Meet the Bob Crow Brigade: Young British Socialists Fighting ISIS and Patriarchy with the Kurds
They love deceased trade union leader Bob Crow almost as much as they hate ISIS.
From IRA slogans to solidarity messages with RMT workers, the Bob Crow Brigade know how to grab headlines. The group of angry young western socialists in red balaclavas who used to spend their weekends smashing up banks left their countries to pursue revolutionary ideas in the Syrian/Kurdish enclave, known locally as Rojava.
Named after the famous trade unionist, the brigade are a hodgepodge mix of disenfranchised youth who protested at home but felt they were ignored. Anarchists, socialists and feminists, they claim to follow the tradition of international volunteers who have historically fought against fascism.
The group, part of the International Freedom Battalion, said a lack of opportunities and social progression pushed them towards the frontline with ISIS and into what they see as tangible social change.
The Home Office have pointed out that travelling to a war zone means you could be putting yourself in "considerable danger". They also say that people who travel to fight may be committing crimes or terrorism related offences that could mean prosecution when people return. I have talked to fighters who have returned to Britain, then managed to go back to Kurdistan to fight again.
I caught up with 25-year-old Londoner, nom de guerre Gary Oak, who said that when they aren't fighting ISIS as part of a mobile unit, the group is promoting gender equality and socialism through social media.
VICE: Who exactly are the Bob Crow Brigade? Are you like... the 2010 student protestors who smashed up Millbank now gone to Syria?
Gary Oak: We're from Ireland, Scotland, Canada and England and none of us want the Queen on our money. The Irish comrades are leading on that one. Most of us are around 25 and none of us are students. We arrived with one but he lost the plot and disappeared back to Europe – just in time for the start of term. A sample of our jobs reveals some interesting similarities: assembly line worker, railway track-worker, farm labourer, removals, classroom assistant, bike courier, and unemployed/black economy. None of us have a career or a profession; we seem to see things in a much clearer way than our friends back home who have one. We are united not by a single political outlook but a no nonsense materialist way of looking at politics.
Were you involved in activism before coming to Syria or is this a new thing?
Most of us are trade unionists and we are all antifascists. Some of us did that anti-capitalist smash-up-a-bank thing in our youth, probably out of frustration at the Stop the War demonstrations' failure to stop the war. Some of us have only become active since the recession and those are the most committed to staying here – jobs, housing and education are totally out of their reach at home.
People are not treated equally in capitalist society. We reckon watching Disney [movies] alone would give you a strong socialist impulse. It's just that people are convinced not to act on it, that it won't work, that they'll fail. This is something we are trying to change, in our own small way.
Did you know each other before coming over?
Some of us met on the internet and through the amazing emigrant Kurdish and Turkish community, but mostly we only met at the training centre here and decided to stick together.
Was it a difficult to make the decision to travel to Syria?
The decision to come here was the easiest we've ever made. Every left-winger says they'd have fought as an International Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War, and this is our generation's Spain. This is a once in a century opportunity for us to participate in a revolution. It feels like all the people's movements of the last century are coming back anew for their centenary. If 1990 was "the end of history", this must be the sequel.
The Brigade got in a weird spat with then Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith
Can you describe your day to day life in Syria?
Each Tabur (battalion) is split into Takim (teams) of ten, and your day-to-day life is with your Takim. We each have a guard duty of an hour throughout the night, then we all get up at 5.30 and do exercise in front of whichever building we are living in – at the moment it's a house, before that we were in a school. A different person is responsible for cooking each day. After breakfast, some head off for training, meetings or missions, and about half stay to be on guard throughout the day. Most people sleep in the hottest part of the day having used the morning for work. In the evening we have a team meeting called a Tekmil where we practice criticism and self-criticism, and our commander lets us know what will be happening for us next.
Sometimes we have whole Tabur meetings to discuss internal issues or politics. The last one was on how we can dismantle patriarchal attitudes in our day-to-day work and where patriarchy comes from. It was very interesting because it was led by men asking questions of each other rather than the "shut up and listen to the women!" style of such meetings back home. This is because the women were asking us to discuss it, not putting themselves into an angry victim vs. oppressor role. We find the women's attitudes here amazing in general, and consequently the men's too, since they are part of creating this intense but unforced egalitarian atmosphere.
You've picked very specific campaigns to focus on like "Repeal the 8th", a pro-choice campaign in Ireland. Why did you choose this?
Our women comrades in the International Freedom Battalion asked us about the women's movement in our countries and we said the most heroic thing right now was the women in Ireland buying abortion pills then turning themselves in. They were really interested in this. After the Kurds entered the war with the Mount Sinjar Rescue, the YPJ spoke to thousands of Yezidi women from ISIS who had been raped as sex slaves or as "wives" awarded to the jihadis from abroad. From that point on it became clear that ISIS's systematic rapes were partly to leave behind future ISIS recruits, children who would be potential outcasts. The Rojava women's movement launched a campaign for European supporters to send abortion pills to help rescued women, and furthermore abortion is a completely legal process in Rojava since the revolution. So when our female comrades heard this wasn't the case in Ireland they asked how to show support.
Has the Rojava "revolution" lived up to your expectations?
Rojava has exceeded our expectations. Right from the start we were struck by the dedication, organisation, and intelligence of the side we have joined. Our month at the academy was amazing, a holistic revolutionary education course that starts at the beginning of human civilization, given by total characters. We have faith that the ideology is real, though the war hampers a lot of progress. Western supporters have a tendency to over-idealise the system, which leads some volunteers to have crazy expectations, for instance American anarchists have claimed that the police have been abolished here and the economy is a network of communes. The truth is the police have been socialised: there's a women's police force and women's courts and laws, and a local street by street system that polices their immediate community without resorting to criminalising people as much as possible. Amazing. There are several important commune pilot schemes too, but they are not the whole economy. We are socialists though, so we are more reassured that the system we find does make sense according to what we understand as possible, than to find insane ideological projects have squeezed out reality.
The name of your unit pays homage to deceased RMT leader Bob Crow. Why did you choose to name the unit after him?
Rather than working in partnership for a better deal from their employers, Bob believed that working people can and should be in control of the world they create. For that they called him "a dinosaur". Well dinosaurs roamed the earth. Normal people can do incredible things if they work together, just like Bob's life and his leadership of the RMT union showed. We have to get over this idea that we're not qualified, not allowed to get involved in politics. Some sad cases online tried to criticise us for not being former professional soldiers when that's our whole point – we're normal people playing our little part in something big. Just like every trade unionist is. The better organised we are against the elite, the better this planet will be, be it on the shop floor or on the battlefield.
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