Helen Wickham is a peaceful woman (11.03)

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Last month the ExCeL Centre, a giant exhibition hall that’s the shining new hope for the impoverished borough of Newham, where I live, hosted an arms fair. My girlfriend and I rode our bikes down to the Victoria Dock on the Sunday after the fair had finished, when everyone was packing up. The place was very quiet but you could see evidence that there had been a big protest. We saw a gigantic warship moored on the dock and felt sickened that such a thing could have a place where we live. We yelled at it and, miraculously, it turned and went (I think they were planning to leave anyway!)

I wrote to the paper about it and they published my letter.

It feels as though war is everywhere right now, even in my local neighbourhood. I am so sick of it. So is Helen Wickham, the author of the amazing This Is…! zine, a woman who knows a lot about peace. The following interview is long, but it’s good.

What is peace?
I think people mean a lot of different things when they talk about peace. Maybe there’s a general idea that peace is the opposite of war, a neutral or passive state that happens when there’s no conflict going on.

Personally, I don’t think peace is the absence of conflict, I think it’s about how you resolve conflicts. Like when you have a really good argument with one of your friends, where you totally disagree with each other, but you both keep on being friendly. And when you finish the argument you both feel that you had a chance to speak passionately and the other person listened to you, and you didn’t try to put each other down. And maybe you ended up deciding that you just disagree and that’s how you’ll leave it, or maybe once you understood each other’s points of view you came to some compromise or new position. Either way, that falls within my definition of peace.

So I don’t think that peace is some kind of vague unrealistic thing about creating an end to conflict, my definition makes it quite concrete: peace is when you resolve conflicts non-violently – meaning with respect for the feelings and opinions of the other people involved – and without trying to pull a weird power trip over them, and refusing to let them pull a weird power trip over you. And as long as you’re using those methods, I would say that you still have peace while the disagreement is happening.

I guess “peace” is also used in a more general sense of human wellbeing. And I think, for peace in that sense, we need to have just basic stuff that a lot of people still don’t have: safety and shelter and enough food and clean water, and some meaningful way to occupy our time, and satisfying connections with other people, things like that.

Can peace only be considered a utopian ideal, or is it a real possibility?
Well, there are a lot of parts to my answer here, but the short version is that I do think it’s a real possibility, though probably not likely to happen soon.

If “peace” is the end of all human conflicts, then it’s obviously impossible to believe that there will ever be peace, and it’s probably just as well there won’t! It goes against human nature and would be really boring. But saying, well, of course there’s always going to be conflict and differences between people – and thinking of violence and non-violence both just as techniques, as methods a person might use to resolve those conflicts – I think that makes it easier to see how there could actually be peace eventually, if enough people realised that there is a choice of methods, that you don’t have to go put yourself in danger and get arming yourself and escalating everything to sort things out.

Of course, there are problems with the definition of non-violence – people don’t agree on what it is, and whether violent acts are ever justified as part of an overall non-violent strategy – and there’s a huge question about what to do when your non-violence is met with extreme violence. Which is one reason I’m not expecting world peace any time soon: there’s too much violence, and I think the only way to end it is through a long, long gradual process of people changing their minds one by one; and also in parallel a global process of demilitarisation and fair distribution of resources would have to happen, otherwise peace is not possible.

But I don’t think we need to worry about what a huge task World Peace is, because lots of people are working on it. Some people definitely are heroes, but I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing situation where you have to make a huge commitment or else feel like you’re not doing anything at all. A small, long-term, sustained effort by a lot of people is really important. Doing whatever makes things better in your own community. Working things out in your own life so that you look after yourself properly – you hold your ground and don’t accept people’s claims to have power over you, and you try to recognise other people’s right to do the same and try to solve problems without manipulating people or being a bully.

I just want to say here that I’m not very good at this myself – particularly the part about holding your ground and looking after yourself – and I feel a bit embarrassed writing as though I know something about it! But on the other hand, at least I’m speaking from personal experience when I say that things definitely can change. If it’s possible to disarm my heart (which it seems to be) it’s possible to disarm anything and everything.

Please express your feelings about the current American war in the Middle East in not more than 50 words
A young man called Bush once cried “Howdy!
My country is looking too dowdy!
Our metaphorical cock
Will be hard as a rock
If we shoot off some bombs and get rowdy!”

Tony whispered “Let me be your tool!
Though my people all think I’m a fool”

Word limit reached!

If you were in charge of everything, how would you instigate world peace?
I don’t really want to be in charge, I want us each to be in charge of ourselves, and to respect each other and not have to be guarded and afraid. I want wars to stop, I want people to stop holding power over other people through the threat of force, I want violence against women to stop, I want child abuse to stop, and I want everybody in the world to take responsibility for stopping whatever violence they encounter in their lives and in themselves – really stopping it. Not pretending it doesn’t exist; not claiming that anger and violence are the same thing and that the way to stop violence is to pretend you’re never angry; not sighing and saying “what can you do, it’s human nature!”

I should probably say what I mean by “violence” because I’m including anything that’s holding inequalities and unjust structures in place (eg. things like what stuff you buy and who made it and under what conditions). So I’m talking about more than just direct physical violence, and a lot of people probably don’t agree with me that it all counts as “violence.” But I guess these things contribute to the amount of physical violence in the world too.

Sadly you’re not the boss, so tell me a bit about the peace activism you do as a regular human being
At the moment I’m involved in a legal action. Last March I was on one of three coaches that were stopped on the way to a protest at Fairford (in Gloucestershire. It’s the military base that B-52s flew from to bomb Baghdad.) The coaches were held up while we were searched, and then sent back to London, so I never got to Fairford in the end. We were held in a police escort the whole way back -two and a half hours – and I had to wee in somebody’s sandwich box because they wouldn’t let us stop to use the toilet! It was a legally organised demo we were going to, and a couple of the scheduled speakers were on the coaches. The coaches were just general coaches going from London, open to anyone, and had about 150 people from loads of different groups and political backgrounds – mostly not travelling in groups, just as individuals going to the demo. So anyway, the action I’m involved in is a judicial review, which isn’t a personal action it’s a review of the way the police used their powers, whether what they did was actually lawful. It’s important, because at the moment they have free rein to interpret the law this way and if the review finds that they shouldn’t, then we will have regained some of our right to protest (not to mention our basic human right not to have to pee into a tupperware container while two vans of police drive alongside filming us!) There’s more information about this at www.fairfordcoachaction.org.uk and info about the way the police used their anti-terrorism powers at Fairford itself (the same powers that made the news recently at the arms fair in London).

I’ve been going to Women in Black vigils in London since early in the year and I went to a Women in Black conference in Italy in August, which was a wonderful and inspiring thing. Women in Black is hard to describe because it’s not an organisation, it’s a network of women who do vigils and other actions, in various different ways but all non-violent. The UK website, www.womeninblack.org.uk, describes us as “a world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence.” The website also describes WiB as “a formula for action”, which I think is great. It’s hard to sum up here what an inspiration Women in Black is to me! And I don’t want to think about how much worse I might have felt this year if I hadn’t been going to the vigils.

I’ve also been involved in non-violent direct action protests (NVDA) against the war on Iraq, not as one of the people doing the action, but as a legal observer. It would actually be more correct to describe most of the actions I’ve been at as “civil disobedience” not “direct action” because most of them were about breaking laws (people sitting down to block the street, etc.) rather than people taking actual direct action (like lying down in front of a plane to stop it taking off.) But people use NVDA to mean both things. In accountable actions like this, the people doing the action expect to get arrested, and they don’t try to run away or anything like that. So the legal observing involves checking that the people joining in know that they’re risking arrest and have all the information they need, making a note of any rough treatment by the police, and noting down the name of anyone arrested (so that the legal support team can ring police stations and find out where they are, and send someone to meet them when they’re released.) As a legal observer you don’t generally risk arrest yourself, although it’s technically possible that you could be arrested.

In September I was a legal observer at the protests at the DSEi arms fair at the ExCeL Centre, East London, and I saw some of the searches that the police did under the anti-terror legislation (which is meant to be emergency powers to stop and search anyone in a given area, to prevent an act of terrorism. A high-ranking police officer has to apply to the Secretary of State to bring these emergency powers into action for up to 28 days at a time.) The police searches seemed like a serious misuse of the anti-terror powers. The human rights group Liberty got together a lot of people’s reports of being searched, and brought a judicial review case to the high court very quickly. The hearing was the week after the arms fair I think, and the judges’ ruling should be any day now. One of the things that came out in the hearing was that the Metropolitan Police have been re-applying to the Secretary of State for another 28 days of the emergency powers CONTINUOUSLY since February 2001 (i.e. even before Sept 11th 2001). So really the powers have been used as though they were law, rather than an emergency measure.

How can people get involved?
In London, Women in Black hold a vigil on the first Wednesday of each month. All women are welcome to join us, just wear black and turn up at 6pm on the steps of the Edith Cavell statue (near Trafalgar Square, outside the National Portrait Gallery). The vigil is a silent vigil that lasts for an hour (and then we usually go for tea/coffee/apple crumble afterwards). Women in Black groups in other places hold vigils at different times – you should be able to find information about it on the aforementioned UK website or www.womeninblack.org for vigils in other countries. Or if there’s no vigil near you, just choose a spot and a time and start one.

If you’re interested in doing NVDA or being a legal observer, the best thing is to go to an event that has training for people who haven’t done it before. And may I suggest that George W Bush’s forthcoming visit to the UK (19th-21st November) would be a very good opportunity. Info should be coming soon at www.resistbush.org or you can sign up to their email list there.

If you want to read more about NVDA/legal stuff, there is a lot of useful information on Justice Not Vengeance and the Activists Legal Project.

Here’s a gun – would you shoot George Bush with it?
I wouldn’t shoot George Bush. It would be kind of handy if he was dead, but I think he’s the (blunt) tip of a giant iceberg. And what am I going to do, shoot everybody involved in the economic, social, emotional, political, etc etc conditions that created such a man and allowed him to take power? I don’t think it can work.

It’s an interesting thought though – the idea that you could create peace through killing one person at the appropriate moment. Like people might say that if someone had assassinated Hitler in about 1930 we would never have had World War II. But that’s not the only way to get rid of Hitler: Hitler might never have taken power if Germany had been treated differently after World War I, or if World War I had been averted by diplomacy…however far back you want to go.

I think ideas about assassinating figureheads are a bit of a red herring, we should be thinking about empowering ourselves and everybody else so we all get enough good health and creativity and indignation to unseat our stupid so-called leaders and replace them with something worthwhile. So no, there’s nobody I’d kill in the name of peace. It’s fun to think about it though.

Do you think John and Yoko’s bed-in made the world a more peaceful place?
I do think that John and Yoko’s bed-in made the world a more peaceful place. In fact I know it for sure, because it made my life more peaceful. It was my first exposure to the idea of peace, and questions about what peace is, and it made a big impression on me (I think this must have been quite some time after the actual bed-in, probably in the film clips on the news when Lennon was shot.) Of course you can’t say that any one thing led you to take a particular course, but the bed-in was definitely one of the more important contributing factors in my life. The women’s peace camp at Greenham Common was another. Even though (as with the bed-in!) the opinions I heard about it as a child were mainly disapproving or incredulous, I saw the news reports and it stuck in my head all this time as something creative and amazing.

A while ago I was finally talking to someone who had lived at Greenham Common, and she said: “but I wonder now if we really changed anything.” Yes, you did! You changed me! And plenty of other people. Just like Yoko and John did. That’s why you should just go ahead and make your protest, even if it doesn’t look like you can have any direct effect on the thing you’re protesting about. Because you’ll be changing something by being there, most likely other people, and they might have a direct effect next time. And the way the human brain works, you’ll probably never know. People see your protest, carry on past you as if it didn’t touch them – and then three years later, 43 years later, off one of them goes to lie down on a runway somewhere and stop a B-52 taking off! And you were part of that, but you can never unravel it and work out some formula for influencing people. You just have to keep doing what you think is right, as often as you can manage to. That’s why I don’t think it’s any good saying that the ends justify the means. Because the means are having effects all the time and if the means aren’t concordant with the ends they might derail the ends any minute!

How far would you go in the name of peace?
I’m not sure how to answer this question. It depends on the circumstances. Like so far I haven’t done anything that might get me arrested, and I wasn’t really planning to – but then the other day I seriously considered trespassing on a military base. And that was partly because of who else would be there, and how that made it seem much less frightening and like it might even be fun. And partly because the further you get into this stuff, the more you see how much it matters and how much of a real effect your actions can have. And you get less afraid of things as you go along – part of the reason I wasn’t planning to get arrested was just that I was really frightened of it. And now I’ve talked to so many people who’ve been arrested that it’s not frightening in the same way: I have an idea of what the easiest and the worst experiences are like, and some way to make sense of it, so it seems more like something I could bear to do now.

What’s the most peaceful thing you’ve ever experienced?
Ripping up an estate agent’s brochure into thousands of tiny pieces. I did it instead of hitting my partner, so I think that’s pretty peaceful.

What else would you like to say?
Thank you, these are really good questions!