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  WINDY CITY TIMES

British activist talks political endeavors, U.S. speaking tour
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2018-06-27

This article shared 786 times since Wed Jun 27, 2018
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The ascension of the Conservative ( Tory ) Thatcher government in the 1980s and the birth of what is now known as neoliberalism drove Kevin Ovenden toward radical left politics during his high school years in the Northern England port city of Hull.

Ovenden, who later got a math/philosophy degree from Oxford, explained that the Thatcher government regularly attacked working class people and minorities in an effort to shift power to the one percent.

"There was a huge increase in youth unemployment that led to major demonstrations and a movement to swing the Labour Party, of which my family was a member, to the left," said Ovenden. "In 1981, there were a series of major urban riots triggered by police racism. They were led by Black youth, but involved many white people who were also angry at the Thatcher onslaught. The decisive event for many of us was the year long miners' strike from 1984-85."

Ovenden said international events also drove him to radical left politics. These included the repression of the Irish republican movement, massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatilla during the 1982 war on Lebanon, opposition of additional U.S. nuclear missiles being stationed in Britain and demand for British nuclear disarmament.

The massacres in Sabra and Shatilla, Ovenden noted, were shocking to him and since part of his family is from Iran he was aware of the situation in the Middle East. This was the turning point for his involvement with the Palestinian cause that has continued to this day. One of the initiatives Ovenden started was Viva Palestina in response to the 2008-2009 Israeli siege of Palestine that led to five successful aid convoy's from Britain to Gaza.

Ovenden was also onboard the MV Mavi Marmara as a part of the 2010 Gaza flotilla when it was attacked by Israeli forces.

"They killed 10 people," said Ovenden. "It was horrific. I describe it as the Soweto of the Palestine solidarity movement."

When Ovenden as was at Oxford, the Thatcher government enacted the anti-gay law Section 28 ( in 1988 ) that stopped teachers from "promoting homosexuality" in the classroom.

"They wanted to stop any kind of progressive teaching that said there was nothing wrong with being gay," said Ovenden. "There was an eruption of activism to stop the law across the country. I had a personal stake in this campaign because I had already come out as gay to various people when I was 14 ( in 1982 ). I was part of the committee at my university and at the national level. We had the largest LGBT+ demonstrations up to that point in Britain. Though we could not stop the Parliament voting it through—the Tories had a big majority—we did change the climate where more people came out and many teachers refused to go along with the law. We also had a big impact with the socially conservative trade unions that shifted to a pro-LGBT+ position. This led to a less homophobic 1990s Britain."

Ovenden's other LGBTQ advocacy work includes speaking at events across Europe and challenging the Israeli government's attempts to "pinkwash" its policies that he said mask the country's breach of international law. More recently, Ovenden was a founding signatory of the LGBT+ Against Islamophobia initiative that aims to counter the far-right in Britain who "claim that the source of homophobia is Muslim minorities."

"They tried to hold a 'Pride' demonstration in East London, which has a large Muslim minority and a fair number of out LGBT+ people," said Ovenden "It was an anti-Muslim demonstration masquerading under a rainbow flag. We were able to stop LGBT+ people from participating by explaining what was going on. This fostered conversations and out of that came a good example in this one area of London, where I live, of how unity can be forged, against the right and against those nihilist forces on the fringes of the Muslim communities that promote extreme homophobia."

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks Ovenden and other anti-war activists founded Stop the War.

"Our founding slogans remain: 'Stop the war ( on terror ), Defend civil liberties, No to Islamophobia, Freedom for Palestine'," said Ovenden. "Since then the wars have morphed and the danger of international conflict has grown. Stop the War has had a real impact in the public debates in Britain. The primary focus in Britain now is the British state and its militarism. Britain has a 'special relationship' with the U.S. That means now with Trump. We think that the best thing the left can do in Britain for peace is to break that relationship, fight to drive out the Tory government and aim to bring in a government led by Corbyn. A critical moment will be Trump's visit to Britain on July 13. He is flying in and out on one day, afraid of mass protests. We are aiming for enormous protests, which we hope will also inspire friends in the U.S."

The Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up to Racism campaigns, of which Ovenden has held leadership positions in the past, are organizing the protests against Trump.

On the political front, Ovenden was a leader of the radical left Respect Party ( 2004-2016 ) that was formed out of the anti-war wing of the Labour Party in response to the Bush-Blair "war on terror."

"Respect was an attempt to bring together peace activists, politicized Muslim communities and the anti-war left to try to break the official political model in which both major parties were pro-war, and also pro-neoliberal," said Ovenden. "We won a seat in Parliament but it proved very hard to sustain the advance due to the resilience of the political system at the time. The longer term impact is the radical approach it promoted is now expressed in significant part in the movement that has brought Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. This gives me hope for the future."

Ovenden is also a journalist who covers a variety of topics including labor issues, the Balkans and Middle East and anti-racist organizing. He has also written a political biography of Malcolm X and an account of Greece's left-wing Syriza government. Ovenden's upcoming book will focus on the rise of the far-right across Europe.

Recently, Chicago's Gay Liberation Network hosted Ovenden for two speaking events— the rise of the far right and the left's response and why LGBTQ people and their allies should support Palestinian rights. Ovenden also spoke at a pro-Palestinian rally while in Chicago following the Israeli army massacre of Palestinians protestors in Gaza during the opening of the U.S. Embassy on May 14 in Jerusalem.

"Chicago had many warm friendly people and a huge engaged activist culture trying to grapple with the same kind of questions people are dealing with in Europe and elsewhere, though in perhaps different circumstances," said Ovenden.

For Ovenden, Chicago was one of many stops on his U.S. speaking tour. His takeaway is "there is a lot of thinking and discussing going on in radical circles. At the same time there is a profound mismatch between the official Beltway politics and the concerns of ordinary people I have come across. That was always true to some extent but on this visit ( I was last here two years ago ) it is really pronounced. At the same time the Trump pantomime dominates the media. It is a weird situation, but one that I think holds out some hope for the left."

Ovenden's message to progressive activists in the United States is to keep the momentum going with both political and activist mobilizing and not give up hope despite "the assaults coming from Washington, D.C., and also at the state and local level."


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