Guest editorial


Sian Jones


Five months after Seattle, and people are thinking things have changed... two editors and a dog set off to London's May Day 2000... Guerilla Gardening... part of a global day of action against capitalism. It was a long time since I'd been on an action where I knew that there would be violence, not just from the police but an anticipated and declared tactic of protest ... but a tactic for what?

As Viv Sharples shows in the "Tools" section of this issue, Seattle was not a haphazard happening, but an extremely well planned action, where participants were empowered by organisation and by each other. But not May Day in London. It wasn't really the violence that bothered me (I didn't see it or experience it) I was elsewhere planting cabbages at the Ministry of Defence (futile but nice!)--I merely watched what was doled out on the television news that night. What bothered me was the lack of strategy in the violence--beyond smashing a few windows. The irony of seeing those who "trashed" Macdonald's handing out burgers and other trashers eating them may have been lost on many TV viewers--but for me it seemed to express the complete futility of it all. As Howard Clark points out later in this section--a rallying cry is not a strategy for change.

... and disempowerment

The riot police, armed and supposedly dangerous, were not confronted by empowered actors, but with people with no idea of their potential power. Instead of Reclaiming the Streets (one of the main slogans for the day) protestors (and quite a few unwary tourists) were herded into Trafalgar Square. The rest of us were backed up side-streets by the riot police. Someone yelled "sit down"--but only seven of us did--and five hundred others obediently backed up the road and let the police reclaim the streets. 500 people had had no idea of how easy it is to sit down and feel no fear, to know the worst thing they can do is arrest you or hit you--and still feel empowered.

From fear to empowerment

The articles that follow take us through many processes of empowerment: from personal empowerment, so lacking on May Day; to that realisation of the empowerment gained when we work with others towards a common goal; and finally --and the linearity of this argument should not be taken to suggest that the road to social empowerment is not a long, deviating and often tortuous path--that we, as a social community, can confront those with power and change our lives.

Whatever it is that we fear, confronting fear is the first stage of our own personal empowerment. When we are small children, we fear the unknown, the paths we've never walked with confidence or knowledge; and often as adults--as Vesna Terselic points out--we use apathy as a defence mechanism to stop us from feeling that fear. But as Roberta Bacic so powerfully reveals it is only through feeling and facing that fear that we know we are alive.

The long and winding road...

Each stage of empowerment described by Julia Kraft emerges in this issue, which looks at the real work of empowerment that goes on, step by step, bit by bit. As women in Croatia start with a laundry and end up as significant political actors within their community; as gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe reach out for international support--with often mixed results; as deaf people in Britain struggle for recognition of their culture and language.

Empowerment is about taking or making space for ourselves (see Ellen Elster's post-script raising the question of the disempowering effects of professional campaigns) whether it is about claiming identity, claiming the rights to economic empowerment or literally taking space, as in David and Ippy's squatting photo-essay.

Perhaps this is best expressed in Saswati Roy's account of Swadhina, equipping rural women in India with the skills they need to empower themselves and their communities. Here, as for so many women, the key lies in economic empowermen -- from which their dignity, their right to be themselves and their control over their lives can begin.

Yet, the community of identity often described as social empowerment can also, in itself, be disempowering. In examining the ins and outs of gay identity politics, Andreas Speck reveals how our needs for a political, social or sexual identity can not only empower us, but can equally limit our capacity for political action.

What power do we want?

In a deconstruction of traditional notions of power, positing power not as necessarily oppositional but as transformative and ultimately creative, Cecilia Moretti looks at the power that we want-- and crucially, at what we want to do with that power when we have it. She sees power for change from within, from below and across the boundaries we construct between ourselves, themes potently reflected by Gustavo Esteva's narrative of struggle by the people of Chiapas. The Zapatistas may not have seized power from the militaristic society in which they live, but in a spirit of hope, have transformed life and social relationships within their own autonomous communities.

The power to transform our lives lies within us all--all we have to do is work out is what we want and how to get there--that's the hard part--and together we can do it. The rest is easy: as the saying goes, "Be realistic, demand the impossible!"

Sian Jones is involved with Aldermaston Women's Peace Campaign, a WRI affiliate.
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