Sunday, 22 May 2011

A conversation with a homeless ex-soldier

Whilst at the Spanish solidarity protest which I reported in my last post, there was an incident which - for me - brought home the depth of the problems we currently face. I've been running over it in my head since it happened, and I'd like to share some thoughts here.

Firstly, the incident itself. I was sitting with others in a circle in Williamson Square when a man wandered into the middle and started having a go at those gathered. "People like you make me sick," he said, "why don't you do something for this country? Why don't you fight for your country, like I did?" Hearing this, I stood up, wary of a possible confrontation. Most people looked on, unsure of how to respond. The man kept moving around the circle, uttering similar sentiments.

A comrade from UK Uncut moved in to defuse the situation, taking him aside and asking him what he wanted. It transpired that he was a beggar, after money to buy some food, so the comrade gave him some change. The man took it and moved out of the circle. But as he came back past, he shouted a few more times before moving away.

At this point, I stepped out of the circle myself and approached him. When he turned to me, there were tears in his eyes. He told me that he didn't really have anything against those protesting, but he was just really angry. It transpired that he was a soldier, discharged with disabilities relating to a gunshot wound. He had been made homeless and, whilst the Job Centre had told him he was unemployable, he was unable to get any disability benefits for his condition. "I fought for this country," he said, "I got shot, and in return they've abandoned me."

This was the source of his frustration and his anger, but it quickly became clear that he had nobody to aim it at. As we talked, he compared his position to "Lithuanians being taken on as cheap labour," "Spaniards coming over here and getting given a £2 million house," and so forth.

I argued that this wasn't the case, and that he was in the position he was in because the government had screwed him over. I talked about the pickets we had done of Atos Origin and of the similar things happening to disabled people. My point, ultimately, was that "the government and the press want us all at each others' throats on the basis of race, nationality, and so on. But it's them - the politicians, the bosses, the landlords - who are screwing us all over and who we need to fight against."

There was some agreement, and he kept apologising for his behaviour to those protesting. I told him not to worry about it. He had every right to be angry, even if he'd chosen the wrong target, and I just wished he had a way to do something about it. But there was one thing he said which really got to me: "I wish I could kill myself. If I wasn't afraid of death, I'd end everything."

That, for me, summed up the absolute despair and desperation that capitalism offers those on the lowest rung of the ladder. That section of society which isn't just disenfranchised or under attack, but has been entirely swept under the carpet.

For them, talk of solidarity and fighting back is an abstract thought of which they don't have the luxury. They are trapped in an existence which sees them begging for enough money to buy some food at McDonald's. These are the people who show up the idea of defending the status quo, or seeking only slight reforms for a "nicer" capitalism for the limited and absurd notion that it is. If we are merely fighting to keep things as they are, we are fighting to keep such people bound to poverty and misery.

This doesn't mean accepting the government's attacks, or the erosion of 150 years of hard-won rights and concessions, of course. But it does mean that keeping things as they are should not be the limits of our imagination, lest we utterly abandon those who have nothing to defend. If empowered to do so, it is those on the bottom of the social pile who will fight with the greatest passion and energy, unrestrained by a contentment with the status quo. If there is a living embodiment of that statement, it is the shack dwellers' movement of South Africa. Until such movements of the lowest and most dis-empowered are growing everywhere, the lowest layers of society will have no voice.

But all of these thoughts came afterwards. As I wished the man good luck, and he went off to apologise to those he had attacked, all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of futility. He spent his days begging in order to afford a sandwich, and I had nothing to offer him except a few useless words. We will know that we have gotten somewhere when that reality begins to change.