Tag Archives: Michael Richmond

Still here, still occupied

This article was written for the Occupied Times newspaper.

On BBC 5 live, Michael Richmond (also of OT fame) was debating the Occupy movement when one of his opponents shrilly suggested, “no one suffers in this country, we have a welfare state”. I felt like I had just ran into a brick wall. This sort of view could only come from someone who has never spent time with the homeless, the destitute or the desperate. The comment oozed a certain complacency that is replicated across middle England. I passionately believe that the challenge for us is to help people understand issues that are alien to their existence. Issues that they have not, and possibly never will, personally experienced. This is no easy task.

I am currently sat in my house pondering the very same conundrum regarding a very different type of occupation. I am currently living in Jayyus, a small farming village in the West Bank which has been living under occupation now for over 45 years. Every aspect of life here is controlled, restricted and made unreliable. Whether we are talking about access to water, employment or education; it can all be taken away at a snap of the fingers.

I passionately believe that part of the problem that enables this occupation to continue rests in European and Israeli citizens inability to imagine what life is really like for Palestinians living here. This is part of the reason why I am here – to try and tell the stories of those living under occupation to those who can affect change, you!

Equally, I believe we face a similar challenge within the Occupy movement. Most people cannot feel what it is like to be on the negative end of our unfair, unequal and deeply discriminatory economic and social system. When we try to reach out to suburbia and tell them the system is falling apart around their ears, they look through their double glazed windows and wonder what on earth we are talking about. We have no choice, it is time to get personal!

It is in light of this that I wanted to share with you a recent experience I have had. Through this experience I hope that I can explain to you the devastating affect that the occupation here in the West Bank is having on ordinary people’s lives throughout the occupied territories. I hope to get you to open up your European double glazed windows and to see the occupation for what it is.

I met with Haney Ameer just a few days ago. Mr Ameer lives on the outskirts of Mas-ha just outside of Qalqiliya in the West Bank. Back in 2003 his house was situated on the path of the proposed separation barrier, 80% of which is built on Palestinian land. When he refused to leave his house, the Israeli government decided to build the barrier around him. His house is now surrounded on all four sides by either walls, fences or the separation barrier. He lives in what looks like a high security prison except he now holds the keys for the one small gate that provides access to his property.

On one side of his house is the 8 meter high concrete separation barrier that scars the landscape for as far as the eye can see. On the other side of his house there is an illegal Israeli settlement which is cut off from him by a barbed wire fence. Flanking each end of his property are locked security gates leading to the military road that track the separation barrier. He is hemmed into his small plot of land on all sides.

Between 2003 and 2006 he lived in his property not owning these keys to access his own property. For three years he relied on the IDF to let him through the security gate each day to return to his own property. It was not uncommon in those days for friends to throw food parcels over the wall so he could feed his wife and children.

I sat outside his broken and bruised property in the fading evening sun just a few days ago. He explained to me he cannot fix any of the broken windows, crumbling walls or holes in the roof as he cannot get a permit off the Israelis to ‘build’ on his own land.

The Israelis offered him a lot of money and a chance to rebuild a bigger and better house on more land wherever he wanted in return for his land. He refused. Why he refused is a mixture of a connection to a family home that has been with him for years, and a slightly more harsh reality. The Palestinians who lived nearby warned him that if he sold up to the Israelis he would no longer be considered a ‘Palestinian’, he would be isolated. An ironic threat given his circumstances.

The meeting comes to a close and he walks us back to the rusted metal gate in the wall. Unlocking the padlock he looks up at the separation barrier and then at the floor. His body forgets what he is doing for a brief moment but his hands are still unlocking the door they have unlocked everyday for the last 6 years.

Mr Ameer lives in the most unimaginable conditions. And this is the point. They are unimaginable. The occupy movement now faces a challenge, to make the unimaginable a reality. We have to make all those who sit behind their double glazing understand that there are people across the UK who are suffering unimaginably because of the gross inequalities in our society. Just as most of you dear readers will struggle to give two hoots about Haney, so most of suburbia will struggle to give two hoots about you! This is our challenge. We have to make people care.  This challenge is not related to the degree to which people are suffering, but our ability to enable people empathise with those that are experiencing the suffering.

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Filed under Human rights, Middle East, Politics, Social comment

Broken System, Not Broken People

This article was written by Michael Richmond who is a friend and a published author. It was originally published in the Occupied Times.

If there’s one conclusion I’ve come to after five years of suffering from it, it is that mental illness doesn’t happen in isolation. We know that 1 in 4 Britons will suffer from a mental disorder in their lifetime. The World Health Organization even predicts depression will be the second most widespread illness in the developed world by 2020. But mental illness is not just statistics or distant “others,” far removed from regular human activity. It is all too human. It is dependent on how we order our own individual worlds and how we relate to other human beings. We evolved as a social species and it was largely thanks to our ability to co-operate, to share tasks in small, mobile, co-dependent groups, that we outlasted other early humans. In recent decades political, economic and cultural shifts have made society far less socially interdependent and far more greedy, selfish and acquisitive but this goes against our evolutionary biology. We are not built to go it alone.

Mental illness must not be just a burden for the individual sufferer or their family because it is reflective of our society. The social breakdown, health and wealth inequality, celebrity, consumerism and binge culture that we see all around us affects our mental health. These damaging phenomena are a monument to the unfettered market that has ruled our lives. The economic model that the establishment are desperately trying to prop up is premised on exploiting our worst instincts. The sole purpose of advertising is to harvest the feelings of inadequacy that we are all capable of experiencing, or failing that, to create brand new voids which, conveniently, can only be filled through the acquisition of the commodity they are peddling. The economist Tim Jackson sums up this central plank of our society best in his book, Prosperity without Growth: ‘We are persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about.’

The policy of ‘Care in the Community,’ which has been pursued for the last thirty years, does represent a more humane approach compared to the large Victorian asylums. These imposing buildings were conceived of more as quarantines where the uncomfortable truth of “madness,” an ever-present throughout human history, was sealed off as an act of segregation. However, despite this move towards inclusiveness and a softening of political language the reality is still too often one of isolation, stigma and neglect if not outright abuse. By accepting that sufferers of mental illness are a part of and not apart from society, we must now accept that aspects of our society are contributing to our dire problems with our mental health. It is also crucial that there is widespread acceptance that mental illness is something that can befall anyone, including investment bank CEOs.

The pervasive neoliberal mantra of ‘private good, public bad’ has ring-fenced large swathes of the economy as beyond regulation but if the supreme aim of every country is to create an amenable business environment then the wellbeing of its citizens can never be anything more than an afterthought. Instead we’re left with reactive government measures in health, crime, education and environmental policy being largely a thankless struggle to clean up the mess wrought by an economic system that fosters inequality promotes narcissism and propagates that all human meaning resides in the relentless pursuit of material wealth. Too much of healthcare becomes “fire-fighting” when much more should be prevention and care.

I prefer the argument for helping people to lead healthy and meaningful lives, but even those with a solely economic view of humanity must deduce that it costs much more to deal with the effects of these problems than it would to begin to tackle them at root. Research by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson for their book, The Spirit Level, reveals that more unequal societies have higher rates of mental illness and do worse on various other social indicators. They write that mental illness is closely related to status anxiety and so more unequal and callous countries, like ours, leave more people marginalised, more ‘losers’ and more problems for us all.

Such high levels of mental illness mean this issue can no longer be brushed under the carpet. Is there any issue which touches nearly everyone’s lives yet is so ignored or misunderstood by politics and media? Our rates of mental illness demand that we re-examine our attitudes and language towards the concept of ‘madness.’ #Occupy is teaching us all how interconnected our lives and our struggles are and we’re learning that the only way to fight the atomising force of neoliberalism is through solidarity and the reclamation of public space.


Filed under Economics, Health, Politics, Social comment