Huck celebrates independence: people and movements that paddle against the flow. Inspired by radical youth culture, Huck roams the globe seeking out artists, activists and creative renegades who are breaking down the old world to build something new.
I was cooking dinner on Monday night when my phone buzzed. And buzzed. Many times. News was coming through that UCU union negotiators had reached a terrible deal with university employers that would end the strikes taking place in 64 institutions over devastating cuts to our pensions. The union committee with the power to call off the action was due to meet the following morning which meant that members had just over 12 hours to consider their position.
At Goldsmiths where I teach, we called an emergency meeting for 9am Tuesday. Over 100 of us – a significant number given the size of the institution and the short notice – packed into the Students’ Union and called on our union to reject the deal. Not a single voice spoke in favour of accepting a package that would see increased staff contributions in return for lower benefits and no guarantees that this would protect our pensions for more than three years. Members were outraged that three weeks of fantastically well-supported strike action had generated an offer that fell staggeringly short of our expectations.
This was the pattern across the country where 10,000 people signed a petition urging rejection and at least 43 UCU branches threw out the deal with barely a murmur of opposition. In Leeds, the room was so packed that members had to vote through the window while #NoCapitulation emerged as the rallying cry of a movement determined to secure pensions justice. By lunchtime on Tuesday, UCU’s Higher Education Committee had announced that they had listened to members and were rejecting the deal.
It was an extraordinary 24 hours but then it has been an extraordinary three weeks.
What started out as a rather narrowly defined dispute – to oppose the move from a ‘defined benefits’ to a ‘defined contribution’ pension – has transformed into a wider struggle to shape the ‘soul’ of the university. Students faced with mounting debt are taught by staff, many of whom are increasingly on short-term and zero hours contracts, in institutions that have generated record surpluses but are, apparently, unable now to provide the income in retirement to which we are entitled.
It’s market, not educational, logic that demands that these institutions try to shift the liabilities of a mutualised pension scheme onto individual members of that scheme so that they can preside over a leaner and more flexible higher education system. Campuses, after all, are run more like profit centres than sites of learning. And our USS pension scheme is not a benign charitable foundation but an enormous international investment fund with £60 billion in assets and which recently rewarded its chief executive with a 17 per cent pay rise (taking his salary up to £566,000) for presiding over a bumper year. Yet this is the same management that insists that there is a huge hole in the middle of the fund and that this ‘deficit’ must be addressed by scaling back what it pays out to ordinary members.
The extension of the market into university life is, therefore, at the core of this strike and it has inspired a shared understanding between staff and students of the problems we face. At Goldsmiths, students arrive at 8am every morning to bring us ‘solidari-tea’. We have seen ‘exorcisms’ (of the market from the College), picket line poetry, an inspiring series of teach-outs, staff-student forums, and a genuine flowering of debate around how our universities should be democratised.
Now we hear that students have occupied some 16 universities, both expressing solidarity with the aims of the UCU strikes but also articulating their own demands around housing, governance, transparency and union rights for campus workers. An attack on our pensions, it appears, has miraculously served to galvanise a student movement that had laid dormant, or been written off as infected by the individualist mentality of ‘paying customers’, since the 2010 revolts against the trebling of tuition fees.
Striking staff are now set to return to work – and students to their classes – ahead of a potential further bout of strikes to hit the assessment period in the summer term. Students will, understandably, be anxious about this action will impact on their exams and coursework. My response is that the employers’ determination to impose an inferior pension on us, together with their obsession with league tables, PR campaigns and vanity projects, is devaluing the very education that striking staff are committed to defending. We are desperate to get back to work but not before we have secured guarantees that our pensions will be diminished when we believe there is no reason to do so.
We will need to find ways to maintain our momentum in the weeks ahead. We will need more teach outs on the picket lines, better coordination with students, and more exposure of the undemocratic governance structures of our pension scheme and of the role of the government’s Pension Regulator. We will also need to secure more support from other workers whose prospect for a decent pension (or a pension at all) will be improved if the university strikes are able to show that pensions are not a luxury item but an essential part of pay packages.
The strikes pose a hugely important question: Who do our universities belong to? Unelected governors? Unaccountable pension scheme trustees? Overpaid vice-chancellors? Or the staff and students who make universities tick. We will find out the answer soon.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and Vice President of Goldsmiths UCU. Follow him on Twitter.
This week, thousands of students across the U.S. walked out of their classrooms in a nationwide protest against gun violence.
The demonstration, which took place yesterday (Wednesday March 14), was an impassioned response to the recent mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school – now the deadliest high school shooting in the country’s history. The tragedy led to the death of 17 people, and sparked a heated national debate on the leniency of American gun laws.
According to reports, it’s estimated that around 3,000 schools across the U.S. were involved in the walkout, which took place exactly one month after the Florida shooting.
In Downtown Brooklyn, almost 1,000 students were seen gathering outside the steps of Borough Hall in Columbus Park, where children as young as 11 were given the opportunity to speak at the mic and share their concerns.
One as-yet unidentified 12-year-old, whose cousins apparently live five minutes away from Stoneman Douglas, drew the loudest responses from the crowd. “I am a 12-year-old fearing for the lives of her cousins,” she shouted, defiantly. “17 students just like me had their entire lives ahead of them, but because as a country we do not question why a 19-year-old can buy multiple assault rifles, those 17 kids died. Because we make it too easy for people who don’t deserve guns to buy guns.”
“We have the right to bear arms,” she added, “but we also have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Photographer Emily Pederson was on hand to a capture the Brooklyn protest. Check out her images below.
At 8am this morning, just at London’s icy rush hour got into full swing, activists descended on the headquarters of Serco just behind Angel station, determined to cause a scene.
Armed with trays of rotting food, campaigners from Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants dumped the stinking waste on the doorstep of the security firm, to protest the treatment of women held in the infamous Yarl’s Wood detention centre which the company operates. Currently 120 women who are being detained there without charge, simply by virtue of their nationality, are entering their second week on hunger strike.
According to the activists, the premise this morning was simple: the UK’s immigration detention system is rotten, and so too are the companies that profit from it. Trays of stinking, rotting food should fit right in.
“Serco are trying to ignore the hunger strike happening in Yarl’s Wood detention centre which they’re running,” explained Sam Bjorn, one of the activists, as they walked from a coffee shop close by to their target.
Making their way down an alleyway in the shadow of the company’s head office, another campaigner outlined their rationale for taking direct action. “The UK immigration system is rotten to its core and it’s the brave women of Yarl’s Wood that are suffering the consequences. As Serco continue to ignore the hunger strike we wanted to bring the rotting food to their doorstep. We support their brave fight against this brutal system.”
“The rotting food is a reminder to Serco of the hunger strike happening in Yarl’s Wood,” added another called Barry. “We want to show Serco that we will not let them continue to ignore the hunger strike and we won’t let them get away with their appalling treatment of people in Yarl’s Wood. We want to send a message of solidarity to the hunger striking women that we are seeing them and that we won’t let their fight go unnoticed and unsupported.”
The action itself was over pretty quickly – once the waste was pulled out, alongside a copy of the women’s demands, they were dumped on the snow-covered ground. Two baffled looking security guards appeared in the doorway, but the activists had scarpered before anything could be done. The list of demands were left pinned to the building, campaigners hoping those who work for the company might take note.
Around 30,000 people are detained in immigration detention centres each year in the UK, and Britain is the only country in Europe that has no specified legal time limit for detention. Many detainees are held for months or years with no release date. Detainees and campaigners say that detention is harmful and unnecessary.
Huck put the allegations that Serco were ignoring the hunger strike to the company. “We know which residents eat their daily meals in the restaurant and there is also a shop in the Centre where residents can buy food,” said a spokesperson. “Anyone refusing all food is closely monitored and supported with the professional healthcare team and their situation is kept under close review.” They added that an inspection in 2017 found there had been”progress” since their previous visit.
A detainee at Yarl’s Wood told the blog Detained Voices yesterday: “Serco officers just asked one of our strikers to go to the unit office to talk about her health and why she is not eating, while she was there they took her belongings and are deporting her.”
In February 2015, Theresa May (at that point Home Secretary) announced an independent review into the ‘policies and procedures affecting the welfare of those held in immigration removal centres’, to be led by former Prison and Probations Ombudsman Stephen Shaw. Britain’s approach to immigration detention is widely seen as inhumane, quasi-prisons, often run by outsourced companies with little accountability such Serco and Mitie, which have vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees locked away inside them.
Those imprisoned are held without trial simply by virtue of the country in which they were born. Unlike in any other European nation, it’s deemed legally acceptable here to lock people up in detention centres indefinitely. The abuse faced by those inside is well documented.
Following Shaw’s review, a 352 page document was published back in January 2016. It makes for damning and difficult reading.
Shaw’s report recommended a wide reaching programme of reform to the immigration detention system, with 64 recommendations. The then Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire, accepted ‘the broad thrust’ of the report and its findings.
Two years later, 120 women detained indefinitely in Yarl’s Wood Detention centre in Bedfordshire are entering the second week of action in protest against the inhumane system of detention. It seems very little has changed.
Initially a hunger strike, the action escalated this week after the Home Office refused to acknowledge the strikers or their demands. In a statement released via the Detained Voices blog, striking women inside the centre stated that “from 26/02/2018 we will cease to participate in detention. we will; not eat, use the facilities or work for them. the detainees are thus staging an all out strike against the home office’s immoral practices. Our demands are for a fair system and an end to the hostile environment policy towards people with legitimate reasons to stay in the U.K.”
What followed was a list of fifteen specific demands, including a call to end to indefinite detention and charter flights which deport people from Britain, access to adequate healthcare provisions and recognition of rape as torture. Some of those detained are forcibly removed via secretive charter flights. These flights, which leave in the dead of night, remove approximately 2,000 people each year and have been heavily criticised by campaigners who have labelled them dangerous and immoral.
Strikers in Yarl’s wood have reportedly faced intimidation from guards, including threats that protesters would be put in solitary confinement or sent to prisons. This morning, it was reported on the Detained Voices twitter that one striker was called to the main office by Serco officers to talk about her health and her reasons for participating in the strike. While she was there, her belongings were allegedly collected and she was informed that she was being forcibly deported to India where she faces the threat of serious abuse.
On Thursday,an emergency demonstration saw hundreds of people brave freezing conditions outside of the Home Office in London. Phone calls with the strikers were broadcast over the pa system, whilst speeches from those who have previously been in detention urged continued support and action in support of the protestors.
In response, the Home Office has stated that “detention and removal are essential parts of effective immigration controls, especially in support for the removal of those with no lawful basis to stay in the UK. We take the welfare of our detainees very seriously and any detainees who choose to refuse food and fluid are closely monitored by on site healthcare professionals.”
Detainees and campaigners have consistently labelled detention harmful and unnecessary. Last week Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, who has called for an end to indefinite detention, visited the centre and met with the strikers. One of them wrote:
“I watched all the women sat all around her and her assistants/political advisors telling her about their individual cases, how long they have been here and so on and I stood there just looking at the desperation, it was like their lives depended on this woman and I felt sad.
But still it was good that she came, anything that raises is our spirits is welcome. It made the environment slightly less hostile for a short time and gave an oppressed people hope. I wish I could hope.”
We’re standing on top of a crumbling concrete water tower, looking out over a cloud-covered valley in central Greece. Our guide is Borkin, a 16-year-old artist and photographer, who was forced to flee the violence in Syrian Kurdistan. He points out toward Ritsona camp – a small cluster of containers nestled among the trees below, 75km outside Athens, in the middle of nowhere. With a barbed-wire fence behind us, the limit of his world right now is not even as far as the eye can see.
After the EU shut its borders nearly two years ago, many camps were hastily constructed across Greece to house around 50,000 people who became stuck in the country, and then largely forgotten about. But young people from this camp have produced their own magazine, Ritsona Kingdom Journal, which features original writing, poetry, photography and artwork. It’s a bold statement of their diversity and creative talent – if only people would listen to what they have to say.
Borkin leads us enthusiastically on a tour of the camp with his camera slung jauntily around his neck, stopping now and again to snap details that catch his eye. “I’m taking pictures for the new issue of the magazine,” he says. “I want to capture everyday life in the camp and of all my friends. I want people outside to see how we live here.”
Borkin wants to become a doctor. But those plans are on hold, as the only education for over-16s are classes provided informally by NGOs. However, while many refugees wait for over a year for decisions on their asylum applications, Borkin is one of the relatively lucky ones. After passing through Iraq, Iran and Turkey, Borkin arrived in Ritsona four months ago and has another two months before he’s relocated to Germany with his family.
He learned painting from his father, a professional artist, and Borkin has contributed to some of the many impressive murals that brighten up the camp’s grey ISObox containers. But there’s no escape from the sickly-sweet chemical smell of thinly-disguised sewage, that lingers permanently over the camp.
After wobbling our way across a large puddle over a walkway of wooden pallets, Borkin delivers us to two containers that comprise Å Youth Engagement Space. The mud and grey skies aren’t enough to dim spirits and a rowdy launch party is getting underway for the fifth issue of Ritsona Kingdom Journal.
“We created the magazine because we wanted to tell people that we are here and that we are people with many talents,” says George, 21, from Syria. George writes poetry, plays guitar, designed the camp’s logo and helped put the first issue together. In their maiden issue, his friend Bassem Omar christened the camp ‘Ritsona Kingdom’ and anointed himself King, as a joke – because there’s nothing regal about this place.
“I don’t think I will ever be a professional artist, but I like to paint,” says Michael, 19, George’s younger brother. “You can’t do anything here. I am trying to leave this camp, to start a new life and study to be a civil engineer but I don’t know how long that will take. When you have nothing to do, painting helps. I take my paints out and I can explain things.”
Photo by Julie Flavin
The festivities begin with stop-motion films made by the kids with Storytelling Without Borders. One of the most impressive is The Magic School in the Forest, a Harry Potter-inspired tale about a young princess who wants to learn magic. It was made by Borkin’s younger sister, Hadaya, 13, who spends each night writing stories in her container home and wants to be a doctor and pilot when she grows up. “Making films is fun,” she says. “I want people to be happy when they watch my film.”
There’s an infectious sense of fun and togetherness among the kids – particularly when they start blasting out the Middle Eastern party bangers. But underneath all the smiles, there’s a deep sense of frustration.
Hamza, 16, from Syria, wears a black ACAB beanie and penned a comic which distills the conflict with razor-sharp analysis beyond his years. It shows American and Russian fighter planes flying over Syria with the caption: ‘Stop the war in Syria. The powerful nations drink the blood of Syria.’
“People don’t understand that Syria was an incredible country with lots of wealth, history and people of different religions,” Hamza explains. “I drew this to show how foreign countries are stealing all of Syria’s treasures. I draw comics and I write articles to share my opinion with the world and tell them what is really happening in Syria. What I have seen makes me very angry.”
Hamza was present at the pro-democracy protests in Syria in 2011, whose violent repression by Bashar al-Assad’s regime led to the civil war. He wants to study political science, so he can play a role in improving the world – but his experience of European democracy leaves him unimpressed.
“The situation was so bad for me in Syria, but before I left and came to Greece, I thought Europe respected human rights and the dignity of people,” Hamza says. “But that’s not what I have seen. I’m scared that if I am relocated to Germany, people will ask me why I’m there. So I have decided to go back to Syria as soon as the war is over. If foreign countries stopped making war in my country, I would go back today.”
In September 2015, EU member states pledged to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers – including 106,000 from Greece and Italy. Two years later, the 28-nation bloc had relocated a mere 29,000. George and his younger brother Michael are some of Ritsona’s longest residents and are among tens of thousands still waiting in limbo.
When they arrived in March 2016, people were living in tents, before refugees across Greece protested at deplorable conditions and were eventually rehoused in containers. But with the nearest town, Chalkida, a three-hour walk away and just two busses per week to Athens, Ritsona is still cut off from the outside world. When Help Refugees argue it’s cheaper to house refugees in city apartments, rather than camps, it all seems so unnecessary.
In escaping war, young adults like Michael and George have already experienced things most of us will never witness in a lifetime – but at the same time, they remain stuck in a children’s world. When they would normally be starting to spread their wings and build their own, independent lives, the boredom of such a frustratingly limited camp life is particularly hard to bear.
“Never give up,” George says, turning the page to one of his illustrated mottos. “I designed this to say, ‘we are strong, nothing is impossible’.” But later, talking quietly as the party begins to die down, he drops his guard and admits that after spending two years in a forgotten corner of Greece, he has sometimes come close to giving up. It’s not hard to understand why.
In 2013, a depressed, unemployed British anarchist allegedly hacked into the FBI, US Army, US Missile Defense and NASA websites. Humiliated, the American authorities demanded his arrest and extradition. An undercover policeman’s knock at the door, and the subsequent swoop of National Crime Agency officers, turned into a four-year-ordeal which swept Lauri Love into reluctant international infamy.
Two weeks ago, a High Court judge accepted his appeal against extradition, arguing a potential 99-year sentence in the brutal US prison system would exacerbate his severe depression and possibly lead to suicide. A landmark ruling, it could save others from the same miserable fate.
The tabloid press often paints Lauri as a bedroom-dwelling recluse, an autistic vicar’s son who got out of his depth – and there’s some truth in that. But I struggle to reconcile this image with the Lauri I first met, losing his shit to jungle at squat parties in London and bringing up the rear of anti-fascist demos with omnipresent boombox wobbling beside him like a cyberpunk C3PO and R2D2.
“I’m definitely not reformed in the traditional sense,” Lauri tells me. It’s his first interview following a two-week period in which the US could reopen extradition proceedings. They didn’t, and so as of today, he’s finally free to speak out against the inhumane system he’s been battling for half a decade. That said, he now faces a battle in the British courts.
“People want people accused of crimes to drop down on their knees and say ‘I’m terribly sorry for causing upset to the system’… but I haven’t softened in my beliefs.”
Lauri allegedly masterminded #OpLastResort, an Anonymous-backed campaign demanding justice for open-web martyr Aaron Swartz. The American hacker killed himself while facing a 33-year sentence for downloading hundreds of thousands of academic papers – perhaps planning to release them for free online. Lauri describes his own “alleged act of online civil disobedience” as a “protest after the US criminal justice system hounded a very promising young man to death.”
Voice rising, Lauri condemns Swartz’ maltreatment: “he worked tirelessly to improve the world through his skills and abilities and then his life was tragically cut short as a result of being hounded by prosecution… for being a convenient symbol for the types of people the government wants to crack down on.”
Lauri could easily be describing his own fate. Like Swartz, he is a geek in a radical anti-establishment tradition, dating back to the wild-west days of the early web. He looks far younger than his 33 years – his manner is that of a hyper-articulate teenager, a University Challenge contestant with charm – but he was actually born in 1984.
As such, he cut his hacking teeth in unregulated late-90s cyberspace where, as he puts it, no one took things that seriously. “Finding ways to sneak onto the internet” was normal, as Lauri looked to engage in “clandestine activity” through a dial-up modem while his parents slept upstairs.
Online, he found a lawless young world full of everything from “cheats and walkthroughs” through incendiary material like the Anarchist Cookbook, to tips on how to scam vending machines: a “bottomless well” of all the knowledge he craved.
Lauri speaks about the early days of the internet with a giddy, utopian excitement. It reminds me of 1996′s Declaration…: “You weary giants of flesh and steel… are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
Like the Declaration’s author John Perry Barlow, who died just two days after Lauri’s court victory, the socially-isolated teenager was electrified by a world relatively untainted by corporate influence or government censorship.
Though real-world hierarchies structured the web from day one, it’s easy to see how this utopian vision appealed to the autistic 15-year-old. Online, it seemed it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, just so long as you were ‘1337’ – or ‘elite’.
Soon Lauri was part of hacktivist collective the “Cyber Army”, a highly-structured precursor to Anonymous. By the age of 15 he’d risen to the ‘rank’ of general, commanding a ‘brigade’ which launched ethical attacks against targets like the Church of Scientology, even attempting to signal-jam a shadowy Anglo-American surveillance operation called Echelon.
To the precocious hacker, the Army’s main role was “inculcating the idea that yes, powerful people do oppressive things, but you can organise and act against them.” It was an attitude Lauri carried with him to Glasgow University, where he joined real-world resistance through antifascist action and the Occupy movement.
But things proved rather less organised in Glasgow’s Occupy camps. The protest movement collapsed thanks to a lack of political focus, undercover police subversion and media hostility. At the same time, Lauri says, he and the activists he lived with were “fitted up by spy-cops” who planted weed in their flat, leaving him “homeless and living [in the camp] by necessity.”
An “actual hurricane” and a fire in the camp left Lauri’s transient home destroyed, and Lauri himself “acutely, suicidally depressed.” He was holed up miserably in front of a computer for many months until, he says, his parents came and dragged him home. It was in the throes of this brutal depressive episode that the alleged #OpLastResort campaign took place.
Lauri traces the failure of recent Western protest movements and the internet’s transformation into a cut-throat sphere of wealth extraction to the same source: “a Reagan-Thatcher hyper-individualisation”, which saw the utopian dream of the internet fatally compromised by the encroachment of capital.
“The culture of the early [online] world was quite unique,” he says ruefully. “It’s been mostly lost since, thanks to the commercialisation of the web and the banalification through social media of the forms and quality of interaction online.”
He sees 2011 – the year of Occupy, of Aaron Swartz’ arrest, of WikiLeaks’ “diplomatic cables” dump – as a high water mark for “chaotic actors using the internet to undermine the authority of traditional power structures”.
Thereafter, the US government and its international cronies cracked down hard. “It’s a tactic used against anonymous online activists,” Lauri says, “decapitating [movements] by finding the most visible people and severely inconveniencing them for as long as possible so they can’t lead or inspire.”
Lauri’s learned taking on these forces requires more than simply “digitally smashing a few things up”. The borderless dream of the early internet is dead, yet the USA can reach into a sovereign nation-state and attempt to arrest someone for alleged crimes committed on the other side of the world.
“This [legal] struggle has helped with my depression, while feeding into it,” he says. “Because of my autism, I don’t have a very well-developed sense of care for myself, but a highly-developed sense of care for other people.
“I view this legal battle in terms of the precedent it will hopefully set: that the USA can’t exercise extra-territorial jurisdiction arbitrarily on any perceived troublemakers.”
Lauri says he could sit, right now, and write a script in five minutes that could commit crimes in all 205 nation states on the planet. He says it’s only the USA would ever dream of hauling him into its own legal system to punish him for it. Last week’s ruling, Lauri hopes, will enable future generations of digital activists to fight back against the overwhelming repressive forces embodied in the USA.
“Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion,” the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace gushes. The last four years of Lauri’s life have been a gruelling lesson in the internet’s abject collapse as a space capable of resisting the real-world order.
But they’ve also shown how “chaotic online actors”, equipped with brains and bravery, can affect real change in the physical world.
Uzbekistan’s consulate in New York is on 2nd Avenue, just a single block away from the world headquarters of the United Nations. It’s a geography that ordinarily makes sense – diplomats and politicians close by to the world’s foremost international organisation. But despite their proximity, there’s an uncomfortable reality being all too often ignored, according to the fifty or so people gathered in the rain on a Sunday afternoon at the consulate door.
Organised by the RUSA LGBT and New York group “Voices 4” – a non-violent advocacy group committed to using direct action to achieve global queer liberation – campaigners held a rally and kiss in here this Sunday, hoping to draw attention to the state-sponsored violence against the LGBTQ+ communities of Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Each is a member of the United Nations.
In Uzbekistan, same sex relationships between two men can are punishable by up to three years in prison, although reports of abuse and violence are also commonplace. In Azerbaijan homosexuality isn’t criminalised, although when the state is rounding up queer and trans people, before imprisoning and fining them, it may as well be. It was only a few months ago that the authorities in Tajikistan – another country in Central Asia - drew up a register of 367 allegedly gay citizens, suggesting they’d be required to be tested to avoid “the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases”.
Despite the downpour, members of the group made speeches, reading out testimonies from those who had escaped the violence and persecution in these countries. “The actions against LGBTQIA+ people taken by the Governments of these countries are violating all international human rights statutes, laws, and declarations, and the governments must be held accountable for their unjust and inhumane policies,” a spokesperson for Voices4 explains.
Once the speaking was over, it was time to pucker up – an unapologetic act of defiance on the doorstep of homophobia.
Photographer Andrew Lamberson headed along to join them.
Exactly one year one from the Women’s March – a global day of protest which saw towns and cities brought to a standstill across the world – Sunday’s Time’s Up rally saw thousands once again march through London. Called by Women’s March London as part of an international series of protests, women came together in the capital to call time on sexual harassment, the gender pay gap, and other manifestations of sexism.
Despite snow and icy conditions, attendees gathered outside Downing Street, the crowd addressed by campaigners including Helen Pankhurst, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Stella Creasy and Paris Lees. It was announced that a Time’s Up fund would be set up in Britain to help women cover legal costs when challenging sexism and gendered-violence. A similar fund has been set up in Hollywood already. According to organisers, similar marches kicked off in 34 countries, with millions taking part worldwide.
Photographer Theo McInnes headed down to capture the action.
Most people keep things fairly relaxed the night before racing in a triathlon. They’ll pack their bags, perhaps eat a giant plate of pasta – piled up high like a pyramid – then have an early night. But before her first World Championships, Shirin Gerami was doing none of those things.
Instead she was rushing around trying to get a government’s permission just to compete in the event. To represent Iran, she needed the okay from its Ministry of Sports and, for the previous six months, the answer had been a consistent and resounding “No.”
Then, hours before the race, she got an email confirming she was allowed to compete – making Shirin Gerami the first-ever woman to represent Iran in a world triathlon competition. That mould-breaking moment capped a journey that has been as improbable as it is inspiring.
As a child, Shirin had zero interest in sport – unsurprising, given that girls aren’t encouraged to play sport in Iran, where she was born and lived from the ages of 10 to 15. “In the schools I went to, phys-ed was quite weak,” she says. “It was never a seriously sporty session. It was more girls sitting around a courtyard reading books.”
She did, however, love nature and hiking. “I was around 13 when my mum’s cousin, who always loved hiking and the outdoors, told me I should go hiking with her in the [Alborz] mountains, which Tehran [where she lived] is at the foot of. She seemed to know every single person there and she introduced me and said, ‘If you ever see her, take care of her.’”
After that, Shirin would go hiking in the mountains before school most days, leaving at 4 or 5 am in her school uniform. “I’d come down smelly and sweaty and go to school,” she says, laughing.
When Shirin turned 18, she and two friends spontaneously took a hiking trip from Tehran to the Caspian Sea. They were having an amazing time until the fifth night when they got attacked in their tent by a group of men with “large daggers and knives fit to cut off the carcass of sheep.”
The experience proved transformative for Shirin, causing her to be diagnosed with a mental illness. But it also helped her realise that sport could be a way back. “Anytime I’ve gone through a hard time,” she says, “it’s always been sports and the outdoors that helped me come back up again.”
Shirin went to university at Durham in England, and in her final year found the courage to try triathlon. “I didn’t consider myself sporty in anyway. Triathlon seemed totally impossible and out of my reach but I like an adventure…”
Still, Shirin felt completely intimidated at the start. “I was the last person in the slowest lane in the pool; I had to walk my bike up the hill and I was the one who was getting lapped on the track,” she says.
But she kept going and made progress. At each stage of her first race, Shirin expected to be stopped for going too slowly. But she never was.
Was she euphoric at the finish line? “It was more the realisation that we underestimate ourselves daily. We don’t show up to the start line; we give up before having even tried.”
After moving to London for work, Shirin joined a triathlon club “for the fun and love of it.” Then, ahead of the 2013 ITU World Championships in London, she was chatting with some triathlon friends about the various nationalities that would be represented in the race. “We all laughed and joked and said, ‘Iran, haha… Well, that’s not going to be possible.’ But that night I thought, ‘Hang on. You dismissed something without actually exploring it.’”
The next morning she called up the triathlon federation in Iran and asked why exactly women couldn’t race. After many questions, the first tangible thing Shirin found was that it had to do with Iran’s non-negotiable stance on women covering up. This seemed like a simple thing to solve, but it took her six months of sourcing various outfits – as well as pictures and emails and flights to Iran – before the Ministry of Sports delivered that magical “Yes.”
Race day was the first time she’d worn her sanctioned outfit, which included a hijab. The kit wasn’t the easiest thing to compete in, but that was the last thing on Shirin’s mind. “The relief of getting the permission was beyond anything. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, it feels a little heavy.’”
Photo by Donald Miralle.
Four years on from that groundbreaking race, she has many more triathlons under her belt – including the iconic Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, which she competed in last year. Thirteen hours of hardcore exercise over 140.6 miles, all in a hijab, covered to her wrists and toes.
Shirin feels there’s still room for improvement in terms of kit that women can compete in fairly and safely while adhering to strict Islamic codes. “Some people find arts therapy, some people find sports therapy… I dream of a world where everyone can access sports — should they want to. And if clothing really is the area that is stopping you from accessing sport, then I think that’s something that needs to be looked at.”
But Shirin’s legacy is already in full effect. She’s inspired women all over the world, and in 2017, Iran sent a team of female triathletes to the Central Asian Championships for the first time, which was “very uplifting” for her.
“I hope these opportunities will continue growing,” she says. “In the UK, I rock up to whatever club I want to join and start training. It’s as a simple as that. Whereas if I’d been a girl living in Iran, I would not for one second have known what a triathlon was. And I’d have missed out on the confidence, empowerment and joy it’s brought to my life.”
Read more Huck x HOKA ONE ONE stories here. If you run, or are thinking about making running part of your life, you can learn more about the innovative Clifton 4 and Hupana trainers Shirin wears at hokaoneone.com
You hear the roar of planes flying overhead, then an explosion that shakes the ground you’re standing on. You can’t see above the edge of the cramped foxhole you’re hiding in, but you can feel that was too close for comfort. You look around and in every direction you see the terrified faces of children crouching next to you. There’s nothing you can do, you can’t move, you’re trapped and vulnerable – just like everyone else.
This is a scene from We Who Remain, a groundbreaking piece of virtual reality journalism that puts you in the centre of a little-known active conflict zone in Sudan’s Nuba mountains, where rebel fighters and civilians face a deadly stream of attacks by government forces. Directed by Trevor Snapp and Sam Wolson, We Who Remain is one of the powerful activist and human rights films in the virtual reality strand at the 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival in Northern Greece.
Socially-engaged filmmakers are increasingly turning to VR to help them force issues into the public consciousness which have gone ignored or under-reported in the mainstream media; from highlighting conflicts in forgotten parts of the world to refocusing attention on humanitarian challenges, like the refugee crisis. In the era of passive news feed grazing and fake news, the 360-degree, sensory and immersive experience of VR is hailed as an ‘empathy builder’ that can break through our chronically short attention spans. But as the novelty of the technology wears off, can VR remain a powerful tool to connect audiences to crucial issues?
Over 4,000 bombs have been dropped in civilian areas in the Nuba mountains since April 2012 and the region is cut off from the outside world, with no humanitarian access. This hidden war shows no sign of ending, yet because journalism has been banned for decades, it receives almost no media coverage. “It’s a place nobody is going to go, it could just disappear,” Trevor explains. “It’s a simmering low-level conflict that’s displacing people, terrorising communities and periodically erupting in violence. But it’s a story that’s just not going to stay in the headlines. After working in the area for many years, shooting We Who Remain in VR was an attempt to break through that and take people to a place they couldn’t go.”
But is VR a better way to highlight the conflict to audiences than conventional journalism, photography or filmmaking? Both Trevor and Sam come from a photojournalism background and argue that VR really is a game-changer. “As photographers, we often felt forced into a box and there must be more effective ways to tell pressing stories,” Sam says. “You can’t communicate what it feels like to be hiding out in a cave or riding on a truck with a mobile rebel unit through photography, or even film. But VR makes you feel like you’re in those places and gives you the freedom to experience those moments in your own way. It’s powerful and immersive in a way that photography isn’t.”
Despite how problematic much of the reporting on the refugee crisis has been, it’s hard to argue it’s an underreported issue. Yet the news cycle often moves on and boredom, or if you’re being generous, ‘compassion fatigue’, sets in long before the desperate situations improve for those forced from their homes by violence. By handing over control of the filmmaking process to three Afghan brothers struggling to rebuild their lives in Greece, Pablo Mahave’s On Sight shows how VR can be used not just to raise the profile of humanitarian issues, but empower those affected to share their perspectives.
“[With any traditional media] there is always a filter between reality and the delivered message,” Pablo explains. “If there is a medium that can cut out the middleman, then it’s VR. There was no script, no pre-planned story outline and the brothers made the key decisions themselves. This piece is an experiment that seeks to put the spotlight on the dignity, empowerment, respect and decency of the people portrayed.”
At 1AM on October 28th, 1992, the body of a 26-year-old South Korean sex worker was found at a decrepit house at the Dongducheon camp town – one of 96 such towns that have sprung up to service the (sexual) needs of US soldiers stationed in nearby military bases. Her body was covered in detergent powder to dispose of evidence but a brain haemorrhage was established as the cause of death. Two beer bottles and one cola bottle were found inside her uterus and an umbrella penetrated 11 inches into her rectum.
Although US soldiers stationed in South Korea commit an average of eight crimes per day, including murder, assault and rape, they escape punishment because their victims are usually sex workers, who operate in these special zones which fall under the jurisdiction of neither country. This particularly brutal attack caused a mass protest demanding the perpetrator be tried in the court system. But five-time feature film director Gina Kim couldn’t find a way to tell the story – until she discovered VR.
BlOODLESS VR Teaser Reel - YouTube
“The media covered the horrific image of the mutilated body of the victim and the image also showed up on the posters and flyers created by the people participating in the protest,” Gina says. “Every time I saw the picture, I saw the victim’s dignity being once again destroyed. For the last 25 years, I have struggled to find a way to make a film about this tragic incident. As a female director concerned with the female body, I have never been happy with how gender violence is represented in cinema: violence becomes a way of reproducing the violence itself and exploiting the image of the victim. But I realised the potential of VR to tell the same violent story, without showing or exploiting her image. Viewers cannot remain distanced, passive spectators, since they become part of the scene.”
Bloodless hauntingly recreates the victim’s last moments, in the process reawakening the debate about continued abuses perpetrated by US soldiers in South Korea and the lack of justice. “I determined to have her ghost guide us through the dilapidated streets, the club that she met the soldier and finally the small room where she was mutilated and died,” Gina says.
You feel the claustrophobia of the room before you notice the blood oozing slowly onto the floor at your feet from the crumpled mass by the wall. You feel trapped, disgusted and want to run but you can’t, you’re stuck there as a witness to a death that went unnoticed – a death you can no longer ignore.
“I do believe VR is an empathy builder,” Gina says. “By far, the majority of tragedies in this world are caused by the profound sense of apathy and misunderstanding. But if used well, VR can promote a new way of communication that allows a totally different intensity of empathy; empathy without exploitation. You can ‘become’ someone else, which no other artistic media achieves. It allows you to understand and experience the pain of others.”