Tens of thousands celebrate the 135th Durham Miners Gala where campaigners highlight the proposed rendition of Julian Assange to the US

Saturday 13 July saw a massive turn out at the 135th Big Meeting organised by the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) now in its 150th year. The organisers claim that the Gala is the largest celebration of community and working class culture in the world and is a tribute to the DMA who have revived the celebrations in recent years, giving it stronger community, national and international involvements. Despite the brutal shutting down of the UK’s mining industry following the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike and the devastation of their communities which threatened the very future of the the DMA, the Big Meeting goes from strength to strength.

Much of this is due to the setting up in 2015 of MARRAS, the Friends of Durham Miners’ Gala. The Friends was set up by the Durham Miners’ Association, together with several major trade unions, to secure the long-term future of the Gala. Their aims is to bring together individuals and groups to support the Gala financially and create a fund to cover the costs of running it as well as to support various community banner groups. By working together they aim to make sure that the principles carried forward over the Gala’s long history are upheld for generations to come. You can find out more and join by going to: https://www.friendsofdurhamminersgala.org/join_us

Despite Saturday’s mid morning rain, the crowds, many of whom had marched behind their local banners, greeted the platform speakers with enthusiasm. None more so than local MP Laura Pidcock MP who was cheered to the overcast skies. She spoke strongly against the prospect of a Johnson led government which she saw as continuing Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal economic free market policies. “Disillusion and disappointment haunt our communities”, she said with exploitation being commonplace, yet invisible.

Other women platform speakers were Shami Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow attorney general, and Rebecca Long Bailey, bringing a better gender balance to the platform than in previous years. The crowd also heard from other platform speakers including Len McCluskey, head of Unite, Dave Ward head of the Communications Workers Union and Dave Prentis of UNISON. But it was left to Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn to set out the party’s radical alternative vision for the future, seeking to heal the divisions brought about by the 2016 referendum. He reassured listeners that anti Semitism and racism would not be tolerated. As the rain cleared the Labour leader said that he wanted to lead a Labour government that would transform society and offer real hope to the next generation. The sun came out and the appreciative crowd gave him an enthusiastic send off especially following his commitment that a future Labour government would investigate police violence against the miners during the 1984/85 strike including that which took place at Orgreave in South Yorkshire.

Another important feature of the Gala is the presence of dozens of trade union, community, political and campaigning organisations promoting their campaigns. This year there was a stall in support of the campaign to stop the deportation of the WikiLeaks founder and journalist Julian Assange to the United States. It was organised by the Socialist Equality Party, who also interviewed me about the case (see https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/07/15/durh-j15.html

Julian faces extradition proceedings following a decision last month by the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) to agree to extradition proceeding in the British courts. The decision came a few days after an attempt to extradite him to Sweden suffered a setback after a court in Uppsala said he did not need to be detained. According to press reports, the ruling by the district court prevents Swedish prosecutors from immediately applying for an extradition warrant for Assange to face an allegation of rape dating back to 2010, which he denies.

Incidentally if you want to read a very thorough account of the attempts by the Swedish authorities to secure Julian’s extradition, you can do no better than turn to the account given by Geoffrey Robinson QC in his excellent book ‘Rather his Own Man’ published last year (see Chapter 14 ‘Assange in Ecuador’). Geoffrey describes in great detail how the US had been hurt by a “pesky Australian”, ‘so they targeted him by grand jury proceedings and the military took out its anger on young Chelsea Manning, treating her abominably in prison, until Hilary Clinton’s press spokesman, P.J. Crowley, resigned in protest…’ ( in March 2011.) Geoffrey Robinson, a world famous human rights lawyer, defended Julian against extradition proceedings in the United Kingdom some 9 years ago. Chelsea is now in prison for a second time for refusing to testify to a US federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. She continues to object to the “secrecy of the grand jury process” and now faces a fine of $500 for every day she refuses to testify.

The threats to both Julian and Chelsea are serious. Julian faces a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison in the US if convicted of all the charges against him, which is why a strong world-wide campaign is urgently needed.

After the WikiLeaks founder was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and arrested earlier this year, NUJ assistant general secretary Seamus Dooley said: “The NUJ is shocked and concerned by the actions of the authorities today in relation to Julian Assange. His lawyer has confirmed he has been arrested not just for breach of bail conditions, but also in relation to a US extradition request.

“The UK should not be acting on behalf of the Trump administration in this case. The NUJ recognises the inherent link between and importance of leaked confidential documents and journalism reporting in the public interest.

“It should be remembered that in April 2010 WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, a video showing a 2007 US Apache helicopter attack upon individuals in Baghdad, more than 23 people were killed including two Reuters journalists. The manner in which Assange is treated will be of great significance to the practice of journalism.”

At last month’s International Federation of Journalists Congress (IFJ) in Tunisia, the NUJ supported an emergency motion highlighting the severe dangers to journalism posed by the recent indictments filed by the US government against Julian Assange. Congress called for this to be resisted by the governments of UK and Australia, highlighting how the decision to prosecute, for the receipt and publication of information clearly in the public interest, is clearly at odds with previous decisions of the US Supreme Court to protect First Amendment rights.

These are solid foundations to strengthen the international campaign to get the charges dropped against Julian and strike a blow for press freedom and the right to report in the public interest. In the meantime the plight of Chelsea Manning must not be forgotten. Let us do our best to make sure both of them are free by the time the Gala meets next year. As the campaigning journalist and film maker John Pilger says; “Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange are as brave and principled as any who struggled for historic rights of freedom for all,”

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