From another two former MFJ members, whose stories are published anonymously for safety. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I first came into contact with MfJ at UK Black Pride in the summer of 2010, after completing my undergraduate degree. I was 22 at the time. They had a stall with leaflets and the first person I spoke with was a 1995 recruit. I was impressed by what they had to say about racism and homophobia and I stayed in touch with the group (or they stayed in touch with me) and I began attending the Sunday meetings they held at the YMCA in Tottenham Court Road. MfJ seemed very small at the time, made up mainly of RIL members and a few asylum seekers they had come across at Pride events.
MfJ had regular Sunday meetings which had two distinct parts: In the first part we were encouraged to relate our personal experiences of ‘struggle’ to the book The narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass. Many of those present were LGBT asylum seekers and so had to prepare for their asylum cases. MfJ leadership often stated that reading the book was preparation for writing one’s own narrative of personal struggle, i.e. a personal statement. We read the Narrative very very slowly and in a lot of detail, and people were always encouraged to speak about personal experiences, and they would. These were often very personal and traumatic experiences, discussed in a room of relative strangers and included accounts of being raped/beaten or watching a gay partner being killed or of being held in detention. This put us all in a highly vulnerable psychological state, making us more vulnerable to suggestion.
The meetings went on for hours. The chairperson mainly spoke and would appear frustrated when others didn’t speak often enough. There was a lot of psychological intimidation involved. When you offered an opinion that differed from that of the leadership you were shutdown. This is perhaps why people didn’t speak all that much. On reflection it is now clear that this part of the meeting was information gathering, to work out where we were ideologically on things like the family, the state etc, and to control us more effectively. In the second part the two RIL members – who were always present – would state what was planned for the week ahead and to get people to sign up to help out. This was a time to organise for leafleting, attending court hearings, going to other political meetings etc.
After attending a number of MfJ meetings I applied for a job at a community college, which an RIL member told me about. She said that there was a position at her workplace in her department and thought I should apply because it would make me more committed to the cause/organisation. I remember thinking this was a weird thing to say, but also liked how serious the organisation appeared to be. It was organising against the tripling of tuition fees at the time and so working and organising at this particular educational institution seemed to be the perfect place. I began the job in November 2010.
RWL leader and BAMN chairperson Shanta Driver came to London many times when I was involved in MfJ. There were many demonstrations taking place in 2010/11, as well as court cases deemed important to the organisation. Shanta would run the MfJ meetings when she was in London and it soon became clear that she, and not the UK chair, was the leader. She honed in on and organised private one-on-one meetings with her ‘favourites’ to discuss their ‘political development’. I was one of these people. She could also talk for hours about what was essentially nothing much, but made everything we were doing sound so historically important to the ‘struggle of the oppressed’. I experienced a lot of awe and love for her, what I now understand to be the result of love bombing.
One day I had a huge argument with family members and decided to leave home. MfJ had learned a lot about my family dynamic and as a result of the way in which they talked about the family I became convinced that I should be away from mine. I also started distancing myself from friends. This was the beginning of the isolation.
MfJ organised for me to move in with one of the RIL members and we began to discuss finding housing. My partner at the time had also joined MfJ and moved out of her place and into an MfJ apartment. We were both flown out to Detroit that summer, where MfJ’s sister organisation, BAMN, is based for a leadership summer school. The focus for this summer school was abuse.
In total five people flew from London to Detroit (two RIL members and 3 MfJ new members). I arrived in Detroit and was there for three weeks. I was feeling quite vulnerable as I had just left the family home. The membership of BAMN was much younger and more student-based. The group meetings were huge (40 plus) and much longer in comparison to MfJ’s. Members lived together and the whole operation seemed more controlling than MfJ in London. There was even a former MfJ member who had been flown to Detroit – for ‘political education’ – and had just not gone back.
BAMN has an office in downtown Detroit, close to the Canadian border. The first week of day-long meetings on abuse were held there. We were encouraged to talk about our histories of abuse and link it to political struggle: why was it that so many people who ‘came into struggle’ were abused as children? How do we put our whole lives behind the struggle for the oppressed? Where can we find decent therapists who will support us and not tell us to get out of struggle? Why do relationships get in the way of struggle? And so forth. Shanta talked about being single and compared her rejection of sexual relationships to Frederick Douglass’ fight to escape slavery in his first autobiography. She indicated that being a leader in the struggle for the oppressed would require doing this. She also once said that it was important for the organisation know about members’ partners, something I found a little scary.
Another week was spent at a BAMN house somewhere else in the city. I can’t remember the exact location, only that it was the home of the real leader, Leland, was very run-down and there were holes in the walls. It was the total opposite of the BAMN office. A weird thing happened during a study that Leland was leading. Leland was discussing Martin Luther King’s childhood and the abuse he experienced and I remember disagreeing with him on one particular point. He responded in a really aggressive and demeaning way. His demeanour went from very soft and gentle to clearly hostile and shaking almost. He ranted a very very very long reply and this seemed to change the atmosphere. I felt very emotionally vulnerable but decided to respond and held up my hand after he finished. I was sitting at the front, so it was clear to see me but he ignored and looked for others to chime in until a BAMN member pointed out that I had my hand up. It was a strange and quite humiliating experience, and it stayed with me.
When we were in the states, Shanta decided where everyone from London would stay. My partner and I were put in different houses and when we decided to spend a night together we were treated differently by other BAMN members. When we decided to sleep apart we were ‘rewarded’ with warmth and taken out to lunch. It was clear that there was a feeling that we shouldn’t be together and by the time we got back to London, I felt like I would be judged if I continued on with the relationship.
One day, quite close towards the end of the trip, someone in BAMN was kicked out. I forget his name but he had been accused of pickpocketing during the group-meetings. He apologised to the group and we thought that was the end of it, but then something else happened (I still don’t know what exactly) which meant that he was completely kicked out. This decision was taken without involving the whole organisation and so was argued against as undemocratic. Other members of BAMN who disagreed with this decision decided to petition the leadership and I joined the petitioning side. I still thought we were a democratic organisation – as was often said at MfJ meetings – and so supposed to put all major decisions to a vote.
The next day MfJ members were kept away from BAMN members. Shanta came by a BAMN house to pick up the MfJ chair person and they went away to have a meeting. This took hours. When they came back, all MfJ members were gathered together and a debate ensued. We were basically argued into submission and accused of using an ‘anarchist method’ as opposed to the correct ‘Marxist method’ in our political approach. We hadn’t, according to them, gathered all the facts before we petitioned BAMN leadership and we had threatened the organisation’s security as a result (Shanta mentioned something briefly about the FBI/infiltration). I finally accepted that I didn’t understand how these things (leadership, decisions etc) were supposed to work and that my actions could have potentially been a danger to the group. I was so confused, tired and humiliated by the week’s’ events and didn’t want to fight anymore.
When I got back to London at the end of July I had no where to live. I arrived at the RIL/MfJ member’s place and was told that perhaps I should go back home to my mother’s house. I was so shocked by this as I had only just come off the plane and needed to sleep. I was even more shocked when I arrived at the regular Sunday meeting. The air, so to speak, had changed and it was clear that RIL had closed ranks. I felt isolated from my family at this time (the BAMN abuse studies had convinced me that I couldn’t be in touch with my family) and didn’t feel like I could go back. I had also by this time broken up with my partner. MfJ, through a lot of manipulation, had convinced me that our relationship wasn’t healthy.
At this point I was alone and living in a homeless women’s hostel. The RIL member and work colleague told me that she had let our boss know that I could no longer work as I was homeless and trying to find a place to live. So I became jobless too. I was also told, by another RIL leader that I could no longer take part in the Marxist reading group they had recently started running because of the political method (‘the anarchist method’) I had demonstrated in Detroit. I think MfJ at this point was trying to get rid of me, and a part of me knew this but the other part thought I was just being tested. My ex had also demonstrated this ‘political method’ by petitioning the leadership but RIL members were decidedly warm towards her. I began to feel paranoid at this point.
By August I had found a new place to live and within 3-4 weeks was back at work, just after term had begun. I felt emotionally battered by the year’s experience but I also felt that I just needed to prove myself again. This meant going to all the meetings, doing all the jobs given to me (including standing outside colleges and leafleting in the rain by myself) and sticking to the ‘political method’. I shut down my critical thinking and thought many times that I should stop thinking in general as this was dangerous for ‘the struggle’. I was also partly relieved as I would never really have to ‘lead the oppressed’, just follow orders. But I had in the process given up much of myself.
I was told by my work colleague and RIL member that I was depressed and should start therapy in order to become a better leader. I was depressed, but this is because I was ‘in struggle’ and had no stable support network. I was also told to go on anti-depressants and was taken to my local doctor by an RIL member to get a prescription. A surprisingly high number of BAMN members in the US were on anti-depressants. I imagine they were told to go on them. I was on medication for two years.
I finally left the organisation because I was so confused and overwhelmed by the hot and cold responses. I realised that I couldn’t go on being this unhappy and knew that something had to change, so I decided to take a break. Members continued to call me all the time and one member, someone I considered a friend and who was recruited at the same time as I, was sent to meet with me. After a few months I went back to what would be my final MfJ meeting where I was greeted by the leadership with warm smiles. This was sometime in the Summer of 2013. I was 25.
The new MfJ Facebook page has pictures of me from my time in the organisation dating back over 4 years ago. I find this so weird and imagine that most of the people in those pictures are no longer involved in the group. It really is a cult and I am so grateful that I found a way out.”
“I met a MFJ member in 2010 when a classmate of mine was detained to be deported to Afghanistan. MFJ was trying to stop the deportation by petitioning, organizing demonstrations etc. I wanted to help him, so I joined the events that they were organising. Later I met 2 more members and I joined them. Then they were 3 people, and a few followers like myself. I was asked to join their Sunday studies at the YMCA in Totenham Court Road, I attended a few but I couldn’t understand much as I was just learning English at the college. At the time I was an asylum seeker, I had been in the UK for a year. MFJ members were calling me, asking me to help them. One of them asked me to meet her once for a drink and told me about the abuse that she experienced as a child. I was surprised as it was such a private matter so I told her about my experience too. I felt so close to her, I thought we became real friends, she was so kind and friendly.
I was happy to be part of the group and they were very welcoming but also demanding. I liked going to demonstrations with them. They were asking me to constantly attend meetings, go for leafleting etc. They were expecting commitment I did not want to give. So I withdrew myself. Once they called me and asked me to meet Shanta who came from US. I met her, I was very impressed. I admired her, loved her but I told her that I couldn’t do what they were expecting. She thought I needed time and first I needed to get my asylum papers. She also invited me US .
A couple of months later I was rejected by the home office and was preparing for my hearing. The MFJ members were trying to help me, although I did not ask for help I was grateful. At the time I was depressed, it was a very difficult process. They were constantly calling, offering help, the kindness, the friendship, more importantly comradeship was amazing. It meant a lot because I was alone in a foreign country as an asylum seeker. Many people from MFJ including the 3 main people attended my hearing. They were all very supportive. Not long after that I got accepted as a refugee.
I felt like I needed to go back to MFJ, then the Sunday studies were in SOAS and it was much more crowded. By this time my English was a little bit better but I did not want to join Sunday studies. I did not want to commit totally but I wanted to attend the other asylum seekers’ hearings in order to support them. The main three people were ignoring me, whenever I wanted to talk to them they were very cold and distant. Their attitude towards me was totally changed. The pressure was very clear, they were expecting commitment. I was in touch with a couple of friends who were members. I heard that Shanta was in London so I went to SOAS to see her but she ignored me as well. I went to talk to her but she was distant too.
I was 33 years old with a political background. It was not difficult to tell this was not the behaviour of comrades, nor friends! So I left them for good.”