Archive for the Activism Category

Who took the bomp?

Posted in Activism, culture, music on August 29, 2009 by Philonous

Ghost Bikes, a lesson in co-feeling

Posted in Activism, art, culture, cycling, Manchester, USA on September 5, 2008 by Philonous

I’ve just read the horrific story of Stephen Wills, a Manchester cyclist who was killed by a hit an run driver in April this year. I have some vague remembrances of seeing an e-mail on the Critical Mass mailing list about this at the time but hadn’t quite realised what had happened.

Stephen Wills (see picture) was cycling along Princess Street when he was knocked off his bike by a silver Volkswagen Golf which had just been stolen. The drivers of the car left him in the street which, to be brutally honest, I didn’t find particularly surprising.

What I did find surprising was that no-one stopped to help him. Motorists decided that they would instead try and drive around him as he lay in the middle of the road. It was only when a passing pedestrian came upon the scene that an ambulance was called. Unfortunately, it was too late and Stephen died on the way to A&E. As if this wasn’t bad enough, it emerged in the autopsy that although he had died of severe head wounds, both his legs had also been broken, suggesting he had been run over by a passing car after having been knocked over.

This tragedy sparked a spate of articles in the tabloid press rightly decrying the callousness of drivers and of ‘modern society’. Among them however was this monstrosity from the Telegraph which (please correct me if I’ve somehow misinterpreted this) seems to try to justify drivers’ reactions from a personal safety viewpoint.

It’s too dangerous now for Good Samaritans
By Harry Mount
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 18/04/2008

I wonder if the original Good Samaritan would have stopped to help the poor bicyclist who was killed by joyriders in Moss Side at the weekend.

Several drivers swerved round the dying Stephen Wills and one ran him over, breaking his legs, before somebody called an ambulance.

Manchester police were critical about the fact that no one stopped to help, but I’m not sure I would have stopped either.

Things have changed a bit since the Good Samaritan’s day. Crime figures for 20 AD are hard to get hold of but the road from Jerusalem to Jericho doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as Princess Road, the dual carriageway in Moss Side where poor Mr Wills was killed.

According to St Luke, the victim had a rough time of it – he was stripped, beaten and robbed. But the Gospel also says that the robbers quickly cleared off.

The priest and the Levite who passed by before the Samaritan turned up were just too lazy or selfish to help out; there was no suggestion that they were under any threat of attack themselves.

Nowadays any Good Samaritan who helps a crime victim is in danger of becoming one himself, particularly in a place as violent as Moss Side.

Recently, from my sitting room window in north London, I saw a boy of about seven walk down the street, holding an aerosol can at waist height and spraying a thick white line on a wall as he ambled along.

I didn’t move; nor did any of my neighbours. We’d all come to the same cowardly but logical conclusion – better to have an ugly white line across the wall opposite our houses than an ugly knife wound across our stomachs.

We’d have had to be not only Good Samaritans to intervene, but also Optimistic, Unworldly and Extremely Rash Samaritans, too.

Apologies for this rant, but it is a natural consequence of the pit-of-my-stomach disgust inspired by the utterly ridiculous whimsy (‘Crime figures for 20 AD are hard to get hold of…’ ) with which Mount seems to approach what was a tragic circumstance. I can only bring my own prejudices to bear when I suppose that he doesn’t cycle himself and so couldn’t possibly realise that for those of us who choose or are forced by financial circumstance to cycle that being knocked over is a perpetual stress. Alas, death is not corrected as easily as scratched bodywork or a diminished no-claims bonus.

It also reminds me of mast week’s Manchester Critical Mass. Cycling through Chorlton, a white van man decided on rashness over patience and drove into the oncoming lane to overtake the mass on a busy single lane road. An oncoming taxi swerved towards the pavement to avoid a collision, narrowly missing a pedestrian and crashing into a parked car with considerable force.

In his considerable haste and imperceptible wisdom, the white van man subsequently decided to drive off as fast as possible. Summoning the vigilante within, somehow, the seething mass of bicycling humanity seemed to telepathically decide in unison that something must be done and promptly caught up with the van, surrounding it and causing a traffic jam. Though berated at the time as public nuisances by passers by and other motorists, taking down his numberplate and threatening to call the police seemed to do the trick and he returned to the scene.

I must admit, it felt incredibly empowering to actually be the cause some tangible difference. This was clearly only made possible by the sheer number of cyclists taking part and some sort of mutual understanding or compassion in the sense of Kundera’s ‘co-feeling’

To have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion-joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy.

(from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Milan Kundera)



Perhaps this is the power of grass-roots movements such as Critical Mass. Ostensibly, the event is not ‘organised’ in any formal sense. There is no ideology, no creed and indeed no rules. Incidents such as this highlight the possibility of people linked rather superficially, here by an activity, nevertheless pulling together to some real effect. It is this more than anything else that really enrages me about ill-conceived articles such as Mount’s which serve only to antagonise the public.

These pockets of co-feeling are to be found in what I understand as ‘sub-cultures’. It seems to me that groups of people who to some extent identify with each other on some grounds be it political viewpoint or musical taste have some notion of solidarity and co-feeling.

A good example of this is the bicycle messenger subculture which seems to revel in motorists’ revulsion and is driven by its non-conformity. Particularly indicative of this is the Ghost Bike movement. When cyclists or pedestrians are killed in traffic accidents, people erect a ghost bike at the point at which the accident took place as a tribute. Check out this video of the tribute ride to all those who died on the streets of NYC.

A ghost bike was made for Stephen Wills and a memorial ride was organised.

Check out some links:

Critical Mass and the Automobile

Posted in Activism, cycling, Manchester on May 31, 2008 by Philonous
illustration by Jim Swanson

I was recently reading Chris Carlsson’s book “Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant celebration” which is a compilation of various articles from worldwide newspapers and zines. According to one of the articles, there was a sort of proto-Critical Mass (see SocioMath’s article here) in San Francisco in 1896. At the time, cyclists, or wheelmen as they seem to have called themselves, were annoyed at the lack of good roads and the ubiquity of raised tramlines in the centre of roads. They campaigned in particular for roads to be built properly so that cycling (which at the time was seen as ‘the modern transport’) would become easier for commuters. Their lobbying actually had some effect and the roads were modernised. Ironically of course, this paved the way (ho ho) for mass produced automobiles which eventually relegated cyclists again to second citizens of the road.
Perhaps Critical Mass now should seek to provide true cycling highways for people who would like to travel slightly farther afield (in particular suburban commuters) by building major cycle paths through cities.

I read more than a year ago about the so called National cycle network which I assumed would be a network of cycleways throughout the country, finally making it practical and easy to travel long distances by bike. My first impulse was to cycle from here across the Penines to York and lo! there is indeed a route – namely the Transpenine Trail. Unfortunately however, this route is not in any way designed for speed – the website mentions parts of the track which are ‘off road’.

This morning I thought it might be a good idea to check out a slightly better route along part of the Fallowfield loop. I cycled west from Fallowfield along the disused railway line and then up to Salford Quays for a bit of a break before heading back to the city centre. The cycleway for as long as it lasts, is great – with the exception of the sporadic barriers. If only there were such a route say from south Manchester into the city centre itself:- imagine the number of people who would use this to commute.

chain and rider lubrication in Salford

Here are some links:

Guerilla Gardening: resistance is fertile

Posted in Activism, art, craft, culture, Manchester with tags , on May 20, 2008 by Philonous

The other day, Le Fox and I made our way down to Manchester’s Urbis to check out their new exhibition on Manga. Having seen the exhibition (which to be honest seemed to be aimed mostly at the emo-kids in the Cathedral gardens outise), we wandered upstairs to kill a little more time.

To my pleasant surprise they had an exhibition about Urban Gardening. It seems that I was not alone in my desire for the greening of Manchester’s city centre – there were a great many tips for what to grow in confined balconies and window boxes. (No doubt the whole exhibition was a passionate response to Sociomath’s Urban Orchards post.)

What intrigued me most, however, was a small corner of the exhibition devoted to so called Guerilla Gardening. It seems as though people as despserate for green space as me had decided upon a more pro-active strategy than posting rants on a blog. They instead congregate on what is considered by them to be wasteland and plant trees, herbs, vegetables and flowers in an effort to foster a greater sense of well-being and civic pride among local residents.

A couple of years ago, the hallowed airtime of the Beeb itself devoted a moment or two to the notion of guerilla gardening and in particular it’s London posterboy, Richard Reynolds: a 30 year old, MG-driving, road-bike riding, well spoken former advertising executive. Have a look at a slightly tongue in cheek seven minute documentary below about guerilla gardening in London.

As for the history of Guerilla gardeining, Wikipedia claims that it started with the True Levellers or Diggers as they became known. These were folk who started gardening on common land and living in cooperatives in the second half of the 17th century. I’d argue that perhaps, since these people were growing food on land that would otherwise have been used to graze cattle that they don’t really embody the “pleasant mischeif” mindset of the modern Guerilla gardener. It seems that it all really started (as most vaguely radical movements) in New York in the 1970’s with the Green Guerilla group transforming a private derelict lot into a garden.

One of the parts of the exhibition which really caught my attention was the concept of ‘seed-bombing’. The idea is to be able to plant seeds in relatively inacessible places (behind fences/barbed wire etc). Rather than trying to bypass obstacles, such areas are ‘bombed’ with lumps of mud and compost containing seeds. By the next year, voila: flowers aplenty! Have a look at this video of some seedbombers in Chicago.

I’m told that there are such orgainisations in Manchester. I know nothing about them.

Some links:

Are you people or sheeple?!

Posted in Activism, movie on April 19, 2008 by Philonous

Yesterday, I watched the “What would Jesus Buy?”, a documentary following the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on its tour around the USA.

The centre of the film is the charismatic Reverend Billy who urges devotees to stop shopping and turn around the consumer culture which they see as a marketing-driven addiction. He and his gospel choir preach and sing their message to various people around the USA in a protest against gentrification and large corporations.

I found the film entertaining enough, but was never totally sure whether there was a religious aspect to Rev. Billy or whether this was all a humorous package for a serious message. Check out the trailer:

Also check out the Church of Stop Shopping’s website.

Adbusters adbusted?

Posted in Activism, art, culture, Manchester with tags , on April 15, 2008 by Philonous

Tonight I was wandering in Manchester city centre as one does when suddenly, a projection appeared on the side of the City Tower in Piccadilly Gardens. Since I’m not in the habit of carrying a camera/tripod with me on my strolls, I had only my mobile phone to take a quick snap. It’s slightly hard to see, but there’s a projection of a few pawprints and the text “Felix for Mayor”.

On returning home, I went online to see if anyone else had noticed what was going on. Searching for the slogan “Felix for Mayor” brought up someone’s flickr page with a picture of some advert in what I think is the London edition of Metro. It turns out that this is a publicity stunt by Purina, the multinational corporation responsible for the well known pet food brands Go-Cat, Bakers Complete, Felix as well as my favourite Bonio, no doubt after the eponymous character in Romeo and Juliet’s raunchier sequel.

The spontaneity and slightly cobbled together advert reminded me a little bit of so called culture jamming. For those who aren’t in the know (like myself until Le Fox kindly filled me in), culture jamming is the process of subverting corporate brands to expose various perceived social injustices. Most culture jammers don’t seek to make any sort of profit and so can be seen as somewhere between part time artists and activists, promoting various often radical social perspectives through guerrilla-art. They could perhaps be thought of as media hackers who seek to bring what they think of as balance to capitalism’s constant stream of advertising.

Tonight’s event was part of a wider program of organised publicity stunts presumably to give the Felix brand a bit of a boost. While adbusting relies on twisting carefully planned and widely established corporate brand images to deliver high impact messages, it would seem that the the quirkiness and spontaneity characterising guerrilla art has been hijacked by a corporation. The social and political messages of culture jamming have been changed into an meaningless and inane phrase supplementing adverts in traditional media.

Seeing this, it occurred to me: has Purina managed to culture jam the notion of culture jamming itself? It would seem that it has.

Some links:

Urban Orchards

Posted in Activism, culture, Manchester with tags on April 14, 2008 by Philonous

After living in the Manchester’s city centre for a couple of months you start to notice that something is amiss. In the back of your mind, there is something that itches away relentlessly. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t put your finger on it…until…

There aren’t any parks!

Ok. That’s not strictly true. According to MEN, there are various green spaces to which you can slink away to “eat your lunch or take a break from a hard day’s shopping”, but anyone who lives in the centre knows that these rarely measure more than 3ft across and are normally surrounded by busy roads. Should anyone find a viable park in the city centre, please do let me know.

Various cities have tried to combat the slow decline into a concrete jungle, perhaps most notably Singapore with its garden city drive since the 60s. LA has tried similar approach with its Million Trees initiative which aims to clear some of the pollution as well as providing some shade for residents.

One great programme that has caught my attention recently is the Fruit Tree Tour through California. The poor quality of the diets of children worldwide has been a prominent source of controversy recently with government reports and a media frenzy attributing behavioural problems to deficiencies in diversity of food consumed. Apparently, only 11% of Californian children are getting their recommended daily allowance of fresh fruit and vegetables. The Fruit Tree Tour aims to tackle both this statistic and lack of greenery in cities by planting fruit trees. These urban orchards will provide fruit for local people as well as focussing communities on self sufficiency, ecology and various other noble (trendy?) causes. I think its an absolutely brilliant idea, though I’m not sure I’m totally in tune with the ‘Mother Earth’ songs they seem to be teaching all of the kids… Check out their promotional video: