London, On reflection

Suddenly, an election that really matters

“It doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’re all the same anyway.”

Until not so long ago, this exasperated complaint at the samey nature of political parties was all-too justified. It led at least in part to the Brexit vote – a vote to really upset the status quo in the most emphatic way possible. Outside of that, if the Tories and Labour were more or less indistinguishable (both committed to a lean state with many public services privatised, a low-tax economy, open-door immigration, the EU, social liberalism, a country in which the rich get ever richer and the less well-off ever more hopeless and frustrated), then what was the point of turning out on polling day?

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Well, no-one can complain of this lack of alternatives now. On Thursday, 8 June, voters really are given a choice. It’s a choice between a more xenophobic and jingoistic version of Thatcherism than even the Iron Lady would have countenanced – a Tory government effectively taken over by the far-right fringe of UKIP-ideologues. In their political gameplan, everything is justified by Brexit (the Tories eagerly seizing on a mess they created – genius.) In this scenario, we give Theresa May Tudor-like royal powers to negotiate our very own affairs in secret, away from our prying eyes, allow a wholesale repeal of legislation and replacement of it by government, bypassing Parliament (if the EU had dared the same!) and suffer even more austerity, this time justified by the headwinds created by Brexit (“there is no magic money tree”, as Theresa May told the nurse in York who had the temerity, like Oliver Twist, to please have some more).

No hope then for our over-worked doctors, nurses and teachers, no succour for the NHS, certainly no £350 million a week – that much must be clear to any last voter by now. At the same time, a commitment to a hard Brexit which would irreversibly wreck the economy more than any loony-tunes Labour government ever could, making trade costly and bureaucratic, travel cumbersome, degrading UK higher education, damaging our start-up sector, making life more difficult for our farmers – the list goes on ad infinitum. All this wrapped up in a promise to bring down immigration which even some Tories argue will be hard to deliver, and which will further harm our economy (who will look after the sick in our hospitals, who will pick our strawberries if we deport foreign workers en masse – or simply turn them off so much they leave of their own accord?) At the same time, to compensate, the Tories propose even lower taxes for rich corporations and individual to compensate for the Brexit-mess they’ve created. And on the international stage, May will continue to hold hands with “America-first”, coal-burning, foreigner-bombing, corrupt Donald Trump – a lonely vassal of the deranged and fevered POTUS.

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On the other hand, Labour is for the first time in many years offering a true alternative to the status quo. Free from EU-rules, a Labour government would consider lowering VAT – the most regressive and unfair tax of them all, as it’s paid by the wealthy and the poor alike. It would freeze income tax and NI-contributions for most, while raising tax rates for the richest (who have enjoyed many years of tax cuts). It promises to end zero-hours contracts, regulate the gig economy, hire more police, end the freeze in public sector pay, re-nationalise the railways bit by bit, bring utilities into local public ownership (a model that works very well in the socialist utopia, Germany) and abolish tuition fee (remember a time when we took free education for granted? Overall, the country had less money then!). At the same time, Labour would allow all EU-citizens to stay in Europe and is realistic on immigration. On this sore point, Corbyn and his team bet on the idea that Brits don’t resent foreigners as long as they are not undercutting the local population, or using scarce public services. In ending the exploitation of foreign workers, British workers would enjoy once more a level playing field.

 

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Tory London: while ordinary people are being priced out of the capital,  luxury tower blocks are being marketed at international investors (they’re ugly, too).

The EU-referendum put the country at a historic crossroads. Until recently, it seemed as if we had made a choice and were therefore set on an inevitable onward course. Yes, the people had made  one decision that truly mattered – but now we could all go home: our job was merely to confirm Theresa May in office and let her get on with governing as she saw fit. The polls  looked as if docile Britons were about to do exactly that.

The election was to be a pure formality, a bit like Parliament triggering Article 50 by a vast majority. But as we approach polling day, everything has changed, and May’s coronation doesn’t seem so certain any more.

Instead, we could see the face of Britain change radically once more, harking back to the truly revolutionary governments of 1948 and 1979.

This time, it really does matter who you vote for.

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On reflection

Our attitude towards young people drips with hypocrisy

At 45, I am working in what’s widely regarded a young people’s game – the media industry. As such, I am intensely aware of my looming decrepitude and the approaching brow of the hill, no matter how many selfies with my skateboard I take and other youthful shenanigans I pursue. It is not just the media which has a fetish for youth, or, to be precise, for millennials or digital natives, themselves about to be supplanted by the next cohort, Generation K (“named after Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the Hunger Games, who embodies many of their qualities”). What is so special about those 1990s-born youngsters? We study, promote and extol them as if having only ever known a world in which social media rule gave them a sagacity we, the dying-out analogues, lack. Yet despite this hero worship, this young generation has a tougher time of it than any other since the last world war. Indebted by tuition fees, should they be so optimistic, determined or privileged to go to university, they struggle with poor employment prospects and the prohibitive cost of housing while their parents live off the gains they made while the going was good. Not only that, this generation has grown up with – and been shaped by – “terrorism, technology and anxiety”.

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 Arch-survivalist Katniss Everdeen: the embodiment of “Generation K”

This disconnect between perceived cultural leadership and economic suppression is a schizophrenic state of affairs. Perhaps our idolatry masks a guilty conscience. Perhaps it is just a cynical method to flatter them into docility and submission. For what is striking about this youth is its meek acceptance of the status quo. In Brexit Britain, their elders, with self-righteous ruthlessness, have destroyed their future as equal citizens within Europe (two thirds of young people voted Remain). But do we see an outcry, protests of young people marching in the street? While there have been some eruptions (student protests, the Occupy movement), it seems that millennials are more pre-occupied with instagramming their selfies. At the same, they are a practical lot: If there’s no work at home, they cross borders to work as baristas, even if they are woefully over qualified for the job). All this, by the way, is to say nothing of those young people outside Europe, who are even more shockingly disadvantaged. Meanwhile, oldies continue to bolster their position at the expense of their children – one need only look at the primacy of pensioners over young people in the UK. Perhaps the Millennials are merely excercising patience, knowing that what is theirs must eventually come to them by natural causes. If this is true, they may be wiser and more philosophical than I give them credit for.

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On reflection

Hitler, Christ and marijuana

Today is 420 day – the 20th of April – and for those who haven’t heard yet, presumably being too busy with their irrelevant jobs, 420 is code for reefer, marijuana, weed, pot, bud, leaf, herb, ganja, smoke. It is also, by the way, the day I was confirmed into my Lutheran faith some thirty years ago: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ was my chosen bible quote, and it’s a message we would all do well to remember as we are asked to hand the inhuman Tory government five more years to f*ck the people. Finally, in a weird coincidence, on this day in 1889 was Adolf Hitler born. As a result it’s quite probable, nay certain, that neo-Nazis gather to commemorate the man who is a hero to the lowest, satanic instincts of humanity while elsewhere, potheads assemble to smoke a joint or two, celebrating peace love and happiness.

 

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But I digress – perhaps fittingly for post about “420”. For isn’t being distracted, inattentive and unfocused the mark of the pothead, the stoner, the Cheech and Chong bong suckers? Yet fret ye not, dear reader, I am possessed of the greatest lucidity and clarity, unencumbered, unpolluted and untainted by any TCH in my bloodstream: the gunk of marijuana doth not clog up the ducts of my brain. It is often said that somehow marijuana encourages creativity but I for one find it hard to see how a brain diminished, befogged or impaired can produce any work of art that requires a sharp intellect. It is also often said that the bud frees up the imagination to roam and chance upon new insights, as rare and precious as gem-stones found in mud. Yet all to often, once the state of intoxication has passed, the self-same ideas, avidly noted down in a near illegible scrawl as if they were other-worldly prophesies, seem banal and obvious: stripped pf their magic.

Perhaps, I grant, this isn’t true of the performing arts, art that happens in the moment such as music or painting. After all, with so may weed references in rap, soul, reggae and hip hop – never mind the well-known weed smoking proclivities of many jazz greats – far it be from me to deny that THC does not fire the imagination for some. I have found the same thing to be true to some degree of alcohol, but the side effects – potentially driving your car off a cliff or into a tree, being vile to your mother, making an arse of yourself in public and possibly catching a blade in the ribs – quite apart from the occasional suicide, never mind a rotting liver and brain – gave cause to me to forego this toxic tonic.

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Be that as it may, 420 has become quite the thing in popular culture. There are whole Instagram accounts dedicated to smokers’ selfies, including those of sexy, blunt-puffing chicks (do weed and sex go together?). Viceland, ever eager to show how down with the kids they are, have dedicated a whole week’s programming to the herb, even advertising their programmes with a massive spliff on a billboard in London’s Shaftesbury avenue. In places were it’s legal, celebrities talk quite openly for their love of the herb, while in places like the UK it’s all nod-nod, wink-wink – as is the case with most illicit drug consumption. The fact that weed is illegal makes it only cooler – especially as there is o real risk of suffering any consequences with the law in practice (even though the police have warned against smoking grass upon the grass today). Not only that, even Trump’s Homeland Secretary John Kelly says that weed is not a priority in the war on drugs. How times have changed!

Once, weed used to be demonised as a drug that would send people into axe-murder frenzies, taken by “otherised” groups such as Mexicans and African-Americans. Thus there has always been a racist dimension to the outlawing of the drug and, what’s even worse, the starkly unequal enforcement of drug laws. So we have come a long way indeed. Far from making the populace unruly, weed has a way of mellowing the taker out. As such, its use should be positively encouraged by all those whose political rule relies on a “meh, who cares” attitude. There might be plenty of grounds for a revolution but I have a feeling that the stoner will be just too mellow to go out into the streets and torch the local McDonald’s (especially since this is much-needed to sate one’s hunger when overcoming the munchiesTM). So, Theresa May, what are you waiting for?

The growing acceptability of weed – the admission of its relative harmlessness and low potential for addictiveness – has even led to some new thinking in recovery circles. Only recently it has been reported in the news that a weed-based rehab has opened in LA. Here, the idea is to wean addicts off much more harmful substances such as crystal meth and heroin. 12-Step purists will see this as heresy; far from solving the problem, this is seen as merely replacing one problem with another. To which objection the “harm reduction” school of addiction treatment would reply, better a small, manageable issue than a lethal and utterly destructive addiction. Yes, these may “only” be differences of degree – but if they choice is between a numb ache and raging pain, such differences may constitute the the difference between life and death.

There is no reason to assume that the 12-Step-Movement – the likes of AA and NA – will mollify their fundamental opposition to “soft” drugs or any time soon, even though in parts of the US, marijuana is now – in some cases – classed as medicine. Even if they wanted to, officially changing accepted doctrine is well-nigh impossible, requiring the consent of an obscure conference. Famously, AA founder Bill Wilson found this to his cost when he experimented with LSD as a cure for depression in the 60s – and was promptly shot down by the group’s elders.

Be that as it may, on this day, 20 April 2017, marijuana is more accepted than ever before – and whether you smoke or not, for anyone who cares about fairness in our judicial system and the freedom of individuals to do as they please so long as they do not harm anyone else, that surely is a good thing.

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Culture vulture

Master of Kitsch shows an unexpectedly refined side

Elton John – pardon, Sir Elton John – is, for better or worse, a national treasure and global celebrity. We are used to seeing him on stage, sweating over his piano in the limelight, alternating between belting out soulful anthems or cooing sensitive ballads. We take part – no, look up to – his impossibly glamorous social life, epitomised by his annual charity ball. And we follow, sometimes with schadenfreude, the tabloid fodder that is his marriage to David Furnish and his adopted children. But we don’t usually think of Elton as an intellectual of true artistic discernment. And yet that is the side which is on display at an exhibition entitled Radical Eye, at Tate Modern until 7 May 2017.

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It all started, as Elton explains in a video interview shown at the exhibition, when he got sober in 1990. In 1989, Elton has sold almost all his possessions, as if to make way for a new life. Within the year, he was paid a visit by art dealer David Fahey, who brought with him a selection of modernist photographs. Elton was immediately enchanted and bought six of them on the spot. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the genre, building a collection of such importance that it has been brought all the way from Sir Elton’s Atlanta home to the Switch House at Tate Modern.

Many of the photographs on display, such as Man Ray’s Tears, are iconic, and seeing them in the original is like meeting a celebrity up close. All of the photos shown convey the excitement of a technology in its infancy, an art form that was new and continuously evolving, as cameras and films offered new opportunities to make us see reality in different ways or – in some cases – see a reality that otherwise we could not have witnessed. We observe children playing in the streets of 1920s Harlem and visit impoverished tenant farmers of Alabama, wracked with bitter deprivation. Of all these socially aware images, I found Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother the most captivating of. It shows the face of a woman who is careworn and tired, and yet alert with apprehension. But what is  even more moving is how her children have turned their little faces away, either in shame or in fear, or both – burying them in their mother’s hair as if they could find protection and refuge there.

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These pictures are works of art very much of their time, yet like all enduring art, they have something to tell us even now. They are able to move and excite an audience almost a century later, able to tell us something vivid, fresh and new despite their age. What is perhaps most striking about them is their economy: these photographs are simple, often tiny in size, and yet have an instant and powerful impact on the viewer.

We live in an age saturated by photography. What used to be the province of professional photographers – people able to afford a Leica – is now a medium of expression open to billions of people around the world. Social media, that content-hungry monster, continuously encourages us to snap and share our own lives, our experiences. But they are more than mere depictions of a moment: they’re stories. As Snapchat chief Evan Spiegel, explains: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”And yet, how may of these stories stick? Apart from our friends and followers, who really cares about them? Do we do art a favour when we measure the quality of photograph by the number of likes it attracts on Insta?
The modernist photography on show makes us think again what a photography is for, and what a considered, well-thought out photograph can be. How far it can be pushed, defamiliarised, distorted, how it can be made more powerful: by consciously thinking about process and technique, framing, perspective, choice of subject and even processing and printing itself. There’s no reason why the same questions could not be applied to smartphone photography. To achieve this, however, takes time, and in a world where sharing is instant, the desire to be ever-present on social media becomes a distraction; the enemy of art.

A final thought the exhibition prompted in me was the connection between photography and writing. In my own writing, I almost always draw on my own life – so much so, that some of my stories are really just a form of reportage, a stylised journal. Sometimes I give myself a hard time that the world about which I write, with its people and places and things, aren’t invented; that I didn’t imagine them. Looking at great photography today gave me the comforting reassurance that an art form that takes reality as its subject need not be mundane: that in artfully reflecting that which already exists, we can create an expression that’s radically new.

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On reflection

Guns for longboards

The United States is awash with guns. In 2008, as Barack Obama took the presidential oath, firearms outnumbered people for the first time – now the ratio stands at an estimated 357 to 317 million. Every year, over 32,000 Americans die by the gun, making the US by far the most violent developed country. Gun deaths have become so routine that an under-26 is now more likely to be killed by a bullet than in a car crash. And while mass shootings grab the headlines, it’s everyday killings that silently pile up the bodycount. In San Diego, churches, the police and skaters have come together to tackle the problem: drop a gun, no questions asked, and get a gift card or longboard in return.

It’s a chilly December morning in Southeastern San Diego. Once, this part of town was a byword for deprivation and violence. But things are changing: a modern tram whizzes past affordable houses being built, and where once booze shops dispensed liquid amnesia from behind iron bars, a community centre has risen, complete with a parade of family restaurants and a Starbucks.

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Police keep notes on guns but ask no questions. Photo: Larry Johnson

Despite the ungodly hour, the Bryco Center – a brownfield site outside a warehouse – is humming with activity. On the parking lot, a local TV transmission van marks the spot like a beacon; nearby a journalist (pretty blonde, tight jeans) is already interviewing the assembled notables. At the moment, she’s talking to the imposing figure of the Reverend Gerald Brown – a US marine-turned-pastor, he speaks on behalf of the United African-American Ministerial Action Council.

The San Diego Gun Buyback started with a tragic killing, recalls Brown, and even as he recalls the bloody event, his baritone soothes the soul: “In 2008, two of our kids, Monique Palmer and Mike Taylor, got shot in a random act of gang violence. They were just fifteen. Now sadly, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. So usually, the community comes together and collects money to help with the funeral. But my predecessor came up with a new idea. He said, let’s do something constructive with all that money: let’s use it to get rid of some of those guns that kill our children. He put a call in to the District Attorney and asked if he would match the amount raised by the community. The DA agreed, and so we had our first Gun Buyback. Since then, we’ve had one every year – and so far we’ve taken around 1,450 firearms out of circulation – and today we want to add to that number.”

So, what’s the connection with skateboarding?

“Right now, skateboarding is the thing for kids”, Brown smiles. “Back when I was young, we used to have bikes, but now kids use skateboards to get around – you see them everywhere. Skateboards are light, they’re easy to carry, you can take them on the bus or the trolley. So by offering skateboards as well as gift vouchers, we hope that kids will bug their parents to come here and trade in an unwanted gun for a longboard. It makes a great present too, with Christmas just around the corner.”

As Brown speaks, a police SUV swoops by and parks emphatically like an automotive exclamation mark. The legend “CHIEF 1” on its bonnet proclaims that the wiry woman behind the wheel is San Diego’s top cop, Shelley Zimmermann. She high-fives the Reverend, as if merely arriving on the scene were an occasion to be celebrated. If she’s worried about an ongoing controversy over the shooting an unarmed, mentally-ill man by one of her officers, she’s not showing it today.

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Shelley Zimmermann thinks the Gun Buyback is a great example of community policing. Photo: Larry Johnson

“This event is a great example of community policing”, explains the Chief, who – despite her sweet and winning smile – has been far quicker to fire police officers than her predecessor.

“What you see here is different sections of the community coming together to tackle gun crime – the local church, anti-crime initiatives and the skater community. We, the police, are only here to facilitate the event, making sure it is secure and that the guns are kept and destroyed safely. We ask no questions, we’re not interested where a gun came from, whether it’s legal or not, who’s turning it in.”

What if one of the guns was used in a crime? Wouldn’t your no-questions-asked-approach mean that you’re effectively destroying evidence?

Zimmermann is unperturbed. “We don’t run any tests on the guns we collect – all we do is note down registration numbers. So yes, if a number is flagged on the system, we take another look at that gun. If it’s not flagged or the serial number has been removed, we destroy the gun. Even if it was in fact used in a gun crime, at least now it will be out of circulation.”

I’d love to talk more to Shelley, to find out what it was like when she infiltrated drug cartels and prostitution rings in her nine years as undercover agent. But there’s no time, the TV journalist is already hovering and I move on.

Stacking box-fresh longboards onto a display  is Dennis Martinez, a fifty-something tough guy who, with his imperial beard, looks like Napoleon III in streetwear. Once a champion skater, he turned addict and troublemaker, then kicked the habit. A pastor now, he ministers to the imprisoned, runs a faith-based rehab and orchestrates “Off the Streets”, a youth diversion programme designed to discourage kids from pursuing a delinquent life.

Dennis is hard to pin down; for days, I’ve hunted and harried him without success, always a step behind. His phone is ringing all the time – one minute he dashes off to watch his 13-year-old daughter’s school play, the next he’s troubleshooting at his sober house (a client doesn’t want to take his drugs test), then he’s rushing to hear the deathbed confession of a man succumbing to his gunshot wounds.

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From left to right: Prison pastor Dennis Martinez, Harvey Hawks and Neil Carver.            Photo: Ariana Drehsler

“I’m not against the Second Amendment Right to bear arms”, says Martinez, “especially with what happened in San Bernardino. But we want to get unsecured, unwanted firearms off the streets so they don’t fall into the wrong hands. Gangsters target the homes of old people for burglaries, they follow unsuspecting victims home from shooting ranges, and that’s how a lot of guns that are later used in crimes get into circulation. An event like this really helps to make the community safer.”

That is Lisa Ortiz’s hope too. Clutching her lapdog, Lisa has come along to watch the gun buyback on behalf of Mothers with a Message – a tragic club uniting mums whose kids have killed or been killed. Their mission is to speak to at-risk youth and prisoners of the grief a mother feels when a child is murdered or locked up. As a result, they hope, young people will make better choices for their lives.

“Chico was my daughter’s dog, and now she’s gone, I carry him wherever I go”, says Lisa.  “He’s all I have left. He makes me feel closer to her.” The snaggletoothed pet looks contented in Ms Ortiz’ arms, exuding a cheerfulness at odds with his owner’s forlorn air. Ms Ortiz’ daughter, Marcella Peraza, was killed at a birthday party six and a half years ago – by Christoper Sanchez, the young man who had taken her there. According to police, Sanchez had left the party after getting into a fight, then returned around 2:30am and began shooting into a crowd of guests outside the house. A stray bullet ricocheted off a car’s windscreen wiper and hit Marcella, who was running for her life, in the back.

“Marcella was my only daughter”, said Ms Ortiz in court at the time. “Before her life was taken, she gave me so much love and happiness. She had grown from my daughter to my companion. Marcella was young, charismatic and beautiful  Without Marcella, life is empty, confusing and I look forward to nothing, except being with her when I die.”

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Liza Ortiz lost her daughter Marcella to a shooting. Photo: Ariana Drehsler

The judge convicted Sanchez of first degree murder, sentencing him to 85 years to life. To add to the tragedy, Sanchez was later shot dead by prison guards during a riot. His head was so badly injured the undertakers had to remodel his skull, his mother, Sonya Veregas, tells me, her ears tearing up.

“And so I had to bury my son in a beanie.”

Six years on, there has been some healing. Through Mothers with a Message, Lisa and Sonya – who used to fight each other in court – have built a friendship based on their shared pain and hope for the future. Where once they cried in their own separate pain, they share laughter together.

While we speak, Martinez’ fellow pastor Larry Johnson – tall, bespectacled, white beard, of austere bearing  – is tirelessly filming. Now he’s trained his lens onto two men exchanging jokes: the taller one in the ponytail and baseball cap is Neil Carver, the other – short, innocuous-looking – is 70s skating legend Harvey Hawks – a man whose life illustrates how an outing with a gun can turn into a tragedy at the twitch of a finger.

On a summer’s afternoon in 1986, the smiling chap before me was a dangerous man: drunk, angry, and in possession of a shotgun. He came from a massive row with his ex; driving down the highway, he got into an altercation with a van. The family in the van were rushing their son to hospital, who had had a motorbike accident – Hawks may well have misinterpreted their hurry for aggression. He pulled his weapon, which was on the backseat, and fired it whilst still driving. The shotgun slug – a single bullet devastating at short range – killed off-duty policewoman Patricia Faye Dwyer and gravely injured her friend, Wendy Varga.

“I didn’t know what had happened until four days later, when the police came to arrest me and told me I had killed someone. When they did, I had a bottle of Coors in my hand. I knew that moment that I would have to change my life.” Hawks sobered up, served 26 years in prison (nine years in excess of his sentence), and reformed. Now Hawks works with Johnson and Martinez, and puts his freedom to good use by fighting gun crime.

“Every day, I regret what happened”, explains Hawks, “I always think of the wonderful woman whose life I took. Its something I can never undo, but every day, I can at least do something to make amends. I do it by being part of this project. We can all be emotionally off-balance at times. But if people didn’t have access to a firearm when they’re angry, they wouldn’t use it. So anything we can do to get a firearm off the streets, that’s our goal.”

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Hawks signs a longboard. Photo” Ariana Drehsler

Unlike Martinez, Hawks thinks the Second Amendment right to bear arms is outdated.

“The Second Amendment was written when people used to hunt for food, when we had no standing army, and when we’d just fought a war against a foreign force. Not only that, weapons were so much more primitive. Now the situation has completely changed. The assault weapons we have today or so powerful, it would have been unthinkable back then.”

Neil Carver – surfer dude, designer, accidental activist – agrees. He’s lived in Venice, LA, since it was a grotty slum where gunpowder mingled with the sea breeze in the air. When primary school children and their teachers were massacred at Sandy Hook, Carver felt he had to act.

 

“When I saw these primary school kids being shot, my wife and I were horrified. I was  wondering, what could I do to make a difference? Then I thought, maybe I can turn guns into longboards. To give a kid in a household that had a gun before a skateboard is to plant a seed that offers meaning during those difficult years of adolescence.”

For Neil, skateboarding isn’t just a sport, or a way to get around: it’s a way of life, a mindset.

“I’ve heard from skaters over and over again how skateboarding saved them from their circumstances. At the most basic level, a skateboard is a form of transportation. This idea, to ‘transport oneself’ is not only a literal way to get some distance from your immediate surroundings, but a metaphor for how a skater can immerse themselves in a different reality while they focus on the act of skating. Since so much of the pressure and danger of gun violence is geographic, it’s an empowering act to create a different context, one that we make for ourselves. So, like swords to ploughshares, we should turn guns into skateboards. Even if one skateboard helped prevent just one act of violence, it would be worth the effort.”

Getting the first longboard exchange off the ground wasn’t easy, but after doggedly pursuing the LAPD, Carver took part in a gun buyback in San Pedro. After that, Neil contacted Michael Brooke, who runs Longboarding for Peace, an international movement of skater activists fighting for peace and justice as far afield as Palestine. It was Brooke who got Neil in touch with the Hawks and Martinez – now they all work together, hoping to take the concept to other troubled spots in California, and to encourage people all over the US to follow suit.

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Photo: Larry Johnson

By now, the exchange is underway. There’s a fascinating array of rides – from bog-standard family carriers to Harleys and vintage cars. Not everybody wants to give their name, but most are happy to talk. It quickly turns out that turning up here is a convenience and an act of prudence, not necessarily an anti-gun statement. Jeffrey, astride on a gleaming silver Vespa, brings a gun from the Korean war. Having inherited it from an uncle, he’s long wondered how he could get rid of it – this event was the perfect opportunity. Jen, a bubbly Chinese-American, winds down the window of her SUV and tells me she’s dropping off an old gun she’s just replaced with a new and better one. A pensioner tells me he has cancer and doesn’t want to leave a gun behind when he’s gone. Then there’s an old black lady in her Sunday best and a white, immaculately-kept 1970’s Cadillac. Aged 91, she too thinks the time has come to dispose of her gun. Abraham, 21, came in a beat-up sports car with his mate, dropping off an old “Jack Sparrow gun”, but Harvey tells me that people get killed by antique guns all the time. “From the day a gun is manufactured, it’s lethal even after a hundred years”, he says – a sobering thought. Listening to people, it seems guns are everywhere: one man has found his in a car park, another in flat after a tenant had moved out. Most people opt for the gift vouchers (amounting to $100 or $50, depending on the gun). The longboards (which cost $220 each) usually go to parents and grandparents. José Abados is one of them.

“As a landlord, I have a special permit to carry a gun. But now my son is getting older, I’m really worried that he’s going to find it and hurt himself, or us. So it’s much better to give him a longboard instead.”

At the end of the event, forty longboards have been given away, in addition to $200,000 worth of gift vouchers donated by the County Sheriff. The Gun Buyback has taken 240 guns, among them two AK47’s, two Uzis and a .410 shotgun, which is now illegal. A handsome loot, but still a drop in the ocean: in 2012, one million prospective gun-buyers applied for criminal background in California alone – and every time there’s a mass shooting, there’s a new rush for firearms.

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242 firearms destined for the smelter. Photo: Larry Johnson

As we wrap up, I ask Reverend Brown for his verdict. He says he’s happy, but when he thinks of the bigger picture, doesn’t he lose faith at what seems a losing struggle?

“Not at all”, he says, examining the stack of doomed weapons piled up in a police van. “Each one of these does a lot of damage, and though we’ll never know, I’m sure we’ve saved some lives today.”

 

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On reflection

While you looked to Brussels, you were being conned at home

 

A recent poll on the EU referendum shows that the fight between in and out is a struggle between the generations. If the old had their way, we’ll be out – let the young decide, and we stay in.  “Outers” would have as believe that the EU is is a relic past its sell-by date, but the young, who have the future ahead of them – and have to live the longest with the consequences of the referendum –   do not agree. Perhaps they sense instinctively that when we debate the EU, we’re debating the wrong thing.

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Splitters like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are like the conman who points to the sky telling you to look at the bird while using the distraction to pickpocket your wallet. Take accountability. Tory has-beens (and never-weres) like Michael Howard rail about the EU’s unelected Eurocrats and civil servants. At the same time, they fawn before the monarchy and support an unelected House of Lords: where is their thirst for democracy at home? The EU has its flaws – but with this referendum, electors get their say. That’s accountability.

The EU is a nanny state determining the curvature of our bananas and banning prawn cocktail crisps, claims Boris Johnson. And yet, we drive on the left, have funny, three-pronged plugs, and are free to munch prawn cocktail crisps to our hearts’ content. The most widely spoken language in the EU isn’t French or German, but English. We have – and will keep – our own currency. Britain is still gloriously, sometimes incomprehensibly, different.

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Sometimes fact-checking is just as easy as walking into a cornershop

Which is not to say that we aren’t oppressed by countless rules, sometimes petty, sometimes draconian. Recently, a school in Lancashire has banned birthday cakes, to avoid children suffering from allergies feeling left out. Anybody going out for a drink on a Friday night has to comply to a plethora of licensing rules enforced by grumpy bouncers: stand behind the rope, leave drinks inside when going for a smoke, take off hats, show ID, have pictures taken – the list goes on. We have more CCTV cameras per man, woman and child than any other country on earth, making us the most spied-on people on the planet. A motorist whose car tax is just one day overdue may have their car towed and crushed at once. David Cameron reserves the right to execute Britons by drone without a trial. These are all home-made impositions and infringements, yet you will wait in vain to hear Boris and Nigel complain.

The sovereignty argument is equally feeble. Neither the EU nor the United Nations nor even the will of its own population have stopped Britain from going to war in Iraq. British sovereignty is exercised more freely than that of most countries in the world. At the same time, our government is compromising control over strategically important industries and functions: nuclear power stations are built by the Chinese and GCHQ, our spying apparatus, has been at the beck and call of America’s NSA – without Parliament ever debating the issue. Still, Boris and Nigel don’t care. A 1984-style superstate is all right by them, as long as it’s homemade.

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“Yo, Blair!” – Britain exercises its sovereignty

Finally, immigration. Yes, we have seen an influx of European citizens, just like the Costa del Sol has become a British retirement home. We are near full employment. Wages in some sectors are low, but our government does nothing to enforce, let alone raise, the minimum wage, nor does it do anything to help employees better their conditions through collective bargaining. Writing from London, as I do, I am not so much exercised by Polish labourers sleeping three to a room but Russian and Chinese plutocrats who buy up every morsel of the capital, making it impossible to rent or even own a home here. There is a housing shortage, we hear, and yet we see before our own eyes luxury apartments being built – condominiums which are bought off-plan by foreign tycoons and then left empty as investments.

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No housing crisis there: Boris Johnson’s New London.

What about terrorists sneaking into the country on EU passports, though? Other European countries have at least just as much to fear from terrorists with British passports (Jihadi John, “The Beatles”) as we have from Euro-Bombers. Home-grown terrorism is a shared problem, why not tackle it with our allies, sharing intelligence across borders? And if the existing passport controls are not enough, if we want to deny EU citizens entry, then we must also expect to have the very same rules applied to us as we fly to Prague, Paris or Berlin.

All over Europe there is concern about fugitives “invading” the continent. There are many arguments to be had on this question. Angela Merkel’s approach – to seek peace in Syria and come to an agreement with Turkey, paying Istanbul to prevent refugees from crossing into Greece – requires every bit of statecraft she can muster. It may or may not succeed. But no country has yet been forced to accept refugees against their will – even though an equitable distribution would make sense. Austria has unilaterally imposed of maximum quota of 80 asylum seekers per day. Hungary and other Balkan states have closed their borders. These are all controversial moves. But none of them required these countries to leave the Union. It shows that the anti-refugee rhetoric is baseless: Britain can protect its borders from war refugees. After all, Britain is still polishing its Second World War-halo, absolving the current generation, living in unprecedented wealth, from any moral imperative to help those who have lost all.

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A seld-obsessed Britain has excused itself from the arduous slog of leadership in a complicated, fast-moving world

 

Now on the economy. Outers dream of free trade agreements with India and China. Would this help British workers, or merely see their jobs outsourced to Bangalore at an even faster rate than today. We already trade with the world outside Europe, and very successfully so. Take a look at the automotive industry: Britain in the EU now produces more cars than ever. Indian-owned Jaguar Land Rove sells record numbers in China, as do German-owned Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Equally, Dyson (which moved production from Wiltshire to Malaysia) is doing a roaring global trade – as is our aerospace and arms industry, our academic sector and our creative industries – not to mention our financial services sector. Britain as a member of the EU has built a competitive economy of truly global reach. There is no economic case for leaving, but every reason to stay.

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Besties: Nigel and Vlad

Finally, a word on geo-politics. Vladimir Putin must be cackling into his tea every time a Tory blowhard agitates against Brussels. More and more, the US expects that Europe – the EU – grapple with the problems on its doorsteps. Russia already has Britain in her sights – for harbouring anti-Putin exiles, and pointing the finger of blame at the Kremlin for the Litvinenko murder. If Britain were on its own, Putin would let his thirst for vengeance free rein. Not only that, in leaving the EU, we would weaken Europe just at a time when it is one of the few powers standing up to Russia’s imperialist drive.We’d not only backstab Europe in its hour of need, but also betray our own national interest.

Not everything in the EU is perfect. But whatever weaknesses the Union has, they are all fixable. The US, China, Russia and India are all set to shape the 21st century to their advantage. Unified, Europe can be an equal player. If we break away now, future generations will not forgive us.

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On reflection

Why David Bowie is like cocaine to me

While I’d never wish to disparage all of my lovely, intelligent, creative and cultured friends for whom Bowie was an inspiration, both artistically and personally, I am glad to find at least one writer who seems composed in the face of the great man’s passing. It’s no disrespect, just that Bowie was like cocaine to me. I know the funny white granules must be amazing, because everybody tells me so, but the stimulant never really set my brain on fire. Just like I could never imagine purchasing the drug from a dealer, but snort a line out of courtesy, finding it amusing and sociable, I’d never put up a Bowie poster on my bedroom wall, but still love singing along to Major Tom, Starman and Heroes when someone else played them.

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Note: wearing exuberant clothes as a man doesn’t make you gay. Conversely, being gay doesn’t mean wearing exuberant clothes, or even being having a sense of style.

I accept this numbness as a comgenital condition, for better or worse.
In similar fashion, I have never felt Bowie somehow gave me permission to be gay, because I never remembered him demonstrating his love to another man, or even his delight in the male physique. My heroes at the time were Tchaikovsky, Baldwin, Mercury, Mapplethorpe and Wilde, who were true to themselves in much less forgiving times than the sexually liberated space Bowie inhabited, or, in the case of Mercury, were really properly out there.

All of this means no disrespect, I hasten to add.

I’ll try and listen to all the Bowie songs my lovely friends have posted and hopefully gain an education and a deeper appreciation in the process – perhaps it’s not too late for my heart to be truly moved.

By the way, I do think it’s impossible for any recently departed to get any decent shuteye in the afterlife when people shout RIP every five minutes, which I imagine is like annoyingly your coffin being nudged by excitable mourners. If you want the dead to rest in peace, will ya stop crying RIP the whole bloody time?

So, farewell then,
David B,
You were loved by many
Maggie Thatcher must be spinning in her outsourced grave
Ha, ha.
Maybe you are smiling too, up above –
Eternal Starman in the sky.

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