East London Suffragette Festival

East London Suffragette Festival banner

I’m delighted to confirm that I will be speaking on the Hidden Histories panel as part of the East London Suffragette Festival.

The event runs between 10am – 5pm on Saturday 9th August; the panel starts at 11:45am. It’s free and is at Toynbee Hall, London – a place seeped in the radical history of the East End and where many notable suffrage campaigners spoke.

The Hidden Histories panel will be discussing who gets left out of the history books, how history is shaped by what is recorded and who records it, how a multiplicity of narratives are boiled down into stereotypes, and why it is important to uncover these hidden histories.

I’m really excited about speaking because this ties in incredibly well with my research on newspaper discourses of the suffrage movement; it was striking how differently The Times was talking about the suffrage movement to how campaigners themselves saw both the campaign and themselves. I argue that the multiplicity of suffrage identities, aims and experiences were conflated into narratives about suffrage disturbance, outrage, violence and disorder. This extended to blurring the distinction between constitutionalist and militant approaches – a distinction that suffrage campaigners saw as very important and which they frequently wrote and spoke about.

However, there is one place in the newspaper where suffrage campaigners’ voices are heard: in the letters to the editor. In my forthcoming book, I analyse this section of the newspaper separately – and find that the areas of concern are very different. Discussion of suffrage direct action framed in terms of disorder and violence appear much less frequently – instead, there is concern for prisoners, discussion of leadership and clever, witty refutations of stereotypes of suffrage campaigners.

I believe that the media representation of the suffrage movement is not so different to the media representation of other protest movements. Having been involved with various social justice, feminist, race and queer activism(s) for over a decade, I am aware of the ways that even peaceful direct action can be reported as disturbingly, frighteningly violent. Like the suffrage campaigners, we have debates about the forms our protests should take, how to create understanding and sympathy from those who don’t know much about us, how to include people in our movement, how to protect ourselves from violence, intimidation and burnout, how to create and maintain sustainable, compassionate activism.

Uncovering these so-called hidden histories (hidden to whom?) helps us challenge dominant narratives, locate diversity in campaigns and, ultimately, recognise historical campaigners as people not so very different from ourselves. In researching the suffrage movement, I also discovered a history – and a legacy – of activism.

Police infiltration, then and now

Protests outside Parliament

Suffragette photo by Victoria Gray, taken 24/10/2012; other photo by K Gupta taken 9/12/2010

POLICE SPIES AMONG THE MILITANTS.

LETTERS FROM A DETECTIVE.

The Suffragette this week says that in the attempt to repress the militant women’s agitation, the Government has enrolled an enormous number of plain-clothes political police, hundreds of whom prowl round the dwellings and meeting-places of suffragist leaders. It adds:-

At private meetings at times police spies are found, having gained admission by first becoming members of the Suffrage Society, under whose auspices such meetings are held, and gradually wormed their way into the confidence of staunch friends.

When it is difficult for some reason for a detective to join a suffrage society, the plan of employing spies is adopted. For a consideration these hirelings will do their best to find out the plans of the militants. The following specimens from correspondence duly authenticated will furnish some idea as to the methods of the so-called political department of Scotland-yard. The letters were sent through the post to a spy who had joined one of the men’s unions for woman suffrage, and were written by a well-known detective who has on more than one occasion participated in the arrest and trial of suffragists.

The letters quoted contain the following passages:-

Don’t fail to let me know if you are going to Town Hall, Battersea, on Thursday, and if S. P. will be there.

Sincerely trust that you suffered no ill effects from the wrestling bout in which I hear you took part, – old boy, try and go up and find out all you can re G- and D- (the names of two officials of a men’s union), or anything else going and let me know either by letter or tell me where and what time I can see you as I want to defray your out of pocket expenses. I am enclosing a postal order for you to have a drink, and hope you got the one I sent last week. In the meantime, – old boy, send anything you get to hear of concerning intentions of your union addressed to me at Scotland-yard, which will be opened and afterwards sent to me.

P.S.-In case anything is on during opening of Parliament, don’t forget to lot me have a line at office.

The same journal announces that Mrs. Pankhurst’s next public meeting will take place at Lowestoft on Wednesday, April 15.

The content of this article is startlingly contemporary: police gradually infiltrating activist organisations, gradually gaining trust and acceptance of their members and becoming trusted friends, but reporting everything to their handlers. This article, however, was published in 1914. I was reminded of it as I read this article about present day surveillance of activists. In it, Ellie Mae O’Hagan describes a conversation she had with a friend:

And then the conversation turned to something less unremarkable; something most people will never talk about with their friends. What if none of the memories we share, the secrets we’ve told each other, or the histories we’ve disclosed to one another were real? What if everything we knew about each other was based on a lie, so that one of us could extract information from the other that would eventually be used against them?

I am also based in Nottingham, and the uncomfortable fact remains that while I never met Mark Kennedy/Mark Stone, I have marched and occupied and planned and stood in the cold alongside those who did. In light of that, why should they trust me? Why should I trust them?

While there are lots of things activists can do to guard against surveillance – the Reporters Without Borders Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents offers a good introduction to online and digital security – infiltration is very difficult to guard against. Is there much point in setting up elaborate email encryption if an infiltrator has access to the account password? Is there much point in carefully setting up meetings or using clean SIM cards and phones if someone has your details anyway?

Closely linked to police infiltrators is the role of the agent provocateur – someone from outside the activist organisation pretending to be part of the organisation and engaging in or encouraging acts that the activists themselves would be wary of. This can range from an agent provocateur slipping in amongst the black bloc to an embedded police infiltrator helping to plan and organise acts of direct action.

One of the posts I’ve read about police infiltration is this one discussing four main dangers resulting from infiltration. The problems of evidence gathered by the infiltrator, the emotional harm to activists and the potential for an infiltrator to disrupt, divide or derail the activist organisation seem pretty obvious but there’s a fourth danger – that of activist organisations becoming less trusting, more closed and more difficult for newcomers to get involved. As the article points out, it’s not newcomers who pose a threat; it’s our friends, lovers, co-workers, housemates – people embedded in our community – who are more likely to be infiltrators. As Mark Kennedy shows, it’s the people who put money into funding campaigns, dedicate a lot of their time and energy towards campaigns and are most enthusiastic about direct action who should worry us.

No Police Spies campaigns for an end to “political policing”; however police infiltration has been going on for a very long time. Suffrage campaigners were among the first to have their photos taken as part of police surveillance. These days, we call them Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT).

This newspaper article indicates a different form of police surveillance that again continues to be used today. It also raises interesting questions about the nature of police surveillance almost a hundred years ago – who was doing it? how extensive was it? were women among the hireling spies? and, perhaps inevitably, what was the relationship between the police infiltrators and direct action?

“Suffragettes storm the Houses of Parliament”, 2012

Very quickly because I’m in the middle of bashing at this chapter, but saw this today and thought it was interesting (I am nothing if not predictable): In pictures: Suffragettes storm the Houses of Parliament for feminist lobby, with more background on it from the Olympics Opening Ceremony.

From the article:

When Gail Collins stepped out in front of the deafening 80,000-strong crowd watching the Olympics opening ceremony, wearing a high-neck Edwardian blouse and the purple, white and green sash that marked her out as one of Danny Boyle’s 50 suffragettes, she couldn’t hear the noise, just the beating of her heart. “It was one of the biggest days of my life,” she said. “Getting married, having my children and being in the opening ceremony. I felt proud, really proud that we had got there.”

In the months before the ceremony, the women forged a particular bond – with each other and the women they were representing. So when the experience ended, what did the Olympic suffragettes do? They kept marching.

Dozens of suffragette performers, led by Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, plan to march on parliament, at the vanguard of a major feminist rally organised to urge MPs to stop “eroding erosion of women’s rights” and make more progress on women’s equality.

[…]

No longer under the guidance of Boyle – who included the suffragette section in the ceremony after becoming enthralled by the memorial plaque to Emily Davison, found on the back of the broom cupboard door where she once hid in the House of Commons – the group may treat observers to a scaled-down version of their performance. It may even include the critical moment, which to the annoyance of many wasn’t featured in the TV coverage, when the women formed a human scaffolding to carry a Christ-like Davison above their heads.

I find it fascinating because it demonstrates present day understandings of suffragettes very clearly. One of my chapters has the working title “Public figure and private nuisance: the problem of Emily Wilding Davison” and focuses on discourses of Davison and the WSPU in the days and weeks after her actions at the 1913 Derby. Davison, the WSPU’s wild child, often acted unpredictably and in ways that challenged the autocracy of the WSPU leadership. However, her actions were often innovative and headline grabbing – none more so than when she was struck by a horse at the 1913 Derby. I argue that the newspaper representation of this shows the WSPU bringing her under their aegis so they could make her their martyr. Davison occupied an interesting and complicated place within the WSPU and the wider suffrage movement, so I find the image of a “Christ-like Davison” intriguing.

I also want to find out more about remembering and history and what it means to summon these ghosts and remake them for present day issues, but that will have to wait until after I submit.

References:
Rosen, A. (1974). Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914. London: Routledge
Stanley, L. and Morley, A. (1988) The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison. London: Women’s Press

Teaching the suffrage campaign

The video I discussed in my last post has got me thinking about wider issues in how and what we teach about the suffrage movement. What is discussed and disseminated about the suffrage movement is a political issue; what we teach, and in doing so deem important enough to pass on, probably says more about us and our priorities than about the suffrage movement.

From the Suffragette, 1909

Passive forms of resistance – for example, the chaining self to railings issue, which as far as I can tell from my data was either systematically underreported to the point of invisibility (unlikely, given news values) or didn’t happen with any frequency – is widely discussed and disseminated today. Forcible feeding is another issue widely discussed now. Part of this is because hunger strikes have a resonance today – as a child growing up in Britain I knew of Bobby Sands, and over the past days I’ve read of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja of Bahrain and the Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan. Emily Wilding Davison’s death is also widely discussed in present day material, despite it not being sanctioned by WSPU leadership and ambiguous as to her intentions – it’s probably among the best known acts of the suffrage campaign. It’s dramatic, but then so was lots of other suffragette direct action – planting a bomb in David Lloyd George’s unfinished house for example.

I’d argue that what these models of resistance have in common is their emphasis on female passivity, injured female bodies and the pain and humiliation suffered by women; as Laura Mayhall says, they’re about the “individual exhibition of women’s bodies in pain”. It’s an image of the woman as martyr, who experiences personal agonies in order to bring about social change. And I think there’s something damaging about that – it teaches children, girls in particular, that the way you protest is through personal suffering. It’s protest turned inward; the depth of your resistance shown through how much pain you are willing to bear. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing to represent as the extent of suffrage protest.

The suffrage movement campaigned through political channels (petitions, deputations, canvassing MPs), peaceful protest (demonstrations, rallies, public speaking, tax resistance), the arts (writing, drama and visual arts) and militant direct action (window breaking, attacking politicians, arson). There were multiple channels of resistance and I think it’s important that these are taught. To me, this says something about how imaginative and diverse protest can be, the many forms it can take and perhaps something of the importance of these many types of campaigning. In these heady times of austerity cuts and the rise of co-ordinated grassroots anti-cuts groups, I think it’s important that we’re aware of the rich history of democratic protest and its potential to effect change – not as single, isolated, dramatic events, but as a narrative of resistance.

References:
Mayhall, L (2003) The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Privilege in an occupation

"My protest will be intersectional or it will be nothing"

Photo and banner by K Gupta

So, there seem to be a few occupations going on, including my local Occupy Nottingham.

One of this things I’ve found interesting is the language that’s emerging. This post examines the language of the “we are the 99% tumblr. Meanwhile, Tiger Beatdown has some interesting analysis of who exactly is the 1% and an insightful, moving essay about the range of experiences of wealth, poverty and class found within the 99%.

I’ve also been thinking about who an occupation excludes. I’d define an occupation as a radical reclamation of space where alternatives to mainstream society can be explored – things like communal living, consensus decision making, and sharing the work needed to sustain a community. However, the fact remains that we are products of this mainstream society and have internalised some of its toxic elements – sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism to name a handful. In a social justice context, not having to encounter these things are often described as ‘privileges’. There’s lots of material out there on privilege but I particularly like this primer on privilege and what we can do about it. It’s important to note that, while these can be manifested in individual interactions, they’re also embedded and reinforced by social institutions.

As a non-white, queer, female-assigned-at-birth person who has taken part in occupations, I’ve found that occupations tend to be full of very earnest people who are trying their very hardest not to reproduce structures of oppression but who often don’t quite manage it. As a non-white person, I don’t want to be told that someone – almost certainly white – doesn’t see race. As this essay describes, claiming that you don’t see race both makes my experiences of living as a non-white person invisible, and means that

that person also can ignore systemic nature of racism. That person can pretend that racial issues can be solved by making people act nicer to each other; however, focusing on eliminating prejudice and racism between individuals can obscure the need for eliminating the racism that is so deeply ingrained in our social institutions.

This is particularly important when engaging in the anti-cuts movement – how are you going to protest cuts to EMA disproportionately affecting women and ethnic minorities if you don’t see race and gender, or believe that racism and sexism can be addressed by everyone just being a bit nicer to each other?

An occupation that claims to be leaderless is not exempt from privilege: this essay, on how the Occupy movement’s non power structure perpetuates sexism, observes that

Even in movements that are formally leaderless, those with privilege tend to bring pre-existing power to the table, and that power can be dangerous. This is part of any communal space, no matter how well-intended; I can testify that, even in my own best efforts, and even with trusted friends, I’ve brought my own privilege to the table, created invisible hierarchies, and hurt people. Addressing how power works — who is seen to be powerful, who is exercising power, which kinds, and why, and how that looks like the old world and old structures of oppression we are trying to break away from — has to be a central part of any radical movement.

[…]

It’s hard to focus on what marginalized people are saying, when they’re reduced to a collection of photos for the purpose of telling us that they’re “hot.” The act of finding those voices, actively seeking them out, and listening to them, is harder than taking a photo. It’s also the work that can and must be done.

Failing to address sexism leads to sexual assault, and attempts to intimidate and silence those trying to address it, as seen in Occupy Glasgow.

So what can be done about it?

All Of Us Deserve To Feel Safe has published response cards as “a way of communicating to someone that they’ve made a space unsafe without having to deal with potentially intimidating confrontation. It includes a list of different ways that spaces can be made unsafe, with checkboxes for the relevant concerns.” They also have flyers with suggestions on how to make a space safer.

In addition to their very helpful suggestions, I’d like to comment that how labour is divided in the occupation is important. It’s not okay for men to be sitting around with mugs of tea while the women wash up, sort out the recycling, collect water and so on. I’ve seen this in an occupation before and it was shocking that these so-called radical men were content to allow this gendered division of labour to happen. This is some of the most visible stuff in an occupation – if you can’t manage to make this equal in your own space, how are you in a position to call for a fairer and more equal society?

I also think it’s important to not to treat any member of a minority group as a spokesperson. Sometimes, when I’ve wandered along to an occupation, I’ve immediately been pounced on and asked how they can make the occupation more friendly to ethnic minorities or women. I’m very glad that they’re thinking about this, but aside from the assumptions this makes about my gender identity, it also makes me feel like I’ve become a token minority – that I’m happy to have these conversations at their convenience, that I’m happy to have these sometimes difficult and exhausting conversations on demand. Sometimes I just want a brew and a chat, not to give an immediate workshop on anti-racism.

Finally, it’s crucial to listen. Creating an anti-oppressive space means that people belonging to less privileged groups will critique your efforts, and it’s essential that you listen to these criticisms and respond to them in a constructive manner rather than becoming defensive or aggressive. As the open letter to Occupy Glasgow shows, if someone criticises an occupation for allowing or enabling systematic oppression, she can be insulted, bullied and accused of trying to shut the occupation down from within. This is unacceptable behaviour – it silences the activists who did complain, it allows sexists a free pass, and it stops people making other criticisms. It can be difficult to hear criticism, but ultimately criticism coming from activists who are sympathetic to the movement comes from a place of caring and wanting the movement to be as inclusive as possible.

An occupation has to practice what it preaches. You cannot call for an end of one kind of oppression while perpetuating, however unconsciously, other kinds of oppressions and, however accidentally, silencing the voices of (other) minorities.

How to erase identities and make everyone bad guys

A couple of months ago, I posted about the politics of representation. I found the observation that representation in the media can involve “crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power” particularly striking. What you see here is me trying to work out the process of how it happened in the suffrage movement.

Here’s an admittedly simplistic table of differences between suffragists and suffragettes. Of course, it’s not that simple – see Sandra Holton (1986) for more – but for the purposes of this argument, let’s run with this.

Suffragists Suffragettes
considered the more inclusive term members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament prepared to engage in direct action

However, what I’ve found in the texts I’m working with looks a bit more like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

I found that suffragette and suffragettes were comparatively low frequency terms and didn’t have many words associated with them. Instead, there were lots of words associated with suffragist and suffragists – even the direct action words like disturbance*, disorder, outrage*, violence and crime* which I then focused on. This seemed out of keeping with the historiography.

What seems to happen is that there’s a process where the two are conflated:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Galtung and Ruge (1965) work out a set of principles they call “news values”. These decide how likely it is that something will be reported as news, and include factors such as whether the incident forms part of a pre-existing narrative, how recent it was. how unusual it was and so on. Some of the relevant factors to this are conflict, negativity, personalisation and continuity: basically, well-known suffragettes scuffling with the police and getting arrested is more interesting to newspapers than a deputation of nice ladies handing in a petition to their MP.

Therefore, because of news values, the stuff about the constitutionalist approach gets erased:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Because we’re now not talking about constitutionalists, it doesn’t make sense to characterise a group by its opposition to constitutionalists, so that can go too:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Ta-da! You have now ended up with something like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

This, if you’re in a position of power, is pretty awesome. If you can label everyone in the suffrage movement as violent and dangerous, you don’t need to listen to their concerns about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about ill-treatment in prison and police brutality. Hurrah!

The suffrage movement is unusual because the term suffragist, in the Times at least, comes to mean something very different to how it was understood amongst those within the movement. However, I think the process – of conflating a range of motivations, organisations and individuals under one term, erasing the less newsworthy bits, using the term in such a way as to imply it still covers the full breadth of these motivations, organisations and individuals, then dismissing everyone as irresponsible and destructive – is still very relevant today.

As I write this, there are riots in Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield, Brixton, Walthamstow, Hackney and possibly Peckham. The people involved are being described as looters, protesters and rioters. In light of what I’ve illustrated here, I wonder what’s being erased through using these descriptions. Obviously it’s in the interests of those in power to portray those involved as vandals, thieves and general undesirables – it stops them having to pay attention to legitimate concerns…about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about police brutality.

References:
Galtung, J & Ruge, M. 1965. The Structure of Foreign News. The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers. Journal of Peace Research, vol 2, pp 64-91
Holton, S. 1986. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Relevance

One of the questions that came up at the conference was the links between the women’s suffrage movement and protest movements today. There are a couple of points that I think are particularly interesting, although there are bound to be others.

Diversity of the movement
In any large protest movement there are going to be different factions, each with different ideologies, aims, motivations and so on. I’ve seen it first hand in the current anti-cuts movement, particularly within the student movement and even within the group in my university. This isn’t a bad comparison because I think both movements are issues-based and attract people of a huge range of political beliefs.

There are things that unite us but these tend to be quite broad things – general opposition to education and welfare cuts, for example. The things that can be divisive are in the details – what action do we carry out? do we support occupation? is it okay to ally ourselves with trade union groups? communist groups? anarchist collectives? how do we organise ourselves? how do we make decisions? how do we respond to other groups and their campaigns? to whom do we express solidarity? These things are not always simple, and there have been passionate debates about these issues.

The suffrage movement had broad agreement that the franchise should be extended to (some) women, but organisations could differ wildly on the details – should the vote be extended to all women or to women on the same basis as men, with financial and property requirements in place? what should be the role of men? how much independence was needed and/or desirable from political parties? were they happy with contemporary gender norms? what was the vote for – was it a symbolic gesture of women’s equality, or could it be used to improve women’s working conditions, pay and welfare?

Not easy questions, and quite often no right answers.

Direct action and violence
The second point of comparison is what counts as violence, and how individuals and groups within the movement respond to direct action carried out by others in the movement. In my research, one of the things I come across is that violence was carried out against property; this happens today as well. There are numerous accounts of WSPU speakers being verbally and physically abused by men at public meetings and requiring police protection, yet this doesn’t seem to get described as violence. Instead, violence is what happens when suffragette campaigners break windows. I note that Alfie Meadows, the student who had to have emergency brain surgery after being injured in the protests, has been charged with violent disorder (this post discusses it in more detail). Then as now, (some) property seems to be more important than (some) people.

There are also similarities in how those who don’t engage in property damage or other less socially sanctioned methods of direct action respond to those who do. While I was disappointed at the reaction to Millbank, I wasn’t surprised. Those who carried out property damage and so on were said to be attention seekers, their status as “proper” members of the movement challenged, and others in the movement tried to distance themselves as much as possible from the window-breakers. Sound familiar?

I suspect that these issues are ones that any protest movement has to negotiate – they’re not unique to movements. There are points of connection between the suffrage movement and what’s happening today, particularly when it comes to how damage to public property and injury to protesters are discussed, and it’s these points of connection that think are interesting.

In happier news, my favourite bookshop turns 37 this weekend – happy birthday News from Nowhere! Here’s some of their history for the interested.

Press understanding of the black bloc

On Saturday, over 500,000 people took part in the March for the Alternative. The Guardian live-blogged it (first part, second part) and for the majority, it was a peaceful and diverse march.

At some point, some protesters seem to have headed to Oxford Street to engage in some direct action, namely occupying Fortnum & Masons (and were duly kettled upon leaving, having been told they’d be free to leave the area), and in a late evening a large group gathered at Trafalgar Square, apparently to rest, catch up, swap news and so on. At this point something happened, and the police responded by kettling them. People’s experiences could be very different depending on where they were and when – one person was baton charged by the police, Laurie Penny was caught in the Trafalgar Square kettle, this young blogger found himself protecting a girl whose arm was broken by the police in the Trafalgar Square kettle and Katie writes about the march and Trafalgar Square and the aftermath as a St John’s Ambulance first aider.

The reaction from the conservative press was predictable but again, people were anxious to distance themselves from those not participating in the march and engaging in different forms of direct action.

Johann Hari:

Shame on the media for focusing on a few idiots from yesterday not the inspiring 500,000, and shame on the idiots for giving them the excuse (source)

They were Black Block, who are entirely different people (and twats) (source)

Charlie Brooker:

Confusing these twats with the hundreds of thousands of actual protesters = mistaking football hooligans for footballers. (source)

La Sophielle has some interesting stuff to say on the distinction between “good” protesters and “bad” protesters:

All those news outlets with their talk of “splinter groups”, “mobs”, “maelstroms of violence”, “violent minorities” and “masked thugs” who “hijack” things – and don’t forget the bafflingly recurrent remark that those responsible “used Twitter to coordinate actions and cause trouble” – all these news outlets actually don’t care to differentiate between various expressions of political resistance, whatever they may say to the contrary. Protestors come in ‘nice’ or ‘black’ – full stop. I don’t resent this because I resent UK Uncut being “smeared” or lumped in with the black bloc. I resent this because it means that inane dichotomies (legitimate/illegitimate, nice/nasty, peaceful/violent) are shored up in the name of reporting, which in fact serve nothing at all except sensation. (source)

Aside from the debate about acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest which is probably as old as protest itself, I find it really interesting how the term “black bloc” is used. I understand it as a tactic (as this FAQ explains): a black bloc is a temporary gathering of people with different ideologies and aims working together for the duration of a march etc. Wearing similar clothes promotes solidarity, is highly visible and hinders identification, particularly by Forward Intelligence Teams. What it is not, however, is an organisation. To my knowledge, there is no black bloc membership list. There is no black bloc committee. It forms on the ground, and dissolves afterwards. The individuals involved might have connections to each other, but the black bloc itself is not the organisation that they belong to.

As a linguist, what I find interesting are the different ways the black bloc is discussed in this current round of articles. Not so much the evaluative stance, but the concept of the black bloc itself. This term is not being disputed in the press – instead, it seems to be misunderstood and the misunderstanding apparently goes unchallenged. I suspect there’s a power dynamic in that those most likely to participate in a black bloc and understand it are not likely to have a powerful voice in the press; the people writing about the black bloc in the newspapers are unlikely to be the ones with direct experience of it. And so “Black Bloc(k)” seems to become an identity rather than a tactic.

It makes me wonder how prevalent this is, both diachronically and across domains. Is this a fairly standard feature of mainstream press discourse about the black bloc? Is it something more recent – was the black bloc discussed differently in the 1990s/early 2000s/mid-2000s to now? Is the black bloc understood differently when taking part in different kinds of protest e.g. anti-war, environmental, anti-cuts (even if these issues are often closely connected)? Has the term become more widespread, or used more frequently?

This is the kind of research that lends itself to corpus research methodologies – focusing on a limited number of terms where a) the term is crucial to identifying the group being discussed and b) the term itself is what’s interesting. There may well be incidences of “protesters dressed in black” and so on, but I’m not convinced that identifies the protesters explicitly enough to know that it’s a black bloc being discussed. Because the black bloc itself is a somewhat nebulous concept – its power lies in its lack of organisation and definition – it becomes a site for projection. Do you want the black bloc to be full of violent hooligans, justifiably angry disenfranchised working class kids, rentamob thugs? Again, this seems more about identity than discussing the black bloc as a tactic.

If I didn’t have a conference paper to write I’d be creating a custom corpus with WebBootCaT, but the paper must take precedence. The custom corpus will have to wait a couple of weeks.

Thoughts on direct action

In my research, it’s impossible not to come across issues of direct action. Earlier this year I was looking at words derived from Mutual Information for suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes. A category for direct action terms emerged from this data, and I started to look at disturbance*, outrage*, violence, crime*, disorder and incident? in more detail.

To quote from a draft of this chapter:

The terms examined in this chapter can be paired – two relatively high frequency, non-specific terms disturbance* and outrage*, two low frequency, specific terms violence and crime* and two terms, disorder and incident?, which are both used to describe suffrage campaigners’ interactions with non-suffrage supporters, but differ in which groups they are used in conjunction with. Reports shy away from using violence and crime* to describe suffrage campaigning and instead use more ambiguous terms such as disturbance and outrage; the actions encompassed by disturbance and outrage include the disruption of meetings and heckling as well as more destructive acts such as ‘fire outrages’ and bombs.

The damage and destruction was largely confined to property. If there was physical aggression, it was nearly always faced by the suffrage campaigners than posed by them. The Times describes “large hostile crowds”, “active hostility to suffragists”, several “scenes of great disorder” and meetings broken up by “young roughs”. The texts I am working with at the moment describe “disorderly scene[s]” at suffragist meetings, but on closer examination the meetings themselves seem to have been highly organised and the disruption was due to members of the public, who formed a “hooting and jostling mob”, hassled the speakers and attempted to hustle them out of the park.

And then the Browne Review was announced. As a young researcher in arts, humanities and social sciences (I might declare which area I’m in if someone decides to fund me), I am worried about what this might mean for these areas. I’m worried about the Education Maintenance Allowance, AimHigher and Lifelong Learning UK being scrapped with no clear information on what will replace them. I’m worried about the privatisation of Higher Education. These cuts to education take place against a background of cuts to public services, and it’s difficult not to interpret them as ideological.

I was not the only one to feel like this, and direct action began to seem rather closer to home. Students marched on the 10th November, 24th November and 9th December. The argument that “the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics” began to be heard again and yet again, damage to property was positioned as worse than damage done to people’s lives.

With other students at my university, I engaged in peaceful direct action. I made my placard, marched, chanted, and was duly kettled for around six hours. I’m pretty sure that this video is from where I was kettled. Protesters were injured – a woman beaten and racially abused by police, a man nearly died after being beaten and Green and Black Cross has an appeal for witnesses. People found being inside a kettle a “shocking experience”. There are photos of the day (link 1, link 2) but I’m not sure how well they capture most protesters’ experience – the vast majority were not hurling paintbombs and setting benches on fire.

Parliament still voted to allow an increase in tuition fees.

There are criticisms of the focus of reporting, criticism of kettling tactics and outrage over the state (and state-sanctioned) response to these protests. I am confident that more criticisms will emerge.

There are things I will take from this on a personal and political level, but at the moment I’m trying to work out what I can take from this as a researcher in direct action.

One of these things is the sheer courage it takes to engage in direct action. I can understand why people may be ambivalent towards militant direct action in the suffrage movement – at times it can come across as misdirected or petty. But it takes bravery to demonstrate when you know this could lead to police violence against you.

A second point is about disenfranchisement. Many of those on the demonstrations were young and without a political voice. Demonstrating – being physically present at the gates of Parliament – was one of the few ways open to them to get their demands heard. While these people are excluded on the basis of youth – a temporary condition, rather than the more fixed one of sex – it still shows how easily those not able to vote can be ignored by government.

A third is about the nature of direct action. There is a fair amount of discussion going on about what direct action should encompass. There are calls for peaceful demonstrations, candle-lit vigils, writing to MPs…but these have been going on for years with no demonstrable effect. There’s a sense of frustration amongst protesters. I was marching against top-up fees in 2003 and I think these protests have partly come about because people have tried to be nice and polite only to be ignored. Suffragists, too, tried a peaceful approach – they had demonstrations and rallies, they lobbied MPs, they sent deputations to members of the Cabinet, they organised petitions. If I can feel frustrated after a mere seven years of campaigning, it makes me more sympathetic to women who’d been campaigning for over 30 years with no real progress.

A fourth is a about the fractures in a movement that can result from direct action, and the willingness for some parts of the movement to disown those who do take part in property damage. You can almost hear the ‘respectable’ protesters scrambling to distance themselves from the balaclava-clad youths clutching spraypaint and lighter fuel. No one seems to be asking why they’re engaging in such actions, yet these “bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington” are well aware of what university will cost them and are one of the most vulnerable groups: “We’re from the slums of London, how do they expect us to pay £9,000 a year uni fees? EMA is the only thing keeping us in college, what’s stopping us from doing drug deals in the street now? Nothing.”

While direct action within the suffrage movement was organised by a different demographic, there still seem to be the same split between those urging peaceful direct action – such as the NUS’s Right to Recall campaign – and those engaging in different forms of protest.

What I’d take to these protests from my research is an understanding that there’s room in a movement for lots of different forms of protest. It’s not an either/or decision between things like the Right to Recall campaign and more confrontational things like occupations, and it’s important not to fracture along these lines.

I didn’t really expect to be a participant-observer of direct action when I started my PhD, but I hope it makes me a better researcher – a less judgemental one, and one better able to understand the pressures that lead to direct action