We Shall Overcome began life as a response to the May 2015 General Election. Alarmed by the result, and the threat of further cuts that were sure to follow, a handful of us decided a collective response from the artistic community was required and set about spreading the word.
It started as a protest, but soon developed into something much bigger and much more effective. Many of us had been playing benefits for local food banks since 2012/13 when austerity really began to bite, so we came up with the idea of 'We Shall Overcome' events being a loose cross between a night of protest and a benefit gig, or as we later came to describe it:
'A Raised Fist and a Helping Hand'.
What we hadn't reckoned on was the strength of the response. Originally thinking a dozen or so of these gigs in different towns and cities across the UK would be something to aim at, we soon came to understand that the Labour Party's position- at that time in support of the cuts- had created a vacuum on the Left of politics, full of people who were tired of being ignored, tired of always fighting against something, who wanted something to fight for.
Our dozen or so gigs, as I type this article, has become 750, in 142 different towns and cities, across nine countries on three continents; and together those events have raised an estimated £350,000 worth of food, cash, clothing, bedding, furniture and electrical goods for those often very vulnerable people living at the sharp end of Tory neglect.
I say estimated because we simply don't know. This is politics at the grassroots in the pubs, clubs, community centres and village halls where people from all walks of life and many differing viewpoints leave their various items of political baggage at the door and pitch in to help solve the immediate problems before them. If you like, putting the 'social' back in 'socialism'.
They ran the events themselves and they chose where their donations went. With some it was their local food bank, with others it was a soup kitchen or a homeless outreach project, with others a pop-up cafe or a crisis centre for victims of domestic abuse; we left this up to individual organisers as they knew their towns better than anyone, and they knew where need was greatest. In this way We Shall Overcome helped empower people to take control of their own problems, and tired of handing responsibility to authorities too cash-strapped to care, became that someone somewhere who did something about it.
It isn't just music, we have poetry recitals, snooker tournaments, art auctions, board game contests, bake-offs, history walks; whatever talents people have can be brought to the table to help others if you think about it, and We Shall Overcome provides a banner to march under for anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and help. This is not charity, this is solidarity with those on the streets of our towns and cities who are being hit hardest of all, and we will not stop until there is no longer any need for our voices because austerity has been consigned to the dustbin of history and this party in government is finished, discredited and out of power for a generation.
We are a movement without leaders. Leaders disempower people. We want We Shall Overcome to rise up wherever need is greatest and in the hands of whoever is prepared to stand up and fight. I get the job of typing this article because I have a big mouth and can write pretty well without using long words, but it takes thousands of willing people to make WSO happen and without any of them we are weaker.
Much loved and respected landlady of the Station Pub, Pauline Town pictured here with Joe Solo
That said, if we had to shine a light on one person in this movement who typifies what we are all about, it would be Pauline Town. Pauline runs The Station Hotel in Ashton-under-Lyne, which is less like a pub these days and more like a drop-in community centre. There, thanks to Pauline and a network of willing accomplices, you can get a food parcel, a hot drink, a dry sleeping bag or tent if you're rough-sleeping, advice on where to get a bed for the night, and every single day of the year she lovingly prepares packed lunches for each of the street-homeless or squatters in the town. No-one gets left behind. Not on her watch. Her motto is: "If I have to save the world one life at a time, then that's what I'm going to do", and in an age of ideological bickering and keyboard warriors it is incredibly inspiring to see someone roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, where the politics really is, outside of our own front doors.
Joe and friends at The Station Pub. They have live bands on Friday and Saturday each week and a community music project for people with learning difficulties every Thursday called Head Jam from 7pm – 9pm. http://www.our-pub.co.uk/Pubs/StationHotel.php
We Shall Overcome is running all year wherever we have willing organisers, and you can find details of how to start an event, or how to contact us on our website at:
The rest is up to you.
We need your help. Your community needs you to help.
Joe Solo for Political Provocateur
Edited by Sandra Sharp for Political Provocateur