First of all why in English? I was talking to a family of mixed origin – Venezuela and Syria – in the neighbourhood. They showed interest in our local action for Assange (they had signed before but I didn’t recognise them) but the discussion went difficult because of the language. Their English was definitely better than my Spanish, which I could study a little more in order to benefit from. To make a long story short, I think it can be worthwhile to now and then post a report on this blog in English, given the diverse composition of the families in our neighbourhood, and in Leuven as a town in general. Who would object to that? (Maybe the Flemish nationalists I wrote about in a former blogpost).
Back to the people of the Astridlaan. I was on the hunt for signatures at eleven o’clock in the evening, given the summer holidays not so extraordinary since there are often groups of people on the streets talking to each other and drinking something. I soon felt that this group wouldn’t be eager to support a local Assange case (at least not for now, but you never know what comes later), but they were sincerely interested and curious about it. “Some guy comes here out of the blue on a Saturday night talking about WikiLeaks and the imprisonment of Assange. Very strange. A little bit courageous as well, but still very strange”, they might have been thinking. One of the men in the group – I felt like he was kind of the informal leader so his point of view might have been decisive for the others whether or not to sign the petition – explicitly asked after my motivation for doing such a thing. I tried to explain a few things on the spot, but I think the setting was not ideal to give a full comprehensible explanation. I feel like I owe them more than just a few words, especially since I got this reaction on other occasions as well (on both ways, either “a very interesting case I didn’t know of and I feel I should support, but what makes you organise around it here in Leuven?” Or “I don’t feel like I am concerned or I can do something here on the local level, but you triggered my curiosity”).
So. First of all the website that writes most and in-depth about WikiLeaks and the imprisonment of Assange is the World Socialist Website (https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/06/30/assa-j30.html ). They certainly triggered my attention, I was already reading other articles on their site on a regular basis when I decided last year to do something when Assange was taken out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London and put in the Belmarsh prison (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oqJiNzJQ_E ). They write a lot about why the defence of Assange and WikiLeaks is linked to other problems in the capitalist world system, and from a socialist point of view this defence is important.
My interest in socialism and Marxism dates further back. At the catholic university of Leuven I got a professor who was inspired by Marxism, and organised his courses around this scientific worldview (“radical geography” as a sub orientation of urban geography). It was kind of an anachronism in the catholic university of Leuven, as he said himself, but I was lucky to get in touch with a Marxist approach of looking at social problems and doing scientific research.
My personal trajectory however does not justify on itself a citizen action in Leuven in favour of Assange, Manning, Snowden and other publishers/whistleblowers. (I don’t see it as a kind of “hobby” or leisure time either. Maybe very sometimes it is…) First of all last year there were two other citizens who reacted to my call to form a group in favour of Assange, Tom de Meester and Peter Terryn. They have also their particular motivations, ideological backgrounds and insights which might differ from mine (and on some topics I am quite certain they do ;-)), but they contributed to press release and insights on this blog – the “platform texts” so to speak from last year we wrote together – and indirectly motivated me to start with the citizens initiative this year.
But there is more than those “personal” preferences of myself and my two co-citizens of last year (besides we were some more than 3 people at a local writing actions and some posters and placards we made last summer). I think one also has to look at an existing kind of progressive movement in our town. I myself am kind of an outsider since not born in Leuven (Vilvoorde is not so far but has a different kind of social and demographic composition). But since about the last 15 or 20 years I was honoured to take part (in some cases contributed to the positive outcome of) in local social struggles or citizens initiatives who could broadly be understood under the umbrella of working class rights or citizens rights, and free speech or public debate. (As an aside I am convinced that both go hand in hand. An attack on free speech will often enhance an attack on working rights, and the defence of free speech and the stimulation of a healthy public debate favours a climate to strengthen working class rights as well).
One of the most important struggles happening in our city was the blockade of the InBev factory during three weeks in January 2010, by the workers of the company, in response of a huge restructuring plan aiming to license about almost 200 workers over the two Belgian plants producing Stella and Jupiler beer, the one in Leuven and the one in Luik. The reaction of the workers forced management to back down from its plans, and this was considered as a huge victory of the working class in Leuven. Whether this victory was durable let alone eternal under capitalist production relations (I don’t think so) and why the Belgian labour unions never claimed this victory as an important one for the education of the Belgian working class as a whole (I think their intricate links to the Belgian political and economic establishment makes them “forget” to do so) is another discussion. But I am still thankful to the people who at that time signalled the importance of that struggle: “this is important what’s happening in your city nowadays, and you should choose side in it, as every Leuven citizen should.”
As for the method of “burgerinitiatief met spreekrecht” (citizens initiative to give a speech and make a proposal at the local council), this has been used 5 times in Leuven, this is probably more than in any other Belgian or at least Flemish town. Not to say that this is the one and only means of action, let alone the decisive one in all cases, but it is of no coincidence that it was an important part of progressive social struggles, as there are the committee of Parkveld (https://www.parkveld.org/actie ), the movement in defence of “De Bruul”, a public garden in the city centre being threatened by destruction in favour of parking lots, and in 2014 the resistance against the poll tax linked to private car ownership in 2014 (uitbreiding van de “Blauwe Zone”). All of these movements, whether involved in actively or informed sideways, became part of my education as a Leuven citizen, and of most Leuven citizens who didn’t take a blind eye on it. I should add the many initiatives in solidarity with refugees after the refugee crisis in 2015. A huge solidarity movement, not only in Leuven.
All this is part of a broad tradition in our town, of solidarity (with other neighbours against raising taxes or against the degradation of our neighbourhood or living standards or with others), but also of a way of thinking along the “think global, act local” principle. What is (on the political level) decided or (on the citizens level) fought for in Leuven, is not necessarily being confined in Leuven, and vice versa decisions or events elsewhere could have impact on our local community life. Fighting for the liberation of Assange and for the protection of whistleblowers, formulating a demand of our local council or proposing them to make a statement, is a typical example of this “think global, act local” – principle.
“I think you are not at the right political level” (as an argument not to sign the petition) is of course a formulaic response not to speak out loud that “I think that it is useless”. And “okay but Assange did also stupid things, he was looking for trouble and he got it”, is telling oneself that if you stay quiet in your neighbourhood, household and workplace, you will not be impacted by global events, you will stay out of trouble and everything will be fine. I think this is a mistaken worldview but I can understand why people are taught to think like that. By giving my motivation for the civil action, stressing the importance of the liberation of Julian Assange (in this text and others on the blog) and explaining that this fits in a tradition of solidarity in our town, I count on the inhabitants of the Elisabethlaan to think twice, and support our case of Assange, WikiLeaks and the whistleblowers.