within the zone.

The political conflict is Thailand's deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deepens divides in this nation of 65 million – a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Thailand has long been considered a democratic oasis in Southeast Asia, and the unrest has shaken faith in its ability to restore and maintain stability.

According to government figures, 65 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the redshirts began their protests in March. The toll includes 36 killed, most of them civilians, and 266 wounded since Thursday in fighting that has turned parts of central Bangkok into a battleground.

Days of prolonged fighting and disruption to normal city life have taken their toll on Bangkok residents. Most shops, hotels and businesses near the protest area are shut and long lines formed at supermarkets outside the protest zone as people rushed to stock up on food. The city's two mass transit trains remained closed.

The government announced a public holiday in Bangkok on Monday and Tuesday.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The 2010 General Election: Is This Coalition the "Change" that the People Were Promised?

Workers' Daily Internet Edition

David Cameron last night visited the Queen who asked him to form a government. This is the way things work in this archaic system where formally authority still lies with the monarch in parliament.

Having failed to sort out a champion of the ruling elite through the process of the election, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is the best that the powers-that-be could come up with, discrediting Gordon Brown and his Labour government in the process. This coalition is what is being presented as "new" in the present circumstances.

It is a reflection of the depth of the crisis of the system and of the political process that this is the final outcome. The Lib Dem surge could not come up with the goods, nor could the portrayal of Cameron as the "heir to Blair". The electorate were too fearful of what a Conservative government might bring in terms of attacks on the working class and people to provide Cameron with an overall majority. Equally, the Lib Dems could not provide themselves with that credibility that might have enabled them to challenge the status quo. Instead, there is three-party government with a vengeance, with the Lib Dems not even simply playing the role of splitting the vote against a party seen as embodying the status quo, but of allying with it to join in overseeing the anti-social offensive. Deals have been brokered, and cabinet positions carved up.

Thus, in the name of providing a stable government, there is to be an outright pro-war and anti-social alliance. Meanwhile, New Labour will try and regroup, come back with even fresher faces than Cameron and Clegg, and provide a modernised version of the "Third Way" of Tony Blair. It could be said that the ruling elite failed to find a credible alternative to champion the anti-social offensive, but that the forces of the people in building their own pro-social and anti-war alternative were not yet strong enough to make serious headway with the new arrangements of democratic renewal. There were as yet too many voices of protest which still get caught up in the old politics. The ruling elite could be said to have worked for a hung parliament or minority government, as the only thing to do when no champion for them could be found.

Nevertheless, the trend of candidates standing to challenge the Westminster cartel continued to gather momentum during this election, and overall the vote for these candidates increased. Interestingly, where this trend was the most organised, in the South Shields constituency, the advance, rather than being seen in the number of votes for the Fight for an Anti-War Government candidate, was seen in the consolidation of the new arrangements and in the deepening of the consciousness and organisation of those working for an anti-war government.

As for the government at Westminster, it can be said neither to have a mandate from the electorate, nor to have credibility or legitimacy. In putting forward that it is a government for the national interest, the Tory and Lib Dem leaders are continuing a dangerous trend of identifying government with nation, and suggesting that their programme, in which not even the activists of the two parties will have had any say, represents the way out of the crisis.

How long this government will last is a moot point, because it will set out to intensify the anti-social offensive, slash the funding of social programmes, increase the militarisation of the economy and strengthen ties with US imperialism. Despite the fact that it will try and cause the maximum confusion about what it represents, the hard facts of overseeing the economic, financial and political crisis will even further arouse the people’s opposition to its programme. The stage might then be set for a recast New Labour to appear on the scene sooner rather than later and try and short-circuit the people’s opposition.

Gordon Brown’s resignation was the only way forward for the Labour Party, because the party was covered with shame, and continued its chauvinism by seemingly rejecting out of hand any alliance with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. Its "moral compass" has led it into a quagmire, out of which its only salvation is to bring forward those characters that could claim to be the heirs to Blair. This may fool the electorate for a time, but the global crisis and the archaic system which keeps the people out of power is such that any aspect of being for "change" will not last.

Overall, the only way forward for the working class lies not in working to re-elect Labour, but to build a genuine Workers’ Opposition to the ruling Westminster parties, and to recognise the crucial and historic importance of the proletarian front in leading the way out of the crisis. At the same time, the fight for an anti-war government will assume an even greater importance, and here the way forward lies not in grilling the MPs that they should be anti-war, nor in becoming obsessed with some mythical "left unity", but in building serious unity in action amongst the people and nurturing the consciousness and organisation of the alternative to the pro-war consensus of the status quo.

The ruling elite is presenting coalition politics as "new" politics. But its newness is only skin deep, and not far below the surface is the same old same old. The question of "who decides" is still the decisive question, but the present election has not yet resolved it. What will become increasingly evident is that the electorate is being kept even more out of decision-making in terms of the direction of society, but that the way forward is to affirm that we, the working class and people, we decide. The people are demanding solutions to the problems that they face, but these solutions are not going to come from a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, but only from the pro-social programme of Stop Paying the Rich, Increase Investments in Social Programmes, in the fight for an anti-war government, and in the work for democratic renewal, for building new arrangements. To advance this programme is the work of the democratic forces, of the working class and people, in the coming period. This work will be needed as never before to combat the conspiracy of silence over Britain’s war of aggression in Afghanistan, its reactionary international alliances, its programme of paying the rich, and its attempts at wiping out the consciousness that there are alternatives, that there are small parties with a voice, and that in particular there is a different way of organising the polity.

The work to raise the level of political culture against the concerted attempts of the ruling elite to drive it down is also a task of all the democratic forces. How to organise the working class as an effective political force in its own right is also of crucial importance.

The tasks remain: Fight for an Anti-War Government! Build the Workers’ Opposition! Advance the Programme for Democratic Renewal!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Terrorism? You're having a laugh

Brass Eye creator Chris Morris has made a satire on suicide bombers. Nothing should be immune from humour, the film's writers tell Stephen Applebaum

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


When crack comedy-writing duo Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain got into a room with Brass Eye provocateur Chris Morris, to discuss how to make a comedy about home- grown Islamist suicide bombers, no lines were drawn, and "anything", says Armstrong, when we meet in London, "was up for grabs".

They were clear, however, where their target lay: "None of us wanted to write a film ridiculing Islam or Muslims," Bain says. "But we did want to write a film ridiculing terrorists." Or, his writing partner interjects, suggesting "that there was a ridiculous nature to some of their actions".

They "weren't afraid" of offending Muslims, Bain claims (a few days before Islamic extremists make thinly veiled threats against South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone); that just wasn't the point. And anyway, he and Armstrong, whose output includes Smack the Pony, That Mitchell and Webb Look, Old Guys, and the wonderful Peep Show, while Armstrong also worked on The Thick of It and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated spin-off In the Loop, are not writers who have made offence their stock-in-trade.

"We do not go around thinking, 'What's going to prick the bubble of pomposity of bourgeois society by pulling down our pants and showing them our thing they don't want to see?'" Armstrong laughs. "'We've shocked you now' is not really an impulse we're interested in."

Nor, they insist, is it Morris's modus operandi. He, nonetheless, became Public Enemy No 1 in some sections of the media, in 2001, following a Brass Eye special about child sex abuse called "Paedogeddon!". Knee-jerk reactionaries accused Morris of turning the issue into a sick joke, when, in fact, his real subject was the media-generated hysteria and moral panic that had made any kind of reasoned public discussion about paedophiles almost impossible. The backlash against the programme merely confirmed its thesis.

"Chris just follows his nose," says Armstrong, "and sometimes his nose goes, 'You know what? Everyone is going on about paedophiles and it's slightly mental', and sometimes it goes, 'Everyone's going on about terrorism and there's a side of it people are missing'."

According to Morris, terrorist activity can often contain elements of farce – petty behaviour, bungling, egocentricity etc – even if the end results are frequently devastating. His research, he has said, revealed a "reality [that] played against type. Then the penny dropped. A cell of terrorists is a bunch of blokes. A small group of fired-up lads planning cosmic war from a bedsit – not a bad pressure cooker for jokes".

This was perfect territory for Bain and Armstrong, whose work on Peep Show (it happens in The Thick of It, too) deals with "small-group dynamics". Moreover, they were fascinated by the fact that a lot of the momentum within terrorist cells, according to specialists, is "caused by not hatred towards the outside", says Armstrong, "but love towards fellow members of the group. . . We always knew that we could write what it's like to be men together, bickering, but also having this fondness. So I think that was a good route in for us".

For the writers, the opportunity to work with Morris was thrilling. He had made a huge impact on them, through groundbreaking programmes such as The Day Today and Brass Eye, even before they'd got into writing themselves, so "we were quite star struck and probably would have said yes to anything", Armstrong admits, smiling. Apparently, Morris had a number of projects on his mind when they first met, of which Four Lions was one. He talked a lot about Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, a seminal literary treatment of terrorism set in 19th-century London, during their early discussions, Armstrong recalls, and "I think he was just intrigued about whether this could be done".

Nobody, including Morris, had the answer at his fingertips. Consequently, "the writing process was us sitting around coming up with a solution to how we could write a film which isn't..." Bain pauses, "you know: wrong. There's all different ways it could be wrong: unfunny, too offensive, too inoffensive. I think all of our energies went into trying to get the balance right".

Given the sensitivity of the subject, did they self-censor more than they normally would? "Self-censorship is the biggest enemy to anything creative," Bain opines, "and I don't think we've ever done that." The advantage of having a writing partner - partners in the case of Four Lions – adds Armstrong, "and this probably happens in Peep Show, too, is that the contract between Sam and I is, 'Write anything, write whatever you want'. So you don't self-censor. But, as the writer, you know that somebody else is going to look at it, and you go, 'You know what? Tonally, if we do this material, it's not going to work'". "All we need to censor is the shit," chimes in Bain. "And believe me, there's a lot."

The discussion phase on the film lasted for around two years before they set to work on the first draft of the screenplay in the summer of 2007. By this point, they knew "there was more than enough stuff for a movie that's not blunt-edged; that's sharp-edged but also funny", says Armstrong. "It would have been very terrifying to go into a development process where you had to write a film in six months, a suicide bomber comedy, that's sketchy."

Extensive research undertaken by Morris, in the form of court transcripts, books, articles, and personal contact with people inside Muslim communities, gave the writers the freedom to "play more", but still stay within the realms of plausibility. "So it was sort of us trying to dumb down his research into the sort of people we could find writeable, in a way," says Armstrong.

At one point, they thought about making the leader of the film's Sheffield-based cell like Mohamed Atta, one of the key figures in the 9/11 attacks, but "we never really cracked that, because he just seemed so unlikeable and unsympathetic", says Bain. Instead, they made Omar, played by Riz Ahmed (The Road to Guantanamo, Shifty), "more of a human being", with a wife and child who both support his quest for martyrdom.

Although there are arguably echoes of Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 London bombings, Armstrong says that in the end they "shied away" from identifying any of their characters too closely with real-life counterparts. "But we talked about every little nugget we could get of what people were really like, because it was what it had felt like to get to the heart of something so unknowable of why you would do that. It felt like everything was valuable to know."

Unlike Charlie Chaplin, who lampooned Hitler in The Great Dictator not knowing what he was really capable of, and later expressed regret over the film, Bain and Armstrong obviously knew exactly what terrorists can do. They decided early on, therefore, that the film's denouement must not pull any punches, and then "reverse-engineered" the rest of the screenplay up to that point. Armstrong suggests that not to have faced the truth would have portrayed terrorists "totally as idiots, which they're not. [But] some of them are, and it would have been a cop-out not to engage fully that some of them are idiotic, some of them are deluded, some of them are psychotic, some of them are nihilistic – that there's a whole range".

Thus, Four Lions puts a human face on people who are usually simply demonised – a way, ultimately, of not having to deal with them. It makes us care about Omar and his crew of wannabe martyrs, but does not condone their actions or ideology. Morris's research is evident in the detail, usefully reminding us that Muslims are not a monolithic group, and through the character of Omar's peaceful, traditionalist brother, that not all Muslims are potential suicide bombers.

So far, reactions to Four Lions have been mainly positive. Its recent premiere in Bradford went off without controversy, and "it feels", says Armstrong, "like people who have seen the film think it's funny [and that] it's tonally in the right area". I suggest that perhaps, through laughter, it can create a space where people feel more relaxed about talking freely about domestic terrorism and its roots, and help to counter the culture of fear and ignorance surrounding the issue.

"I remember watching "Paedogeddon!"," says Bain, "and going, 'Oh my God, thank God someone's released the pressure valve and we can all laugh at this, a bit.' I think there's something culturally healthy about that. Hopefully, this film might achieve that a bit with terrorism."

Of course, there will still likely be some who see the film's humanisation (an absurd concept, Bain argues, because "we can't humanise anyone who isn't an alien") of terrorists as a step too far; and others who will no doubt claim that it is simply too soon to be making a comedy that implicitly references, for instance, 7/7 and the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Time will tell how the film is received when it reaches a wider public next month. Armstrong and Bain, though, are satisfied that Four Lions, which they ultimately regard as an auteur work by Morris, stands up to scrutiny.

"There's a whole bunch of things in the lives of these terrorists and their plots and stratagems which are funny," says Armstrong. "And then there's a whole lot of stuff to do with terrorism that is not funny at all. I don't think we try and make the stuff that isn't funny, funny." He understands if anyone who has been closely involved in a real act of terrorism doesn't want to see the film. "However, I feel like I could justify it to anybody. I think that's sort of important to anybody involved with it, isn't it?"

'Four Lions' opens on 7 May

For further reading: Disgusting Bliss: the Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall (Simon & Schuster)