Wednesday, 26 February 2014

A League fans protests mismanagement, heavy-handed security

Originally published in Green Left Weekly.

In what the Sydney Morning Herald described as the "darkest night" in Sydney Football Club's history, active supporters of the A-League football (soccer) club ― known as "the Cove" ― staged a walkout during the February 8 match against Adelaide United in protest against heavy-handed security tactics.

The Cove displayed banners as the teams entered the pitch stating "We want [Head Coach Frank] Farina gone". A banner in Russian also called for club CEO Tony Pignata and chair of the board Scott Barlow to be sacked by David Traktovenko, Russian banker and sole owner of SFC.

Security staff at Allianz Stadium confiscated the banner shorly afterwards and took the membership of the fan folding it up on the spot. The active support walked out.

Fans gathered at the rear of the stadium, chanting "back the team, sack the board" for the rest of the night. Inside the stadium, another fan threw a beer on Farina, while the team lost 3-0.

Pignata and Barlow blamed the confiscation on "a staff member of Sydney FC who was located at pitch level during the game" and said protocols would be put into place to ensure that "every fan has the right to peacefully and respectfully voice their opinions".

After the incident, the club announced several meetings to engage the fans. However, if the examples from other clubs are any indication, it is unlikely the fans will be given much say in the club's direction.

After a long history of passionate engagement by active fans, Melbourne Victory Football Club announed new standards were being imposed for the start of the 2013-14 A-League season.

New measures introduced by the club included "barcode scanning, perimeter taping and removal of crew banners".

This means the club is removing areas from "general admission", severely restricting freedom of movement in areas set aside for active support, which includes activities such as singing, chanting, dancing and banner waving.

In the letter, the club blamed the A-League's governing body, the Football Federation Australia (FFA), for mandating that all areas, including active areas, have designated seats as part of the conditions of clubs holding a licence.

The leadership group for the North Terrace active support, the North Terrace Collective (NTC), has made general admission in its area during home games and the freedom for fans to move around active bays a "non-negotiable" in their ongoing closed-doors negotiations with the club.

With the club unwilling to budge, the NTC has since boycotted the designated active area in all home games.

The letter detailed several concessions offered by club management in negotiations with the NTC, including trialling ad-hoc admission for those seated in other areas to the active bays and offering members guest passes.

However, after a widely-reported incident, away from the venue, between small numbers of Melbourne Victory and Western Sydney Wanderers fans before a December 28 match in Melbourne, the FFA had mandated member only active bays as part of the suspended sentence imposed on both clubs on January 2.

These sentences apply to both the north and south terraces for Melbourne Victory fans and the Wanderers' Red and Black Bloc. They were announced without consultation from either group.
A February 12 statement on the North Terrace Facebook page said negotiations with the club were ongoing but "progress has slowed" since the sentence was being applied. It said, "understanding and respect for organised, independent active support in this country — from the governing body down ― is evidently a long way from being achieved."

The security measures come in a context of Australian media racist dog-whistling against A-League fans, espeically active support. Yet all they have delivered is the ongoing boycott of active bays.

During Melbourne Victory's Asian Champions League qualifier against Thai club Muanthong United, fans displayed banners calling for "More Club, Less Franchise" and "Robson out", targeting Melbourne Victory Chief Executive Ian Robson, who has been leading negotiations with the supporters.

Despite such fan protests, the A-league is set for more billionaire antics with the puchase of an 80% stake in perennial under-performer Melbourne Heart by Manchester City ― the English Premier League giant owned by Sheikh Mansour of Dubai's ruling family.

Meanwhile, a consortium publicly headed by Primo Smallgoods owner Paul Lederer is set to buy the Western Sydney Wanderers for $12 million. Singaporean businessperson Jefferson Cheng is the primary financial backer.

But is such corporate ownership the best way to build the league and the world game in Australia?
SFC fans point out the problems with the club are bigger than Farina and stem from a culture of nepotism. Barlow, the board chair, is the son-in-law of owner Traktovenko.

What is the solution? The route taken in establishing the Wanderers in 2012 gives an indication. There was serious community engagement to decide key aspects of the club and strong connections with existing amateur and semi-professional clubs in the region were forged. This has helped establish the club as one of the most loyally and passionately supported within its short existence.

That degree of engagement was necessary for the FFA to win an $8 million grant from the then Gillard Labor government for the development of grassroots football in Western Sydney.

But will the club continue to offer such genuine engagement with fans now it is under corporate ownership?

Or will we see the kind of tokenistic fan engagement as has been offered to Sydney and Melbourne Victory supporters ― at most, winning the right to actively support their clubs on their terms, but never with a say over how the club is governed?

There is another option, which second-tier Queensland-based National Premier League club Northern Fury has opted for as part of its bid to build support for re-entering top-flight football.

The club launched a much-awaited community ownership option this month, in which ordinary supporters hold ownership over the club. This follows the example of Germany's Bundesliga (the nation's top league), where clubs are 51% owned by members.

Club chairperson Rabieh Krayem said members would "actually having a say in the club by voting for the board of directors" ― something a world away from the experiences of Melbourne Victory or Sydney supporters.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

SodaStream boycott gathers momentum

Originally published at Green Left Weekly.

The movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel has captured headlines around the world after actress Scarlett Johansson signed a promotion deal with Israeli company SodaStream.

Johansson signed the deal to become SodaStream's first “global brand ambassador” on January 1. A Super Bowl halftime commercial starring the actress airing on February 2.

However, the deal resulted in an instant furore due to the company's use of an Israeli occupied industrial settlement zone in Palestinian West Bank to make their home soda machines.

Oxfam, who Johansson has represented as a “global ambassador” for eight years, released a statement one week after the deal with SodaStream was signed, declaring that “businesses that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support”.

“Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law,” it said.

The international aid group announced on January 30 that it had accepted Johansson's resignation as ambassador, as her deal with SodaStream was “incompatible” with her duties.

In 2009, actress and Oxfam ambassador Kristin Davis signed a deal with Ahava, a cosmetics company that also makes its products in West Bank settlements. Oxfam condemned the deal, but did not formally sever its relationship with Davis ― making Johansson's resignation a first.

SodaStream claims to be an ethical product, with a byline of “set the bubbles free”.

On its website, SodaStream boasts that it is an “'Active Green' solution that minimises the huge eco-footprint caused by the manufacture, transport and waste of plastic bottles.”

The company's ethics, however, have not stopped it running a plant in the Mishor Adumim industrial settlement zone. It was built in 1996 on stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank adjoining the large residential settlement of Ma'ale Adumim.

Of the factory's 1300 workers, 950 are Palestinian ― 500 from the West Bank and 450 with Israeli citizenship.

Johansson has endorsed the company's decision to operate there as a way of “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights”.

But this line of argument ignores that the West Bank workers are unable to speak out for fear of having their work permits revoked by the company. It also bypasses the questions of land ownership and self-determination inherent in any discussion of the settlements.

Alun McDonald, an Oxfam spokesperson on Israel and the occupied West Bank, told that “the problem at the moment is it’s in an illegal settlement on occupied land”.

“If it’s an Israeli factory in a future Palestinian state, paying tax in Palestine and genuinely benefiting the economy, then it could be a good thing,” McDonald said. “Our opposition is not that it’s an Israeli company ― our position is the same for any company from any country working in settlements.”

A 2011 Who Profits report into the operations identified that the factory's municipal taxes go to the Ma'ale Adumim settlement Municipality, funding the growth of the settlement.

Who Profits quoted a 2000 interview with SodaStream founder Peter Wiseburgh stating that the decision to set up the plant was “not a political act”, but made because of the settlement's cheap rent and lax bureaucratic regulations.

The report also said the settlement block is strategically located on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, creating a barrier between the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, south and north of Jerusalem. The settlement and surrounding apartheid wall actively prevent economic activity or freedom of movement between the north and south of the West Bank.

The settlements are the front line of Israel's continued colonisation of Palestinian lands. More than 1000 Palestinian Bedouins were forcibly relocated so that Johansson's “bridge to peace” in the settlement block could be built.

In many ways, SodaStream's bid to downplay or nullify the controversy reflects the growing strength of the BDS movement.

Campaigners have been delighted to see the company suffer, with share values plummeting on the back of worse than forecasted earnings, and Johansson's Super Bowl ad being poorly received.

But the news has been overshadowed by Israel issuing final approval of 558 new settlements in East Jerusalem on February 5.

Further Israeli colonisation of Palestine, and the need for BDS to counter it, is only growing more urgent.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Stand with the Bolivarian revolution

Right now is a critical time in Venezuela. More disinformation is being spread by the opposition and the reactionaries supporting them around the world than anytime before. Social media's opportunities to democratise are being utilised to stifle the revolutionary process which began with the 1989 Caracazo uprising and came to fruition with the 1998 election of leftist president Hugo Chavez. Ever since the death of Chavez attempts to subvert this revolutionary process by the US and the Venezuelan oligarchs have been stepped up; first with the Capriles election campaign last year, and then, when that failed, with the kind of bald-faced crisis manufacturing that has not been seen since the 2002 coup attempt.

Now critical analysis of the reasons why we shouldn't support the reactionary protesters fighting the government is dearly needed - and we all need to step up efforts to counter misinformation being spread by social media. Some great resources:

Viva Venezuela, Viva Socialismo. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Australia changes position on Israeli settlements

Originally published in Green Left Weekly.

The Abbott government has sunk to a new diplomatic low, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggesting Israeli settlements should not be considered illegal.

Bishop made the comments during a visit to Israel. In a January 15 interview with the Times of Israel, she argued “the issue of settlements is absolutely and utterly fundamental to the negotiations that are under way and I think it’s appropriate that we give those negotiations every chance of succeeding”.

When asked if Israeli settlements inside Palestinian territory should be considered illegal, she replied: "I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal.”

If Bishop were interested in an answer, she would have to look no further than the 49th article of the Geneva convention, which says: "[An] Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the convention does apply to the West Bank — occupied by Israel during the 1967 war — and that settlement building and the construction of the apartheid wall that protects the settlements are in violation of the convention.

The Obama administration reaffirmed in November they "do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity" after negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government broke down.

However, the truth is Israel's allies, such as Australia and the US, have never exerted any real pressure to stop the expansion of settlements or insist on their removal from Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

The US continues to guarantee Israel's "qualitative military edge" over its neighbours. A 2007 memorandum of understanding guarantees $30 billion of military aid over 10 years.

Since the election of Tony Abbott’s government, Australia's pretence of diplomatic neutrality on the issue has been shed in favour of bold-faced support for Israel. As negotiations were breaking down, Australia abstained from a UN resolution calling on Israel to "stop all settlement activities”.

But global pressure on the apartheid state is growing, despite the blind eye turned by Western governments to the crimes and atrocities committed by Israel.

The latest wave of activism has targeted actress Scarlett Johansson for becoming the new face of Israeli company SodaStream, which makes its products in the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim.

In a recent interview with Channel 2, Israel's Minister of Justice ,Tzipi Livni, said Israel was facing "South-Africa style isolation" due to the settlements, and that they were "bricks in the wall of isolation around us”.

It is a position in stark contrast to that of Bishop, who said in the Times of Israel that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is “anti-Semitic”.

She said: “It identifies Israel out of all other nations as being worthy of a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign? Hypocritical beyond belief.”

Her comments were criticised by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, which said: "It is time for Australia to speak plainly to Israel about the urgent need to end the settlements, eliminate settler violence and set in place an internationally-supported process that results in withdrawal from the territories and a final resolution of the conflict.”

Bishop's comments have brought Australia's unilateral support for Israeli settlements back into the media. But the movement for BDS is not concerned only with settlements or settler violence.

The three fundamental demands of the BDS movement are for ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantling the apartheid wall; recognising the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting the right of return of Palestinian refugees abroad.

The movement stands for justice for all Palestinians — those exiled or assimilated by Israel as well as those in the West Bank. That is what makes BDS so threatening and terrifying to apologists for Israeli apartheid like Bishop.