“Be the change you want to see”: Gair Rhydd interviews Tom Fowler at Cardiff Anarchist Bookfair

Cardiff Anarchist Bookfair at Cathays Youth & Community Centre (Photographer: Tom Fowler via Instagram)

By Toby Holloway

Trump. Brexit. The refugee crisis. The world has seemingly gone mad, and as a Cardiff University student with a mild interest in politics, it can be hard to know where to turn, what to protest or whether to just tune it all out and sink deeper into that warm, fluffy Netflix hole.

But what if there was an alternative to passively binge-watching Rick & Morty, and deep down you realised that you were so fucked off with things that you simply couldn’t contain your boiling rage any longer? On Saturday February 18, Gair Rhydd investigated as a group of anarchists gathered at the biggest social event on their collective calendar, the Cardiff Anarchist Bookfair. In an exclusive interview, Gair Rhydd spoke to Tom Fowler, one of the leading figures in South Wales anarchism, discussing everything from anti-Trump rallies to police infiltration.

The Cardiff Anarchist Bookfair takes place once a year, and this time was held at Cathays Youth and Community Centre, on Cathays Terrace. Speaking about the purpose of the bookfair, Tom said: “It sounds like it’s all about just flogging books, but that’s a very small part of it really. I guess it’s the nearest thing anarchists have to a party conference, but because we’re anarchists it’s a bit more fun than that.

“We had a lot of talks on, a lot of meetings and discussions, some workshops, but also lots of stalls from campaign groups – anarchist organisations from all over the UK. The bar’s open now, we’ve got bands playing, fun stuff…”

‘Fun stuff’ is perhaps something you wouldn’t associate with anarchism. Images of miscreants throwing molotov cocktails initially spring to mind, however the reality is of course not that extreme. The only real chaos at the anarchist bookfair came from the excited children running around us whilst we were conducting the interview.

As well as the ‘fun stuff’, the bands and the bar, it was clear that as well as being a day of socialising and catching up with old friends, the bookfair was a space for like-minded people to discuss a myriad of issues which they care passionately about.

“We had speakers from Greece talking about the refugee crisis happening in Greece and the responses to it. We had the family of somebody who’s currently under an IPP (imprisonment for public protection). Basically it’s a situation where people have been locked up indefinitely, and it’s ended now but there are 87 people stuck in limbo. We had a couple of academics, talking about everything from education struggles to data justice; we had stalls for campaign groups such as ‘Stop the Arms Fair’.”

Despite the buoyant atmosphere and relaxed people, it’s clearly not easy being an anarchist. Many anarchist groups have been targeted by police infiltration operations, and Cardiff Anarchist Network (CAN), Tom’s organisation, is no exception.

Back in 2011, the Guardian reported that CAN member Mark “Marco” Jacobs, who had supposedly left Cardiff after a number of years of activity to take up a job in Corfu, had actually been an undercover police officer. After forming a number of close personal relationships with CAN members, and becoming an influential figure in the organisation, it emerged that Jacobs had used his position to “trick” two women into sexual relationships.

The wounds caused by the betrayal of Mark Jacobs still run deep in CAN, and a certain stoniness comes into Tom’s voice as begins to talk about him: “Mark Jacobs had been one of our group for five years time, and had theoretically my best mate at one time.”

Talking about police infiltration in general, Tom stated that it has “huge implications for democracy” and that “if people were truly aware of the depth of which it goes to, they would be appalled and shocked.”

Tom described how campaigns and organisations had failed due to the work of undercover officers, who had a “crippling effect on radical direct action, environmental activism, anarchist activism in the UK which we’ve yet to fully recover from.”

Tom described the way in which the infiltrations were carried out as “psychological warfare”, saying that the officers went about “dismantling groups by breaking people up but also means targeting individuals and attacking psychologically so they no longer want to do policial action.”

One purpose of the bookfair is to allow people who are no longer involved in CAN due to the “trauma” they experienced from the Mark Jacobs scandal to reconnect with the organisation and its goings on.

Tom even says that the events of the past and their effects on him and his friends “motivate” him in the present, and it seems to be the anarchist way to channel anger into movements and campaigns, the ‘Police Spies Out of Lives’ campaign being an example of this.

Stalls advertising campaigns such as Police Spies Out of Lives were plentiful at the bookfair, and the amount of varying issues about which people there cared passionately was striking.

Speaking about how students could go about grappling with issues that trouble them, Tom said: “if you actually want to have a real impact, you need to understand the power you have as an individual, and that you can get involved with things and do things off your own back and self-organise.”

“It’s a really tired statement but be the change you want to see. You don’t have to join anything to do that, in fact joining things has a terrible tendency to burn people out. You’re better of finding what you want to do, and if there’s nobody doing it, do it yourself.”

In light of recent events in global politics, it seems as though students are becoming more politically active. Online petitions and lengthy Facebook rants from distant acquaintances (who never seemed politically minded when they were ‘cabbaging’ other kids’ bags in school) became the norm in the wake of Brexit, and later Trump.

More meaningful ways of expressing dissatisfaction with the state of the world have, however, manifested in recent times. Tom admits that “the anti-Trump demonstrations were probably the biggest protests we’ve seen in Cardiff for a fair few years” and that the marches were not made up just of those with more radical, left-wing views. He said that many of the people who were present at the anti-Trump rally were “new” and had “very mainstream views”, stating that these people were in “shock” and were “appalled by the politics that’s coming forward.”

Asked how students can be more engaged with politics and attempt to make a difference on issues that they care passionately about, Tom cited a need to be less “reactive”, saying that “it’s great that so many people are coming out to oppose Trump, but we need to get involved in the nuts and bolts issues, and build our own movements around things”. He recognised the importance of “short term, intermediate and long term goals” in achieving meaningful change, also stating that “it’s about not being reactive, and not being scared to be radical, not being scared to come up with absolutely outlandish things, and following them through.”

As the interview progressed, Tom spoke with more and more passion, declaring the need for the political left to be more “outlandish”, mimicking tactics used by the right that have seen the likes of Trump, Farage and French right-winger Marine Le Pen gain prominence and popularity:

“The right wing argument is very simple: blame the foreigners. Our argument is very simple: blame the rich. The reason there are ‘have nots’ is because some people are so rich. The problem is the rich, and it’s a simple argument we just need to keep making repeatedly.”

Finally, as the anti-establishment music from the adjoining room began to grow in volume, Tom said: “The existence between wealth is not something to gawp at, it’s something we should be offended by. And something that we need to build a movement against.

“The reason people are using food banks is the same reason that people have got these multi million pound homes and obscene wealth.”

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