Sunday, 26 November 2017

Albert Woodfox Black Panther and Prison Organiser in his own words

This is part of a podcast series where political prisoners describe how they became victims of state repression and the conditions in the prisons they've been sent to.This one is by Albert Woodfox a Black Panther and prison organiser and details his struggles within the Louisiana State Penitentiary and the effects of solitary confinement. A short history of the Angola prison chapter can be found here

Albert Woodfox endured 44 years in solitary confinement - more than anyone else in the US. When he was imprisoned in Louisiana in the 1970s, racism was rife. Albert took a stand - and it cost him. Hear why Albert was punished over the odds and how he survived 44 years in isolation. In Their Own Words is a podcast from Amnesty International, where people around the world tell their extraordinary stories of fighting for their rights.

The Angola 3, Wallace, Wilkerson and Woodfox

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Coming out of the Shadows - Intersex people in Kenya

LGBTI people in Africa have become a pawn in cultural arguments. Their experiences and struggles are used both as ammunition for homophobic commentaries on the supposed damage that tolerance can lead to wider society. Or to cement racist narratives about savage natives.

So I think its important to see what they themselves have to say on these matters. This a documentary about the struggles of Kenya's Intersex population and how attitudes towards them have changed over time. Its roughly positive and includes a formerly homophobic priest who having attended a sensitivity training course became an advocate for his community and mentor to a local intersex person.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Liverpool 1981 - An Eyewitness Account of the Toxteth Riots

In 1981 tensions over racist police officers abusing and harassing local black Liverpudlians exploded with a riot that for a few weeks managed to drive the police out of the area and force the government to respond and look into concessions. However, with the use of CS (Tear) gas for the first time in the UK and reinforcements enabled the police to take back control of the streets.

Racism in policing hasn't gone away and riots against police harassment would become more common in the 80's. And of course the response to police killings of coloured people has sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and UK.


[Program Producer Max Pierson]

Hello and welcome to the History Hour podcast from the BBC World Service with me Max Pierson.

Next, we move forward in time and onto the streets of Liverpool, in the English Northwest. In the 1980s the industrial and economic changes introduced by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had led to considerable social change and tension. In the Summer of 1981 those tensions boiled over. During the riots that followed police used CS gas to control civil unrest for the first time on the British mainland.

Claire Bose has been speaking to a man who took part in that rioting.

Claire Bose:
Liverpool 8 or Toxteth as it came to be known in the media, a rundown part of Liverpool with a mixed-race community, poor housing and few jobs. In July 1981 it turned into a battlefield.

[Journalist on the scene]

The Grove street area along Parliament street, there actually police in a rank there with their riot shields.

Claire Bose:

The older residents of the area didn’t understand why.


Did you believe it would happen?

Older Resident:
No, no, no. I would understand if they had some kind of row with the police.

Claire Bose:

But the younger people knew, Jimi Jaqne was 17 when the riots broke out and he and his friends were afraid of the police. When he was just 12 and a keen student he’d been stopped by police on his way from school.

Jimi Jaqne:

And he asked me in a kind of gruff voice you know “where was I going?” I explained to him that I was just coming home from school and I was on my way. So anyway, he got out of the car and he walked towards me, and as he’s walking towards me he accused me of being a liar.

He opened my bag, went through it and he told me that I had to come to the police station.

Claire Bose:

But instead he drove Jimi to some wasteland and racially abused him.

Jimi Jaqne:

He kept pointing out that kids like me needed to be removed from the street before we got old enough to break the law. And then he kicked me so that I fell over, and I fell over into a pool of water and then he picked up the bag and emptied the contents into the same pool of water.

He got into the car laughing and then the two of them just drove off.

Claire Bose:

Police at the time had the power to stop and search anyone they thought looked suspicious. In early July 1981, a young black man was arrested. There was a skirmish and three policemen were injured. The next day the atmosphere in Toxteth was charged, and there was a big police presence.

By early evening a full-scale battle had begun.

Jimi Jaqne:

There were lines of police with shields, and there were all these guys, there must have been about a 150 to 200 guys just, just, just, just throwing bricks from one side, and, and charging with scaffolding, trying to penetrate the line of shields. There were vehicles burning everywhere, there were people going backwards and forwards. There were members of the press, there were community leaders who I recognised, there was a couple of priests.

And these flames licking high from these burning vehicles, and people literally trying to kill each other. I mean there were no holds barred and I thought what the hell is going on?

And there were friends running backwards and forwards, the only response I get from them was “come on! Get down to the front, get down to the front, what are you doing standing here?”

I thought, nah I can’t do this you know, because in my mind I’m not a violent kid you know I read books.

Claire Bose:

But then he spoke to a friend and asked him why he was joining in.

Jimi Jaqne:

You know he just reminded me of all the grief that we’ve been through, and he explained to me we’d just never ever get another opportunity to show these guys. If you’re gonna make our lives hell, if we’re gonna end up in jail for walking down our streets, then let’s go to jail for the right reason. And, and that’s for sticking one on them first.

I didn’t relate to the solution but I understood the sentiment because we feared every day. And I went to bed and I, I slept on this, I ended up at some point convinced, I can’t not be with my friends going through this. Britain was a completely different place back then to what it is now, we had no one listening to us. It was up to us to take control of our fate, we had to do something.

I was out on Sunday afternoon, and the two guys who’d been out the night before they were geeing us up and saying “don’t worry, don’t be nervous, everyone looks out for everyone and and don’t be scared”. We went out and I remember I was really frightened I felt I was inviting all hells trouble.

Once I’d thrown my first few bricks, it all seemed to be natural. You were amongst a lot of people who were all doing the same thing. At the same time the police, you were up really close to them and they were full of abuse, it was us against them and may the strongest survive.

And when the first petrol bombs started being thrown, that really sorted out the men from the boys so to speak. It was really horrible to see men on fire, and it was really difficult seeing people in that sort of trouble.

Claire Bose:

And potentially the possibility of really, really hurting someone, possibly to the point of death.

Jimi Jaqne:

Its true, there were times when I had to think about that, you know I was, I was involved in everything, I, I, the only thing I didn’t do was manufacture or throw Molotov cocktails. There were times when I was daredevil enough to go up to the front line with a piece of scaffolding and start smashing on a shield and if it got through the shield and it hit someone in the same way, where it would hit them it was no consequence to me, it was of no concern to me, I’d blinkered myself to it. I got involved.

[Archive Press Report]

It wasn’t until first light this morning that the full extent of the damage became known. Along upper Parliament street where some of the worst rioting occurred it looked like the morning after a Second World War Blitz. Houses still smouldering, shops, offices burnt out.

Claire Bose:

The next night as the riots intensified the police decided to use CS gas, Tear gas, for the first time on the British mainland.

Jimi Jaqne:

It was around 2 o’clock in the morning, they fired the first CS cannister. It landed on the corner of Catherine street, a lot of smoke started to pour from it and it caught me, and I had to run off to a house around the corner where I knew the family and I washed my face out, my eyes. It only the next day seeing the news that I realised the significance of it all.

Claire Bose:

The Chief Constable of the local police force Kenneth Oxford explained why he’d taken this drastic step.

Kenneth Oxford:

It was a situation where I’d almost reached a point of overrunning or no return, call it what you will. I mean, these people had to be stopped and it was a last-ditch measure.

Claire Bose:

There was one more night of rioting before it ended. Soon afterwards the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited the area and spoke with some of the rioters to try to understand what had happened. It seemed like change might be on the way.

Jimi Jaqne:

The noises that the community leaders were making, they were trying to make it clear to anybody who’d listen that you know that this was a police relations matter. It had nothing to do with unemployment really, it had nothing to do with bad housing or poor education really. Those things had been going on since God’s creation but you didn’t have riots every day.

And so, we felt as though this might pay off you know, that things might change.  But the problem then was that over the next three weeks eventually police became more confident about coming back onto the streets.

Claire Bose:

At the end of July riots broke out again, this time the police were more prepared, they began to break up the crowds using police vehicles. When a man was run over and killed the riots ended. Over 450 policemen were injured and 500 people arrested.

Jimi Jaqne:

It was for the most part a really frightening experience, it involved acts of behaviour on both sides the likes of which I had never seen before or been a part of before. But I felt as though, like most of us felt that there was so much at stake it was unavoidable.

Claire Bose:

There was an inquiry into this and other riots that broke out across the UK that year, the report criticised the police and government and called for more community policing. Jimi Jaqne graduated from university and is now a community activist and teaching assistant, he still lives in Toxteth.

Max Pierson:

 Claire Bose. Well that type of rioting which took place on the streets of Liverpool in 1981 is pretty rare in Britain, but there are certain themes which crop up from time to time and result in similar tensions. They revolve around poverty, housing, policing and occasionally summer heat. I’m joined now by Professor Richard Phillips of Sheffield University whose carried out research into the Toxteth riots.

Just for a sense of the general context of what happened, the relationship between the public and the police, we heard of Jimi Jaqne’s appalling experience being roughed up by a police officer, how common was that?

Richard Phillips:

Much more common than you’d like to think, I mean the older person speaking in that interview was surprised by it, and I would have been surprised by it myself from where I was in this country. But me and my colleagues in Liverpool spoke to a number of people who’d been involved in those disturbances. They also spoke of being battered by the police, of being taken down to the police station and held without charge.

Max Pierson:

So how would you assess the blend of causes if you like, were these anti-police riots or was there also the poverty, the deprivation, the housing that fed into them?

Richard Phillips:

The easy answer to that is that it was poverty and it was housing and that was the answer that was most graspable by the government so what Mrs Thatcher did at the time was to appoint Michael Heseltine the Environment Secretary to go to Liverpool and to investigate and to visit places, she went herself as was mentioned in that report as well.

But if you talk to people who were directly involved in the disturbances those things were very much secondary. The thing that really upset people that really provoked people to riot was the way that they and their friends had been treated by the police. The Liverpool born Black community had been in the city for four generations. They’ve been there since the 1880s in one form or another, a mixed-race community. So, they’re very, very much Liverpool very much British, the only difference between this community and other people was there race.

Max Pierson:

What was the result of the Heseltine inquiry into what happened and the attitude towards inner-city areas similar to Toxteth in other parts of Britain?

Richard Phillips:

Heseltine was focused on Merseyside, he came up with all sorts of plans for environmental improvements, for detoxification, for investment. He launched the Merseyside Development Corporation which came up with economic solutions, but the real inquiry into these issues wasn’t really conducted by Michael Heseltine it was conducted by Lord Scarman.

Scarman really focused on race, he acknowledged that white people were involved as well but he said that there was a lot of angry young men, and most them he said were black. And he acknowledged that there was discrimination in policing, he acknowledged there was disadvantage in black communities. He didn’t accept the charge that there was institutional racism, that was a charge that wasn’t accepted in relation to the police until 1999.

But Lord Scarman went quite a long way and he came up with a lot of recommendations including employing more black minority ethnic community members in the police, monitoring racial abuse, the sorts of things we heard about from Jimi. Scarman wrote that report and came back to look at whether that had made any difference a couple of years later, he wrote a postscript to it and he concluded that in some ways it had.

Max Pierson:

So, what’s Toxteth like now, compared with 35 years ago?

Richard Phillips:

There’s a lot less unemployment than there was then. The City has had something of an economic revival. But one thing that you’ll notice if you go to Liverpool 8 is that there’s quite a lot still of dereliction. There’s a lot of houses, streets which are being demolished or waiting to be demolished.

Max Pierson:

Professor Richard Phillips from Sheffield University, and his book on the subject co-written with Diane Frost is entitled Liverpool 81.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The CIA's First Coup in Latin America - Guatemala 1954

The CIA is notorious for its operations in Latin America. Its hard to argue that any other organisation has done more to attack and restrict democracy around the world. Their operations to topple the Presidency of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 was the first of many operations carried out that lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans, and even managed to get several US citizens killed too.


 The ideological justification for the death squads and mercenaries that terrorised the continent was of course the claim that Communism would take control of the region. Of course this wasn't true, Communists of various ideologies were always in the minority even in Cuba the rebels who overthrew Batista were a coalition of very different political groups, if anything US hostility to the new regime gave the small Communist faction the opportunity to grow and become dominant.

Many of the governments targeted for coups and destabilisation were punished solely for wanting to carry out limited social and economic reforms. Some of the governments weren't even left wing but moderate right wing Christian Democratic administrations. Arbenz was not a communist, his crime was cutting into the profits of United Fruit and pursuing an independent policy. The wars fought in Latin America in the 20th century were always about protecting profits and influence.


Program Producer Max Pierson:

We’re going to begin in Guatemala and the coup that signalled that Uncle Sam was determined to play tough in the face of any perceived threat from Leftist governments in America’s backyard. The period between 1944 and 1954 was known in Guatemala as the ten years of spring. Free elections had been held and resulted in a left-leaning government under President Jacobo Arbenz, which had introduced reforms designed to share the country’s wealth more evenly.

Some in Washington saw that as a “Red threat” creeping communism. So in 1954 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered a change in government in Guatemala, it was the first CIA backed coup in Latin America. Michael Lanchin has been speaking to the son of Jacobo Arbenz who was forced to flee into exile along with his father.

[Archival Radio Announcer with an English accent]

Carrying anti-communist banners jubilant soldiers celebrate victory following their two-week revolt in Guatemala. Colonel Carlos Armas the rebel leader is embraced by some of his supporters who helped him overthrow the Red regime in Guatemala.

Michael Lanchin:

It’s the summer of 1954 and the victorious coup leaders are gathering in Guatemala City after their successful overthrow of the country’s leftist President. A group of Guatemalan army officers, trained and financed by the CIA are now in power.

[Another Archival Radio Announcer with an English accent]

Arriving from Guatemala City is Colonel Elfego Monzón, head of the temporary Junta. He has high hopes of becoming President of Guatemala, but so has Colonel Armas. Then when the few Red outlaws who still menace the city have been quelled, free elections will again be held in Guatemala.

Michael Lanchin:

It’s the end of ten years of civilian rule in the Central American country. And President Jocobo Arbenz and his family are forced to flee.

Juan Jocobo:

When we went into exile, he was extremely bitter about what had happened. For the betrayal he suffered, his struggle was for the good of the people of Guatemala. He had great ideals, he was left feeling very, very bitter.

Michael Lanchin:

Juan Jocobo was the only son of President Arbenz, he was just five years old when his father was elected in 1950.

Juan Jocobo:

It was quite hard for me as a child because both my parents were involved in politics from when I was born. So, I rarely saw them, I didn’t really understand why until later on. We lived in a large estate which my father had bought with his own money. I remember that it had a huge garden, I had a nanny, and a bodyguard who also became my tutor. When I was three or four, I didn’t go to kindergarten, because I later found out there had been some kidnapping threats. For my own security I grew up pretty much alone at home because my older sisters all went to school, it was a difficult childhood.


Michael Lanchin:

Guatemala had a largely feudal system since colonial times where the majority indigenous Mayan population lived in poverty, while wealthy landowners took charge of governing with the support of the United States. But in the mid 1940’s the US-backed Dictator was overthrown in a popular revolt. And the country’s first free elections were held.

Jacobo Arbenz a progressive former army Colonel became Guatemala’s second democratically elected leader. Once in office Arbenz pushed ahead with a reformist agenda; at the forefront were radical land reforms granting peasants access to vast swathes of arable land. The move infuriated Guatemala’s largest foreign investor, the United Fruit’s company one of America’s most powerful corporations. And it set alarm bells ringing in Washington where President Dwight Eisenhower had pledged a worldwide fight against the spread of Communism.

In August of 1953 President Eisenhower gave his approval for an operation codenamed PBSuccess, authorising the Central Intelligence Agency the CIA to begin organising and arming an opposition to President Arbenz.

Juan Jacobo:

I first realised that the situation was serious when they told us we had to leave Casa Presidencial the Presidential Palace because of the threat of bombing from aircraft. I remember being told “get your stuff ready, the toys you want to take with you”. We went to a house in Zone 10 of the city, it had a big garden, at times we had to hide under the beds. It was an anxious time.

Michael Lanchin:

The first group of anti-government rebels -former Guatemalan soldiers- had crossed the border from CIA bases in neighbouring Nicaragua and Honduras in mid-June of 1954. Newsreel from that time cast them as plucky freedom fighters.

[Another Archival Radio Announcer with an American accent]

Guatemalan insurgents stand guard at a Honduras airstrip while newspapermen press near a lone plane seeking passage over the rocky wooded hills to the border town of Esquipulas, capital of the Free Guatemalan Government.

Michael Lanchin:

The Guatemalan army though still loyal to President Arbenz feared that an all-out American invasion would soon follow. By late June the Guatemalan top brass had lost their nerve and senior officers urged President Arbenz to go.

On the night of June 27th 1954 an emotional and exhausted President Arbenz announced his decision in a radio message.

[Extract from Arbenz Radio Speech Announcing his Resignation]

Our enemies have used the pretext that we are communists, though the reality is very different.

Michael Lanchin:

The next day the deposed President, his family and dozens of his closest associates took refuge in the Mexican Embassy in Guatemala City.

Juan Jocobo:

People were sleeping in the corridors, in the stairways, both floors of the embassy were full of people. I remember us having to go to the rooftop to play, my parents didn’t like us going up there because there weren’t any railings. Sometimes when we went to look out of the windows – which we weren’t allowed to- I remember seeing demonstrations out on the streets, people with banners against Arbenz.

Michael Lanchin:

So, you were with your parents inside the Embassy for about three months, did you see much of your father during that time?

Juan Jocobo:

I saw very little of him, he was always locked away, smoking, drinking coffee and in meetings with all his associates who were hiding in the Embassy with us.


Michael Lanchin:

The family were eventually granted safe passage out of the country. First to Mexico then to France, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and then to the Soviet Union where Juan Jocobo still not even ten years old was sent to a boarding school.

Juan Jocobo:

One of the things that really affected me was that it got to a point where I didn’t really understand what was happening. I didn’t want to ask my parents, they looked so anxious. It was starting to affect my schooling, to the point that my mother had to teach me to read and write in Spanish. After that I began learning Czech, then I had to start learning Russian, at boarding school in Russia I used to look out of the windows when it snowed.

Everybody else spoke Russian, nobody spoke Spanish, I felt isolated and lonely, cut off from my family and my country.

Michael Lanchin:

In 1956 the family moved to the relative stability of Uruguay. Later they went to live in Cuba on the invitation of Fidel Castro. Juan Jocobo says that his father never really recovered his spirits and he died a broken man in Mexico in 1971 aged just 57. But there is one more tragic detail to this story which Juan Jocobo only mentioned at the very end of our conversation.

Juan Jocobo:

The pressures from being in exile was so great that my eldest sister killed herself when she was just 25. My other sister killed herself in 2004, it was all terribly difficult for the family. We’d been separated from all our childhood friends, our relatives, because of the circumstances of our situation. We lost everything that you normally have growing up, stability, school, family around you.

When I look back now and try to make some sense of it, all that we’ve suffered I’ve often thought about it in quiet moments and wondered why, why, why?

Michael Lanchin:

Juan Jocobo Arbenz later returned to his native Guatemala and in 2003 he ran unsuccessfully for the Presidency. He’s now 69 and he lives in Costa Rica.

Max Pierson:

Michael Lanchin was speaking to Juan Jocobo Arbenz whose life and the lives of so many others was turned upside down by that CIA backed coup in Guatemala in 1954.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The First Revolution of 1917

Its the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. There have been events, retrospectives, new books, fresh praise and denunciations. However almost all of it concerns the second revolt in the Russian Empire of that year, the October (November in Gregorian calendar) Revolution.

The first Revolt, the one that actually toppled the Romanovs and Tsarism occurred in February (March Gregorian calendar). It gets overlook a lot and that's a serious weakness for those who wish to understand the impact of the Revolution of October. We have this popular misconception of Revolution being this one explosive event that sweeps much of the old ways away overnight and that simply isn't accurate.

For example, without the February revolution the October revolution would be impossible. The Bolshevik party leadership including Lenin were stuck in Switzerland, and when news reached them of mutinies and demonstrations within Russia they were initially sceptical. It wasn't until the extent of the uprisings were known that became enthusiastic. Further the overshadowing of February by October has lead to a seriously damaging myth that Revolts can only succeed under the direction of an elite group from above, the February Revolt was propelled by a series of spontaneous actions of workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors.

Bread riots by working class women in Petrograd is considered the first shot of the revolt but discontent and mutiny soon spread to the military and the factory districts, while peasants began to attack their landlords and re-establish Communes. At the head of the new Republican government was a coalition of liberal and social democratic party members. Eventually Kerensky became the nominal head of these changing coalitions. The governments moderation and commitment to continuing the First World War and its hostility to dissident Socialist and Anarchist groups soon caused popular support for the new regime to collapse and it wasn't long before a coalition of radicals dubbed the `Reds`* would overthrow the increasingly despotic coalition government.

The video below is dedicated to the February revolt and its impact.

*Contrary to popular thought the October Revolt was not solely a Bolshevik operation, it relied heavily on Anarchists and the Left Wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their supporters to carry the day.

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