Like everyone else, UK activists have been scrambling to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of ‘lockdown’ and social distancing. In early June we surveyed over twenty different activist organisations, networks and media projects to see what they’d been up to, as well as their plans for the future.
Here’s what we found out …
Campaigns, NGOs & activist networks
Calais Migrant Solidarity
CMS was founded in 2009 ‘to keep a constant presence in Calais to support people with and without papers facing daily harassment and abuse from the border regime’.
The CMS website continued to report throughout the French lockdown, including police violence against migrants and hunger strikes inside French immigration detention centres protesting the lack of proper hygiene measures, reduced cleaning, the lack of medical care for those infected with coronavirus, no testing for those potentially contaminated, and overcrowding.
European antiracists had planned to use a sailing boat and events along the coast ‘to highlight and support the struggle of migrants at the closed UK border along the Channel and the North Sea’ this summer.
These plans have had to be cancelled. Instead campaigners are now calling on people to create ‘a flotilla of paper boats’ containing short messages (‘Flight is not a crime’) to leave in public places on World Refugee Day (20 June): coastsinsolidarity.noblogs.org.
Campaign Against Arms Trade
After UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab gave verbal support for the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic, CAAT launched a petition calling on him to ‘turn these words into action by ending the UK arms sales’.
It has also held an online ‘Vigil for Yemen’ (25 March), a ‘Stop the Arms Fair Network catch-up’ (23 April) and created a series of videos, #QuestionsForBAE after Britain’s leading arms dealer refused to take questions at its AGM.
Meanwhile, locked-down activists in the West Midlands generated front page coverage in several local papers after challenging an arms fair that had been scheduled to take place in Malvern in early July.
The climate communication organisation has produced a briefing and online seminar on ‘Communicating climate change during the coronavirus crisis – what the evidence says’.
The group notes ‘The wrong communications at the wrong time — for example celebrating falls in emissions caused as a result of people losing jobs and being trapped in their houses — have a serious risk of backfiring’. However ‘the evidence also suggests that a “window of engagement” may open up afterwards’ – though it may not stay open for long.
The Ethical Consumer co-operative has focused several product guides in its latest bi-monthly magazines on things people are using much more at the moment: soap, video conferencing and online retailers, comparing the ethics of the companies behind the brands. It's also covering workers' rights impacts of Covid-19, from the abandoned garment workers in Bangladesh, to worker protests at Wetherspoons and Amazon, and in May published a list of Ten companies to avoid over their response to COVID-19.
In April it ran a Crowdfunder to support migrant workers in Spain as an urgent response to the impacts of Covid-19, but part of its ongoing campaign pressuring UK supermarkets to protect the rights of these workers in their supply chain.
Its annual conference will this year go online, with an Ethical Consumption Week from the 24th-30th October, exploring the role of consumers, business and NGOs in building more resilient communities in the face of Covid-19 and the ecological crisis, while its July/Aug magazine and associated web articles include a round up of climate and people-friendly COVID economic recovery programmes.
Early on in the crisis, XR produced a seven-page briefing ‘Alone Together’, with suggestions about a range of topics including self-care in isolation, 1-2-1 support, staying connected, mutual aid and online events. It was also producing an extensive daily programme of online workshops using the video conferencing service Zoom (‘Reset TV Online’).
In May it held ‘physically distanced’ bike rides in places including Islington, Exeter, and Manchester calling on the government ‘to prioritise public health and well-being as the UK lockdown is eased’, placed 2,000 pairs of shoes in Trafalgar Square as part of its ‘No Going Back’ urging the government not to bail out destructive industries such as aviation, and held silent, socially distanced protests around the UK to ‘demand a Citizens Assembly on the Covid-19 recovery’.
On 20 July, several of its activists will be on trial at Southwark Crown Court over a fake-blood pouring at the Brazilian embassy last August in solidarity with Brazil’s indigenous peoples.
The veteran feminist organisation co-ordinated a call by over 60 charities for the UK Government to take action to support women and girls during the outbreak.
Actions requested included the release of all women from immigration detention, the protection of elderly women in care homes, and the reduction of the number of women in prison in order to save lives. The group has also been recording regular #CoronaConversations about how Coronavirus is affecting women and girls in the UK.
Friends of the Earth
The environmental campaigning network has paused most of its lobbying of decision-makers during the pandemic, to give them space to prioritise the health and safety of their communities – a policy it intends to hold to until at least the end of June.
In the meantime it has been encouraging its local groups to use the time to build and maintain connections and plan for the future and has produced a useful online resource page: ‘COVID-19: How to campaign safely’.
Global Justice Now
The social justice NGO is running a ‘Covid-19 vaccine for all’ campaign aimed at preventing the big pharmaceutical companies from taking out patents on a vaccine and charging extortionate prices ‘leaving millions of people, and entire countries, ... unable to afford it’ (petition on their website).
Recent online videos include ‘Southern perspectives on the Coronavirus pandemic’ (with reps from social movements and progressive groups in Kerala, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ecuador) and an online seminar series on ‘Coronavirus, capitalism and global inequality’.
Jubilee Debt Campaign
At the beginning of April, the JDC helped to rally over 200 organisations and ¾ million people globally to demand debt cancellation to help lower-income countries cope with coronavirus.
Since then the G20 and the IMF have announced over $12billion in debt payment suspension for this year – good news, but a mere drop in the ocean compared to the $300 billion that the campaign estimates is needed to help middle- and low-income countries fight the pandemic over the coming year.
London Renters Union
A community made up of thousands of renters from across the city, the London Renters Union has been ‘organising collective action to keep each other safe from homelessness and to fight for government action to protect renters.’
On 12 May the group called on the government to suspend rents immediately for the duration of the crisis, cancel all rent debts and protect renters from eviction.
Their website features a Q&A ‘about your rights as a renter during the Coronavirus pandemic’ and a webpage that you can use to create a downloadable letter ‘you can use to ask your landlord for a rent reduction or suspension during the Coronavirus pandemic.’
The network for health professionals has been focusing on ‘supporting campaigns that seek to address the health inequalities intersecting with COVID-19’.
This has included calling for the suspension of the so-called ‘hostile environment’ to make it safer for migrants to access healthcare and calling for the home office to release all people in immigration detention to prevent increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Recent webinars (via Zoom) include ‘The arms industry in the era of COVID-19: lessons for the future’. Their next ‘Green New Deal’ webinar is scheduled for 9 July at 7pm.
The group has helped create an online diary of security and surveillance during Britain’s state of emergency to monitor the everyday impact of the police’s new powers under lockdown and whether they are used proportionately: policing-the-corona-state.blog.
It has also partnered several other campaigning groups and lawyers to look into the large number of prosecutions have been wrongly pursued under the coronavirus emergency legislation.
Anyone who has been issued with a fixed penalty notice and would be prepared to share the details with them is encouraged to email them in strict confidence at NetpolAdmin [at] protonmail.com.
New Economics Foundation
In addition to ‘fighting for everyone to be supported through the immediate crisis’ the campaigning think-tank is also working alongside others to produce ‘a recovery plan that provides us all with access to things we really need to live a good life – such as quality housing, healthcare and social care – and that responds to the long-term crisis of climate change.’
Among other things it has called for the immediate temporary suspension of private rents and the introduction of a Minimum Income Guarantee to ensure that the 5.6 million people who are at risk of losing work don’t fall through the gaps in existing Covid support schemes.
It is currently exploring ‘the design of a tax system needed for a Green New Deal-led recovery and beyond’ with the group Common Wealth.
Recent podcasts include: ‘Coronavirus and the legacy of austerity’ and ‘The future of social care after Coronavirus’.
Open Rights Group
The UK’s digital rights campaign has been kept busy since the start of the UK’s lockdown, questioning the role of surveillance company Palantir in NHS plans to ‘clean’ and analyse bulk health data.
It has been pressing the UK government to explain its approach to contact tracing (which uses mobile phone apps to help work out who is at risk of infection, but will also create ‘a government-controlled database of our social circles and daily interaction, unprecedented for scale and level of details to anything we have ever seen’ as a side result), and supporting a Coronavirus Safeguards Bill that would help ensure that people’s data is not misused, repurposed or shared (eg. to the private sector) without their consent.
They have produced a short report (‘COVID-19 and personal data’) summarising their concerns and are currently fundraising to continue their ongoing legal work in this area.
Stand Up to Racism
The anti-racist campaign held a online rally on 28 April, highlighting the disproportionate number of coronavirus deaths amongst BAME people and calling for a transparent public inquiry (not a “white wash”) over the issue.
The group has also held online meetings on ‘Covid-19, Racism & The Hostile Environment’ and ‘What will be the impact of easing lockdown on BAME communities?’
It is currently calling for people to lobby their MPs to sign Early Day Motion 498 (calling for an independent inquiry into disproportionate BAME deaths) and to hold #BlackLivesMatter signs on their doorstep at 6pm each Wednesday whilst ‘remain[ing] socially distanced to protect the people taking part.’
Stonewall has produced a useful inventory of what’s happening on this front, grouped into categories such as ‘Mutual Aid’, ‘Self-isolation helplines and guidance’ and ‘Trans-Specific Care’.
They note that LGBT people are at greater risk of marginalisation within crises such as the corona virus pandemic but that LGBT communities across the UK are also ‘coming together to show each other solidarity, support and provide lifesaving services.
Stop the War
The national anti-war campaign has been blogging regularly on the war-and-peace dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic since the beginning of the UK’s lockdown.
Posts include ‘Military Spending Peaks in the Age of COVID-19’ and ‘Under Sanctions, the Iranian People Battle With COVID-19’. It has also held online public meetings on ‘Coronavirus & War: The Case for a Global Ceasefire’ and ‘Coronavirus, War & Empire’ (the latter with Arundhati Roy & Jeremy Corbyn).
On 19 May it held its first ever online Steering Committee meeting, with over 50 attendees from local groups around the country taking part.
Publishers & booksellers
Five Leaves Bookshop
Nottingham’s radical bookshop closed down (for staff safety reasons) before the Government did. All staff have been on furlough on full wages save for the owner and the part-time publishing worker (who works from home). At the time of closure they cancelled 27 events that they had lined up for the spring.
The owner, Ross Bradshaw, is now working full time on mail order for the business (by 5 May they’d sent out over 1,000 customer orders!).
The shop is offering all orders post free (to anywhere in Britain), as well as £50/£100 “mystery boxes” (let them know what kind of books you’re interested in and they’ll do the rest).
They are also planning how to re-open safely when the time is right, reconfiguring the shop to allow social distancing and how to screen staff safely.
The King’s Cross-based radical bookshop (and PN’s sister project) closed its doors on 18 March ‘to protect staff, volunteers and customers’, cancelled both the London Radical Bookfair (which was scheduled to take place in July) and dozens of book launches and talks, and suspended its online shop ‘in solidarity with warehouse and delivery workers’.
‘Not trusting … the government’s position’, it is not currently planning to re-open mid-June (when bookshops are anticipating being given government permission to open).
However, mail ordering has recently been restarted: customers can either order books through the website or by emailing shop [at] housmans.com (‘We can usually order any book to arrive within a day or two.’)
Notwithstanding its 50 year history, the radical book publisher describes the COVID-19 pandemic as ‘the most serious existential threat we’ve ever experienced’. It is currently asking supporters to help ‘give us a future’ by pledging £3 (or more) a month via the website Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/plutopress. Alongside Verso it also took part in #RadicalMay, an online radical book fair featuring panel discussions, talks, and teach-ins with authors from 50 radical publishers worldwide throughout the month.
The lively left-wing media platform has had to reorganise its content production ‘so that people can work from home because it’s not safe to use our studio as we usually would.’
Nonetheless, it has continued to produce articles, podcasts and videos throughout the period of lockdown, increasing its number of evening livestreams and launching series two of its daily morning briefing podcast, The Burner. Coverage has included ASOS workers’ fight for workplace safety during the pandemic and an hour-long discussion with George Monbiot on the ‘The Coronavirus Climate’.
NM told PN: ‘We’ve tried to make the most of the situation - this probably is and will continue to be the biggest story of our lives’.
Recent articles published by the independent global online media platform have included Richard Norton-Taylor on ‘why the UK spent billions on nuclear bombs but ignored the pandemic threat’.
Also pieces on the UK government’s failure to bring in new legislation to protect workers’ safety during the lockdown (leaving it up to bosses to decide to decide whether it’s ‘possible’ to do a job from home, and whether to take the government cash to furlough some or all of their workers) and an account of what it means to be an urban refugee in Turkey during the pandemic.
It has also holding weekly webinars on issues relating to the crisis eg. ‘Why is COVID-19 making Britain more unequal?’ and ‘COVID-19 and the human side of globalisation’.
Their weekly email list (COVID-19 Democracy Watch) provides a global round-up on how governments are using the crisis to suspend civil rights, ramp up surveillance and roll back hard-won freedoms.