Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
When War Crimes Are Impossible
Bruce E. Levine
Gay & Lesbian Community Notes
Eleanor J. Bader
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Remembering Bobby Sands
D enis O’Hearn was born in New Mexico and is of Irish and Native Alaskan (Aleut) ancestry. He moved to Belfast in the 1970s and his articles for In These Times and the Guardian introduced Bobby Sands and the Irish H-Blocks prison conflict to the broad audience of progressives in the U.S. He is a community activist, former chair of the West Belfast Economic Forum, and jointly professor of social and economic change at Queens University Belfast and professor of sociology at the University of Binghamton in New York. May 5 is the 25th anniversary Bobby Sands’s death. I interviewed O’Hearn about his recent book, Nothing But an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation .
GRUBACIC: Tell us how you came to write a life of Bobby Sands and how the process of learning about his life changed your perceptions of him.
O’HEARN: When I started my research I thought I was writing a book about Bobby Sands, hunger striker. Since he was an icon of resistance, but also an enigma, I didn’t know whether I would like Bobby Sands or not or what would be his notable characteristics. I had no idea, for example, why he became a leader among his prison comrades. One former hunger striker told me that he could never figure out why Bobby was a leader because he was such a regular guy. But as I talked to more and more people about him, from his childhood to his early involvement in the IRA and his two periods in prison, I realized that I was writing a book about Bobby Sands, the political activist, rather than Bobby Sands the hunger striker.
That is not to deny that the story of Bobby Sands’s death, like the other nine hunger strikers who died, is gut-wrenching. But the life of Bobby Sands is ultimately an inspiring story of how he overcame the most extreme forms of oppression to express his own personal freedom and the collective freedom of his fellow prisoners by building solidarity, raising morale, and leading very effective and creative forms of protest.
Can you give an example of what you mean?
Bobby first went to jail at 18 years of age. He hadn’t much formal education and his politics were pretty simple and defensive. He had come under daily attack by sectarian anti-Catholic gangs in his community and he saw membership in the IRA as the best way to defend himself and his friends from these gangs. In jail, however, he had political status and he could freely associate with his fellow prisoners. Long Kesh was like a prison camp from an old war movie, with Quonset huts surrounded by wire fences that the prisoners called “cages.” They trained militarily and, most importantly, read and debated politics. Sands loved to study Che Guevara, Camilo Torres, and George Jackson. Later, he mixed what he learned from their writings with Irish revolutionaries like Liam Mellowes. To him, prison was a university where he became politically conscious and surprisingly sophisticated. So when he was released back onto the streets, he was not just an IRA volunteer, he was interested in organizing his community around things like housing, transportation, education, and cultural activities.
When he was caught a second time and sent to H-Block, this time
without political status and without the right to associate, it
had a big effect on him. He saw young prisoners all around who were
not highly aware, but who also did not have the opportunities he’d
had to raise their political consciousness in prison. You have to
remember the conditions they were living in. When they refused to
wear prison uniforms, these men were stripped of all clothing and
had to wear blankets [thus, they were known as blanketmen], they
were kept in lock-up 24/7, they had no reading materials except
a bible and a few religious pamphlets. Yet Bobby Sands was unwilling
to accept the restrictions that these conditions placed on him and
his fellow prisoners.
When he was first put in a cell with Tony O’Hara, whose brother later also died on hunger strike, he watched Tony sleeping all day. After a while, he asked him, “Tony, what do you do all day?” Tony replied, “I sleep, there’s nothing else to do.” So Bobby said, “Isn’t that a waste of your opportunities.”
He convinced his fellow prisoners to take their monthly visits with their families and friends, even though they had to wear a prison uniform to do it. Then they started smuggling messages out to tell the public what was happening in the H-Blocks. They smuggled in ballpoint pen refills and cigarette papers, as well as tobacco for a bit of luxury. Then the corridors and other prison spaces became battlegrounds, as prisoners and guards struggled over who controlled them. This raised the morale of the prisoners tremendously.
Within weeks of arriving, Sands started writing articles about prison life and smuggling them out. When they were published they provoked public awareness and outrage. Without these accounts, public support for the prisoners would never have taken hold. Sands organized a letter-writing “factory” on his prison wing. He got other prisoners to write letters, hundreds of them, to influential people, from Jane Fonda to Leonid Brezhnev to trade union activists to folk singers.
How did the prison authorities react to this challenge?
Things got violent as the guards tried to catch prisoners smuggling. The prisoners had to keep things hidden, usually up their backsides. You can imagine the horrific scenes that resulted where prison guards were sticking their gloved fingers up a man’s anus and then using the same fingers to probe his mouth. The authorities devised new types of searches, each one more violent than the last. This was all made worse because some guards were drunk. They had a bar in the prison, can you imagine? The guards went to lunch and came back after several drinks. It was a recipe for violence.
What effect did this have on the prisoners?
They were often in fear, but the more the authorities took away from them, the stronger they became. The more they tried to degrade them, the more dignity they maintained. The guards took away their furniture, soap, and toothbrushes. The only thing the prisoners could not get rid of was their bodily waste. When they tried to throw their urine and shit out the cell window, the guards threw it back in. Eventually, the blanketmen had to throw their food into piles in the corner of the cell—we’re talking about 2 men in a 8 by 10 foot cell with two urine-soaked mattresses and a couple of blankets—and spread their shit on the walls. I’m sure you cannot imagine living in such conditions, but it is incredible what people can endure together for a cause they feel is just. The prison guards made snide comments about how the blanketmen were animals, but the blanketmen actually strengthened and gained dignity through it all. We’re not talking about a few weeks or months. They lived on this “no-wash protest” for several years.
What was Bobby Sands doing during this period of escalating conflict?
He was right in the middle of it. He was second in command of the prisoners. Their officer in command was Brendan Hughes who they called “the Dark.” For some reason, the prison authorities always kept Bobby Sands and Hughes in adjoining cells, for nearly four years. They talked through the crack by the heating pipes at the back of their cells and planned prison protests that way.
The thing that really made Bobby Sands a leader was his energy and the way he turned his energy to organizing things that could raise the prisoners’ morale. It wasn’t only things like getting men to write letters and poems and stories to send outside. He also organized Irish language classes. In time some prisoners who were hardly literate in English could speak and write in Irish. This gave them power over their jailers because they could speak openly without being understood and felt they were getting one up on the guards.
How did things escalate to a hunger strike?
One of the side effects of Bobby’s propaganda work was that it helped supporters to build a protest movement around the issue of political status for the blanketmen. Eventually, it became a wider human rights campaign, organized around five key demands, like the prisoners’ right to wear their own clothes and to organize educational activities. When conditions in the cells got really bad, the prisoners began to talk about a hunger strike because it was the ultimate protest. Hunger strikes had often succeeded before and they saw it as a way out of their conditions, perhaps the only way.
But the movement outside prison was opposed to a hunger strike. The IRA felt that it would divert resources away from the armed struggle. Gerry Adams opposed it because he felt that Margaret Thatcher would let them die and to no good purpose. So Adams and others convinced the prisoners to postpone hunger striking while they negotiated with Thatcher over the five demands. They had powerful support from public figures like the Irish Cardinal Tomás O Fiaich. But Thatcher would not move. Eventually the prisoners felt that they had no choice.
The story of the hunger strikes, there were actually two of them, is complicated. But, briefly, Brendan Hughes led the first hunger strike in late 1980. He called it off on the verge of a settlement in order to save one hunger striker’s life. He thought he had a settlement, but it was not in writing. When Sands finally saw the agreement that the British government put on paper, he exploded. It was not even near what they wanted. By the time Sands got back to his cell that night after visiting the hunger strikers in the prison hospital, he vowed that he would lead a new hunger strike and this time it would be to the death. He knew he would die, but he was determined to go through with it.
How could he follow such a course when he knew that he and others would have a very slow and painful death?
I put that down to two factors. One is the intense solidarity he felt with his comrades, a level that we cannot understand unless we have been in such a remarkable situation. Such solidarity can empower people to do things that are beyond the usual. Many ex-blanketmen express a surprising nostalgia for life in the H-Blocks, despite the violence and deprivation. One told me that he had never experienced such intense comradeship and he really misses that. Another described a time when he was in his cell and he was listening to Bobby Sands singing. He asked himself, “Even if I do get out of here, will I ever experience anything as good as this?” Bobby Sands told a cellmate that life as a blanketman was the closest thing he would ever get to true communism. So this intense solidarity, even love, for his comrades provoked him to do anything to help them to get out of their horrific situation. I know, it is ironic that a prisoner would say at the one time that his life is almost utopian and in the next sentence talk about what extremes he is willing to go to in order to get out of it. But that was the reality of the H-Blocks.
The second factor, of course, was Bobby’s political commitment. He believed in himself and he knew that someone would have to die for the prisoners to win their rights. So he took a personal responsibility to ensure that the second hunger strike was not interrupted short of victory as the first one had been.
Well, he won a by-election to British parliament while he was dying in a prison hospital and that opened a new form of struggle for Irish Republicans, one that provoked much debate and controversy. It is worth noting that although Bobby Sands was in favor of fighting elections he was never in favor of taking office. He thought winning elections would gain legitimacy for the struggle and he argued that his movement should bank those gains by creating autonomous, parallel structures of governance in communities where it had popular support.
Times have changed and in many ways Irish Republicanism, like other movements, has become less radical since the death of Bobby Sands. Many people ask me where I think Bobby would stand today, were he alive, on Sinn Féin’s peace strategy and the IRA’s ceasefire. I cannot say, although it is worth noting that almost all of Bobby’s closest friends support the current peace strategy.
Some people see “irony” in Bobby Sands supposedly giving his life for armed struggle while Gerry Adams used the hunger strike and Sands’s election victory to move the IRA away from armed struggle. Yet Bobby did not die for the armed struggle, he died to defend the right of people to resist oppression and to be able to choose the means by which they resist—armed struggle if necessary, other means if possible. Bobby’s commitment to grass-roots organizing shows that his politics were far more developed than simple adherence to armed struggle.
These days people are talking about autonomy and prefigurative politics, that is, the idea that we base our political actions today according to the future we want to build. Back in the cages, Bobby Sands and others were developing precisely these ideas. Gerry Adams, for example, was talking about “making the Republic a reality” by building autonomous representative governance in the communities and building alternative and autonomous services, administration, even industry and healthcare. Bobby tried to introduce these ideas into his own community of Twinbrook during the six months of his adult life when he was not in prison.
You know, as soon as he went into jail he learned Irish and within two years he was writing really interesting essays in Irish about building autonomous Irish-language communities in Belfast, with autonomous schools, services, and factories. The school part of it has actually become a reality in Belfast, to some extent. I spent time in Oventic and I saw parallels between what he was trying to do and the kinds of things the Zapatistas, for instance, are now making a reality in Chiapas.
What I would hope, 25 years after his death, is that more people will recover memory of him. I hope that those who never heard of Bobby Sands will learn to remember him and that others to whom he is an example for his way of dying will rediscover how extraordinary he was for his way of living.
Andrej Grubacic is an anarchist historian from somewhere in the Balkans. Photos from www. irishhungerstrike.com.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; email@example.com; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.