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On the kindness of people, and the violence of the state

If I had known how hard a 10 week trial on terror-related charges for a peaceful protest would be, I don’t know how I could have faced it. It was the support people offered from the most surprising places that got us through it.

I’m one of the Stansted 15 convicted, controversially, for a terror-related offence following a peaceful blockade of a Home Office deportation charter flight, for which we narrowly escaped prison sentences last Wednesday. We thought it might be an endurance test in the courtroom which would last as long as four weeks – but it turned out to be a gruelling 10-week ordeal that showed me just how scary it is to face the threat of state intervention into your life. But throughout that whole time, it was the kindness of the court staff and the community of Chelmsford that transformed a traumatic experience into one which strengthened the movement for migrant rights.

On the day I testified before the jury, we had sat silently through five weeks of prosecution evidence which felt to us like it completely misrepresented what had taken place on the night. I was in tears when I finally stepped down from the stand after being cross-examined for three intense hours of non-stop interrogation. For the 18 months since our charge had changed from one which carries a three-month jail term to one which carries life in prison, we had all had to carry the weight of considering what we stood to lose – homes, jobs, relationships – and begun to fear how our co-defendant’s baby, due just weeks after verdict, might start his young life, possibly without his mother.

This high pressure, high stakes scenario would have been enough to topple the most resilient among us. But we had something on our side that the Crown Prosecution Service didn’t expect. We were surrounded by the kindness of people who were once strangers, and are now our friends.

The community of Chelmsford churches from Anglican to Quakers, and a few socialists mixed in, stepped forward with open arms – sometimes with nervous caution that soon melted as we got to know how alike we all were. The Bishop of Chelmsford petitioned the Crown Court on our behalf, and the Cathedral hosted us and our legal counsel frequently as a retreat from the loud, airless, verbose environment of the courtroom.

The night before I gave my closing speech I had messages of prayers from Muslim friends in London, the Anglican and Quaker network in Chelmsford and even from one of the people who, because of our peaceful blockade, was able to be with his partner for the birth of their daughter and conclude his successful application for leave to remain. A multitude of people said they were with us in spirit, and we knew they meant it.

But possibly the most heartening kindness was our daily reception in the courthouse by the court staff. Between them, the head of security, who here I’ll call Terry, and the chief court clerk, who here I’ll call Stella, were able to enact the simple idea of humanity that says everyone deserves to be treated like a whole person in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Terry always met us at the security check with a smile and a joke. Stella watched over us in the dock with the utmost care and attention. We knew this was their way: they would have offered this to anyone, we weren’t special. People do their jobs in different ways, but the compassion and humour Stella and Terry showed us were enough to prick a decent hole in the veneer of state power embodied by the courtroom and the threat of incarceration it houses.

Ultimately that’s what we’d been trying to do with our peaceful protest back in March 2017, when we stopped a deportation charter flight taking 60 people to a place where they feared their lives would be in danger. To offer a small kindness to people who may have felt they had reached their darkest hour, having been ripped from their families and communities – many people who are taken into detention or deported have lived in the UK for well over a few years – and taken to an airport in the middle of the night to be forced onto a plane for which they were given a deportation order as little as five days previous. From the flight we stopped, 11 people are still here because it’s clear they were to be wrongfully deported that night, two have the right to remain now, and two women have now been recognised by the Home Office victims of trafficking. This is the obvious risk of the Home Office’s mass deportation charter flights; that the government bundles people off without looking properly at their cases. At the most recent deportation charter flight, the first to Jamaica since the Windrush scandal, also last Wednesday, 15 of the 50 people due to be deported were given a last minute reprieve, suggesting just how many more might have been able to secure an injunction given only a few more days.

Our action was one small kindness among many that people across the UK, nationals and non-nationals alike, are organising to welcome and support people seeking refuge and people currently being denied basic rights by the government. Hundreds of migrant support groups across the country are assisting migrants and asylum-seekers to find their way in a strange country, having escaped a worse fate elsewhere. Hundreds of people visit the 3000 people currently held indefinitely in immigration detention centres in a loophole of habeas corpus that those suffering inside describe as ‘worse than prison’, while thousands more campaign to close them, to let people continue to live with their families and in their communities while their applications are heard by the asylum and immigration courts. A national network of groups campaign for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers to basic survival needs like medical attention, a bank account and the chance to work.

All of these efforts are a testament to the power of human kindness against the shocking daily violence of the state. If the government continue to insist on scapegoating immigrants as an excuse for the failures of austerity and Brexit, it is this very real connection between the rest of us that can stand to sustain a country that is not built on fear and hatred, but instead on kindness and the knowledge that someone who was once a stranger may soon become a dear friend.

Follow Mel Evans on Twitter, and learn more about what she’s fighting for on the End Deportations website.

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Travel

From Lithuania, with love

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“We are going to die collecting firewood”

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Welcome to Rasta Hill at Guantanamo Bay

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A Remedy for Broken Science, Or an Attempt to Undercut It?

The report offers a lucid overview of the reproducibility debate in modern science. But it also raises concerns — particularly as it relates to mainstream climate science, which one of its co-authors described as “a farrago of unreliable statistics, arbitrary research techniques, and politicized groupthink.”

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Letters from Arakan

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From the Homeland to the Holy Land

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Why Is Senator Lynn Beyak Publishing Racist Letters on Her Website?

The controversial politician continues to promote opinions that forced her removal from seven committees last year

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Travel

Learning to Love Lagos

The Oriental Hotel, a skyscraper with the vague styling of a pagoda on the roof, looms large from the nose-to-bumper traffic on the Island-Lekki expressway, the carotid artery that connects the affluent Victoria Island with the new and rapidly developing free-trade zone of Lekki. An international five-star hotel, with a swimming pool, large conference centers, and a couple of hundred rooms, it is an imposing monument to the Chinese presence in Lagos, Africa’s largest city.

On the ground floor of the hotel is a Hong Kong-style hot pot restaurant, called, imaginatively, HotPot. Fang Kai is a regular. He sits in a seat by the window and orders us individual pots of clear broth and such an impressive spread of meats and vegetables that plates end up stacked precariously on top of each other. Fang works for the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which has an office tower adjacent to the hotel.

Fang did not choose to come to Nigeria; Huawei sent him. It was his first time leaving China. “It took me around two years before I really got used to being here,” he tells me. “But once I understood how things worked, and how to interact with people here, I really fell in love with it.”

After work, as the sky bruises pink and purple, the Huawei workers stream out of their tower and into waiting buses that ferry them into dormitories nearby. Fang, however, is working late this evening. He is in charge of Music Plus, a streaming service focusing on Afrobeats that Huawei has set up in partnership with MTN, a local service provider, specifically to target the domestic market. It has been running for three years and already has 400,000 users.

It might feel like an unlikely collaboration: the stuffy corporate world of China’s largest telecom company with the ebullience of Nigeria’s Afrobeat musicians. But the pairing makes sense. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy. Lagos, with an estimated population of 17.5 million, is the continent’s largest city. In 2000, China-Africa trade was a paltry $10 billion USD; by 2014, it had risen more than twenty times to $220 billion. Nigeria is the second-largest African recipient of Chinese investment, behind Egypt, with over $6 billion coming in from 2012-2017.

But while this partnership has grown exponentially, ties between the two nations have faced criticism and a potential slowdown in recent years. In 2013, Lamido Sanusi, the then governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote an editorial in the Financial Times saying that “Africa must get real about Chinese ties,” and decrying the way that China operates across the continent. “China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones,” he wrote.

The Entrance to Lagos’ China Town, with the words “Long Live Nigerian-Sino Friendship” painted on one of the walls.

It is true that across the continent Chinese state-owned enterprises heavily engage in resource extraction and often employ Chinese labor at the expense of training or developing the local labor force. But beyond this, there are huge private enterprises, like Huawei, and thousands of small-scale traders and entrepreneurs operating in a different manner. Some have already been on the ground for decades.

A good example is the Oriental Hotel itself. It is a partnership between the Tung group and former governor of Lagos state, Bola Tinubu, who owns a 10 percent stake. Tung Group is one of the ‘Four Big Families’ who came to Nigeria in the 1960s: the Lee Group, Tung Group, WAHUM Group, and Cha Group. There were more, but these are the groups who remain most active in Nigeria today, according to Liu Shaonan, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Michigan State University, who studies the history of Chinese engagement in Nigeria.

In the 1960s and 70s, Nigeria was the biggest overseas market for Chinese enamel products from Hong Kong

These initial family groups came over to manufacture enamelware. In the 1960s and 70s, Nigeria was the biggest overseas market for Chinese enamel products from Hong Kong, with traders in the city utilizing British colonial networks that spanned to Nigeria to get their products sold in the country.

On occasion, the Nigerian government would impose import restrictions. A few of the more enterprising exporters decided that instead of finding a new market, they would just move their operation into Nigeria to avoid the import restrictions. The successful ones, like Tung group, diversified. It now owns factories, has huge real estate investments, and is heavily invested in iron smelting. For their part, the other big families are also active across various industries––WAHUM manufactures enamelware and iron, as does Lee group, which also produces slippers and plastic bags, while Cha group focuses mainly on textiles.

The Oriental Hotel is therefore less a monument to the power of the Chinese state than the culmination of decades of private investment. In its kitsch pagoda styling, the abacus-style woodwork of the lobby café, or the opulence of the two Chinese restaurants therein, one can sense a kind of self-referential immigrant pride.

A less imposing but more curious monument to the Chinese presence in Lagos rests on the other side of the city, also abutting a highway. Sitting off the motorway that runs from Ikeja to Lagos Island, in an area called Ojota, Chinatown is hard to miss. It is a giant structure, with turrets and crenellations designed to make it look like the Great Wall, though the walls are too thin, the structure Potemkin. It is painted bright red.

It, too, was built by a private Chinese investor, Sun Guobing, but it’s fortunes have paled in comparison to the Oriental Hotel. Stocked by petty traders who dealt mostly in fabrics, at one time it had more than three hundred stores and a significant portion of all the fabrics traded in West Africa passed through it. However, by the mid 2000s, most of the Chinese traders were chased out after claims from Nigerian trade unions that Chinese imports had eliminated roughly 350,000 manufacturing jobs, mainly in the textile industry. The police raided Chinatown in 2006, pushing most of the remaining traders out.

There are now only around 50 stores left, and while some are still owned by Chinese bosses, they are staffed exclusively by Nigerians. While there, I met Mr. Sam, who runs one of the larger stores. A Nigerian man, I found him sitting in an office chair bundling up bags of cheap Chinese-style qipao dresses. He greeted me with some reluctance, until I mentioned that I had lived in China for a few years. He broke into fairly fluent Mandarin, telling me that he had studied on the island of Qingdao for a few years. He goes back to China every few years to source products and keep up with his suppliers.

Even with a lot of the petty traders driven out, the Chinese community in Lagos is still around 50,000 and increasing. More importantly, the newest wave of Chinese immigrants is more like Fang––highly educated and more deeply embedded within the local community.

The petty traders, who typically only spoke limited English and who constantly felt insecure––physically and fiscally––lived largely apart from Nigerian society. As such, their lives were at odds with those of today’s Huawei workers, who are highly educated and for the most part fluent in English. What they shared is a common and individual desire to succeed in the country, though their outcomes have inevitably been colored by their respective starting points.

It is a smart piece of unintentional diplomacy—the pairing of karaoke with Afrobeats

The Huawei workers, with disposable income and less of a language barrier, have no problem navigating the affluent downtown areas that surround the Oriental Hotel. One of the Huawei workers I met proudly pulled out his phone when he heard I was English and showed me a picture of himself in tennis whites at the old colonial Queen’s tennis club, where he has a membership. The Huawei employees are better able to develop a real affection for Lagos, such that when I ask Fang if he has any plans to leave Nigeria he shakes his head––not for the next few years. “I could try another African country, though,” he says.

Fang is heavily engaged in the local community. Every week he organizes an event, Unplugged Thursdays, in a bar in Victoria Island to promote his Music Plus app. When we walk in I can see they have set up karaoke machines, and people in the crowd are passing a microphone between them. The songs are popular Afrobeats tracks of the moment and the screen flashes the lyrics in Yoruba. An Afrobeats artist named Idahams walks in shortly after in reflective aviator sunglasses with an entourage of twenty.

It is a smart piece of unintentional diplomacy, the pairing of karaoke, China’s favorite pastime, with Afrobeats, Nigeria’s biggest cultural export.

On my final night in Lagos, Fang invites me to the Huawei offices for dinner, handing me a guest pass and taking me through a winding corridor that opens out into a futuristic canteen. Staff can pay for their meal through Wechat, the Chinese social media app. The entire space is airy and light: polished stainless-steel fixtures, bright white tables, and huge windows that overlook the river. The food is incredible. The chefs and ingredients are flown in from China. Sichuanese gungbao chicken, stir-fried tofu, spicy king prawns, and more besides, are served buffet style.

When Fang sees that I have had my fill, he stands and tells me to come with him. He grabs a can of Rubicon, a tropical flavored soft-drink, from a shelf, and, along with three guys from his team, walks me out of the offices and to the main entrance of the hotel, which is directly next door. We go up to the fifth floor of the building and walk out onto a giant balcony. He throws the Rubicon to a guard, who nods and lets us pass.

We walk to the edge and look out at the Lagos lagoon that flows, river-like, beneath us. Fang starts to tell me about a trip he had recently taken, driving around seven African countries in the southeast, including Rwanda and Kenya, for more than a month. At no point does he mention that in doing so he missed an opportunity to return to China and to catch up with the life he had left behind. Instead, he was excited to list of the places he had been and the ones that remained for the next trip. “I wish I’d had three months,” he says.

On the river below, fishermen bob in boats, throwing nets out. As Fang finishes his story, a light breeze picks up, carrying with it the hum of cicadas. The sun is setting, giving the clouds a dusky halo. Fang, reflective, points out over the vista. “It’s our Huangpu,” he says, referring to the famous river that cuts through Shanghai. “It’s comfortable here.”

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Does Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron really hate gays?

When the Liberal Democrats last week launched their general election campaign, no doubt they had high hopes and expectations. Despite having just nine seats in the British Parliament since their poor show at the 2015 general election, it seemed that for the Lib Dems the tide might finally be turning.

As the only one of the main parties to be demanding Britain’s impending exit from the European Union be halted, their hope is to appeal to swathes of the remain-voting 48%. It’s a fairly sizeable chunk of the population.

But it seems that for Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, gay sex just keeps getting in the way.

He’s been asked countless times now whether as a deeply religious Christian he thinks gay sex is a sin, and it’s clear he’s finding it hard to settle on a simple response. The latest in a line of worrying interviews came on Sunday; when asked 11 times if he thought engaging in same sex sexual activity was sinful he still failed to give a concrete answer.

It’s an issue that he just keeps on avoiding, but it’s one that for many people is of the upmost concern. Don’t get me wrong, our Prime Minister Theresa May’s homophobic record should not be forgotten; she voted against repealing homophobic S28 legislation, said to no same sex adoption and the equalisation of the age of consent. But that’s not excuse for Farron to be a gay rights dinosaur.

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The author making a placard

Because it’s this subtle homophobia that sees so many people in religious communities repress their sexuality and identity, why for young queers with parents of faith the future can seem insurmountably tough.

Sure, voting for equal rights and same sex marriage is important, but so too is the question of your deeply held religious beliefs. If Tim really does believe to be gay is to be a sinner, that to act on such natural urges might see you banished to the darkest fiery corners of hell, voters must surely have the right to ask him questions.

So when a message comes through that he’ll be addressing a crowd in Vauxhall on Monday afternoon, the centre of London’s late night gay clubbing scene, it seems to good an opportunity to miss out on. I would go down to a church in the shadow of London’s most hedonistic gay clubs and saunas to confront Farron on his views on sodomy once and for all.

I make a placard to take with me, posing the question for all to see. As far as I’m concerned gay sex is nothing to be ashamed of.

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Arriving at St Anne and All Saints Church a crowd is already gathering, a small army of campaigners in yellow and wielding placards stands patiently around. With at least half an hour before the leader’s impending arrival, I get chatting to some of those who are here to dress the stage for the camera crews this afternoon. Would party members stand up for Farron’s beliefs?

Most people I get talking to seem to have conveniently not heard about this whole gay-sex debacle, although each are willing to talk about Brexit instead.

Guy Russo (in red)

Guy Russo (in red)

But standing front and centre is 19-year-old Guy Russo, this is the first general election he’ll be able to vote in, and thankfully he’s been keeping track of the news.”As a young member, fundamentally, I am behind my leader’s right to have his Christian views himself, his own religion,” Guy explains somewhat awkwardly. “At the end of the day we do believe in independence of thought and the independence of the person.”

After chatting a little more about Brexit, he returns to this question once again.

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“I care about what he’s done in parliament, I care about how he will legislate, and he legislates totally in favour of LGBT rights and in favour of equality. At the end of the day what I care about is what he does in practice.”

I keep walking through the crowd looking for answers, and finally stumble on a bloke holding a swish top hat. He introduces himself as Carl Jokl, the only person I meet who is willing to accept the leader’s views need to be addressed.

Carl Jokl

Carl Jokl

“The Liberal Democrat party is full of LGBT people,” he proudly tells me, “there are certainly lots of us here. Yes this question is an issue, but it’s an issue that’s not going to go away. Article 50 has been triggered, the clock is ticking – I’m happy to say ‘let’s take that, stick a pin in it’ and we can deal with it later.”

The problem is this election isn’t another Brexit referendum, the likes of Carl want us to put Farron ahead in the polls. When, I therefore ask him, might be a better time to have this difficult conversation?

“I grew up in a homophobic religion,” he replies, pausing briefly. “I guess I am used to some homophobic reactions, I’m much more concerned about Brexit right now.” It’s not entirely convincing as a response.

Soon Tim Farron has entered the building, the Liberal Democrat crowd descending into a whooping frenzy (well, bare in mind they were all Lib Dems). Farron starts making his pitch to be leader, so I sneak off to the back to relax.

But as I’m taking a photo to sit alongside our little investigation, the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg clocks on to our bit of fun. She tweets some #fakenews about it kicking off as we posed for the camera, but for the record, no aide asked us to leave. Quite the opposite; they said Tim wants to talk.

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Tim Farron

Tim Farron

Before I have a chance to chat to the bronzed leader, it’s time for the media to have their Q&A. Twice during the following press conference Tim is asked directly about his views on gay sex, and twice more he actively avoids answering the questions being posed. By the time the second journalist asks him to comment, the assembled crowd of party supporters begins to heckle and groan.

“I am passionate about LGBT issues,” Farron asserts as the tutting continues. “It has been at the heart of our party’s programme for decades, and it will continue to be under my leadership.” This still is far from a yes or a no.

As I’m making my way out the building I’m greeted by an aide of Tim Farron’s, he tells me that while his boss has had to shoot off they’d like to find a time to for me and him talk. I pass him my phone number and say I’m ready and waiting.

With my phone not yet ringing and no more clarity coming from Farron when the press asked him questions, it’s clear he’s still avoiding giving an honest response.

Until he starts listening though, and engaging in a serious conversation on this topic, it’ll be following him around until voting opens. Right now his silence is deafening.

At the time of publication Tim Farron has not called the author, the story will be updated if and when he does. 

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