Wednesday 14 August 2013

Manchester People's Assembly


My spine, lumber and hips were in agony and the pain-killers and gels were not working. I was bedridden again. Yep, it was pay-back time for some five hours of being in a seated position, mainly in my wheelchair. But do you know what, it was absolutely worth it.

On Saturday 27th July I was attending Manchester People’s Assembly at Central Hall on Oldham Street in the Northern Quarter district of the city centre. I almost didn’t get there as we had to keep driving around the notorious Mancunian one-way system. The venue is just a doorway from the street perspective and not exactly best sign-posted. I was however grateful for the gently ramped entrance and the lifts (elevators) contained within the building. However, the first one was impossible for me to access without assistance as the lift was called by constantly holding on to a button (a task I am not up to) and the doors had to be physically hauled open and held (also beyond my capabilities). However, for the most part I was at the receiving end of goodwill gestures from amiable attendees and volunteers.

On reaching the first floor, I went to hand in my ticket, but was advised that (having printed it out) my details were already logged and so was not required to complete any registration forms. I was however handed a statement entitled “Proposed Actions of The People’s Assembly” as well as an agenda cum programme.

I caught sight of Wayne Blackburn, aka @crazybladeuk on Twitter, or aka Our Wayne on WoWpetition’s Facebook page. It warmed my heart to meet in the flesh someone with whom I had chatted in various ways via the æther. It transpired that Wayne was co-chairing the opening plenary and chairing one of the workshops. It soon became apparent that he was a busy chap and I left him to his organisations and entered the hall.

There were no defined spaces for wheelchair-users, or wheelies as we call ourselves, so I carved myself a niche in an aisle as close to the wall as I could park myself. I noted at least two other wheelies in attendance apart from Wayne & myself, so I did not feel too conspicuous!

Plenary Session

A two-minute video of the opening plenary session:

© Dan Poulton

Penny Higgs launched the meeting elucidating some logistics for the day. Confused us. Rectified. And had us all laughing - always good for the soul!

Then Annette Wright of PCS Union and President of Manchester Trades Council took the microphone. She explained that the PCS is a civil service trade union and how her members were between a rock and a hard place. (I do however have every respect for her members as last year at the anti-ATOS demonstration, many of them came out in their lunchtime to sign our petition of the time.) Annette discussed how we all, both her members and we attendees, could respond to the governmental attacks on our way of life. “We all have to do our bit...” but she stressed, “we don’t have to agree on everything” but simply, “work together.” She called for all branches of Mancunian trades unions to come together for a “massive demonstration” against the bedroom tax and NHS privatisation planned for the Tory Party conference this coming 29th September. The march would end up in Whitworth Park for speeches and so on. Annette also stressed that we need non-Mancs “able or less able” “tens of thousands” to attend too “united in action on that one day.”

Next up was Steven Morrison-Burke Birmigham’s official poet laureate. We were treated to his own brand of poetry-reading and performance. The poem-performance was entitled “The Onus is on Us” and asked us to “heed the lessons learned”, pointed out about authorities (“those in suits and ties”) that “they don’t see the person that they hurt”. Steven ensured a rapturous reception by including the name “Manchester” within the recital.

I have no idea what the following chap is or does, but his name is John Rees. John gave a brief résumé of the basis of People’s Assembly movement. He centred it in the crises since 2007/8, inter alia: pensions disputes; the student rebellion; keeping our NHS public; and, the bedroom-tax campaign. He averred that there was and is an “elementary need for a national campaign” after the attacks on “disabilty payments” and “wages”. He firmly set the blame on the Eton-mess Government. Our aim is to force them from power or to abandon austerity. With the force of an evangelical he iterated that we must “stand together; beat them all together”; “win together”. Time and again John used the word “together”. He also stressed that we have a duty to those who sacrificed themselves for our various rights, to our ourselves and to “generations to come”.

John apprised us that a 700-seat train had been booked to bring folk to Manchester for 29th September: “If you do nothing else this year Manchester is the place to protest.” To conclude, John cited a line from Shelley's “The Masque of Anarchy” (which was written after the Peterloo massacre in Manchester) -

“Ye are many—they are few.”

A video of John Rees in full flow:

© Dan Poulton

Finally Helen Harrison from Rochdale Unison stood up. She gave us an outline of Future Directions’ attacks on domiciliary care workers pay and conditions and how the rest of the country’s local authorities were watching before allowing the company or similar to take over their own functions.

The plenary session over, we scattered in search of our workshop venues.

Workshop Two - Do it! Film it! Share it!

The venue for this workshop was rather more difficult to reach. Green Fish is situated further up Oldham Street and outside the maximum range of my ability to self-wheel. Thankfully James kindly offered to push me there even though he was not attending. Whilst the building is sort of accessible, the space within is so tight that it made all manner of manœuvering extremely problematic for those in chairs. However, for the ambulant mobility-impaired I suspect there would have been no real difficulties.

Our facilitator was Richard and he gave us a synopsis of session one of the workshop, this being session two. Due to the widespread use and availability of social media everyone now is their own press officer. Smart ‘phones in particular help us to convey our experiences to the larger world. The more one uses the technology, the more confident one becomes.

For the protest on 29th September, the TUC are to engage large electronic billboards using what were posited to be 20-second sound-bites about who we are, what we do, why we’re at the demonstration, that sort of thing. The suggestion from session one was that this should be increased to twenty-nine seconds to iterate the date.

Here's a thirty-second clip example:

© Dan Poulton

The group of (eventually) eight of us then proceeded to brainstorm ideas for spreading the word. Hopefully the following represents what we discussed.

* No geeky language, so that the majority feel they can get involved
* Set up our own Youtube channel
* Factsheet on how to use social media on the actual day
* Text to type inputs
* Find volunteers with computer graphics skills
* Clarify hashtag (#...) for the event
* Forum for continuing discussion on Peoples Assembly site &/or on Facebook &/or email
* Crowd-source funding for film-making or specific projects
* Freeview channel versus Youtube channel arguments
* Billboard advertisements
* Audioboo
* Create image resources that can be shared on social media
* Instavideo
* Bank of posters/leaflets/flyers to be printed off by anyone at home
* Moderator for Youtube, though highlight need for channel users to apprise moderator of unsuitable videos
* Co-ordinator for creative resources: to act as sounding-board
* Brand the train on the day
* Live-streaming of event AND workshops for sick/disabled/shift-workers unable to physically attend - inclusivity
* Younow or Youstream apps
* Volunteers wanted page on our Peoples Assembly site
* Capture imagination with a hook - catch attention
* Get hand-prints from youngsters on day to fill in giant letters
* Animations

I have to say that our youngest group member - a young teenager - greatly assisted us with the techno stuff as did Paddy later on (thanks also for pushing me back to Central Hall!).

The workshop was in my opinion a constructive and positive example of how folk can work together for the greater good. I felt that we had really developed and fleshed out potential avenues to explore in relation to social media.

And here am I blogging about it! 

Closing plenary

Owen Jones (photo below) addressed the gathering in the final plenary session of the day. A twelve-minute video can be found on Youtube.

© Joe Clough

I hope I have given you a flavour of the day. And I hope to see some of you in Manchester for the HUGE rally on 29th September. %)

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