Tag Archives: protest

Why I March…

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”— Audre Lorde

I woke up on January 20, 2017 with a feeling of dread in my stomach. I knew all too well that at 4:00pm GMT a new president would be taking an oath of office in the United States. Being both an American and an international student at Birkbeck, I spent the previous year worrying about first, Brexit – Would I get my scholarship? Would my fees change? Would I feel welcome in the UK?  -and second, the toxic rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign – Would I have equal rights as a woman? Would my black, LGBTQ and immigrant friends be safe?

If I felt helpless on January 20th, then I felt empowered on January 21st. With plans to attend the Women’s March on London at noon, I awoke early. I chose wool socks, pulled jeans over long johns, grabbed a hat, and picked out my warmest scarf (cashmere – a gift from Bolivia). Deciding to make feminism the theme of the day, I walked over to The Photographer’s Gallery, where an exhibition entitled Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s was on in full force. I was greeted with free entry (every day before noon – great for students!) and five floors to explore.

Two floors showcased pieces of art that I am not qualified to critique, but their striking international scope highlighted diverse ways of approaching the issue. For those of us feeling small in the face of patriarchy and wondering what we can possibly do to fight this, the fifth floor was key. A few larger-than-life light box photos and a film, Joanne by Simon Fujiwara, were compelling in the way they opposed the typical portrayal of a woman as one-dimensional. The project depicted Joanne from the perspective of who she is, rather than what she looks like. In her words, “I feel like I’m cheating if I say: I am a model, I am a teacher, I am a lover, I am an artist, I am a chameleon, I am a fighter . . . I am a person . . . I am a female.”

Joanne, in the film, watching over Joanne, the athlete, from Simon Fujiwara: Joanne at The Photographers’ Gallery

Inspired by the active role Joanne played in re-branding herself as a complex human being and feeling a bit more hopeful, I headed towards Grosvenor Square. As I neared the meeting point I saw my first pussyhat. I followed the pink ears towards the rapidly-growing crowd and was met by a variety of signs.

There were some standards being handed out: “Reject Hate, Reclaim Politics,” “No to Racism, No to Trump,” some poignant quotes: “But still, like air, I’ll rise,” by Maya Angelou, “When they go low, we go high,” by Michelle Obama, and “Women’s rights are human rights,”  from Hillary Rodham Clinton,

The true creativity of some participants was shown in more heartfelt hand-written signs, such as “Respect existence or expect resistance,” “Viva la vulva,” and “Women of the world UNITE!”. For 5 or more hours I felt the hope creep slowly back into my worldview as we gathered together, wound our way along Piccadilly, then convened in impressive numbers at Trafalgar Square (nearly 100,000 people in London alone).

Excitedly, I watched online as other groups gathered across the Western Hemisphere. The high was muted however, as a polarised stance was emerging on social media. Among the disparaging comments, a friend posed the question:

“I’ve tried looking up specifically what is being protested, but it seems exceptionally vague. Womens [sic] rights and visibility, I know, but specifically?”

It wasn’t the first, nor the last question like this that I saw, and although I like to promote research into topics that are a bit out of one’s grasp, I think friends of mine were looking for a more personal response. For them, and any others wondering:

I march..

…because rhetoric in the United States (and throughout the world) has disrespected women, demonized immigrants and threatened all minorities.

…because I want to make decisions about my body.

…because everyday sexism is ignored, denied and ridiculed.

…because I did not invite the male gaze.

…because I want every girl in the world to have access to an education.

…because female genital mutilation is STILL happening!

…because if I wear a skirt, I’m a “slut.” If I wear a low top, I’m “asking for it.” If I wear jeans, I’m a “tomboy.” If I wear makeup, I’m “professional.” If I don’t, I’m “frumpy.”

…because the first thing little girls are told is how pretty they are.

…because people of color in the US are still treated as second class citizens.

…because aside from Native Americans, everyone is an immigrant in America.

…because,  “legal rights are of limited value when they are enforced by people steeped in a culture that does not respect women. They can run for office, but can they win? They can accuse their rapist, but will the accusation stick? They can be themselves at work, but will they be promoted?” –Paul (from a forum on Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson’s online feminist book group, and part of her work with UN women)

…because men STILL make more money than women for the SAME jobs.

…because I don’t just want your daughter to be told she can be an engineer, a scientist, a politician, an artist, an astronaut, a CEO, a designer, an academic… I want her to be ENCOURAGED to be whatever it is that makes her happy and confident and strong.

…because we live in a patriarchy, where “men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” –Oxford Dictionary

…because a person holding the highest office in the US has been recorded saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything …Grab them by the p***y … You can do anything.”

…because women are valued primarily for the way they look.

…because the patriarchy is ALSO detrimental to boys and men.

…because “We can not all succeed when half of us are held back.” –Malala.

…because I believe in the importance of telling the truth.

I do not claim to speak for all attendees of the Women’s Marches on January 21st (up to 2 million worldwide), but I do hope that this glimpse into one attendee’s personal reasons for marching may draw attention to the concerns underlying the movement. Studying at Birkbeck – the 50th most international university in the world – global political policies have very real implications for students who are also immigrants, women, and minorities.

What kind of entry requirements will we have? Will our status be monitored by the government? Will women in burkas or men with beards be discriminated against? We must remain vigilant – the hospitality we receive, the respect we are afforded, and the underlying equality that is the goal of feminism could be at stake.

Wondering what’s next for women’s rights activists? This is a good place to start.

All images by the author

An Insider’s Look: A Long Weekend of Student Politics

Cross Party London Youth Debate

It all started on a Friday.

While many students were heading off to one of the local watering holes, including “Radar” night at the former University of London Union, I opted instead for a trip to a room in City University.  The sparsely occupied lecture theatre hosted a panel debate among the regional chairs of all major political parties. In true London fashion, Nigel Farage’s UKIP was not represented, while the Green Party was – by incoming Birkbeck SU Welfare officer and Young Greens regional co-chair Sofiya Ahmed. It was duly noted by the floor, however, that the Greens do not constitute a major party.

The impartial chair (a confirmed floating vote) and the floor posed questions on topics such as the economy, employment, the housing crisis and education.

The most entertaining part of the night was when Will Dyer charmingly defended the Liberal Democrats and the governance of coalitions. He stated that the Liberal Democrats had protected the country from more radical Tory cuts, stopped the foundation of a Maggie Thatcher day and instituted a low tax band for working people.  He had a genuine love of the party, despite it being the least trusted by most students. Students turned away from the party after Nick Clegg’s tuition fees U-turn, which even saw an apology and subsequent viral video. Needless to say, I was not convinced by Will’s message that the Lib-Dems are the rightful stewards for his nation, although I must give him credit for the most uses of the word ‘anchored’ in a sentence.

Luke Springthorpe of Conservative Future defended the current government. Despite being pro-union, he praised zero-hour contracts for their flexibility, adding that such work was ‘better than no job’. He wrote off criticisms of DWP sanctions, saying the sanctions were probably there to stay. Springthorpe remained highly sceptical of the left proposition to use taxation as a stimulus for housebuilding.

Ria Bernard(@riab_22), a speech and language therapist and joint leader of London Young Labour, held the fort for camp Miliband. She maintained the current party line of a more moderate austerity. She said the cuts were ‘too fast, and too soon’ and Help to Buy was an interesting idea but problematic. When I told her that my plans for the next morning involved going to protest the party’s proposition of £6k fees, she replied with a shrug, “6 is better than 9.”

The three major parties all avoided the toxic term – “social housing” . Sofiya, however, did not shy away. She stated that the Green Party would ditch a £100bn trident renewal, instead spending £6bn on half a million new homes and plugging the £20bn NHS deficit. Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP has also made these suggestions. In response to the Tory panelist’s defense of apprenticeships, Sofiya expressed concern that some apprenticeships are low quality, and the employers just use young people, not providing adequate skills or education in exchange for the cheaper labour.

At the end, many debates continued in the pub. I left somewhat swayed to the Green cause.

#FreeEducation Protest in Birmingham

Saturday morning was the earliest of its kind since I had been bothered to go doorknocking with #labourdoorstep. This Saturday called for walking action against Labour. NUS London, in association with the Student Assembly against Austerity and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, called for a demonstration on the doorstep of Labour MP Liam Byrne in Birmingham.

Byrne is the shadow minister for Higher Education. His contribution to the Labour 2015 campaign was a commitment to lower the tuition fees’s upper band. His constituency is Hodge Hill.

There was an overwhelming amount of local support for the Demo. Regional support came from the Black Country Young Greens. A local Trade Union head and schoolgirl were among the opening speeches at Birmingham University.

The coach journey up to Birmingham came courtesy of the UCL union. UCL ‘defend education’ songbooks circulated for rounds of poorly tuned Trotsky-esque songs. It was a delight to see seasoned Birkbeck Activist Alex Owalade squirming at the singing, having heard it all better the first time round in the 1980s. The Marxist tone of the travelling demonstrators was echoed by the red patches pinned to a number of students’s lapels, supposedly the sign of international student resistance. Over the long journey, protesters discussed strategies for progress with NUS London as well as the viability of a demand for free education.

The communal feeling was very much disappointment with Labour. The demand for free education involved a complete turn-around from tuition fees to replace them with free education and living grants – such as would have been the deal for many of Birkbeck’s mature students had they had the chance to go for a degree at age 18.

The marching route headed through the town centre. Shouting for an end to student debt and austerity, cries of “Cutback! Fightback!” went on strong. Multiple megaphones, a sizeable crowd, a conch (like from Lord of the Flies) and an exuberant drummer kept pace and spread the message of anti-austerity through the city’s main shopping areas.

There was even an attempted entry into the Council and an impromptu incursion into the Library. The brand new central library, an impressive addition to the city, is facing cuts to its librarians agreed as part of Labour austerity.

Last Monday, a meeting at Birkbeck launched the @bbk24hr campaign: Birkbeckers aiming for a return of 24 hour access to the library computer rooms as exams and deadlines loom.  Watch out for more organised action on this campaign.

A disturbing view from my library window

Although I support and wholeheartedly encourage the many different political debates and activism around my campus, I would not have entirely seen myself as politically active – until now.

When I come to my university, and I have been at Birkbeck for three years now, I spend most of my time in the library with my head in books trying to understand the intricacies of the law. The incredibly slow pace at which it takes me to put all of the law into my brain requires me to sit in the library from the moment it opens until my classes start in the evening.

I sit in my usual place every day, a window seat overlooking Senate House and Malet Street, and when my concentration lapses I stare out of the window watching the day unfold. This means I get to see a lot of what is going on campus.

I have seen all the protests go past Senate House. I have heard the samba band rousing the crowd, watched various causes gather at Malet Street and listened to the speeches on the steps of SOAS.

Even though all of these occasions may have distracted me from my studies, it has always excited me to see so many different people coming together to stand up for what they believe in. It gives me hope.

The University of London is probably one of the most pluralistic environments I have been a part of, with people from so many different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, sexualities and identities studying every day, coming together and joining in a constant dialogue and action. Being part of this environment has led me to learn about many different issues and ideas and made me, a person coming from a background of very little education and cultural diversity, a better, more worldly and confident person.

Due to my nosy and voyeuristic tendencies, at the beginning of term this year I started to notice a police presence on campus. At first I thought it was a one-off instance, but then I started to notice them on a regular basis. Every time I was walking around campus or staring out of my window, they were there. I saw them every day, sitting in vans next to Senate House, loitering around the Hari Krishna lunch queue (I don’t think it was dinner envy), walking up and down Malet Street. This disturbed me and I found it oppressive.

I started to notice that whenever any political activity started to stir around campus, the police were there like a shot. I am not talking about any “violent and intimidating” activity, as has been suggested by the University of London’s Chris Cobb. This was simply the same political activity that I have been used to seeing since I started university here. Even the smallest and I am sorry to say meekest of demos had a large oppressive police presence, with huge police vans next to it.

Why are they here, I kept thinking. What do they want? Why are they looming over a tiny group of people who are standing there peacefully protesting about causes and issues that they believe in? Causes and issues which have been taught by our lecturers, by the University of London. Lecturers who teach us to be critical of the law, of the police, of oppressive government policy, of capitalism, of neo-liberalism, and how all of these things have created so many injustices in the world.

Was it just me, I thought, am I just being paranoid? No. When I started talking to my fellow students they had noticed it too. They felt paranoid, oppressed; worried that their information had been recorded, it noted down that they were “political” and therefore to be watched.

Who had authorised this? Who had decided that enthusiastic students were a threat that needed to be curtailed?

It seems that our universities, which teach us to be critical of the world around us and to stand up and fight for what believe in, are now scared of the fact that they have taught us too much.

I started engaging with other students, listening to people I have never spoken to talking about the police always being on campus, butting into their conversations when I heard them talking about it, saying, “Excuse me, but have you noticed too?” and “Yes,” they would say, and we would all agree that something needs to be done about it.

The university has become more oppressive, more restrictive and the university condoning a constant police presence on campus has made us want to fight back against it.

Before anyone starts thinking, Oh, but you’re all just middle-class white students that don’t like it when it happens to you. No, we are not. We are students from so many different backgrounds, so many different races, some of us may be middle-class, but some of us are poor, some of us have experienced police oppression outside our campuses, some of us have come from communities where there is police brutality, some of us have been arrested, and some of us have been to prison.

Yes, the university may be a different environment to that on the streets in London, but what is happening within our campus is testament to what is happening elsewhere: surveillance, social control, breeding a culture of fear, silence and oppression by attempts to curtail any form of dissent, political action and dialogue.

The fight back against police presence on campus is not just about cops on campus. We stand in solidarity for all who have been oppressed by the police. It does not invalidate our fight because we are university students.

The university has enabled us in the past to stand up for what we believe and voice our issues in a safe space. By taking that away from us, you radicalise us even more.

I will no longer be watching from the window. I will be joining the demonstrations and we won’t stop until we regain our universities and our communities as places of free expression.

Alice Gambell