In a guest post marking her final contribution to the disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement before retiring from active involvement in the direct-action disability movement, former DPAC Caerdydd convenor Liza van Zyl explains why it is time for her to step down from further involvement …
… and why it is so important that everyone – EVERYone – who is possibly able to do so, goes to the DWP/ATOS buildings at Gabalfa, Cardiff, TODAY Friday 23rd August, between 11am and 3pm, to show support for some very remarkable people.
I am SO PROUD of Chris Palmer, David Malins, and Rob Marsh, organisers of this week’s Vigil outside the DWP/ATOS buildings in Cardiff.
And I am SO PROUD to have worked with them and the other Dan Cymru (formerly DPAC Caerdydd) disabled people’s anti-cuts campaigners over the last 12 months.
On Wednesday and Thursday (yesterday) I briefly visited the Vigil. Wasn’t able to stay long, loved it. Loved that more and more people arrived to show support. Loved that there was such a positive response from DWP and Atos staff who stopped for a chat on their way in and way out, or who came out at lunchtime to show their support.
I loved the relaxed atmosphere, camaraderie and positive attitude from the protesters sunning themselves on the pavement and taking strength from each others’ company. Loved the new people who came along to participate, like the wonderful Tracey James and her carer son (watch this video. Seriously. Watch this). Loved seeing old DPAC Caerdydd friends like Ben Golightly, Anne Greagsby, Teresa Lewis, etc.
On Thursday an Atos Assessor came out to give his support, and said that the protesters, in Chris’s words, had
“had a massive effect on the staff, they’ve commented on how polite we were, and how they thought we’d all be sitting outside swigging beer, which of course we didn’t, as they thought all people on benefits, just drank beer all day. [The assessor said that] more favourable [Work Capability Assessment] decisions were made this week, than in previous weeks.”
How seriously awesome is that?!
I am no longer involved in activism, and as I was watching the protesters discuss the open-air memorial service they plan to hold tomorrow at 3pm, assisted by Church in Wales liberation-theologian Elspeth Peters, I reflected on the past 12 months:
DPAC Caerdydd is born …
At the TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference last May which I attended as part of my trade union UCU’s national delegation, I was approached by DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) and asked to organise a disabled-people’s direct-action campaign in Cardiff. So almost exactly 12 months ago, DPAC Caerdydd carried out the first of several high-profile direct action protests.
Among other successful actions, we played a key role in forcing the Co-op to drop Atos, for example with our guerilla hymn-singing occupation of the Co-operative Bank to hold a Memorial Service to the Co-operative’s Lost Ethical Values.
… DPAC Caerdydd is shot down in flames in spectacular fashion …
And then the Left and trade union movement turned on us, hijacked our campaign, and excluded most of the disabled activists including myself for “being too mentally unstable” or otherwise unfit on grounds of our disabilities to be involved in campaigning (and heaven forbid, leading our own campaign) against our own oppression.
PCS set the police on me for having a common mental-health condition and therefore being a risk to public safety. And my own union UCU, of which I was Wales Vice Chair, forced me out of office undemocratically on grounds that having a common mental-health condition shared by one on four of our members made me “unfit to hold elected office”. And DPAC expelled us because apparently I organised (to my considerable astonishment when informed of this), with the help of disabled ex-servicemen, an armed ambush of PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka (in fact what actually happened was I phoned up a trade union colleague in the PCS Wales Office, Darren Williams, now PCS Wales Acting Secretary, and asked if we could meet Serwotka briefly before a Trades Council meeting to give him our response to the DPAC-PCS-Black Triangle Joint Statement which we were really not happy with. And Serwotka said yes, and kindly met with us. This is normally how meetings are organised in the trade union movement; there is very seldom any necessity to stage a major armed insurrection with assault rifles. Even when people with mental health conditions are involved.)
… but rises again from the ashes as DAN Cymru …
So if, 12 months ago, I had known what a monumental shitstorm of abuse, bullying and viciousness was going to be unleashed against me and my fellow DPAC Caerdiffians by our comrades from across the Left and TU movement, how would I have responded to DPAC’s request to me to organise the campaign?
Watching the protesters and their supporters today, I realised that there could be only one response: if, knowing what was going to happen, I’d been asked to organise the campaign, I’d have taken on the task without hesitation, and done EXACTLY the same.
… and, in a quiet residential street in Cardiff this week, achieved something quite extraordinary.
Because these disabled folk, excluded by the Left for being “too mentally unstable”/too disabled/too unimportant, to be of any use as campaigners, have this week achieved far more for disabled people than Cardiff’s assembled Left with its marches and rallies and rousing speeches have achieved: they’ve made a change, however small, in the Gabalfa Atos Assessors’ attitudes to disabled benefit claimants.
And this change of attitude has led, according to the Atos Assessor who came out to speak to the protesters, to more WCA decisions coming out in favour of the claimants. And what does that mean, when 73 disabled people a week are dying after being found “fit to work” by the WCA barbarism, or being made destitute, or homeless? Work it out, it’s not rocket science.
How did this Vigil achieve this change of attitude toward disabled people by the Assessors? Because the Assessors have this week seen disabled people not as passive, useless, faceless recipients of benefits. Not as faceless, helpless, voiceless, passive objects on behalf of whom the Left campaigns because they’re too unwell/mentally-unstable to participate in campaigns on their behalf. Not as lazy scrounders who sit around drinking beer all day.
But because, this week, Atos Assessors saw – and spoke to – human beings facing overwhelming challenges, and every possible form of shite the State can throw at them because they commit the crime of being disabled. And yet, despite this, and showing extraordinary courage (did you watch Tracey James’s video? No? Go watch it.) these disabled people participate in, and organise, and take ownership of their own response to their own oppression. And that is pretty darn amazing. And the Atos Assessors saw that.
Now it’s time for respect …
What the Gabalfa protesters under Chris, Rob and David’s leadership have shown is that the Left and trade union movement in South Wales must never, ever, again take the patronising “why don’t you come back in a few months, when you’re better” approach to knowing what’s best for disabled people and excluding them from their own campaigns.
What Chris, Rob, David and their little band have achieved this week has been extraordinary. They have achieved a tangible change, a change that will save some disabled-people’s lives. And they did this with absolutely no support or help from the Left, the trade unions, the trades councils, the paper-selling podium-thumping revolutionaries.
So it’s time that the Left, and the Unions, gives Chris, Rob, David and their little band the solidarity and support they need, and shows them the respect they deserve as leaders of their own campaigns.
… and it’s time for DAN Cymru and PCS to put the past behind them, move on, and work together …
Another event of significance this week was the brief visit paid by PCS Wales Secretary Darren Williams to the Vigil. Although Darren was there in a personal capacity and not formally representing PCS, the fact that such a senior official of the union that represents DWP workers (and a union with which we have not had a happy relationship) took the time out of what must surely be a busy working day of a very stressful job to made this friendly gesture today is incredibly encouraging. It is so important the Wales disabled-people-led campaign and PCS Wales work together – they can be a powerful force working in tandem, like PCS Bootle HMRC and claimant groups in Liverpool are finding.
With me having no further involvement in disability activism, this clears the way PCS and Dan Cymru can put the past behind them and heal the rifts of the last 12 months.
I urge that David, Rob, Chris, Anne, etc, and Elspeth and Ben if they get more involved in DAN, and Paul Swann of Disability Wales who’d be really useful to have on board, will make the most of this gesture of friendship Darren has extended, by asking if there could be an informal, exploratory meeting with PCS to explore possible future working together.
Even if I wasn’t withdrawing from activism for 12 months because of burnout, it is time for me to bow out. The DAN folk at Gabalfa this week have shown they are more than capable of taking the campaign forward without me. And more importantly, PCS has made it clear they will never work with a disabled-people-led campaign in which I’m involved because there’s been too much hurt from both me & PCS against each other. A campaign is always greater than a single activist, and if an individual activist becomes the sticking point preventing the campaign working with a crucial ally, then that activist must bugger off.
Not fair perhaps, but effective activism must always be about finding the balance between principle and pragmatism. In principle, PCS should work with the Wales disabled-people’s anti-cuts movement (as required of them by their own DWP Group Conference motions) regardless of who that movement chooses as its leaders. But the fact is, PCS will not work with DAN so long as I’m involved. However offended anyone may feel about that in principle, it is far more important that DAN and PCS put the past behind them, move on, and work together, than it is to defend a point of principle. Because people are dying, at a rate of 73 people a week, and it is essential that PCS and DAN Cymru work together. So in this case pragmatism MUST trump principle. I am not going to do a Comrade Delta and cling on until everything I’ve worked so hard – and paid such a high price – to achieve these last 12 months is destroyed because my ego is more important than disabled people’s lives. It is time for me to bugger off.
I hope that 12 months from now we’ll see the Wales disabled-people-led movement and PCS (and the Left/TUs in Wales generally) working together as allies and equals as a formidable fighting force.
And now it’s time for YOU – all of you who read this – to go show solidarity, if you possibly possibly can by visiting the Vigil, to some remarkable and inspirational people
Watching the vigil organisers and participants yesterday, I reflected on how, 12 months ago, some of the people who became involved in our campaign found us when they were searching the internet for ways to commit suicide, believing this was the only remaining option the DWP left open to them. Instead, involvement in our campaign gave them a far more constructive alternative: channelling their desperation, their terror, their despair, into constructive, positive, peaceful direct action and civil disobedience.
And 12 months later, some of those folk are outside the DWP/Atos complex at Gabalfa today, showing fabulous leadership, and organising an effective, positive, and enjoyable Vigil.
And I thought to myself, why have I been so devastated by my treatment at the hands of my union colleagues, my PCS comrades, and those I’d previously worked with on the Left, when all the time I was working with people who have achieved far more for disabled people – and who are more inspirational – than any trade unionist? People who are my true comrades and colleagues.
Chris, David, Rob – and everyone involved in the Vigil:
Dudes, You Rock.
So, for those of you in Cardiff who’re able to attend the Vigil, but who haven’t yet done so: don’t you think perhaps it’s time you did?
Dr Liza van Zyl, lunatic.