The last time I was in Bristol, a series of conversations and events brought this into sharp focus for me. The first was Friday’s Critical Tea Party. There were two visitors who’d been tempted upstairs by the offer of tea and cake. The conversation began with Pete and the Institute reflecting on the week, which started with an attempt at ethical shopping in the centre of Bristol. One of the visitors from Swansea, Greg, began to tell us how he ‘confiscates’ dates from Tesco’s on a regular basis. These are dates grown in the West Bank, by Israeli settlers. Greg sends the dates to politicians and law-makers, with the question: ‘These are stolen goods – but who stole them?’
Greg said, self-depreciatingly, it’s only a tiny thing. But the small act of an individual can be very powerful, and perhaps takes more bravery than acting in a crowd. Stealing dates can be a radical action.
On Saturday 31st I went on the Bristol Radical History Group’s walking tour of the city centre. The tour was introduced with an explanation that we would hear the stories of a few individuals whom history remembers, and of unnamed masses who were equally significant but unrecorded. Many stories of the early Radical history of Bristol centre on Non-conformists. The status quo was set by the strict rules of the Church. In their struggles for greater religious and personal freedoms, non-conformists risked their lives. I was struck by the story of Dorothy Hazard who sat in her window, weaving at a loom on Christmas day – when work was forbidden. This act of defiance, of disobedience, took a great deal of bravery. Weaving can be a radical action.
The following day, C Words presented a double bill of powerful films. The second film, ‘The Carbon Connection’, was a film made with two communities directly affected by oil companies such as BP. In Grangemouth, Scotland, locals live with the daily noise, light and air pollution of the huge oil refinery. Six thousand miles away in Brazil, the villagers of Sao Jose do Buriti are plagued by an enormous Eucalyptus plantation (owned by the Plantar company) that sucks all the water from the land, destroying bio-diverse indigenous woodland, their crops, and turning the river into a dry ditch. These two places are connected through Carbon Trading: companies such as BP buy “carbon credits” that are created from huge mono-culture plantations like this one in Brazil. This in turn legitimises further pollution in places like Grangemouth and further carbon emmisions. One thing that struck me whilst watching this film was the very different implications for people speaking out about these issues in Brazil and the UK. The outspoken woman activist from Sao Jose do Buriti who helped to make a film with her community had received physical threats against her family and herself, and the other local people who had started campaigning with her had been paid off by Plantar to keep their mouths shut. In Grangemouth, Norman Philip, who had contributed to the Carbon Connection ended up campaigning with Friends of the Earth and the Green Party. It seemed that the community in Brazil were at first empowered through making the film, and then oppressed, whereas here in the UK there are far less severe implications for speaking out. Sharing your story can be a radical action.
So what does it mean to be Radical, and what risks are we willing to take as individuals for our beliefs? I looked for the origins of the word and discovered that ‘radical’ comes from the Latin radicalis meaning ‘of or having roots’ and it first started being used in the political sense of ‘fundamental change from the roots’ in the 19th century. I had always thought of radical change coming from the edges – pushing at the boundaries of accepted behaviour and thought. But in fact radicalism comes from the roots.
To me, a radical action involves risk, stepping outside your comfort zone. It might be a seemingly small action, but depending on the context, it could have enormous implications.