FF Report of the Reclaim the Night March (2008)
The follow text has been sent to the London Feminist Network, lead organisers of the 2009 London Reclaim the Night March:
On 21st Nov 09 Feminist Fightback went as part of a Red Umbrella contingent on the Reclaim the Night March in London. We joined RtN because we are committed to fighting violence against women, and we marched alongside X:talk and the International Union of Sex Workers in solidarity with sex workers organising to fight exploitation in their industry. Nothing in the publicity for the march bans those with our views, nor do we feel our politics to in any way contradict the spirit of an anti-violence march.
Unfortunately, we faced physical harassment and verbal abuse from some people on the march, and were told on a number of occasions that we were not welcome on it. Worse than this, however, was the fact that we were immediately approached and interrogated by the police on arrival – reportedly at the request of one of the stewards. We understand our support for the rights of sex workers to self-organise is at odds with the views of some other groupings in the women’s movement. Yet we were extremely surprised to find that one of the basic principles of feminism (and all social justice movements) was forgotten in this instance – namely, that we never resort to using police aggression to silence and intimidate members of our own movement, no matter how much we may disagree with them.
We strongly hope that this does not set a precedent for the further disintegration of feminism in London. And we are therefore asking London Feminist Network to guarantee that in future the police will not be used against other feminists to close down political debate, and that Reclaim the Night will be a space in which diverse opinions can be expressed. At a time when we face the prospect of a Tory government, threatening to roll out all sorts of further attacks that will have disproportionate effects on women, through public spending cuts and the repressive rhetoric of ‘family values’, it is even more important that we build a movement that can work together on all the issues upon which we agree, and allow room for difference and debate upon those we don’t. We should not be afraid that differences of opinion will block unity in action. In fact it is only by allowing space for diversity of opinion and embracing discussion that our movement will grow.
Why we joined the Reclaim the Night March…
As the newsletter we distributed at the march clearly stated, Feminist Fightback was on RtN to show our solidarity with ALL women resisting violence in their daily lives. We see the fight against gender-based violence as a central part of any feminist movement. We also wanted to stress that violence against women is not simply an individual problem, but systemic. Our struggle against it cannot be separated from our critique of the nuclear family; immigration controls; religious fundamentalism; the denial of reproductive freedom; the exploitation of our labour; police brutality and military imperialism. In other words, violence against women is not only perpetrated not only by individuals but also by the state.
This was also why we oppose the Metropolitan Police sponsoring the march. Feminists should not place any trust in an institution that clamps down on our right to protest, assaults activists, carries out racist stop-and-search policies, and continues to record domestic violence incidents as ‘no crime’, to name but a few examples. For legal reasons we may have to tolerate their presence on our demonstrations, but we see a march against gender-based violence which actively seeks the support and legitimation of the police to be somewhat farcical.
This, then, is the broader political context in which we, as anti-capitalist feminists, situated our decision to march in a contingent with sex worker organisations. The police harassment and immigration raids faced by the sex workers in Soho, whose workplaces the march passed by, is also a form of violence against women that should not be ignored. The Red Umbrella Contigent was formed after Feminist Fightback’s experiences of joining RtN in 2006 and 2007, when we overheard a number of misogynistic comments against sex workers, who were referred as ‘air heads’ and jeered at as we passed their workplaces, including Spear Mint Rhino. We do not think that it is the explicit intention of the RtN organisers to confront sex workers in this way, but we do think that a feminist march through London’s main red light district can easily fall into the trap of pitching one group of women – ‘feminists’ – against another – ‘sex workers’. We therefore thought it was essential that an anti-violence march in this context had to make feminist solidarity with sex workers heard loud and clear, and a central slogan of the march.