Last week, staff member Aneaka spoke to youth strikers in Manchester on the latest Climate Strike. She drew parallels with her parents’ struggle against racism in the 1970s and commented on what climate justice means to her. Writing in a personal capacity, this long read blog is an adaptation of her speech.
This morning, while snoozing my alarm, I had an odd dream about Asian women practicing lying down in front of their shops, and putting posters up in their windows. I woke up and realised I’d been dreaming about a protest in Southall that had taken place 40 years ago. Noticing the connections with today’s youth strikers and the fight against racism in the 70s I’ve decided to tell you a bit about my family history.
My father and his family moved to Southall, West London in the 1970s from Punjab, India. Like a lot of other Punjabis, Asians and Afro Carribeans at the time, they faced a lot of racism. Ealing Council had adopted a controversial “bussing” policy to make sure there weren’t too many black and brown kids in schools in one area. Every weekday my Dad’s youngest brother Pammi would get bussed to a majority white primary school in Northolt where he would regularly get bullied and beaten up for being different. This violence was a normal experience for most young people of colour at that time.
In 1976, a young Sikh boy named Gurdip Singh Chaggar while on a quiet night out with friends was brutally stabbed to death in a racially motivated attack in Southall. As mainstream society today hasn’t recognised the full scale of the climate crisis, the judges, police and media in 1976 denied the racial motivations for the murder of Gurdip. Like the Youth Strikers of today, young Asians had had enough and wanted change. They formed the Southall Youth Movement, a direct action group run by and for young Asians to protect their community and stand up to racism.
Things came to a head in 1979 when the National Front (a far-right, racist group) were given permission to hold an election meeting in Southall Town Hall on 23rd April 1979. Southall Youth Movement along with others organised a mass resistance. As we are on strike here today, the whole town went on strike in 1979. All the shops on the high street closed and 1,000s of ordinary people, including my Uncles sat down in front of the town hall to stop the National Front meeting from going ahead. My Dad, a teacher in the local secondary school at the time, headed towards the town centre after school. But by that point the police presence had become heavy and he couldn’t get to the town hall. Police had pushed people into Southall Park where my Dad remembers trying to stop a policeman on horseback hitting a young woman with a baton. The levels of police violence against protesters that day was disgusting and another teacher called Blair Peach was killed by the police.
The Southall Youth Movement stood up to racism in the 70s and early 80s, and this meant that by the time I was born in 1985 Southall was a safe place for me to live and grow up in. I had no idea of the difficulties my parents and their generation had faced for me to be able to live a better life until I was much older.
I’m telling you this story because as the youth of my parents generation have inspired me, the youth strikers facing the hard reality of the climate crisis inspires me today. The courage young people have shown on their repeated climate strikes is immense. I’m so impressed by how you’ve challenged politicians and adults to do more than just make promises. You are showing us how to tackle climate change, that we can no longer be held by our ‘grown up’ ideas of what is and isn’t possible in terms of transforming our society. Instead, we need to take a hard look at what really needs to be done to solve the climate crisis and do it!
My Dad once said about racism, “It’s there, you have to learn how to handle it, have no fear. Once you’re afraid, they can take advantage of you.” In writing this I realised that the same applies to climate change. Climate change is here, we need to learn how to handle it and have no fear. If we are afraid, our fear will be used to take advantage of us.
“Climate change is here, we need to learn how to handle it and have no fear.”
This advice feels more important than ever in what has become an increasingly divided society. The language used this week by Boris Johnson and the whole Brexit process has been tearing us apart. The worrying thing is, that when people start to pay attention to climate change it’s going to be very easy for us all to get very scared. If we are scared, we go inwards, we look out for us and our own and we could end up turning against each other. There are political actors (as we are seeing with Brexit) who will use and amplify this dynamic for their own ends. This we must resist. Our other choice is to go outward, come together in the face of crisis, look out for each other, take care, and even listen to those we disagree with.
I worry about the Trees
I worry about the Bees
I worry about a planet brought to its’ knees
Will it ease?
Am I being naive?
Who do we believe?
Is it too far and too late?
Can we find compassion within all the hate?
Is there a better way to communicate?
Fear can lead to hate and protecting your own
We need to work together not alone
Don’t disregard worries as a moan
Positive seeds can be sown
An understanding can be grown
Our knowledge can be honed
Poem inspired by this blog written by Shama
Remembering again those people on the fringes, friends seeking asylum and refuge in the UK, it’s difficult for anyone with the good fortune to have a British Passport to imagine how hard their lives are. They are treated by the UK government with no dignity or respect, they are treated as a burden, a problem and a threat. They are given £5 a day to live on, not allowed to work, detained indefinitely for no reason and denied access to healthcare.
As the weather becomes more extreme across the world people are going to have to move. The irony is that parts of the ‘Global South’, the place that is least responsible for climate change, is going to become impossible to live in due to drought, famine and flooding. When millions of climate refugees start to seek safety in places like Europe, America and the UK, how will we treat them?
Our work to stop climate change, as well as reducing carbon, has to be about realising our potential to be a society of compassion, and one that takes responsibility for our history.
It’s quite fitting that we stand in Manchester today. The Manchester we know, with its old textile mills and canals, only exists because of coal and cotton. The Industrial Revolution, which we often feel proud of in Manchester, was only possible because of the cotton Britain took from its colonies, the destruction of the Indian textile industry, the wealth gained from slavery, the abuse of workers and the coal under the ground here in the North West.
As well as being the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, we could see Manchester as the birthplace of climate change. It is the industrial era, slavery, empire and resource extraction that has brought us this climate crisis.
So what is our responsibility as Mancunians? When we call for climate justice or when we work to create a net-zero carbon city by 2038? We must not stay blind to this historical and international perspective, we must remember our debt to the people of the Global South.
Let’s challenge the mainstream narrative around immigration, let’s overturn the hostile environment policy, let’s reduce our carbon emissions in a way that is just and fair, making sure everyone, not just those that can afford it, live in warm, healthy, energy efficient housing. Let’s make sure future energy generation doesn’t create a new round of ‘eco-colonialism’.
Yes, this is an emergency, but let us be responsible with how we transition to a low carbon, just society.