She has protested in Iraq, been shot by the Israeli Defense Force in Palestine and more recently, embarrassed the British Prime Minister in Lebanon. Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. speaks to Caoimhe Butterly, the feisty Irish peace activist.
What was going through your mind when you disrupted Blair's speech in Lebanon?
I wanted to try to challenge the arrogance of his visit, and the lack of shame he seemed to feel, visiting a place where he was so obviously unwelcome. There was, across the board, dissent in Lebanon at the Lebanese government’s decision to host Tony Blair’s visit and it was largely viewed as highly insensitive and insulting to the memories of the victims of the war.
At the forefront on my mind was the memory of a man, Abu Yusuf, whom I had visited in hospital during the war. His family had fled to Beirut from the South during the bombing and was staying with relatives on the outskirts of Dahiyah. Three weeks into the war the apartment building where they were staying was bombed and eighteen members of his family were killed, including his mother and three daughters. His wife was paralysed and his remaining son badly injured. I arrived at the site as rescue workers were pulling the tiny crushed bodies of Abu Yusuf’s nieces out of the rubble. One of them had been decapitated as she slept.
The visit to Abu Yusuf affected me more than anything else I witnessed in the war and the past two months of working in the South, partially because he was so gracious and kind. Here was a man whose family and future had just been destroyed and he was apologizing, in typical Southern Lebanese style, for not having a home to host me in.
Is this protest for protest’s sake or is there an implicit strategy behind your activism?
No, the action wasn’t protest for protest’s sake. It was a legitimate and necessary manifestation of the dissent that was being expressed throughout Lebanon towards the visit of Tony Blair.
The majority of my solidarity work has been focused on long-term accompaniment of communities at risk of either state-sponsored or foreign aggression, so it’s uncomfortable for me to be labeled a “protestor.” I’ve spent the past nine years working in communities and refugee camps in Chiapas, Guatemala, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon. I’ve worked as a human-rights observer, as an ambulance volunteer, and with grassroots community development projects, mainly with women. The nature of this work is grassroots and long-term and my priority has always been initially on trust-building and integration: to be able to best understand the needs of the communities and movements I work with and, through that understanding, to try to help facilitate communication with solidarity networks abroad that can offer material or political support.
Celebrity activism is extremely unhelpful to movements because it de-contextualizes the legitimate and urgent demands of struggles into personalities. I regard the long-term, community-based work I do as much more important and real than my forays into the public eye. I avoided reading the media coverage of the press conference action because it’s bizarre to see one’s life and experiences and interactions and memories and grief and hope reduced down to “howling protestor shouts down Blair.”
How did you get past security and what was your plan?
I used the racism of white-skin foreign privilege to operate in Palestine, and to enter the press conference. It is an uncomfortable dynamic to use, knowing that as a foreigner I had the potential to try to minimize some of the brutality inflicted upon people around me in Palestine and that if I were a Palestinian doing the same actions -- trying to physically get in between Israeli soldiers and their targets -- I would be dead by now. I entered the press conference because I could and somebody needed to call Blair on his hypocrisy, to his face, during his visit to Lebanon.
What brought you to Lebanon and are you engaged in the struggles at another level beyond just protesting?
I came to Lebanon during the war because I wanted to report on the reality on the ground and to volunteer with grassroots community centres that were receiving displaced families who were fleeing the South of Lebanon. I had spent time in Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and the South last year and had remained in contact with folks I had worked with. Many of them had formed a network of volunteers and activists called Samidoun and were working in converted schools and open-air parks that were receiving some of the hundreds of thousands of people who were made homeless in July.
So I initially volunteered in Beirut and then later in Sidon and Tyre. A small group of us headed South while the bombing was at its most intense, with the intention of trying to bring relief supplies to people who were still trapped in the border villages, but getting beyond Tyre was almost impossible. The bombing was relentless and completely indiscriminate. Convoys of people fleeing the villages, journalists, relief workers and ambulance crews were all targeted.
When the cease-fire was announced I worked initially with humanitarian aid convoys. We were some of the first people to enter villages that had been under siege for over a month. The conditions were horrific: rotting corpses, villages that had been almost totally destroyed, people who had been trapped under the rubble of their homes without food or water.
Europe's anti-war movment tends to march for marching’s sake; there does not appear to be a strategy beyond marching. What is your opinion on the anti-war movement and do you have any suggestions as to how individuals can become more proactive?
When one witnesses the urgency of the situation on the ground here and in Iraq and Palestine, it’s impossible not to become frustrated with the inefficiency of the anti-war movement in Europe. I know many activists who are sick of state-sanctioned marches in which they listen to repetitive speeches and are left feeling completely disempowered. I was in London in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq and there was such heart-felt grief and dissent at the approaching massacre, and the marches that took place mobilized people from all walks of life. But I think that that energy and potential was squandered by a movement that failed to prioritize mobilizing working class communities and that focused on marches instead of direct action and workers’ strikes.
One of the most positive things I witnessed on the marches was the mobilization of Muslim youth, for whom the stakes were a lot higher in terms of the surveillance and repression they risked as a result of their activism.
In terms of how people can become more proactive, I think focusing on local issues, while emphasizing the commonality of struggle at home and abroad, is necessary. If activists want to gain trust enough to have the right to attempt to mobilize local communities of people already facing criminalization and precarity, then we have to prove ourselves to walk the talk, in whatever context we find ourselves in.
Do you believe a real threat from radical Islamists exists, which justifies this so-called “War On Terror”?
No. The strategies of hegemony, massacre, military and economic occupation that are being played out in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan have no justification and need no justification. These events are not a reaction to a perceived, actual, or created threat. It is a fusing of expansionist, colonialist Zionism and a Neo-con plan for a new Middle East- a process that was in the works long before September 11th.
Has being Irish had any influence on your politics?
Yes and no. I have spent in total two years of my life in Ireland. I was raised primarily in Canada, Mauritius and Zimbabwe, and have spent the past nine years working in Latin and South America and the Middle East, so I don’t identify myself strongly as being Irish. There is a deeply emotive, instinctive level of solidarity by many Irish people towards Palestinians, but I think my personal commitment to activism and solidarity work comes more from my own up-bringing by parents who were commited to social justice and who encouraged me to live what I believe.
Anti-capitalists and anti-war activists were amongst those initially suspected of the 7th July London bombings. Do you believe there will come a time when radical elements within these movements may turn to violence to achieve their goals?
Unlikely. I can imagine, and would welcome, anti-war and anti-capitalist movements focusing more on direct actions that target or sabotage arms dealers and multi-nationals that are profiting off of repression and war, but I would not classify property damage or disarmament actions as violence. The deliberate targeting of working-class commuters is not a direction I can imagine social justice activists going in. I am not a pacifist, people under siege and occupation have every right to defend themselves militarily but I am completely opposed to the targeting of civilians as a means of struggle.
What other causes are you passionate about and where do you plan to go
I suppose I’m passionate about anything that involves people becoming empowered enough to resist the policies that deem that their blood is cheap and expendable, that silences their narratives, that criminalizes their dissent, and that denies them their right to dream. I think that the path that I’m on, in terms of working with communities of resistance, is one that is the only honest and legitimate response to what I’ve witnessed over the past years.
I hope to stay in Lebanon for the next 4-6 months, depending on whether I can source funding to cover my own living expenses, and then will return to London to work and save money for a few months, then travel back to South America, where we are trying to set up national Palestine support networks, working with Diaspora communities, trade unions, progressive left governments, etc.
And after South America, we’ll see. It depends on what’s going on in the world and where I can be of most use. I hope to get more into documentary film-making as a way of giving people a vehicle to express their narratives and reality. And through this, I can hopefully be behind the camera, not in front of it, from now on.
1st October 2006