Outspoken left-winger Tony Greenstein has been ruffling feathers in Brighton and Hove for more than three decades.
The radical Communist has spearheaded campaigns against capitalism, fascism, racism and the policies of the state of Israel.
In his role as secretary of the Brighton and Hove Unemployed Centre, he helps some of the poorest people in the city. Bill Gardner talks to Mr Greenstein about protests, Palestine and poverty.
THE ARGUS (TA): You were a prominent critic of the invasion of Iraq, which took place ten years ago this month. Do you think Tony Blair and George Bush should face a criminal trial?
TONY GREENSTEIN (TG): I think they should be hanged for war crimes.
I have been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty but I would make an exception for those two, who inflicted death on hundreds of thousands of people.
For instance, I would not support the execution of the Moors murderer Ian Brady, but I would have supported the death penalty at the Nuremberg trials.
Bush and Blair went in with their eyes open and then deliberately set up sectarian division to maintain their dominance.
Iraq today is a nightmare – only last week 50 people were killed in the bombings in Baghdad.
Under Saddam, at least people knew who the tyrant was. Now there are many tyrants and they are making people’s lives a living hell.
Things were better under Saddam – people had electricity and you didn’t have the risk of being tortured every time you walk down the street, which you do now.
People in Brighton knew the war was wrong from the start and the protest in 2003 was one of the biggest I have ever seen in the city.
TA: You have been protesting in Brighton for decades for various causes. Has the approach of Sussex Police towards demonstrations changed over the years?
TG: Their actions are much more aggressive now. There is very little openness from the police.
There is constant surveillance and people are very suspicious about the police liaison officers.
They are abusing their position and they are only there to gain more intelligence. You didn’t get that sort of thing 20 or 30 years ago.
They are also much more political now. They go to strenuous efforts to stop certain events.
The heartening thing is that there are even more demonstrations nowadays, despite their opposition.
TA: Don’t you think that massive anti-fascist demos merely draw attention to the fascist cause?
TG: I don’t accept that. That hasn’t proved the case when fascist groups have been left alone in the past.
If they are not opposed they often grow and attract new members.
I think the attention on the protests is good because it shows people how weak, bedraggled and miserable the fascists are.
But the point is that if they are not opposed they will grow in leaps and bounds – and we can’t allow that to happen.
TA: Where does your passion for these left-wing causes come from?
TG: I’m not sure really.
The first book I ever read was called The Scourge of the Swastika by Lord Russell of Liverpool which was about Auschwitz and the horrors of the Nazis.
It made me think about how hateful human beings could be to other human beings.
Soon I became aware that those arguing for the Jewish state were actually arguing for separation on racial grounds, which was exactly what the Nazis were doing.
I thought it was wrong that a people who had been oppressed felt it was then OK to oppress others – so I decided to fight against it.
TA: Would you say racism is on the rise in Brighton and Hove – or has it been stamped out?
TG: There’s a very strong anti-racism sentiment here so I think racism as a whole is declining.
The old bigotry of 30 or 40 years ago has completely disappeared. The fascist groups were defeated.
But I think the Bulgarians and Romanians are the new black people nowadays. Racism changes its colours and contours and the prejudice against these people is very strong.
TA: How long will you continue your protests against Sodastream?
TG: That’s a decision for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign but I imagine that as long as SodaStream is here, the campaign against it will be here.
There’s hardly ever any customers in there anyway.
People say that the Palestinian workers who work for SodaStream are earning good money, but that’s exactly what they used to say during apartheid when they had well-paid workers down the mines. The point is that the SodaStream factory is situated on an illegal settlement.
It will take time, but Israel has already lost public support for what it is doing.
If people across Palestine are given equal rights by the Israelis, that’s when our protests will stop.
TA: You come from an Orthodox Jewish family. How have they reacted to your passionate opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel?
TG: I wouldn’t say that it’s always been easy with my family.
But my father used to fight Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts in the East End so I like to think that I have taken on some of his good aspects. There used to be streets in London back then where you were likely to get a knife stuck in you if you were a Jew.
Of course there were conflicts between us. But mainly we try not to speak about it to each other because there’s not much point in arguing over something we are never going to agree on.
However, when I started there were very few Jews opposed to Zionism and the Jewish state. Now there are lots around the world who are prepared to say ‘not in my name’, especially in the USA.
TA: How bad is it for unemployed people living in poverty in Brighton and Hove at the moment?
TG: It’s the worst it’s been since the Second World War.
The last great recession was the engineered recession under Margaret Thatcher in 1979-82 when unemployment went up dramatically. But the major difference between then and now is that unemployed people weren’t attacked for their plight.
Under Thatcher people were actually encouraged to go on the sick to try to improve the unemployment figures. But in Brighton today things are very different and many people who are demonised for being on benefits end up on the streets, which can be fatal.
And now you’ve got this new anti-squatting bill from Hove MP Mike Weatherley, whose only contribution to civilisation seems to have been to criminalise homelessness.
When I first came here more than 30 years ago I was squatting with Lord Bassam – but it was different back then. When you were homeless you could find shelter in an empty building, but today you’d be a criminal.
TA: What’s the one thing that could improve the lot of the poorest people in the city?
TG: I don’t think there’s one solution – more a combination of things.
There needs to be an industrial base in Brighton so there are enough jobs.
And there needs to be an expansion of social housing, which has been decimated because of Thatcher’s damaging policies in the 1980s.
Under capitalism there will always be cycles, so things are likely to get better, then significantly worse again, with the people at the bottom of the ladder suffering the most.
What we need to do is build a system based on need rather than speculation. That’s the way to true sustainable growth. At the moment in our society the people who work the hardest – eg nurses – are paid the least while lazy bankers earn millions.
When people are brought out of poverty, they will stop claiming benefits and the economy will improve. But at the moment we live in a society which is going backwards, not forwards.
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