Lou Hutchinson: justice is the best therapy

Lou, you regularly support with people in crisis – people who have a difficult time accessing health and support services. How have you wound up with that role, how are you in touch with these people?

It’s actually through a Facebook group, which is bizarre in itself. It’s called Mental Health Complaints NZ Aotearoa, and it was started by Corinda Taylor, who lost her son through suicide.  Corinda had a horrific time trying to access appropriate mental health services for her 20-year-old son under Southern DHB. She now helps other people to navigate mental health services in New Zealand, even though she’s lost her son.

She’s from Dunedin, and she has a Trust going in Otago – it’s called Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust. They already have a group formed for bereavement support, and this Facebook group has come out of that, to offer Health & Disability Commission complaints support. People are just continuing to join the group, people who are also having appalling experiences, people who have lost family and friends. There are around 280 members now. So she’s started a petition, a website is under construction, and there’s a hui and panel discussion “Breaking the Silence – suicide prevention” scheduled for 18 February.

So how did you join this Facebook group?

I fell through the cracks of the system myself, moving to Wellington from Napier. It happened that someone in the group lived close to me and he was able to support me with what I was going through. There have been quite a few Wellington-based people who have popped up on the site saying that they are struggling as well.

It was a relief, for me, to find this group, to know that other people have the same experiences, and to know there is a process you can follow to get help. You can access the Health and Disability Commission and make complaints. The problem with that is, it takes a long time.

Now we are trying to figure out how we can create something that is immediate – supporting people when they are in crisis, in different parts of the country. In Wellington there’s currently nowhere. There are people considering flying to Christchurch to access help.

Would you say it is mainly women, in this group?

Yeah – there are men as well, but I think it’s mainly women.

How do you read that situation? What’s your interpretation of it? It seems to me that this society including its social services are not set up to support women.

It seems there are a lot of older women who have been in the mental health system for 20, 30 years. I’d say a lot of them come from backgrounds of abuse. Or they come out of those traditional norms, of what a woman’s role is meant to be.

I think a lot of the group maybe mums who are fighting for the rights of their kids. Mum’s who have lost son’s to suicide – there are a lot of males lost to suicide, in NZ.  I see that as a reflection of the wider culture – what is a man supposed to look like here in New Zealand? If young boys don’t fit that mould…

There’s one guy in the group who is really strong, his complaints have been upheld. The person who has abused him is a high profile official – again, it’s about power and control.

So there’s a lot of violence, in the background, for people.

Yes – survivors of domestic violence, survivors of rape, witnesses to domestic violence.

Some of the women now in their later life are becoming stronger, and have learned or are learning how to survive, and are ready to take steps beyond medication. But all our system does, or is good at, is handing out medication. And not addressing, or empowering people, to live, full, healthy lives. And why would you want women, on this planet, to be strong?

Our systems aren’t designed to empower women, they’re designed to keep them oppressed.

In fact, Nigel Fairley, the man in charge of mental health in Wellington, has a lot to answer for. He actually has the ability to control people’s lives, in a powerful way, and that concerns me.

What are your concerns about him, specifically? What do you think he should be doing differently, in his position?

I’m actually concerned that he’s still in the position he holds, considering the complaints that have been made about him – he’s actually corrupt, and that’s been covered up. Mothers have been murdered under his watch. Why is there no accountability? Why is there no investigation?

Even in the Hutt Hospital psychiatric unit. To go in there, and see what I’ve seen, I can’t understand why it hasn’t been shut down. He has the ability to order investigations – but he’s lying to the media about what goes on out there.

If you look them up online, and see what their vision is, it’s therapeutic, community, all of that. I’ve worked in Corrections – I’ve seen units that are actually positive. I walk into this one and I’m like – prisons are more positive environments than this place. And these aren’t criminals, these are people who are unwell.

I’ve seen a woman recently who has been in the Hutt psychiatric unit for the last month – and that has ended up making her more unwell. Mental Health Complaints are now advocating for her, even though we’re not an organisation, or part of an organisation.

But you’re becoming one, out of necessity. It sounds like you’re becoming more of a support and advocacy group – a lobby group, rather than a place to field complaints.

It was meant to be a complaints page – to assist people with making complaints to the Health and Disability Commission, but it’s now become a lifeline. These people are in crisis. The people looking after it keep trying to steer the page back, saying, “This isn’t meant to be for medical emergencies”. But it’s become that, because what we’re finding in Wellington is that there’s nowhere for people to go when they’re in crisis. So I deal with people in crisis now through the Facebook group, every day.

I rang the Wellington CATT team the other night, and they hung up on me, saying “I am terminating this conversation”. The woman I was with, she has self-harm scars down both her arms. Some of them are new. But she’s under no care. Mental health services are trespassing her from their facilities. The police have even been turned away from A&E with her. I’ve just met with a police officer who is, in a sense, advocating for this woman on behalf of the police, because they have concerns for what’s been happening to her. Their role is to find her help – they can’t help her, because they’re not health professionals.

The CATT team, as far as I can gather, have made “plans” about certain people. So they can choose not to engage with people – people can be denied service. This woman’s “plan” is at least 3 years out of date.

I have been denied service from Porirua myself, because I didn’t fit their criteria, even though I was referred from my team in Napier. I would have thought that would mean being automatically switched to another DHB, but it didn’t.

Why did they deny you in Porirua?

Because I was too “low-risk”. You have to have a certain risk-level to access services.

Do you think the services are more stretched in Porirua?

I think the other reason was the medication I was on – they label you a “drug seeker”. If they consider that you may be a “drug seeker”, then they’ll deny you access to services.

That’s another reason why people are struggling, particularly women who have been abused, or come out of violent relationships and they have been on certain meds that have helped them to cope in really unsafe relationships. Those medications are classed as highly addictive, so they think that you’re out selling them on the streets. That’s not true – they’re used to hold you together at times when you’re filled with fear and anxiety and just trying to cope.

They’re prescribed when you’re under the care of mental health services. I was prescribed them in a respite unit in Hawke’s Bay, through a psych, because I was in a toxic relationship. I was climbing up the walls, basically, with anxiety. I was prescribed medication, and instantly it gave me relief from that anxiety.

I went on to do Women’s Refuge education courses, which helped me become stronger and realise the relationship I was in was destroying me, to the point that I left it. As soon as I left it, the anxiety left me. Therefore I didn’t need the meds. But a consequence of being on the meds, is you develop a tolerance for them. So you have to wean off them, and be supervised to do that in a safe way.

When I arrived in Wellington, I was on that journey. But I went to the appointment to try and access services – and they denied me. I ended up having to go cold turkey off the meds. I was in pain for six weeks, I couldn’t function.

Your body must go into overdrive.

You don’t eat, or sleep. I was beside myself in pain – about four weeks ago someone rang the ambulance service for me. They say it’s worse to come off than heroin. It feels like torment.

So now I’m with a Drug and Alcohol service, that’s the only service that would pick me up. The minute amount that I need – they couldn’t believe that that’s all I wanted. It’s the smallest dose – I take a quarter of a tablet of clonazepam. I had to do a urine test to prove that I’m not a junkie, which was so degrading – and it turned out there was no indication of clonazepam in my system at all. I said, “Well, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. I am tapering off it, I have been on this for nearly four years, and I just need…..”

And you have had to explain this process to medical professionals?

These are doctors who specialised in addictions. So now all I need is a quarter of a pill maybe every 2 to 3 days, until I can slowly heal from whatever the hell the medication has done to me. And I feel like I’m educating them, trying to explain.

When I started to taper off, in March 2015, I stopped having my period for seven months. Stopping just sent my body into crisis mode. So I was bedridden for that time. I really don’t know if they understand how to withdraw people from those medications. All they have is a textbook – I had to really fight to even get a quarter of a tablet. The doctor asked me, “You’re all agitated, why are you agitated?” I’m like, “I’m fighting for my life, here!” It’s affecting my kids.

What’s been your experience of Women’s Refuge?

Having a safe house that is unsupervised between 8 and 5 – women were drinking and smoking dope there. I was threatened there, bullied. There was a woman with a home detention bracelet who was sneaking out of the house at night and leaving her kids to go out and drink – she went out one night drunk, and she was driving, and ended up crashing into a car outside the safehouse the next morning. The staff member said she couldn’t do anything because she’s not allowed to touch anybody. All she needed to do was take her keys. The police ended up picking her up.

What have been your experiences with the police?

I laid charges against my brother – I had to go through the whole interview, video interview, give evidence – that probably lasted about 12-18 months, it’s quite a traumatic experience, and at the time I was suffering from depression. Then they came back and said that they didn’t think I was mentally stable enough to proceed with the case – that I wouldn’t be able to handle court. I sort of let it go. I was really unwell – low. But I didn’t understand that they were trying to fob me off – so I kept contacting them every few months. Then I had another meeting with the detective and he said that they’ve decided that the law was too old to prosecute.

The what?

The law was too old to prosecute.

Sorry – the law was too old to prosecute?

Yes. And they couldn’t even approach my brother to question him. I took the Victims Advisor from the District Court with me. They all said the best thing I could do, was to get counselling to help me to move on. That was two years ago now.

I feel that every door I open is slammed in front of me. Every door I’m told to open – by refuge, by police, by health professionals, by lawyers, by media – with all their promotion around “speak up about domestic violence” – is slammed in front of me.

Then to go to court after putting in an application for a protection order, where the respondent doesn’t turn up, doesn’t apply for a teleconference, is then given more time to present himself. I’m like – I’ve had to physically remove myself and my child from our home province, to be well.

You know what I think is one of the best forms of therapy?

What?

Justice.

Yeah. If I’d got a bit of justice… And the injustice, that does my head in.

That’s what’s part of the issue, right. What you have on Facebook is a lobby group for change to mental health services, and that is important. But I feel like a bigger movement is a movement for justice for women. No-one wants to be stuck in that mental health system. Part of the reason they are stuck in it, and need better care, is that there’s no freaking justice, is there. So you’re stuck in –

A revolving circle.

But what you want is to live in a society that is ready to recognise and address the concerns of women. And sure, men suffer as well, but I think it’s as a result of the same epidemics that are affecting women the worst and that need to be addressed by listening to women.

And you know – you mentioned this person who has been helped most by seeing a tohunga. I think when we go through this kind of trauma, our humanity is affected. We experience trauma ourselves, but we also see some of the things that people are capable of doing to other people, and our humanity is impacted. And the health system and the legal system and the police won’t recognise that humanity –

It just adds to the abuse.

Valerie Morse: “peace without justice – is pacification”

 

Peace activist Valerie Morse has been running Peace Action Wellington and Rebel Press for over ten years, and is the author of Against Freedom: The War on Terrorism in Everyday New Zealand Life. These are Valerie’s written answers to a set of questions for activists.

Valerie Morse. Source: New Zealand Listener

 

Did you grow up in a politicised family? How did the politics of your childhood home affect you?

I am a child of US-propaganda, of the Cold War and of Reaganomics. My parents were not political people in my childhood, although they became so much later in my life. Funnily enough, however, my father’s hatred of the police is something I definitely inherited. I remember so vividly how he used to call them “the village idiots.” I really appreciate the effect on me of his total loathing of illegitimate authority.

What politicised you? Did you have a penny drop moment, a gradual awakening, a teacher, a friend that sealed the deal?

I don’t think there was some magical moment of being politicised for me – it was a process of learning about injustice and feeling strongly that I wanted to do something about that injustice. Over the years, of course, my understandings about the causes of those injustices, and their ultimate resolution, have become more radical.

One thing that did influence me greatly was music. The music that I listened to growing up talked a lot about struggle, about poverty, about loss and alienation. Today, music really feds my desire to be part of the struggle; I listen to all genres of music as long as its got something to say, but I love music that can mix radical political messages with a beat you can dance to.

What are some of the actions you started taking when you first politicised?

One of my favourite memories is of being arrested at the Nevada Test Site in 1992. There was a huge gathering of anti-war and anti-nuclear activists who had been invited to converge on Western Shoshone land to oppose US nuclear testing. The night before the action a thousand people camped out under the stars in the desert across from the entrance to the site. In the morning, in large groups, people crossed over into the site. I crossed over with one of my friends and played hacky sack until these scary private police arrested us (the police were from a company called Wackenhut, now the Corrections Corporation of America). All the men and women were then put into these outdoor holding pens for the day; about 6pm we were loaded on buses and driven about an hour north and just dropped off in the desert.

It was my introduction to mass, grassroots actions and to the activism of First Nations people.

What did you do to become more daring, more vocal, more proactive?

The most important thing about being proactive and doing actions is working with people who you know have your back, that your respect and trust. Many of the actions I have done have been met with condemnation by the public at large, but I know that the people I am working with support that work. It is important to understand that radical change is going to make some people angry and offended; that’s good. If it doesn’t then it isn’t going to change anything.

What are the issues that you are, and have been, most committed to? How have you expressed that commitment – whether it’s been through taking more risk, sustaining projects over long periods of time, or putting up with extra flack?

I am fundamentally a peace activist, and that commitment to anti-war activities has deepened as my understanding of the complexity of the issue has grown. While I certainly aim for peace and use non-violence, I think peace in the absence of justice isn’t real peace – it’s pacification. I don’t reject violence on ideological grounds but on tactical ones; I believe in self-defence. Deep structural issues need to be addressed when we talk about war: colonisation, imperialism, patriarchy, white supremacy and the military-industrial complex.

After the start of the war in Iraq in 2003, public interest in the struggle against war fell off almost entirely. Partly that was because there was an ostensibly left-wing government waging the war, so those sectors of society who should have been loudly anti-war were much more subdued. Many of them really bought into the government spin of “peacekeeping.” A small group of us persevered, trying to raise the issue of New Zealand’s participation in the war in Afghanistan, in Iraq and other places. It feels great to have run a successful campaign this year on the weapons conference, but it is a struggle to keep people interested in what is going on out of sight when so many things here are so much more in your face: poverty, violence against women, ecosystem destruction, climate change etc.

Why that particular issue? What other fronts do you think we need to be fighting on?

To be honest, I think the big reason why I feel such an investment in the issue is because I grew up in the U.S., and I see the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace and security. When you grow up indoctrinated in U.S. supremacy and American “exceptionalism” it is very hard to see what is obvious to the rest of the world: the U.S. is responsible for most of the violence and war going on now, and it conducts these wars for the benefit of elite power.

What are some mistakes you might have made?

Gosh, I have made a lot of mistakes. I am a ‘do-er’ – and as such, I don’t often reflect very deeply on my actions or behavior. I tend to run roughshod over other people, and fail to understand the effects of my actions. I tend to make assumptions about things, and don’t check to see that those assumptions are correct. I don’t always see that I hold power in a group, and can push my own agenda – and in the process disempower other people.

Doing political work in the world means making mistakes. It can be hard to recover from mistakes, but the knowledge that we all make mistakes in our organising can be helpful to remember. As long as you keep doing things, you keep learning.

In your mind, what are we resisting and trying to change, as activists today, essentially? Is it a power system, like patriarchy, is it policy, or is it something in our collective consciousness, like human greed?

Good question. I believe that there is a dialectical relationship between the material forces and the ideological forces in the world. So the ideological systems of entrenched power: capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy etc. rely upon real material (capital, resources etc). And ideological ones reinforce those material forces: so the institutions of social and cultural reproduction (like schools, universities, media, etc) uphold and reinforce the current control of resources.

So changing everything requires not just that we think differently, but that the material conditions in the world are different, and how can material conditions change when power is so entrenched? And at the moment, I think the great challenge is figuring out how we are going to get there – and where ‘there’ actually is, post-capitalism. There is an absence of coherent, comprehensive ideas about how to move from capitalist exploitation to some other economic and political model, yet there is clear recognition from many quarters that an economic system that is reliant on endless growth on a finite planet is not working. There is part of me that fears that the only thing that is going to put the real brakes on capitalist exploitation is total ecological devastation: that’s definitely not the revolution that anyone wants.

How is it different from what was resisted previously, say last century?

Well, I don’t think that capitalism is static: it is a tremendously adaptable means of economic organisation. It is always seeking to maximise profit, and so we have seen a great many changes in work, but also in the relationships of people to their work. For example, while unions have been being systematically dismantled across the Western world since the early 1980s, work has been casualised and large scale manufacturing has moved to places with authoritarian regimes and/or no labour protections. So in the “minority world” (the first world) we have a process of accumulation by dispossession where the once prosperous middle class is losing ground, and in the majority world, we have mass exploitation, the breakdown of traditional social organisation and widespread human rights abuses.

From the 1970s onwards, the struggle around identity has been significant, but much of the analysis around this has been very liberal – it has sought some kind of “equality” under capitalism for marginalised populations. In my view, such analysis is not only wrong because it fails to understand the interrelationship between systems of oppression, but it has been harmful. The rise of “intersectional” analysis (what I would call an anarchist understanding of power) means that the struggles around identity and against capitalism have been linked – and now we have some real opportunities for transformation.

What are we fighting for?

We fight to stop injustice, to stop the horrors of modernity, to stop the exploitation of human and non-human resources.

I fight because I love the world and know that it can be better than it is.

What are some of the best campaigns and actions that you’ve seen in recent years?

I think that the Idle No More actions across Canada in opposition to the Tar Sands oil extraction were really inspiring and spoke to a lot of people who weren’t really active on those issues before.

I also think that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a tremendous campaign that really gives voice to Palestinian civil society silenced for so many years. I think that BDS is a clearly a major threat to the established order; that and the internet are significantly contributing to the disruption of the hegemonic Israeli security narrative.

What have been some of the most heartening moments in your activism in recent years – whether actions, epiphanies – what’s sustained you?

My friends and comrades in the movement sustain me, and give me a sense of collective purpose. I also really enjoy the process of learning about collective struggle and resistance and seeing how the theory and practice mix. I must admit I also really enjoyed shutting down the GCSB director’s speech in mid-August 2015 – it felt like the world’s easiest victory. Sometimes, it just feels great to make it hard for repressive forces to operate, even if it isn’t a great big strategic action.

What books and music mobilise you?

I recently read Jeff Halper’s War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification that I really recommend. It makes a potent argument that the way Gaza looks today is what the majority world will look like in a few years: a giant open-air prison.

In terms of music, I love political hip-hop and anything to dance to!

When planning actions and campaigns, what do you grind your teeth over – what has frustrated you the most? What would you like to see done about it?

I think that nationalist campaigns are dangerous. I think that it is one thing to campaign in a way that appeals to people’s own self-interest – that’s fine. People are motivated to act in their own self-interest. But I think campaigning around national identity essentially reinforces that construct. I think nationalism and patriotism are dangerous even when deployed for ostensibly “good” causes. I would love to see more of that “intersectional” thought in terms of campaign approaches.

What are the historic campaigns, movements, leaders or direct actions that you look to for inspiration? (Which would you visit with a time machine to check out & why?)

There are a great many movements that I look to for inspiration: the workers movements at the turn of the last century (in the factories, mines and mills – unions like the IWW), to the struggle for black liberation (#blacklivesmatter) that is on-going today in the US (and elsewhere) with a trajectory that goes back hundreds of years, to the fights of the campesinos in Latin America against land expropriation, to the climate justice struggles today. Really there are just far too many to even contemplate!

What are your biggest hopes for 2016 – for you, for us as activists?

I would love to see a fuller, more explicit rejection of parliamentary politics, and an engagement by people out on the streets and in their communities. In my view, parliament is a dead end for us. It is a place that protects the interests of the elite power brokers, and it has nothing to do with ordinary people.

I would love to see the rapid growth of grassroots, just transitions from fossil fuel dependency and a real alternative sharing economy, with things like timebanks, community gardens and new forms of housing.

 

Kassie Hartendorp: “having a political home”

Kassie Hartendorp (Ngāti Raukawa) was born in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) and grew up in the Hutt and Whanganui. Her day job is as a youth worker, and works most with sexuality and gender diverse young people. She has been involved in a variety of political projects, and is passionate about decolonisation and anti-capitalism in the context of Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa.

 

Did you grow up in a politicised family? If so, or if not – how did the politics of your childhood home affect you?

My dad actually identifies as pro-capitalist, ha! I never otherwise heard a capitalist say they’re pro-capitalism, so I think that’s hilarious. My family home is quite a working class, New Zealand Pākehā space. But there’s a contradiction. It’s like “we’re traditional, and we don’t rock the boat,” – but at the same time, my mum works in a rest home as a caregiver, for minimum wage and has no qualifications. She’s in a workforce that’s dominated by women, and undervalued.

Both my parents left home at 14, and they are both very smart people – but it’s very much world-smart and life-smart, rather than academic. I don’t remember ever having political conversations. Sometimes I am quite envious of people who have been raised in quite radical, or political homes – how amazing! But of course, they’ll probably be like, “Oh, my parents are really embarrassing and annoying” the same as anyone else.

Yeah! Sometimes I look at my twenties, and think – how much more could I have done if I wasn’t in this slow, painstaking process of filling in political silences and figuring out some actually quite basic truths!

Something I come back to is, I don’t know if I would have become a feminist had I not seen the situation that my mum was in and deciding I don’t want to be working a minimum wage job at age fifty, and society not recognising any of my key, important skills. I don’t want to be in that position. That’s an oversimplication, but I think it’s the stuff you see around you, and that you don’t want to continue to see, that politicise you.

Did you ever talk with your mum about the gendered nature of her experience at work?

We can’t really talk about that stuff, but once, she told me she had this dream where she got really angry about her work situation – which was basically asking staff to cost-cut in every way possible.

So she called up the prime minister, and asked him to come and try doing a day’s work! Mum’s like, “but the prime minister couldn’t end up coming, but one of his senior advisers came and did one of our night shifts. It was the worst shift, everyone was playing up, and then they went back and agreed to give us pay rises.” I was so excited for dream-radical mum!

I guess those sensitivities also challenge you to have conversations about politics but in ways that aren’t alienating. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and my parents really wanted me to do it, it was going to be a golden ticket into a good job, shiny happy rainbows. But I came back, and I felt like I didn’t have the right kinds of conversations with my parents. Suddenly I was this know-it-all university graduate and my parents were like, “Who do you think you are,” basically. It made me think about how I need to meaningfully come together with people.

I’m still learning that as well. I think too some of the challenge is that there’s quite a staunch discourse in feminism to do with not swallowing silencing, and not being polite to please. Not just for our own sake, but because if women are more assertive, men may sooner look inward and at their own behaviour too, rather than women always modifying theirs – and that benefits all women and feminist movement as a whole.

Sometimes it’s finding a balance – while at the same time knowing that, hey, while I am deeply intellectualising my own behaviour and actions, there are a billion guys who would not be doing the same thing. Like, absolutely not. And how I’m treated in the family is different, because I’m seen as an ‘outspoken woman’.

And also acknowledging that, my parents have their own languages and ways of understanding – say, inequality. Thinking about the intellectual arrogance I’ve seen at the university, and not wanting to perpetuate that with people who very well could be accomplices in movements toward change.

Sometimes I think some people are more comfortable with the idea of confrontation than others. I feel like I am a confrontational person, and I am comfortable with that. I am okay with rocking the boat when it needs to be rocked.

So then coming from the background you did – what politicised you?

I have a gut feeling toward injustice, but I was such a bratty teenager and pre-teen. A lot of my early politicisation was through punk music, and through finding like-mindedness with people who were willing to talk about things that were more systemic, and weren’t particularly popular, but that was okay.

And realising – this world isn’t the only possible world. We are capable of imagining and creating a different way of existing. Being quite dissatisfied with what is going on around you – and thinking, we can do better than this.

So just listening to a lot of like, terrible crust music that was talking about feminism, or George Bush, consumerism and imperialism – listening to that through art.

As a teenager, I was quite an internalised misogynist – I found myself hating on other women really easily, I’d say things like, “I’d never listen to female musicians, because women can’t play music.” My friend took me to her house one day and got out Pussy Whipped by Bikini Kill, this Riot Grrrl album, and played it on record and just encouraged me to sit and listen. And that was hugely life-changing in terms of like – “Yeah, I have been taught to hate women, and by extension myself, and I’m going to refuse to do that anymore, I’m going to actively stop that”.

Luckily, I had some amazing friends who were feminist and queer. I remember reading excerpts of feminist books to my boyfriend, when I was sixteen, and him really not wanting to hear about it. I was having these great revelations, “Ohmygosh, so much is being explained! This is so amazing!” and being like, “Listen to this chapter!” and him going, “Mmmm, I don’t really wanna hear about this.”

You just keep learning. I wasn’t some nek-level humanitarian activist – I was just a bit of a teenage rebel who wanted more from life, and for people who were suffering; hanging out with people who were interested in pushing the boundaries, having tough conversations, and not being complacent. You find those people, seek those people, become those people.

What are some of the actions you took, at first?

I came down to Wellington, and I was hanging out with this Gender and Women’s Studies lecturer who was campaigning to be in student politics. She asked me to help her campaign, and of course, I was like, there’s this really awesome, smart, feminist woman who I really wanna support.

I ended up with her at this socialist meeting, on a Friday night and found people wanting to talk about capitalism, the revolution, and how we need to transform our entire system into something based on human need, rather than private profit. After that I was like – I’m still learning what this all means, but I felt I needed to do something. There are people I know who this is really affecting – it’s not some intellectual exercise, something needs to happen. And I have a body and a brain and the privilege to do something, so why the hell not?

So I joined this group, the Workers’ Party (now Fightback), and stayed with them quite a while. Whether it was raising the minimum wage, addressing climate change or supporting justice in Palestine. They had an interconnected idea of how oppression and exploitation worked, and were wanting to fight it – at every single front, every single facet, they wanted to be there – and wanted to build something better, more sustainable.

One thing I liked about being part of a socialist group like that is the feeling of having a political home. Sue Bradford’s talked a lot about that in her thinking around a left-wing think-tank. It resonates with me, maybe because I’m interested in building and creating homes and always having a place you can go back to where you have comrades, other like-minded people where you can relax and sound off.

At that time, I also spent some time in student politics. I spent nine months on the executive at Victoria University, but resigned in protest and didn’t see out my whole term. I just could not exist there any more: it was really bizarre being elected into a position where the wider student body is not engaged with what is happening – and that organisation is no longer being used to meaningfully fight for students. It seems more like an organisation that is content to bargain and go on-side with the university, which is doing messed up things to students in the name of creating ‘universities as businesses’. I could no longer be complicit and okay with that, and it just crawled under my skin.

I ended up resigning in protest. I never looked back at student politics. My impressions were that it was a full of people who wanted a so-called career in politics, to join the Labour Party and put something on their C.V but it burned out all the people who really cared about student welfare.

Later on in 2011, I worked with others to co-found an activist group called Queer Avengers, which I helped facilitate for a couple of years. That was about creating a space where you could have a political analysis of what it means to be queer or trans, and fight homophobia and transphobia on the ground, rather than just leaving it up to something that happens in parliament, that we can’t touch, see or feel. But make it real, and community led.

What actions did you take with them?

The action that started Queer Avengers was called Queer the Night in 2011, and it was when there was a small spate of gay bashings, physical assaults against members of the LGBTQI community in Wellington. A friend of mine wanted to organise an event – “We’re in Wellington, it’s supposed to be really friendly, but people we know are getting beaten up, what the hell is going on here?”

It was a really politicising moment for a lot of people. It brought in people young and old. I remember a fifteen-year-old trans person getting up on the mic and speaking in front of hundreds. In a world of Caitlin Jenners or whatever now, it seems a bit blasé, but at that point it felt confronting and political. After that we had meetings that packed out Trades Hall.

We did actions like a glitter-bombing of Germaine Greer regarding transphobia, and solidarity demos. We did protests outside the Ministry of Education around safety in schools for LGBTQI young people, and we managed to get a meeting with senior advisors that organisations hadn’t been able to – so we took young people along to talk with them. We ran conferences talking about issues beyond the fight for marriage equality, and tried to make space for voices that weren’t heard in the gay mainstream.

And I guess we provided a bit of a political home for people where it was understood that our struggles around sexuality and gender diversity are linked into a bigger system, and linked to wider struggles. Not to say that the group was perfect – but it reflected and captured a particular political mood in Wellington at that time.

When you say those struggles are linked – what is your conception of that, of how our struggles today are interconnected?

My conception of it is that we’re battling systems that reinforce structural inequality, structural oppression and structural exploitation. There are lots of different facets, but I don’t think it’s possible to do anything about them unless you are confronting capitalism, confronting colonisation and confronting patriarchy.

There are a lot of feminists who think of class in terms of identity politics – but it’s the way we organise society, and overall, there is a global trend of neoliberal capitalism. That is a system that needs to be demolished, because at the essence of capitalism, you are always exploiting the majority of people. And the wealth that is being created is always going to a top layer of the elite, rather than the people creating the wealth. Therefore, there is always going to be a gap between the rich and poor. And, you can’t divorce that from the impacts of colonisation.

I believe there needs to be a social change to create a more just world. And we have the means to be able to actually create a world where everyone can happily live, be fed, access shelter, access clean water. We don’t have a lack of resources – it’s all here in our world, but there needs to be a paradigm shift.

You don’t think we’re in a Mayan shift toward next level enlightenment?

I don’t knock those ideas, but there are some quite material problems that are going on right now and some material things we can do to change that.

I love the latest Mad Max story. Like Mad Max is basically a small-bit player in a woman’s story of redemption, of how she was taken away from her matriarchal society and abused, and how she’s trying to get back there. What I really liked is that there’s this awful place, they’re running away, and they’re trying to find this mystical, holy, green land where everything is pure and there’s plants and everything’s safe and beautiful.

Spoiler – they get to the desert and find it doesn’t exist, and they’re like, Well either we can keep going and try and find this utopia, or, we can take everything we got, we can turn around, we can demolish s*** on the way, and take over the one place we know exists so that people aren’t starving and there is no more inequality. So they turn around and they storm the city, take it over, and give water to everyone.

I love it, because that’s how I see the world. I’m not a big believer in, we need to go create these communes in the forest. We need to battle the system that currently exists. You can build nice, helpful alternatives, but at the end of the day there needs to be a confrontation and for us to take back what belongs to the majority of people.

Do you think activism is doing that, at the moment?

It’s hard to tell! And it’s different everywhere. There have been so many attacks on any kind of mobilisation or organisation against right-wing ideas in Aotearoa, that of course we’re fragmented. Wherever there is struggle, there is always resistance, but how do you collectively organise around that, with what we have now? With weakened unions, marae that are said to be dying because of urban migration. Where are the spaces where we’re able to organise – in the same ways that the right is able to create think tanks, create their own stories, myths, narratives that have managed to gain power and be compelling – there’s absolutely no equivalent right now in terms of anything opposed.

Yes – definitely activism is undermined from the top down. Do you think though that there are also ways in which we might be shooting ourselves in the foot?

I think there are two things that make it difficult to have leftists or activists working together. One is that we’re all total critical thinkers and we struggle to turn that off. That can sometimes venture into perfectionism. I’ve seen people going, “Nothing’s ever quite perfect, so, should we even bother getting involved with it.”

The other thing is that because we are so emotionally invested, morally invested, the work that we do can become really precious. I want to see a stop to suffering, for a whole bunch of people. That makes me act in ways I might not normally act because it cuts to my very core, which has its pros and its cons. We should be emotionally invested. But how do we navigate that in a way we can actually work together?

This reminds me of the interview I did with Linnéa Lindstrom. She talked really eloquently about that, in terms of how we all bring unacknowledged or undisclosed feelings of grief and perhaps defeat to activism, so that we’re trying to build a strong resistance on shaky ground.

I totally agree with that, and often when I’m talking about politics I am talking about grief, too. And, coming back to that emotional connection – I have often found that people I have worked with want to tackle things like inequality or injustice from this ultra-clinical, theoretical perspective. I think possibly that’s something men are encouraged or more able to do more easily.

I’ve found in some socialist groups, I didn’t have the same amount of time to be sitting around reading lots of books, I couldn’t have the same conversations as some people at events whose life is studying Marxist theory. Because actually, there’s more people I have to look after. I’m doing more emotional labour all the time. There was this question, “Why aren’t women participating more in theoretical discussions?” Well, we don’t always have time for that s***.Yeah, we feel our politics, we feel our politics f***en strong – you don’t have to tell us what inequality means. But it can’t always manifest itself in the same way. That’s not specific to any organisation, just what I’ve observed and experienced generally.

But yes, you need to acknowledge that deep hurt – racism hurts, sexism hurts; it hurts having to work four jobs to make sure your kids survive; intergenerational trauma hurts. Until you can have that conversation and build from that, I don’t know how you’re meant to create something. But I find so many activists are not comfortable having that conversation. That’s made me feel pissed off. It’s meant I’ve turned away from more ‘traditional’ forms of activism that are run by the male Pākehā left, and have sought spaces that are run by, particularly women – and not just “white feminist” spaces – because I feel there’s more of a learned ability to grapple with that stuff. We deal with it, and then move on.

That reminds me of what we were talking about before – about the languages we use in activism and community groups. Being resistant to academic language as class-based, yet still drawing on that critical education, that succinct identification of patterns and modes of oppression. Perhaps some more intellectual activist organisations embrace this very academic tone, but in a way it inherently does silence that deep-felt core. I wonder to what extent we embrace that silencing because we are super uncomfortable too, with grief, and it suits us to use a language that silences or precludes it. I feel like may be patriarchal – not in some clean, clinical sense – but if you are socialised to suppress your own emotions, and therefore don’t recognise them so readily in others – that’s what empathy is about, right – then how are you supposed to have a language, or want a language, where that is inherent?

Yeah – when I was working with some political groups, some of the people who were most mocked were those who were involved in any kind of spirituality. I think the fight for a better world is a deeply spiritual thing – our sense of wairua is massive. Realising that’s not even meant to be a part of the conversation is just stupid and short-sighted, and ineffective – and can be really violent at the same time. It’s bizarre. There have been some useful insights for people who talk about world change that have come on the spiritual pathway.

And actually, while we sit on colonised land, and while all this violence is going on around us, of course that’s having an effect on our wairua.

I’m intrigued about that! I used to be and feel really nourished by spirituality and spiritual literature when I was younger, and looking back I’m not sure when that stopped being okay – but I’m still finding my way back. Something that’s got me, is: a lot of the most profound spiritual traditions have been co-opted – and I’ve come to associate them with their co-opted forms, and it makes me allergic. So I’ve found it a struggle to connect with something that doesn’t feel distracting or coercive. Have you experienced anything like that?

I completely agree with what you’re saying. My mum is Christian and I was raised in a Christian home. And when I was about eleven I said, “Mum, I don’t want to go to church anymore, I don’t believe in this, it doesn’t feel right”, so we just all stopped going to church, ha! I guess the way Christianity was being taught didn’t really make sense to me – then growing up being a cynical-as teenager, then going to university, and yeah, finding that discomfort with spirituality there.

In some socialist spaces, people really get into the “science” of Marxism. It’s about our material world, and material change. I totally can understand where that’s coming from, but I think it gets fetishised a bit. Quotes from Marx like, “religion is the opiate of the masses” suddenly take on this form that a lot of Pākehā who come from very academic or intellectual backgrounds really resonate with and keep reinforcing.

To me, my spirituality is in essence about connections to people in some way, connections to land, to our past and our ancestors, and a purpose forward that is nourishing and acknowledges us all as whole beings that deserve to be healthy and healed and restored in every possible sense.

My ideas around spirituality started to really fall in place when I was journeying into my Māoritanga, and it was never associated with a New Age, hippy, pseudo-aesthetic, it was absolutely about reconnecting with indigenous ideas of spirituality and connection and wairua. That made so much sense to me in a way no Sunday Bible School session ever has.

But I feel like I’m in a way, way healthier place now. And for me more than anything it’s about being more in connected with elements beyond what you see in front of you. It’s different for everyone, some people would be like “Well, what on earth does that mean,” but for instance when I go and enter a space that feels spiritually healthy and nourishing, you can tell the difference from one that is spirituality violent – i.e. a WINZ office.

Being in tune with that, I think, enriches my politics much more, being able to sit comfortably with it, and not fighting it. I’m still totally excited about my journey in this area.

And it’s had a lot to do with Māoritanga.

I think my most important connection over the past couple of years has been my connection with my tipuna. I just feel like there are ways they have been trying to teach me some life lessons I probably should have listened to. That is a narrative that makes sense to me. To me, the idea of being really strongly connected backwards, forwards, sideways, multi-dimensionally is really comforting and gives me a sense of meaning in continuing on.

I’m really aware that in some ways, because of colonisation, I’ll never necessarily be able to put a face to these ancestors, that doesn’t even matter – that’s not how it works. I know they are there in some form, they are guiding me on some path, and what that usually means is if something doesn’t feel right in my gut, then I need to sort that s*** out. That’s actually really important in politics – you need to have a good gut feeling, because otherwise people can get in a lot of trouble. So being able to be in touch with that is really key.

How does that relate to the stuff you’ve been thinking about around leadership? I know you think about leadership a great deal. Or maybe your ideas on that are quite distinct?

I think following on another thread we’ve been talking about – around leaders, whether we should have them, what leadership looks like. To me, there are some people who will always be leaders in some way. I was the eldest child – that’s made me probably more inclined to be a leader. It’s not a magical superpower – I’m used to having responsibility and I don’t easily shake that off.

You always need to be able to have leadership. Now where that leadership comes from – it won’t always be the same, but there needs to be a way of paddling the waka forward. I’m a strong believer in leaders being picked, they’re not self-appointed – it’s decided, or elected, or endorsed, in some way. And if you mess that up, you’re accountable to someone, and you’re either no longer the leader, or you are given a chance to make amends. I think a lot of places don’t have real, true democracy, and true accountability. When you have someone with unchecked power, you’re always going to run into problems.

My leadership style involves making sure that I have multiple ways of being able to check that power when that’s needed. I don’t agree with consensus – ideally, everyone’s on the same page, but you can put it to a vote, you have a discussion if you need to, you make a decision and you move on. Some people have to accept, “my ideas aren’t going to be the right way,” but if you’re there for a common cause, then you have to decide what you’re going to sacrifice. And some ideas you can’t. I left student politicas because they didn’t stick up for political students, and that was something I couldn’t go along with, even though we took a vote on it and the vote failed.

You’ve got to manage a way forward, otherwise things will stagnate. At the same time it’s about building, and encouraging and growing new leaders to be able to step up. So it’s not about the same person doing it all the time. I believe that if you are a legitimate leader, people recognise your mana. Someone much wiser than me has said, when you’re in a position where you have a lot of mana, what you do is start sharing that mana. People who haven’t found theirs, you share with them, to lift them up as well. Ideally you’ve got the whole collective doing it and it grows people together.

I think what’s typical is for people to be in a position of having mana, and storing that up for themselves – using it purely to lift and build their own ideas and position. I think that’s messed up, but really easy to do, and the system always encourages and incentivises that behaviour, it can be hard to go against it. But if you can do that – you’ve done the right thing.

What would you like to see more of in activism or activist circles – would it be related to this?

The work I’ve loved the most has always been intergenerational, and actually most of the activism I’ve been part of has been intergenerational. It’s allowing that really fresh-faced optimism and creativity that comes with being young and energetic and detached from activist traditions, and coming together with people who have done tonnes of stuff, and who can say, “You know if you do that you’re going to get in a whole lot of trouble with the cops!”

And speaking of accountability, I think working intergenerationally is important for that, too. Some of the people I know who are most committed in activism are those who have had some kind of kaumatua or teacher who gave them something they found so valuable, they feel they owe it to that person to put perhaps a new-found critical consciousness into action, and develop it throughout their lives.

It’s amazing too isn’t it, that you can go through this whole education system full of propaganda, and it only has to take one teacher to turn things around for you! I sometimes feel that older generation – that’s their role, in a way. To hold us accountable by sharing that wisdom where they can.

Is there anything else you’d like to see?

Yeah, I want to see more places for critical education. Creating spaces that don’t rely on gatekeepers or leaders who always have the answers, but where a lot more people are able to have a say and step up to make change.

I’m always thinking of the microdynamics as well as the macro- stuff. Like, how a meeting works, how you treat other people in the movement, how you hold each other accountable, how you manage to show kindness despite vehemently disagreeing with someone’s political position, how you manage to weave different ideas together to challenge something on a mass basis. I think I’m always driven toward the mass, but thinking about the little picture of how to get there.

You can’t manufacture all of that, Sometimes there are just moments that resonate with a lot of people, but without leadership, it’s hard to channel that momentum.

Yes! Tell me about what you’re up to with Kava Club, at the moment.

We recognised there was a need for a space where Māori and Pacific creatives could support each other more. It’s not an activist organisation – but one member has said, “it’s a safe place to have unsafe conversations.” And it’s a place Māori and Pasifika people call the shots. How often does that happen in Central Wellington?

Last year, a couple of members organised Disrupting the Narrative, talking about the myths around war – with korero from different Māori communities talking about the impacts of war on them, the state terror raids, stuff like that. There’s potential to have political conversations from a Māori and Pacific perspective, and I’m really excited about what that can look like.

I think it’s important for me politically and personally is to think about things from a wider, Pacific perspective. Acknowledging how much of the left-wing activism I’ve been involved in is really Pākehā dominated – how many events, demos, protests I’ve been to have been mainly white faces. And I’ll go – this isn’t an issue that affects only white people. What is it about that activism that is only providing space for white people to contribute? To me, it’s also about being in environments that are really engaging indigeneity.

I’ve been thinking about this too, especially after going to protests recently that lead to arrests. In something like a blockade, just being brown can make the risk of arrest greater. Also, many Māori and Pacific communities are prevented from having the privilege to absorb those risks as easily. Māori and Pacific leaders can be so key and integral to those communities, they can’t necessarily just go getting cuffed or getting tied up in the so-called justice system. And it’s twice as bad for them when the media gets involved.

And also, when you take an example like the weapons conference – my own view is that as a white person, it’s more appropriate for me to be taking bigger risks around opposing that, than it would be if I was indigenous. I don’t think it is as much an indigenous responsibility. Come, sure, that’s not my business! But hell. If we do have actions and demos and organising that ends up being primarily white, then we need to seek accountability around that. But at the same time, I’m beginning to feel that the responsibility for fighting something like white supremacy lies more with white people, and white people putting white privilege on the line; while Māori and Pasifika are supported to build up their communities, rather than necessarily say, going to jail for our sins.

I agree. In some ways I have sympathy for the idea that actually, if our current government and current way of existing is created by white colonisers, there is a responsibility among white people to be fighting that battle. If you’re white, it’s your people who have done this, so go sort your people out.

Man, and indigenous people have been putting themselves on the line about this, obviously, for centuries.

Yes. So I am definitely not saying that I want to see more brown people on the front lines. I think one key learning moment for me was a couple of years ago, running a socialist feminist day school, and asking Teresia Teaiwa to come and speak. It was predominantly white people who were there, and when I spoke I mentioned how more and more people are talking about feminism and these ideas. I remember Teresia saying: “It’s really funny that you say that Kassie, because in the Pacific world, I do not see Pacific women speaking about it in the same way you have. And that makes me really sad, and I’d like to see more of that.”

So that was a big moment for me, because it wasn’t about who’s on the front lines, but where is this stuff getting talked about? And who defines the priorities and interests of social change?

And hey, real, truthful conversations among people of colour do not happen in the presence of white people, most of the time, unless they are partners or close loved ones. So, knowing and holding all of that, but also – where is the responsibility of Pākehā to be fighting and struggling, and where does that begin to be white supremacy?

Yeah, like in many ways perhaps we are fighting on different fronts – but there needs to be relationships between those. I’m thinking of other examples too, like say, Women’s Refuge and White Ribbon. There needs to be stronger accountability relationships there too, for sure.

Yeah. It’s thinking – who are the people speaking, what is the issue, who has a stake in this situation, who is in a position to be able to do something, and how are people talking about it? These are all key questions. I know activists who are people of colour and finding it really hard, because their families are going, “What the hell are you doing,” for a whole bunch of valid reasons. Whereas a lot of white people who are activists whose parents couldn’t give less of a hoot and they can spend their lives being a rent-a-mob protester and there’s going to be literally no consequence from that.

I still love your idea of a political home, too.

I’m involved in a group called Box Oceania that’s been an awesome home in terms of grappling with sexuality, gender, race, white supremacy, leadership, accountability.

I think I’ll always seek out those homes with people you can reflect with, that stuff is so key. A lot of comrades from Fightback, they’ll be my political home, no matter where we are.

I think without those groups you can fall into traps where you may not be learning from your practice, or even worse, acting violently towards people – absolutely there have been activists who have abused other activists, and people just put up with it, because they’re like “Well, we’re not going to call the cops, because we hate the cops,” and we don’t have our own forms of justice. So people can, unchecked, do what they want.

I focus on that a lot, and probably because I’ve been burnt by it, but I wanna get to this place and how do you get to this place well, and in tact with other people who are smart, and always reflecting and learning from where you’ve been – without having any formal or recognised institutions that create that? Yeah, there’s some shreds of some former pillars that used to exist like unions, or the WEA or certain places that once were stronger – but where do people who have these ideas go now, to work together, and develop their practice, so they’re working for good and not causing harm?

Like we’ll go to a protest, and then we’ll go our separate ways, and randomly come together for another protest, but how are we actually collectivising that knowledge, those lessons and that experience, so that we move forward together?

Good question!

 

Linnéa Lindström: “this deep, dark mountain”

Linnéa is a permaculture designer, and co-founder of workerBe Oasis – a series of urban farms. The first site is in Newtown, producing fresh veges for Kaibosh and providing training for budding urban farmers.

Did you grow up in a politicised family? If so, or if not – how did the politics of your childhood home affect you?

My parents were part of the ’68 generation that got politicised through the Vietnam War, and I see myself as a daughter of that generation. Dad does not see himself as belonging to any particular political group, but definitely belonging to the very left fringes, and in the seventies he was part of a lot of fringe, communist groups. Mum was the first in her working-class family who went to university, and was financially independent as a woman.

Also, environmental consciousness was quite big in the early nineties in Sweden. In the eighties it had been almost forgotten, and my parents were weird and fringe for having all of those Greenpeace magazines and stuff.

What are some of the actions you took yourself, early on?

My parents were also members of Swedish environmental organisation similar to Forest & Bird, but more oriented around activism and environmental protection. When I was around ten, I joined the youth group within that – they only allowed people between the ages of 7 and 26 – so at 13 you’re a full member, and at 26 you get kicked out and offered an adult membership. So everything is organised by young people, all the decision-making is quite radical because at 13 you’re like, ‘We can do this so much better!’

So I started to get really active from around 12 or 13. We worked in groups of about ten, of kids from about 4 villages in our area. We did a lot of climate stuff – leafleting, holding demonstrations outside supermarkets and at traffic lights, occupying carparks with bicycles. We set up a youth centre in an abandoned factory – that was a lot of meetings, thinking. And adults looking at you when you’re a kid being really active, and going, ‘Oh, that’s so cute. In a couple of years, they’ll be cynical too.’ And we were like – ‘No!’

Then when I was 14 or 15 I moved into the district area, and was on the organisation council for the district. That was when they were building the motorway from Gothenburg to Oslo on the west coast of Sweden, and we were teaming up with other more green-and-black organisations – more anarchist, deep green resistance organisations. We put sand in the tanks of the machines, some people were chaining themselves to the trees. Nature protection stuff.

So you also knew early on to spot the difference between greening capitalism and real resistance.

I’ve been through different phases of understanding that. When I went to France when I was 18, I discovered how in France there’s this mainstream society – and then a green fringe. So you have 100% organic stores, and no organic foods in the supermarket. You had 5% of people sorting their waste, and most throwing it on the landfill.

Whereas in Sweden, it’s always been a consensus thing. So, Sweden’s seen a campaign around chlorine-bleached toilet paper, because it’s something that everyone can agree on: we don’t need our toilet paper bright white and perfumed. Since then, there’s none of that toilet paper in Sweden. Slowly, all the supermarkets have organic milk, fair trade bananas, organic carrots, coffee, chocolate – the staples, the things everyone can agree on. These things are really bad, so let’s do this, together. Whereas in France there’s more argument, and, “who are you to police me.”

But, so, greening capitalism and greenwashing in Sweden is very omnipresent. There’s consensus that cutting trees down is really bad – so we have “FSC”, Forest Sustainability Certification. But that just means they leave like, one tree out of fifty – so the rules are so non-stringent, that we can have these nice labels on something that’s really quite horrible.

When I was a teenager we worked a lot with encouraging lifestyle changes: it’s the small, everyday changes that will make a difference. But that just gave everyone a really clear conscience, and go, ‘Yeah, I’m taking the plane once a year for a 2-week holiday on Grand Canary island, but the rest of the year, I compost almost all my food waste.” So it just makes you walk around and feel like a saint, because you’re making these insignificant changes.

So that was as a young’n back in Sweden. How did you progress from there?

When I lived in France, I was living like a no-money lifestyle. The first big switch for me was getting in touch the more radical, anarchist movements, like Friends of the Earth. There are a few movements in North Western Europe that were really active then, that sported the green-and-black, black for anarchism.

I learned more there about how to organise, how to create small cells of four or five people who know each other and trust each other, and how you then go through a consensus process. That really opened my mind to how differently we could organise – compared to how the world is run with committees, mayors, offices, bureaucracies. If we could all organise within syndicates – and anarcho-syndacalism – it could work. Then there was the thrill and excitement of doing stuff that’s kind of illegal.

Then, it was when I lived in France and met people who lived on the street – and didn’t have any money, and lived without money, and who were happy. That made me go – Hey. Within that anti-consumerist movement of lifestyle changing – these guys are radical. They’re on the forefront of what it could be to live with less. That really opened my eyes to – how little we need to be happy, and how little happiness depends on what we have. Yeah.

So I went out travelling for a couple of years without an income.

Then I went back to uni, part time, by correspondence – so I got a little grant from the state, so I had a very low, basic income, there were two of us living from that. I spent probably five years living outside of the system – not working, not having an income, not having social security. Just being within the web of interconnectedness and human support.

How did you make that work? Like, dumpster diving –

Yeah, dumpster diving – but to be able to cook for lots of people, so that meant that people who might have somewhere to live, but not enough money for food, would come along, like an informal soup kitchen, managed by people on the street rather than by charity. Squatting – I was part of a few squats. But I never took a leadership role – it was a good thing to do in winter, when it was too cold to sleep in a tent.

I didn’t really want to stay anywhere a long time – and I was much less vulnerable than most people. I didn’t do drugs – most of what I did daily wasn’t illegal, I just wasn’t living a conventional life. I was also mostly in it for the discovery of another world.

Rather than out of necessity.

Well – once you’ve stepped outside of the system, it’s really bloody hard to get in again. It’s really, really tough. But I was a young woman, I wasn’t of colour, I spoke decent French, I had lots of privileges that made it a lot easier for me to be on the street than it is for many other people. So even though we were all in the same situation of not having money, and sharing whatever we had, and getting drunk together – I was still in a position to support others, rather than vice-versa.

So I think a lot of people got to think of me as a little sister that they wanted to take care of – but also as a mother-type figure, who could sit down with them when they were drunk, crying and lamenting their bad childhood – yea? – or when they had bad trips, or someone was hunting them around town with a knife, or the stupid, stupid things people do for drugs.

It got me to know that whole part of society. In Europe they call it the “fourth world”. It’s not the third world, the exploited countries, but it’s people within the West who aren’t even considered as people. And who are completely outside the system. And then at the same time I was going to Rainbow gatherings, and doing WWOOFing, discovering permaculture and helping people who had farms and didn’t manage them very well – slowly getting into that whole thing that’s now my profession.

How did you discover permaculture?

I was WWOOFing in Southern France, with Pete and Jane, an emigrated UK couple – it was one of the early permaculture places in France. My then-boyfriend was basically starting permaculture stuff in Mali, we went down to Togo to do beekeeping installations. He was very strongly Rastafarian – I was too, and still am somewhere in my heart. So through those two things – I was basically travelling with the big, thick permaculture designers’ manual in my backpack, using that to interpret and understand, to figure out how to redesign squats in cities, and stuff.

So permaculture brought another big shift for you.

Yes. I then realised that in my childhood, I was in this whole vibe of, “we have to save the world.” My generation, we have to make change, otherwise the planet is stuffed.

Then I discovered permaculture, and I went – actually, humanity is one of the threatened, endangered species as well. If we don’t change things for ourselves, and create ecosystems that are resilient to climate change, that nourish us – we are going to die out. Nature, as a whole, life on Earth, is in no danger. It’s got so much resilience. Bacteria in the oceans are currently gobbling up plastic, for example. It’s like – why would I worry about the planet?

Sure – lots of the mammals will die out – and we’re one of them. And I really, really like humans. Like if I had to choose between pandas and polar bears and humans, I would prefer to save some humans. So my focussed shifted at that point. And as a side effect of creating tight, small, useful ecosystems that support and nourish the local people, we leave more wilderness to recover by itself and through natural, regenerative forces, just restore itself, and create new habitats for wildlife.

So my focus shifted from “save the planet” to “save the humans”. While not losing sight of the fact that we are the greatest threat to our own species, and that threat is residing as much in our exploitation of nature as in one another.

Integrating those concepts in my head and heart, that’s when that important shift came and when I started looking for solutions, rather than fighting against. I’d spent ten years fighting against: going down to Gothenburg, going to all the marches and organisations I could, doing all the illegal stuff people couldn’t do because they were too invested in the system. Also knowing I wouldn’t have kids, because I was way too radical and my lifestyle couldn’t accommodate family.

And that lead to, okay, we need to find solutions to all three of these things, for earth care and people care and fair share, and social justice.

So in your mind, what are we resisting and trying to change, as activists today, essentially? Is it a power system, like patriarchy, is it policy, or is it something in our collective consciousness, like human greed?

It’s the system of money and ownership; the use of patriarchy to suppress femininity in everyone and women everywhere; the use of our consumerism and materialism to exploit nature – they’re like three legs to the same stool, oppressing everyone, everywhere, limiting our survival.

We see ourselves as entitled to things individually, like – because I paid for this, I am the sole user. Instead of seeing ourselves as being part of a landscape, we are the owners of the land. For me, through those years of living without money, I felt sometimes like an alien coming in from outside and going – ‘Hey, you’re gripped by this collective madness. It’s not reality. You’re mad!’

Each of those three things lead to one another, and all of them stem from our deep disconnectedness, our perception of ourselves as being disconnected from each other, the surrounding ecosystems, nature, and the wider spiritual realms.

And what we’re fighting for – that’s something you understand in terms of the shift that you had.

For a world that is abundant for all forms of life, where all waste is useful for another living being, where suffering and death is limited to that necessary for metabolism – but that’s so far from our life experience that most of us can’t even really envision what it would be like. So we’re fighting for a transformation of everything into something that we can’t yet imagine. Charles Eisenstein’s book title, The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, captures it. That’s what we’re fighting for.

And I think in the last couple of years I’ve become more and more inspired. I read Derrick Jensen, probably six years ago – Deep Green Resistance, and Endgame.

Then I got into the whole Dark Mountain movement – a movement of artists and writers looking at the deep grief that we have to deal with when we realise that the planet’s stuffed or humanity’s stuffed. Delving into those feelings of grief that you get when you realise that, however hard you try, you’ll never save everything. A lot of species become extinct every day; a lot of people suffer every day; a lot of people will be killed, and through the cataclysmic things that are going to happen over the coming years, a lot more people will die, and that from the billions of people that are on Earth right now – it’s probably going to pare down to about one billion.

That’s a hell of a lot of death. That’s a hell of a lot of suffering. There’s nothing I can do about it – and that sense of deep grief, compassion for all the suffering, and all the stages that grief brings you to: anger, denial, tearfulness, paralysis. That’s where I am at now – realising that. And for many people, it’s just too much to look at.

Yes. Activism is often characterised in terms of ‘politics’ – but when you think of it in terms of social justice, and realise the natural response to injustice is grief, you realise just how much the world asks of the grieving. In a state of grief, you need to withdraw, and go inward.

And be cared for by the ‘mother principle’, which is in every one of us, which is plenty of compassion and plenty of holding space for emotions to run their course, and that’s what transforms us. And what the world needs most is for humans to transform.

So what do you think might be holding us back in activism, at the moment?

What I see in activism everywhere, all the time, is a lack of shared purpose. That is something that often ruins things. You have to be able to put aside everything on which you don’t agree, to work on that which you do. I mean, you have to make tactical alliances. You have to be tactical! You can’t just be an idealist, and do things because “it’s right”.

Whatever issue you’re working on, whether it’s getting rid of plastic in the oceans, or making life better for sex workers, or eradicating it altogether – you have to collaborate with people who you really don’t agree with on a lot of other things. It’s not a sell-out to collaborate on a specific issue with people who might be your opponents on other issues. If we only collaborate with people we agree on everything with, we won’t get very far. That’s the times when I go, ‘just let go of being right all the time,’ because that’s just ego speaking.

The other thing is having good, effective meeting techniques and having activism work as efficiently as the best enterprise. Because enterprises, most of them, are destroying the planet. Most of them are working toward exploitation of people and the planet. We have to use techniques that make us at least as efficient as they are. We’re so inefficient! That makes me frustrated. All these ideals, all this goodwill – and then you go – come on, you can’t spend half this meeting talking about stuff that doesn’t matter.

You want to get stuff done? Use techniques that are proven to make it efficient. Don’t sit around having bloody – I mean I’m not against consensus, it’s just often, we don’t need it. We just need to get stuff done.

I have two questions now. One is around this grieving you were talking about – how you think it plays out in activism. The other is around what kind of strategies you think will make us more efficient. An interesting combination!

So – grieving. Grieving disorients us, in general. So – not acknowledging that we’re all in a state of grief – in a group of activists, we’re gathering together in a room, trying to make decisions that are rational and efficient, without acknowledging that what’s actually motivating us to be in the room, is deep grief. It’s like, well – if what we’re fundamentally working against is the sense of disconnectedness, and we’re trying to work against that by not acknowledging that we’re grieving, then we’re completely disconnected. From our own emotions, other people’s realities, even disconnected from the cause.

So we’ve got this tension, shakiness, unstable ground that we’re trying to build this efficient resistance on, against the very thing that we, at the same time, somehow fear and already have given into. Not in the sense of ideals, but actually, somewhere inside we know we’re not going to “win” – we’re not going to revolutionise things and it’s all going to be fine. We’re on our way into a darker place. We’re on our way into more suffering. We’re on our way into worse conditions. We’re not seeing the end of the tunnel – at all. But we have to go into this deep, dark mountain to get out into the other side.

So I think that’s one of the reasons we’re so inefficient: we’re not acknowledging the grief.

Yeah. Often I feel, at demonstrations and stuff, that there can be a tension between expressing anger, although I think a lot of that can be diffused for people already just through turning up – perhaps too much even – but then, there’s those who are deeply insistent on keeping an ‘upbeat’ vibe, and having music and making sure that everyone feels nurtured by a positive atmosphere. And I feel both grateful, and wary of that. And I feel it has a lot to do with what you’re saying. On the one hand, it’s an acknowledgement of grief and a way to try to transcend it – but in another way, it can feel like a form of denial.

And I think it is both. For different people, at different times. Sometimes I will feel that grief so strongly that I will want to escape it, and I will go out partying or play music and dance round the house – just to keep it upbeat. Other times, that deep grief can be allowed and welcomed, if someone’s holding space for it. Maybe in a druming circle, or in a sharing circle. In the solidarity that you feel when going to marches, or organising things together, there is something there that relieves our grief. Like you say with the angry people.

For me, sometimes we have to run away, and sometimes delve in. But what is problematic is when we just don’t acknowledge that deep grief.

So the need to acknowledge deep grief and the need to become more efficient though – they don’t look like they go hand-in-hand. If you think about when we grieve – that’s when we’re the most stationary, the least productive, the hardest to motivate – that’s when we can’t get out of bed. So you are right. How to reconcile these, is interesting.

For me, that’s like two polarities. An activist is active, by definition – but you can’t be active without being passive, and letting processes run their course. When polarities aren’t balanced – light and dark, male and female, hope and despair, joy and grief – when that balance isn’t respected, things don’t work. Energy gets stuck. If I’m all in my head and not very grounded, I go shaky, I’ll get headaches, I’ll trip and break my leg. You have to keep balance.

That’s a risk when you’re an activist and you’re beginning. Because you’re burning with that angry energy that keeps you from seeing the grief.

So we’re really upset abut social injustices – and I’m still angry too – but underneath there is grief. The challenge is to not let the emotions cloud judgement of what is efficient to do. And if we don’t acknowledge emotions, they get in the way. But if we make space and honour them, they’re important driving forces.

Yes, we have to deal with something that is really nasty. Really awful. There’s death, and suffering, and lots of emotions, and we have to both acknowledge it and keep a completely cool and clear head.

So how would you summarise the way you see these two together, and would you like to see us deal with these side by side?

I would like to see all activists do inner work. In whatever form that takes for people – like, writing down your dreams in the morning and reflecting on them; or meditation, or boxing to get some of that anger out – so you can access what’s underneath. It’s just about healing stuff inside. Because otherwise we’re only outside. And what’s outside is really important – it’s just finding the balance. Making sure we have enough sleep, making sure we have other people who can hold space for us while we’re dealing with heavy emotions.

Making sure that, just as you have people you work closely with in your activist work, you also have people helping you with your inner work. They might not be the same people but you’ve got to set yourself up so that you’ve got support. If I’m an activist, and there’s a risk I might go to prison, these are the people who’ll support me in case that happens. There’s a risk that I might go into burnout, and these are the people who’ll support me. I think that’s putting the same emphasis on the two sides.

I guess that will also help people not bring things into planning, that they might otherwise need to. “Guys, I’m actually a bit scared,” might be something you have to raise – but not something you want to dwell on if you are trying to achieve something in a group.

Yeah. And I’ve quite recently discovered holacracy as a way of managing groups, I’m hopefully within a couple of years going to have full training. It’s a flat organisation for the vision – not for the people, per se. Sociocracy is a way of organising so that everyone feels valued. This is flat, but for a vision. So once you’ve got a shared vision and an objective, you’re taking on roles, with accountability, and that’s really clearly defined – and you’ve got two different levels of management – governance, and then tactical meetings.

I think those things, combined with a sharing circles, where you’re just making space and having facilitators holding the space for emotions, motivations, doubts. Having both sharing circles and using holacracy to manage the actual operations, that would make us more efficient. That would make it more plausible that we’d manage to achieve what we want to achieve.

Are there historic moments you look to that make you think – that’s when we had a really good thing going on?

I like to remind myself that we have a really long history. And I love going to new places and discovering their history of resistance. Like how workers in the UK and France fought against the ‘robotisation’ of manufacturing. People sabotaging the train lines in France when they started building the railways because – rail will bring us an ‘inhuman speed’ to life, and people will flee and go to the sparkling cities. And the fight against electric light, because you wouldn’t be in tune with the seasons – if you don’t get to sleep in winter, then how would you be functional in summer when you need it for the harvest?

The fight against slavery – the first time they freed slaves in Sweden was 1,200 years ago or so. So this is an ongoing thing.

I also look to the European guerilla, countryside resistance to the second world war quite often as being exemplary. They knew how to organise. They hid and struck when it was the right moment. It was very stategic, and efficient! They were fighting in life and death conditions – so they had to be very precise.

In Sweden, support consisted of shipping Norwegian resistance and refugees into Sweden with little fishing boats. And smuggling food out, making sure the caves where they stayed were protected. This was all through the Mediterranean and France.

They were targetting the Nazis. As the Nazis took more and more control of France, they exploded bridges, they destroyed vital infrastructure so that the Nazis couldn’t advance anymore. They freed people. I don’t think the Allies would have had as much success if it weren’t for the guerillas already being there. Lots of women were involved. And all the people hiding Jews all through the war – the mosques that protected Jews, pretending they were Muslims. Lots of churches as well.

God – it makes you think how our war histories are so insanely imperialist and biased. Linnéa, what are your biggest hopes for 2016 – for you, for us as activists?

If we’re fighting against exploitation and oppression, we kind of have to fight it from within as well. Being able to identify and put words on the way I exploit or oppress myself, I think that is essential to being effective outward.

But, the goal is still to be effective outward – the goal is not, ‘I find peace within myself, then it’s all done’. It’s a means towards change for humanity. There are a lot of people talking about mindfulness as an end in itself, and for me that’s…

It’s a distraction.

Yeah. It’s just protecting your own privilege to sit on a cushion and look blissful – it’s not okay.

But in a sense, that’s a very true and important practice being co-opted.

Totally. Because that’s also the resistance of lots of religious groups throughout history – informed by their spirituality. They have been strong because they knew how to listen to divine inspiration as well, and I think that if we’re not open to emotions with ourselves, we can’t channel that in the world either.

I guess closing off to your own emotions obstructs your capacity to empathise too, and then to be motivated toward helping others – if you’re blocking emotions so you no longer recognise them in others.

And then it becomes a moral thing. Instead of a compassion thing. So you’re against things that cause suffering because you’re supposed to be against them; that’s what you did before when you were still in touch with your emotions. I think that’s when people can turn into quite oppressive leaders within the movement. You know how you see that – often, guy – turning up and being really passionate about things, then going on to be pretty oppressive as a leader.

Also – joy! There’s more space for joy when you’re efficient as well. And you can’t feel the joy if you’re not also feeling the grief, and the anger.

Murdoch Stephens: “more bombast”

Murdoch Stephens has been running Doing Our Bit almost single-handedly for two and a half years – here, he shares his thoughts on activism, how he got started, what keeps him going – and what he wants to see us doing more of.

 

Did you grow up in a politicised family? How did the politics of your childhood home affect you?

I went to one or two protests with my mother, who was a teacher, in the 1980s. They were mostly to do with PPTA issues, if I recall. We were a fairly apolitical farming family: baby boomer liberalism, conservative economics, green as a sort of guardianship of the land thing.

What politicised you? Did you have a penny drop, a gradual awakening, a teacher, a friend that sealed the deal?

Popular culture played a large role for me in creating an oppositional mindset that helped explain a lot of the antagonisms I felt in a small town farming community. So that was a lot of music – punk music, but also 90s stuff like Radiohead and Nirvana. Reading No Logo by Naomi Klein and Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul for non-fiction, and existentialists and beat authors in university was important, but probably not as important as one lecturer at uni who deepened the kind of questions I’d ask, and often countered the easy ‘radical’ positions that political uni students can fall into.

What are some of the actions you started taking after that?

Leafletted, and went to a protest at uni against fee increases, went to workshops and meetings. There was one moment when a friend commented “oh, you’re one of those people who don’t actually organise protests but talk a lot,” which was actually very true. So about a year later, when the Marines were coming to NZ for the first time in twenty-odd years, I worked with the Concerned Citizens collective to organise a few talks, then a demo about that with some other friends.

What did you do to become more daring, more vocal, more proactive?

Just being with similar folks and trusting them and working alongside them. For me it was important to eschew any notion of militancy as a pose – the issues were always too serious to speak boldly about things if I were not prepared to follow through with them.

What are the issues that you are most committed to?

Anti-war and pro-refugee issues. I’m particularly interested in ones that make explicit demands, as New Zealand is so far away from the rest of the world, and such a pragmatic society (overly so), that it seems the only way to find a sense of mainstream legitimacy. To me commitment is to be had through the length of time someone is solidly working on a project or field. So, with that in mind, it ties in nicely with the kinds of trust that gets built with other activists who we continually see putting in effort on particular issues.

Why that particular issue? What other fronts do you think we need to be fighting on?

Anti-war effort is a focus for me because I think war is such a destructive and hateful thing that it needs to be opposed without exception. I also think that there is so little public discussion about the space between absolute disengagement and pacifism compared to all out Western led war. A lot of our government’s rhetoric is, I think, weak, because of that. They frame war as a choice between doing nothing and troops on the ground.

The refugee issue was the focus for a few reasons: (1) it was a response to an intense experience with an archive of photos that I found, and (2) it was such a clearly winnable campaign – the stats on how long we’d had no increase in the quota should have appalled anyone. And all that would need to change that number was the will of a government and some prolonged pressure from a public.

In your mind, what are we resisting and trying to change, as activists today, essentially? Is it a power system, like patriarchy, or is it policy, or is it something in our collective consciousness, like human greed?

All of the above, it just depends on how our tactics are used to achieve the strategic ends that we’re after. I’m using those words in a very specific theoretical sense, as bought out in Michel De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.

When people have power, they use strategy to move openly in a singular direction, under the honest-to-god sunlight; when they’re vulnerable they use tactics, hiding in crowds, disappearing and re-appearing, fomenting trouble and playing with misdirection. So for me it is less about a thing to change, or trying to articulate that: it’s more thinking how to use the power we have for something… which is maybe a few questions down… the ‘what are we fighting for?’… which for me is often to be found in people, in friends doing activism, people I want to share little atmospheres and conversations with.

How is it different from what activists were resisting in earlier generations, say last century?

Mostly we’ve lost the moral suasion of religion and along with it some of the understandings of some of our work as a public morality with all the, dare I say, didactic baggage associated with that. Religious groups in New Zealand have been some of the strongest anti-war and pro-refugee people, and secular New Zealand needs to step up, figuring out what an ethical, as opposed to moral or rule-based, goodness could be.

What are we fighting for?

So much… so many different and conflicting things. I don’t really see a very coherent or enduring set of concepts that we fight for. For all the various manifold concepts of the people? But animals too? But earths too? So our definitions lead to unintended exclusions. Hence the joys of liberalism: a fight for freedom without end, for one and all. But then there’s the need to define a we sometimes ie. in democratic theory there needs to be a boundary to who we are so that the people can work in their own interests. For example, we  might like to exclude corporations from particular rights. So, yes, wrap me up in a carpet with the postmodernists and throw me off a bridge: I’m a soft relativist in terms of these matters.

What are some of the best campaigns and actions that you’ve seen in recent years?

I did really love the Waihopai puncturing of the spy dome – simple enough, visual, enduring. Again, it showed the strength of some of the religious folk in NZ. All power to the ploughshares! All glory to the ploughshares!

What have been some of the most heartening moments in your activism in recent years – whether actions, epiphanies, or successes – what’s sustained you?

For the Doing Our Bit campaign, I am constantly heartened by what I call the micro-acts of solidarity. Likes ‘n’ shares! But it is quite a reformist task, to double the existing quota, so… well, it’s easier than systemic change.

There have also been a couple of honest, one on one conversations I’ve had where activist/friends have given me quite personal and more truthful accounts of their activism than they might otherwise offer, accounts of their struggles. They’d not be appropriate to share here, they’re made in the spirit of privacy and secrecy.

What books and music make you feel galvanised?

For activism… hmm… I like the stuff friends play like Ruth Mundy’s song at the candlelight vigil and the TSB gig at the Weapons conference. Maybe the only literature/books that I’d say ‘galvanise’ would be non-fiction on tangata whenua and struggle.

When planning actions and campaigns, what do you grind your teeth over – what has frustrated you the most? What would you like to see done about it?

Nothing, really. Maybe lack of, or incorrect, media coverage of the event. Sometimes that could be fixed by better work in the planning stage around how to get the story out there, but sometimes its just not that kind of demo.

Guess I’d like more bombast – fireworks and other pyrotechnics to get people feeling rowdy.

What are the historic campaigns, movements, leaders or direct actions that you look to for inspiration?

Lots from the union movements – 8 hour working day and Samuel Parnell; anti-war work of Archibald Baxter; Rewi Manipoto, and those drawing from his inspiration around the impetus of ‘Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou ake ake ake’; direct action of Springbok tour folk including some current Parliamentarians. Refugee activists in Australia and Scotland are awesome for me to look at for Doing Our Bit – there are some staunch, hardworking people fighting hard against passive populations and governments.

What are your biggest hopes for 2016?

The end to fighting in Syria.