Comedian and activist Mark Thomas has been collecting for We Are Wakefield on his latest tour. He spoke to Unity magazine after a performance of his show Trespass in Leeds. The views expressed in his interview are his own
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine March-April 2016 / issue 14
We’ve seen a tidal wave of hatred targeted at refugees and migrants. Yet many people have been moved to collect for people stuck in Calais. Do you think attitudes are changing in Britain?
I think attitudes did change last summer with those really awful pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the young child who drowned.
I hope that people realise what it is to be caught in a war situation, stuck between President Assad and Isis—to be in a situation where you can be targeted by barrel bombs backed by Putin or the West.
They see the Kurds being marginalised and the Turkish state sees them as the problem despite the fact that they are fighting Isis and Assad.
It seems to me that people are seeing through that demonisation. They are reaching out with their common humanity. I think it’s striking how many people in Britain have said, “I’d take them in. I’d put someone up if I could”. That’s a really wonderful sentiment and it would be nice if we could do it.
The police labelled you as a “domestic extremist”, so what do you make of the government’s Prevent strategy that makes teachers report people they suspect of “nonviolent extremism”?
For many reasons it’s absolutely ridiculous. One, teachers aren’t supposed to be police officers. Two, what exactly does “nonviolent extremism” mean? What kind of nonsense is this?
If it’s nonviolent who is to say what is extreme? Gandhi was labelled as an extremist. Or should we report people who are interested in Martin Luther King or Malcolm X?
This is a nonsense idea and more than that it won’t work. It will marginalise people more.
There’s a very important thing here, which is that actually it’s good to look at new ideas. We’re supposed to examine new concepts. We’re supposed to embrace them and experiment and play with them—especially at school. If we just accept what everyone says then we are all doomed.
Also I’ve seen some of the literature they’ve put out for the Prevent strategy and it is the most anodyne, inane, awful rubbish.
But the fact that you can pressure teachers to report and snitch leaves a lot of room open for bigotry and victimising people. If you want to look at extremist behaviour I would suggest that is extremist.
Much mainstream comedy is conservative. Do you come across many others who follow your model of using it as a subversive mobilising tool?
Actually there’s loads of really subversive comedy.
Look at Bridget Christie. Her whole shows are about feminism. Then there’s Josie Long who talks about being politically active. Stewart Lee always toys with perceptions, taking on reactionary illiberal thought.
There’s loads of exciting comedy. But what we tend to see on telly are the rather mundane ones. I think those are two very different things.
I love the fact that you can create something out of action and you can go and do something. You come back and that forms the narrative. I love making activism part of the show so people come along and join in.
But I see other people doing similar stuff. There’s Dave Griffiths, the guy who had a whole big battle with French Connection. Or in the US look at Barry Crimmins, a most political wonderful comic, who has just been railing for years.
I think there’s quite a lot of us out there. We just don’t get the mainstream publicity.
You recently toured the US. Do you think there is a new political mood emerging there?
Yes, it’s really exciting. Black Lives Matter is an incredible campaign, made up of all sorts of component parts.
It is pushing things to change. So Barack Obama is making some kind of noise about gun control.
You can even include the Guardian’s The Counted campaign, monitoring people killed by the police in America. There were over a thousand last year. It’s a brilliant piece of journalism on something outrageous.
These movements are picking up from the Civil Rights Movement after years of right wing drift in America. I say drift, but I mean the determined efforts of the rich to make it so.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is really interesting as well. It is getting young people really excited. He’s challenging Wall Street and calling for a revolution in political funding.
Hillary Clinton is a dreadful machine politician and a warmonger. Even if Sanders doesn’t beat her—and I expect he won’t—he has pulled her slightly more to the left than she would have liked.
The important thing is that these are grass roots movements and that’s where it counts.
What do you think about the fact that while all sorts of mainstream politicians have accommodated to racist views lots of mobilisations of local people and trade unionists have pushed back the BNP and the EDL?
Mainstream politicians keep ceding ground to racism. The Tories are certainly guilty of it, but so are the Lib Dems, and New Labour has to shoulder some of the burden.
When most people see someone is in trouble they instinctively want to help. It takes quite a lot to convince them not to. That’s why the Daily Mail and the Daily Express drip drip drip day after day reasons why you shouldn’t help.
New Labour thought this was an issue where the Daily Mail could push them around. So they decided to be strong on immigration. Jack Straw and David Blunkett pushed through the nationality act. In its committee stage they even discussed taking away asylum seekers’ possessions. So if an asylum seeker had, say, a gold watch that was worth more than two weeks benefit money they would have to sell it before they could claim benefits.
For me politicians who have dabbled with this stuff have no dignity or integrity. They’ve helped cede ground to people like the EDL or Nigel Farage. But trade unionists, activists and leftists have come together and said we’re not going to have this. We’re going to treat human beings like human beings.
It is fantastic that people are organising trips to Calais and Dunkirk to show their common humanity. The idea that we should abandon people just across the Channel and let them sink in the mud is outrageous. These are people who are fleeing from a war we’re contributing to. It’s nuts.
Mark Thomas’s new show Trespass is a mix of theatre, stand-up, activism, a dash of journalism and a dollop of mayhem. Mark asks, “If the ramblers of the 1930s were here now what would they do to open up the cities?” How do we turn the skyscrapers and corporate squares into our playgrounds?
The tour continues through the spring of 2016. See coming dates at markthomasinfo.co.uk
NUT advice on Prevent – teachers.org.uk/files/prevent-strategy.doc
Index for Inclusion – Toolkit for primary, secondary and special schools csie.org.uk/resources/inclusion-index-explained.shtml
International Values-Based Education Quality Mark – valuesbasededucation.com
Miriam’s Vision – Resources for secondary schools, including lesson plans. Produced by the Miriam Hyman Memorial Trust and the Institute of Education miriamsvision.org
Citizenship Association – A range of materials arranged by age group and content. teachingcitizenship.org.uk
We are Wakefield
We are Wakefield was set up to challenge a rally by the English Defence League in November 2013. The racists were heavily outnumbered.
It mobilised again in July 2015 when the fascist National Front planned a march. This too was outnumbered.
Since then it has concentrated on supporting refugees. Members of the group have made several trips to Calais.
See the Facebook We Are Wakefield page
See the Guardian investigation into US deaths at police hands at theguardian.com/us-news/series/counted-us-police-killings