Follow the Dutch!

More than a thousand cyclists staged a mass “die-in” in a central London street yesterday evening, calling for improvement of road safety.

Die-In Protest London. Photograph: Rory Jackson/Stop Killing Cyclists
Die-In Protest London. Photograph: Rory Jackson/Stop Killing Cyclists

Protestors lay down with their bicycles outside the Transport of London headquarters as part of a vigil for six cyclists killed over a two-week period in London last month.

The event, organised by Stop The Killing, calls for a ban on vehicles whose drivers cannot see adjacent road users, and a separated cycle network across London to be built.

One of the organisers, Donnachadh McCarthy, said: “We have brought the battle to TfL’s headquarters because these are the people making the decisions. We want representations and we want real funding. We want £600 million a year spent on safer cycling in London.”

Protestors ask each London borough to spend at least 10% of their transport budget on cycling infrastructure. They aim for a similar cycling provision as in The Netherlands, which spends about £33 per person in contrast to £1.25 in the UK.

The proposal was inspired by the Dutch, who used so-called “die-ins” in the 1970s to push for investment in safe transport infrastructure. Prior to the 15-minute “die-in”, McCarthy said: “We Londoners are going to join the Dutch, and follow them until we get our roads safe.”

"Die in" protest in Amsterdam in the 1970s. Photograph by Anna Pietersen
“Die in” protest in Amsterdam in the 1970s. Photograph by Anna Pietersen

McCarthy told me later: “It is a true crime that eight and 80 year olds should be sharing a road with HGV vehicles. This is a human rights issue. Streets should be designed for everyone: children, pensioners, cyclists and pedestrians.” He added: “It is not rocket science, we want a fully incorporated cycling network that caters for all road users within five years.”

This year, 14 fatal accidents and numerous injuries occurred on London roads, which equals the number killed in the whole of 2012.

Map fatal crashes

“Cars cut you off, they don’t look out for you. I think it is despicable that we have vehicles with blind spots on the roads” said Steve Routley, co-organiser of Stop the Killing. “It is time that people stop dying on our roads.”

Organisers McCarthy and Routley handed over a letter with a list of demands for road safety improvements to the Managing Director of Transport for London, Leon Daniels, at the end of the protest. “I was happy the MD had the decency to turn up at the protest, unlike Andrew Gillian, [Cycling Commissioner, appointed by Boris Johnson] who instead of attending, wrote little sadly a blog, saying London cyclists have no demands other than more and faster” according to McCarthy.

Managing Director Leon Daniels agreed on meeting a delegation of the protest next week. He promised segregated cycle routes, which is one of the main demands, would be constructed within 10 years. “Delivering such major improvements will take time, but we are working flat-out to do so” Daniels announced.

TfL said it was spending £1bn on road improvements.

London Mayor Boris Johnson was criticised earlier this month for blaming victims for not obeying the laws on the road. He launched a programme called Operation Safeway, which deploys police officers to 166 key junctions during the capital’s rush hours. Over 2000 fixed penalty notices  were issued to motorists and cyclists in less than three days.

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Black Pete Tradition Divides the Dutch

A longstanding Christmas tradition in the Netherlands has been branded as racist. Many Dutch citizens of African descent want to abolish Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete – the black-faced, red-lipped, curly-afro-wig Santa helpers assist Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, to deliver presents to children.

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About 700 Black Petes accompanied Sinterklaas last Sunday when he arrived in Amsterdam, welcomed by half a million parents with children. But not everyone was amused. A small group protested against his helpers, which they consider to be racist.

The tradition of Sinterklaas is actually subject of a fierce debate in the Netherlands. Opponents say Black Pete is an offensive caricature of black people while the majority of Dutch people feel there is no racial insult intended. They say Black Pete has been a figure of fun since 1850. He sings and dances to entertain children, and his face is black from going down chimneys to deliver presents.

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Although the discussion comes up every year, the debate exploded this year after the UN started an investigation into whether the Black Pete character is a “racist stereotype”. The Jamaican chair of a committee at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Verene Shepherd, believes the tradition is racist. Calling the practice a throwback to slavery, she said: “As a black person, I feel that I, if I were living in the Netherlands, as a black person, I would object to Black Pete.”

As a reaction, many Pro-Pete protests emerged. A Facebook Petition, called Pietite (Pete-ition), to keep the image of Black Pete unchanged, received over 2 million likes in just two days. This astonishing result in a country of 17 million people reflects the depth of emotion Dutch people feel for this tradition. The majority does not believe Black Pete is racist and gets annoyed by outsiders who judge it without understanding it. Even the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, said: “Black Pete is black, there is not much we can do to change that.”

But a vocal minority of Dutch people, especially of African descent, and many foreign observers agree with the UN commissioner: “Black Pete would not be accepted anywhere else in the world. The world is watching, and the Netherlands has been found wanting,” anti-Pete protester Quinsy Gario said. Gario, born in Curaçao and raised in St. Maarten, Dutch territories in the Caribbean, was arrested and pepper sprayed by the police for wearing a T-shirt saying “Black Pete is racist” to the Sinterklaas parade two years ago.

Demonstrators argue that Black Pete is not appropriate in a multicultural society, which prides itself to be open-minded and tolerant. The protestors, many wearing anti-Black T-shirts, turned their back in silent protest to Sinterklaas and his helpers during Sunday’s parade.

The Dutch government has so far refused all international requests to change the image of Black Pete.

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Protest to free Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt

An international group of journalists gathered in front of the Egyptian Embassy in London yesterday to show solidarity for journalists who have been detained, injured or killed in Egypt.

The demonstrators urged Egyptian authorities to respect the rights of journalists to work in a safe environment. They demanded to release Al Jazeera reporter Abdullah Al Shami and Al Jazeera cameraman Mohamed Bader, who have been detained in Egypt for more than three months without facing any formal charges.

Al Shami, 25, was arrested while covering demonstrations in Cairo’s Rabaa Square on the 14th of August.

Bader, 28, was arrested for possessing a camera while covering the Ramses Square clashes on the 16th of August. He got transferred to the Tura prison for further interrogation. His detention has been renewed constantly ever since. Badar’s wife gave birth to their first child while he was in detention.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Aljazeera Media Network organised the collective protest, which is part of a greater international campaign, to send the message that protection for journalism is protection for freedom.

President of the IFJ, Jim Boumelha, read a letter addressed to the Egyptian ambassador Ashrad El Kholy: “We urge the interim Egyptian Government to charge them formally and put them [Aldullah al-Shami and Mohammed Badr] for a fair, transparent and non-political trial or to release them immediately.”

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Since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi by the army in early July, there has been an increasing hostility towards journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit organisation that promotes the freedom of information and press, at least 80 journalists have been arrested and five killed since the military coup.

The Egyptian interim government has also shut down several television stations, and raided offices of Al-Jazeera’s Egyptian TV channel, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr. The security forces accuse Al Jazeera, a Qatar based broadcaster, of operating without a legal basis, misinformation and fabrication of stories. The news organisation denies all charges.

According to former Research Director at Chatham House, Rosemary Hollis, “Al Jazeera is identified as the mouthpiece of its owner the Qatari government and the Qatari government was a big supporter of President Morsi (and the Muslim Brotherhood).”

But Manager Communication and International Relations at Al Jazeera Network, Ghassan Abussein, responded: “Al Jazeera is not biased, we are just showing both sides of the story. Our job is to broadcast all shades of opinion. He explained that it is not just Al Jazeera or local journalists that suffer. “Any media that supports the freedom of speech or shows what is really going on on the ground, is affected.”

The Egyptian ambassador accepted the letter offered by the protestors but refused to comment.

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Contemporary art no longer exclusive to the rich

For the first time, two of Britain’s largest contemporary art fairs are being held in London at the same time. Frieze week, aimed typically at rich people, and The Other Art Fair, aimed at a broader audience.

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Contemporary art is becoming increasingly popular in London’s cultural scene. This weekend over 60.000 visitors attended Frieze week, the busiest and biggest international contemporary art festival of the year. Although the art festival is well attended, it is often portrayed as being part of a multi billion pound international market, which is driven by an exclusive global elite. The average price of an artwork at Frieze is no less than £20,000, which is more than a decent car. Buying is thus only for the seriously rich.

But as the art of the moment becomes more dominant, the audience is growing. Many alternative fairs open their doors during London Art’s Week and attempt to feature art that is more accessible for the general public.

One of the major satellite events of London’s Art Week is The Other Art Fair, which is the UK’s largest artist-led fair, attracting thousands of art buyers, collectors, journalists and galleries from across London. It is the first time the fair coincided with Frieze week.

The fifth edition of The Other Art Fair has not only changed its date but also moved to the prime location of the Old Truman Brewery in East London, a location recognised as the starting point for many artists. They share the venue with Moniker Art Fair, which has its roots in urban culture. All these developments have signified a new era for The Other Art Fair and support its position as the most prominent alternative fair of this year’s art week.

Founder and Fair Director Ryan Stanier, told me: “I tried to create a platform for unrepresented artists to meet galleries and at the same time give artists the opportunity to showcase their work directly to the public”.

Stanier notes that the fair is meant to complement rather than compete with Frieze: “I hope visitors, after enjoying the traditional, blue-chip art fairs, come to The Other Art Fair where they can actually buy a piece of art. Perhaps even from an artist who will be showcased at the very same traditional art fairs in the future.”

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Contemporary art specialist at Christies, Koji Inoue, welcomes the satellite events: “I think it’s wonderful that there are more opportunities for collecting contemporary especially at affordable prices. Anything that engages the public to look, learn and dialog is a positive force for all art objects at any price!”

As contemporary art is growing, many more alternative fairs, such as Strata, Multiplied, Affordable Art Fair, Parallax and Sluice will open their doors in the coming weeks.

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