TW: Violence against women, domestic abuse, rape
By Abbie Mulcairn
The debate over the effectiveness of ‘traditional’ forms of campaigning like phone banking, door knocking, compared with ‘direct’ actions like demonstrations, protests and occupations, is long-running, but ultimately counter-productive. As part of this debate, direct action is often attacked for ignoring or speaking over the voices of ‘ordinary people’, or for having little impact in the ‘real world’.
But feminist activist groups popping up around the UK are showing both the government and the public why direct action is effective and necessary. Thirty-four domestic violence refuges have been shut down in the past year while 1 in 3 women are experiencing violence at the hands of their partner; these are problems which require radical engagement. Since their inception, Sisters Uncut, Movement for Justice and other groups like these have transcended their original purposes and are fighting the battle against the Tory austerity-agenda and state sanctioned violence against women head on.
Among stunts like dying the fountain at Trafalgar square red to commemorate the women who died at the hands of abusive partners, and staging a die-in at the Suffragette movie premiere one of the most iconic Sisters Uncut actions to date is the occupation of social housing in Hackney. The sisters occupied the residency to protest the councils appalling lack of provisions for victims of domestic violence, and to highlight how BME women are being adversely affected by cuts. In Southwark, where South End Sisters occupied a council flat this year, 1,270 flats were left unoccupied, while Southwark council turned away 47% of homeless survivors of domestic violence. The message of these occupations is clear, and it is written across every placard and banner; ‘They cut, we bleed’. The Sisters had a list of demands and refused to leave the premises, turning the houses into community centres and refuges, until the Councils addressed their demands.
The success of groups like Sisters Uncut is undeniable, and yet it is often dismissed by ‘traditional’ campaigners. Sisters Uncut is run collectively, by women and non-binary people, all of whom have personal experience of the brutality of Tory cuts. Sisters have little time for the moans of people claiming that actions are ‘inconvenient’. When the government is funding the institutionalised abuse and assault of women, radical action needs to be taken to keep our sisters safe. And at a time when the media repeatedly fails to report on thousands of people taking to the street in anti-austerity marches, it’s direct action which is getting the goods and grabbing the headlines.
Sisters Uncut aren’t the only group taking radical non-violent direct action against the state violence. Movement for Justice’s protests at Yarls Wood are a great example of truly intersectional, direct action campaigning. Yarls Wood is a detention centre in Bedfordshire which holds around 400 detainees, mostly vulnerable women and children, for indefinite amounts of time before their deportation. Most notably, it is notorious for the abuse and sexual assault committed by guards against the women inside. A recent documentary by Channel 4 showed the types of racist attacks that BME women in the centre were subjected to. Over 70% of the women inside are survivors of rape or domestic abuse, and are being locked up for no reason other than trying to escape persecution and violence and trying to flee to safety.
The idea that only traditional forms of activism are worthwhile is deeply offensive to the people in this country who can’t afford the luxury of having a front door.
The women inside Yarls Wood detention centre are having their basic human rights violated; and they don’t have the luxury of having their door knocked on. They do not have the luxury of being flyered in the street or signing a change.com petition. They don’t see your tweets or your whiteboard campaigns. Advocates of ‘traditional’ campaigning accuse us of ‘not listening to normal people’, but at Yarls Wood, activists are making the biggest effort possible to contact the women inside. The idea that only traditional forms of activism are worthwhile is deeply offensive to the people in this country who can’t afford the luxury of having a front door. Actions which can and do reach out to the hardest to contact in society are more often than not the most effective campaigns and we should be replicating their tactics.
The need for direct action is so immediate and necessary in Yarl’s Wood. Intersectionality is not just a buzzword for these groups; it is something that directly informs their politics and actions. In a detention centre where over a quarter of inmates regularly self-harm, radical action is needed and its women that are leading the charge. The women inside Yarl’s Wood are counting down the days until December 3rd so they can finally feel some comfort in the knowledge that we are out fighting with them.
In June of 2015, 300 people gathered outside of Yarl’s Wood and tore down the outer surrounding fence. Feminist activists are tearing down the barriers between the state and vulnerable women. They are occupying homes and providing safety for victims of domestic violence, and they are giving councils no other options than to commit to reviewing their strategies for helping survivors.
In their actions, the Movement for Justice and Sisters Uncut refute every criticism of the effectiveness of grassroots activism. Opponents of extra-parliamentary campaigns often claim that they garner little press coverage, they don’t reach out to people who aren’t already active campaigners and that they rarely incite real change. It is hard to see how these criticisms hold any weight when considering the impact of such high-profile, feminist direct action groups.
This type of organising isn’t unique to feminist groups. Disabled People Against Cuts, Student Rent Strikes, and London Radical Housing Network are all doing outstanding direct actions, on a regular basis, that have led to huge tangible change. We need to learn from all these groups about how to support grassroots activism without speaking over the most vulnerable. We need to learn to link our campaigns with a wider fight against austerity and most importantly, we need to make sure that we are always fighting using every tactic in the book, including those that are deemed ‘radical’. Traditional campaigning is useful for targeting potential voters, for building a better society for the future. But if we are going to protect and defend the most vulnerable people in our society, in the here and now, radical direct action is the only choice.
The Yarls Wood demonstration is happening on the 3rd of December and is set to be the biggest yet. Tickets for coaches are still available across the country. Pack your whistles and your pots and pans, and help to Shut Down Yarls Wood.
Header image via morganpotts.com