Since the beginning of this round of #BLM actions in the USA, what feels like the start of a global reckoning with the impact and consequences of British and European colonialism, and an intensification of state control in many countries around the world, I’ve felt that anything I have to say will be nothing more than noise.
Thankfully, a conversation with some colleagues a few weeks ago reminded me that one thing I can offer is perspective.
My 50th birthday was this week. I’ve been involved in action for social and environmental change — activism in some shape or form — since I was 7 years old. I don’t get to discount or disregard that experience, or what it might have to offer at this time, just because the struggles that are currently most prominent aren’t ones that are banging down my personal door.
“The most radical thing you can have is a long memory.”
There’s a perception I’ve noticed among a lot of progressive and left-ish acquaintances that things are not just bad right now, but uniquely awful: that something has gone terribly, catastrophically wrong with our systems, with our societies. In short, that where we are is something new.
A conversation with some friends, and my partner’s recent purchases of books on the punk era reminded me of just how untrue that is. What we see happening now has been happening for a very, very long time; it’s just that most of ‘us’ — i.e. the white middle classes — haven’t had cause to be aware of it.
Just one example, from not that very long ago: the anti Poll Tax protests of spring 1990.
Content note: The following story contains police violence and media gaslighting.
It was on the last day of March in 1990. I was standing in Trafalgar Square, London, part of a 250,000 to 500,000 person crowd protesting the Poll Tax (‘Community Charge’).
After a long day of peaceful marching and good humoured protest, police had made the decision to kettle (block) us into the square. For hours, protestors were ridden over by police on horseback, knocked down by police in riot vans, beaten up by police in riot gear, while the South African embassy burned in the background. Through it all, we were still chanting, ‘NO POLL TAX’.
One of the people I was there with had a small radio on them. In the midst of the mayhem, they decided to turn it on, and tuned in to BBC Radio 4 in time for the news. The news presenter announced that ‘40,000 protestors have attacked police’.
The distance between that statement and what I had witnessed over the past several hours was stark.
I was used to the media downplaying the size of demonstrations and protests — I’d been attending them for 13 years at that point, after all. I was used to expecting the police to behave badly, with minimal provocation. What I was not prepared for was such a bald-faced lie from a ‘trustworthy’ news source.
I had a panic attack. One of my friends found a medic. Our whole group was supported by a paramedic team to leave the police kettling zone.
The next day, every single news outlet repeated the exact same line that the BBC radio news had peddled the evening before, even the ‘left wing’ papers I had previously trusted. The only report I read in the days that followed that was accurate to my experience was in Spare Rib magazine, a feminist publication which sadly ceased publication not long after.
In the weeks that followed, every time I was in a crowded setting, I panicked. Every time I saw anyone in police uniform, I panicked. That one experience, out of a decade and a half of protest, had completely changed my perspective on activism, on policing, on the media, and on politics as a whole. Even though the Poll Tax was indeed scrapped, I had been left with a deep and abiding cynicism about activism-as-usual.
Two years later, I found the courage to attend a demonstration again, this time against the 1992 Iraq War. It compounded my feeling of powerlessness in the face of political and media elites: no matter what the public did or said, no matter the legalities or moralities at stake, the government would do what it had already decided upon.
I started to look for ways of changing the world that disengaged completely from the status quo, rather than engaging in head on challenge.
How could I better support my own resilience and that of others?
How might we build alternative systems and structures?
What might creating the world we wanted to see look like?
And what does this have to do with our current moment?
It is this:
The only difference between times of unrest and times of peace is that the violence of the state is unmasked by the people’s refusal to accept it.
You may be nodding your head in recognition at this statement.
You may find it curious or puzzling.
You may feel shocked and strongly disagree.
Regardless of how it strikes you, this statement is my personal conclusion, after a lifetime of engaging in and observing many, many movements, many, many strategies for and approaches to social and environmental change, and many, many state and corporate responses.
I was able to step away from that confrontation with state violence, to make a choice to avoid it, because I was white, physically small, perceived as female, and have a lot of formal education. Rather than seeking such confrontations out through joining street actions, protests and demonstrations, I chose instead to focus on healing, education, and creating alternative systems and structures in ways that aligned with the world I wanted to see.
In some ways, I used that choice as a way to avoid facing the fact that systems of oppression are at work in the world every single day, and that many of them work in my favour. In other ways, making a choice for healing, education and creation enabled me to learn and develop the tools, the strength, the resilience I need to face that fact more and more directly.
“Resistance is NOT a one lane highway. Maybe your lane is protesting, maybe your lane is organizing, maybe your lane is counseling, maybe your lane is art activism, maybe your lane is surviving the day.
“Do NOT feel guilty for not occupying every lane. We need all of them.”
I have neither the bodily resilience nor the kind of courage required to place myself in direct and physical opposition to the systems that cause harm. I believe that I can best play my role in social and environmental change through healing, education, and creation of what I want to see, and through supporting others to do the same.
And you? Are you called to resistance work, to activism, in any form? If so, what is the role you feel called upon to play?
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