In October 2005, Maya Evans was arrested for reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq during a remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph on Whitehall. She was charged with taking part in an “unauthorised demonstration” in a “designated area” under section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) and on 7 December 2005 she became the first person to be convicted under this Act.
The case attracted huge attention in the mainstream media as well as being closely followed by activists across the country, and Maya found herself thrust into the media limelight. In Naming the Dead, Maya interweaves an account of her early life and her growing involvement in the anti-war movement with the story of the ceremony at the Cenotaph and her subsequent arrest, trial and conviction. It is written in a candid, direct style, which is attractive, readable and refreshingly unpolished.
Born and brought up in the East End of London, Maya became interested in Islam at school and studied the faith with her Muslim school friends. Although she decided against converting to Islam, Maya writes that “my Muslim teacher Ahmed was the most influential person of my childhood, apart from my family... I empathise a lot with Muslims. In fact, to a great extent I still feel I have many Muslim values... [h]ow to conduct yourself, what's fair to other people, morality.” Maya became politically active as a member of Merseyside Stop the War in 2001, then worked with Voices in the Wilderness in the US, and later with Justice Not Vengeance in Hastings. In 2005, she spent two weeks on a peace walk to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, culminating in direct action at NATO's European headquarters in Brussels.
All this was excellent preparation for the Naming the Dead action. Right at the beginning of the book, Maya conveys her anxieties when she discovers that arrest is almost certain: “I hate personal confrontations of any kind, and the idea of a face-to-face conflict with... a police officer is really uncomfortable,” but she quells her doubts: “I was suddenly very calm. I said... `I'm ready to do this.' ... I had to put my weaknesses and personal feelings away... I needed to be very focused.”
Although she describes herself in early adult life as “a quiet, quite withdrawn person,” Maya has overcome her natural shyness to undertake public speaking engagements and has learned how to deal with a blaze of media attention.
Whatever cause is close to your heart Maya's accounts of how she prepared for the action, the circumstances of her arrest, the time she spent in police custody, her preparation for the court case and the day of the trial make this book a “must-read” for anyone considering taking part in nonviolent direct action for the first time.
The book also examines the background to SOCPA within the wider context of an ongoing erosion of our civil liberties. For example, chapter seven looks at how “anti-terror” legislation has been used to target Muslims and anyone who dares to speak out against government policies, offering a useful summary and providing a clear overview of the situation.
The whole book has less than 100 pages. I read it in an evening, and then I read it again. Get yourself a copy and a few for your would-be activist friends. I very much hope that the book achieves its stated aim, which is to “encourage more people to become active for whatever cause is close to their hearts”.