Monday, 28 October 2013

Poppygate, and why students' unions should follow ULU's example.

Last year, Dan Cooper, vice-president of the University of London Union, declined to lay a wreath at ULU's remembrance Sunday service, and this quickly resulted in a Tory-led campaign to oust him from his post. Of course the whole episode became known as Poppygate. 

Unsurprisingly, the same thing has happened this year.

The Senate of ULU has passed a motion stating that "ULU's elected representatives have the liberty to choose" whether to go to this year's service in a personal capacity, but that they cannot go in their ULU capacity. Essentially, this means they can't go and claim to represent the 120,000 students who make up ULU, but that they are perfectly entitled to go on their own behalf. President of ULU, Michael Chessum, then made it clear that he wasn't planning to attend, and that choosing to attend or not is in itself a political statement. Cue Poppygate 2.0.

I'm going to talk about why I think it is a good thing ULU have adopted this position, and why I fully support my friends and activist colleagues in their decision- not least because Michael's already been subject to a load of abusive emails because he had the audacity to call out the farce that is the state's hijacking of remembrance day. 

I'm Irish. I live in Belfast and have lived here for my entire life. I'm not religious at all, but culturally I am a Catholic. Essentially, that means I tick 'member of the Roman Catholic community' on equality monitoring forms, because I come from a Catholic background. My mum comes from West Belfast, and my dad comes from Omagh. I was born in 1992, so I'm part of the generation who have grown up post-Troubles (or rather, post-what-people-say-is-the-end-of-the-Troubles-but-it's-actually-a-lot-more-complicated-than-that, but that is a topic for a different blog post), the Good Friday Agreement wasn't signed until I was 6 years old, but naturally I don't really remember much of the political world around me when I was that age.

I've gone to Catholic schools my entire life. And I love history- my entire family loves history. But I didn't get to learn about Irish history until I chose the subject for GCSE, and then learnt about it in further depth when I studied it for A Level. People can deny it all they want, but the reality is that British state played a massive role in exacerbating the conflict here, killed plenty of innocent people, and is still trying to worm its way out of taking much responsibility for the generations worth of devastation they've left behind. And for a lot of this, they used the military.

A few years ago, I worked in IKEA. And a lot of the security guards there (who I spent most of my days in relatively close contact with) were ex-military. I would talk for hours with them about Northern Ireland and the Troubles, and they helped make what was a menial and often frustrating accessibility-wise job a lot more interesting, and they were wonderful people.

But they didn't get to choose to do what they had to do. That was their job as soldiers.

The British state wrecked havoc in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles, from internment to state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries; and to this day both they and many politicians in Northern Ireland refuse to own up to the part that the state played in the conflict here. Unfortunately, the army plays to the tune of the state. What the state wants, the army does. Just a few weeks ago, the current government was getting ready to send the military to Syria. The people fighting wars they don't understand and dying for causes they can't quite justify aren't those making the decision to send daughters, husbands, sons, parents, brothers, friends, colleagues to their death. They're ordinary people, doing the state's bidding.

Like it or not, poppies no longer represent what they initially were created for. Every year we have remembrance services where those in power in the state talk about our military and giving thanks to their courage, whilst handily forgetting that when current soldiers often come back from tours of Afghanistan, it's up to charities to mend what's been broken. The state absolves all responsibility, or at least most of it. Many charities end up picking up the pieces of soldiers who have come home and been abandoned by those who sent them out to fight in the first place. The army are there when the state and those in power want a good few photo ops, whenever they want to use these men and women as political footballs in their petty little game, but whenever it comes to providing affordable housing, a decent standard of education, accessible mental and physical health services, and leveling the playing field in terms of equality of opportunity for these people and their families, the state hangs them out to dry. Nationalism and patriotism can result in a dangerous ability to overlook the things, or lack of, that your state is providing for you in the name of service to your country.

I'm not a pacifist anymore, because I know holding that belief is a luxury afforded to those who have never had to fight for anything. But I also don't support the British state, and by extension, the British military. I don't support what they did in Northern Ireland in the last fifty years, and I don't support the war they've raged on Irish people and my ancestors for centuries. This blog post has barely scratched the surface. Of course I do not think those who choose to wear poppies are all British imperialists, held bent on oppressing Ireland- but I also think that these conversations are too important to ignore, and unfortunately in Northern Ireland, we keep pushing these conversations away. If we are to have a truly integrated shared future, it is time to ask the difficult questions and provide the difficult answers- how can the state expect ex-paramilitaries to do this when they won't lead by example? 

Unfortunately, this is probably too contentious a thing for many people who are in the public eye to come out and say, and I have the luxury of not being in that position. But if my own students' union can't come out and take a strong anti-war and anti-imperialist position, I'm glad a students' union across the water can. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A letter to my 16-year-old self.

Trigger; suicide, depression, sexual harassment, panic attacks, eating disorders

You do go back to school. You spend ten days in Italy doing nothing but reading books and it reminds you why you don't want to stop learning. You decide that school is the best option, for now.

But you leave, again. The frequent absences add up until you've left for (what seems like) good. You spend months at home with your mum caring for you. You are too scared to leave the house. You don't want people to see what you have become. School becomes a distant memory. You come back for a day in May and have a panic attack in a room full of the girls in your year.

You come back for your last year. And you work harder than you've ever worked before to make up for lost time, you do it because the thought of having to spend more than another year in that hell hole is the only thought worse than going back to the black depression. 

You fall in love. You realise you've become one of those people who falls in love after a few weeks. And you don't care.

You don't get into the university you dreamed of. You cry. A lot. You don't really get over it. But you know if you'd ended up there it would be doing the wrong degree, and you probably wouldn't have made it through first year. You'd probably be dead, realistically. You stop caring that people get awkward whenever you talk so openly about your mental health. You didn't care that much to begin with, but you really don't care now. Fuck them.

You give in and go to a private therapist. You won't let your parents make you go for weeks because you don't want to sacrifice the principles your family holds so close to their heart. But you go, because it's a choice between going or dying. And you want to want to do the former.

You break someone's heart. You think that it's the worst thing you can ever feel.

You move out. Away from the eyes of your parents, you stop eating completely. You start your path down the slippery slope you always thought you could avoid.

But then you meet someone. And you tell them you're falling in love with them in a smoking area of a club, and they tell you the same, and things seem like they could be okay for once. You take a chance and book flights. You start to live spontaneously. You think you might be happy, for once.

But things aren't good, and things aren't happy, and you try to kill yourself again, and then you have your heart broken, and you don't think you'll ever recover. 

But you do. 

Sort of. 

Life is liveable. Even though you're on your own.

You realise things about yourself. You grow. You are an adult. You are Queer. You breathe a sigh of relief when you discover that you are not Wrong. You are just different. But you are harassed, you are assaulted, you become used to carrying your keys in your fists when you walk home at night.

But the black doesn't stop because of your new found identities, and the depression doesn't leave just because you think you can live your life alone, and you ink the words of a poem on your arm in an attempt to keep yourself alive, in an attempt to try to make yourself want to stay alive.

And then suddenly you are twenty years old, and sitting in your bedroom alone; and you've had to take a valium to make sure you can sleep because you've spent the day receiving abuse and people telling you to kill yourself on the internet because you spoke on the radio about abortion.

Suddenly your life begins to have some sort of meaning, some meaning bigger than yourself, something concerned with thousands of faceless women who travel to the UK every year to have an abortion, and suddenly you realise that you can't leave, just yet. 

You try to sleep, and hope that tomorrow will be better. You are tired of waiting for tomorrow. But there is nothing else you can do.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

On activism.

Trigger warning for discussion of suicide, depression, eating disorders, fascism, racism, the police, medication, self harm

We're exhausted. We've either just finished a fifty-hour work week with a conference and a night of drinking at the weekend, or we're struggling to cope with the effect our clinical depression is having on our assignments and attendance at uni, or we're trying to do all of these things at once. We are planning the next protest, the next demo, the next conference, but forget to plan in a meal. We try to take care of one another but never take care of ourselves. We haven't slept properly in months.

We're fed up. We're fed up of explaining to our family why you can't separate the politics from the person. Fed up of being told we should respect members of a party who are literally taking money from those who need it to survive and killing them, fed up of being told to shut up and listen to someone who thinks we shouldn't have the right to control our own bodies, fed up of racist immigration controls and fascists given airtime and just about every decision made at the top, with no thought of those at the bottom. We are angry, so angry, that we don't know what to do with it. Sometimes we collapse, exhausted, in floods of tears, because we cannot for the life of us understand why anyone could do this to another human being. We cry on one another, we support one another, we give one another hope that tomorrow can be better. We miss the release of the razor. 

We've been arrested recently, we've been manhandled by the police, thrown mercilessly to the ground by several officers, and peers have the audacity to claim that this was somehow justifiable. We've been banned from protesting on our own campuses. We've been left in a cell mid-panic attack, and released 48 hours later. We're sick of people telling us that there's nothing wrong with the police, and we're sick of the state letting fascists march down our roads. We drag ourselves out of bed and stand as a blockade, trying to deal with the police and the fascists and the voice in our head telling us to kill ourselves. We have a panic attack in the kettle, and the police won't let us out. We go home and sleep for twenty hours.

We're counting the pennies to have enough to buy our medication in England, or we're sitting in Scotland and Northern Ireland feeling sorry for those who don't get them for free. We're hopelessly waiting for the next psychiatrist appointment, we're still at the bottom of the CBT waiting list, we don't know how to explain why we can't eat or sleep and we don't know what to say to our friends who are feeling like this too. We have enough scars between us to tell a hundred stories. We have to leave our medication on the kitchen table or we won't remember to take it, or the thoughts will come back again. Our interactions with people take place via the internet.

We spend weeks looking forward to seeing one another, to spend time with those we love, those who understand. But then we spend too much time awake wanting to die. Or rather, something triggers it, and then suddenly we've spent the cost of two return trips to the UK on a flight home from London because we didn't trust ourselves to be alone in a place with tubes and not try to commit suicide again, all the valium in the world would not shut up the voices inside our heads, and the only way we feel like we can talk about these experiences is through writing a blog on a Sunday night. Or maybe that's just me. And we worry that writing about this will make people concerned. But we don't know what else to do.

We have dysfunctional relationships within our activist circles, mostly because they're our friendship circles too, and our room mates, and half the time we work with one another, too. We have issues with attachment, we have issues with self-worth, we have a fucked up head and we don't know what to do with it, so we hurt one another. Our relationships are unstable, like our health. We can't be there for one another, because it's happening to everyone. We cry alone in our rooms because we don't want to be a burden. 

We can't reconcile our feminism with our own bodies. We can't stop ourselves developing eating disorders, but we curse ourselves for not being able to fight it. We restrict, we binge, we purge, but most importantly, we keep it a secret. We all have problems and we don't want to look like we're asking for sympathy, even when we're in tears each night because we had the audacity to allow our bodies to consume food. We can't look at ourselves in the mirror without our lip shaking. We preach body positivity, we deplore body shaming, and we berate ourselves for wishing we were thinner.

We can't escape. We can't escape because even when we have left the demo, even when we have stopped talking about welfare reforms, when we have stopped arguing with Tories, we are left in this world we live in. We are left in this place that condemns us for being ill, that hates us because we are women, that will leave us to die because we are disabled. To separate the politics from the person we recognise that one must be privileged enough to remain unaffected by the politics. We spend every single fucking minute living in this hell of a patriarchal capitalist shit hole that has dragged each and every one of us to the bottom, and is determined to keep us there, no matter how much our arms flail and our hearts ache from the pain of it all. It wants to kill us and it will not stop until we are dead.

We try to keep telling ourselves that we need to be the living breathing reminder for others that there is good in the world, that there is hope, that there is pain but that there is also art, but eventually we break. Eventually, we stop telling ourselves that, and we stop being that person for other people. We want to cling to hope, to live by Andrea Gibson's words that all they knew of hate was that it couldn't beat the love out of me, but one day we stop. We can't do it anymore. We can't keep pretending that we're winning this fight, because we aren't. We're losing. We're broken. They've broken us. All that is left to do is write.