27 years ago today…

This piece has been posted up on our sister blog, The SOUTH ESSEX STIRRERhttps://southessexstirrer.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/27-years-ago-today/ It’s being posted up here as a kind of signal that there will be one or more posts to come looking at the impact of the Internet and social media on activism. The hope is that these posts will generate a discussion on ways of organising that while acknowledging the contribution the Net can make, also seek to get more of us engaging with people face to face in real life. As ever, constructive criticism and comment are welcome…

The Poll Tax riot that took place on the 31st March 1990 is a day that will live long in my memory for a whole host of reasons. Here are some interesting accounts of what took place on the day and how a lively march was turned into a riot by deliberate provocation from the police: Accounts of the poll tax riot, 1990https://libcom.org/history/1990-accounts-poll-tax-riot

Many words have been written about a day which has assumed an almost mythical status among a fair number of older activists. I don’t want to dwell on the events that turned the march into a riot and what happened after that. What I want to do is reflect on how much has changed in the intervening twenty seven years when it comes to building actions and marches and also what happens when we’re on them.

Obviously another twenty seven years of neo-liberalism has inflicted further damage on working class solidarity as our communities have become more atomised and fractured. Bear in mind that what defeated the hated Poll Tax was not the riot on March 31st but the subsequent campaign of non-payment that eventually led to the authorities concluding that it wasn’t worth the aggravation involved. That sustained campaign of non-payment could only be carried out in communities where there was still enough sense of solidarity to ensure that those sticking their necks out would get the backing they needed.

Twenty seven years ago, the Internet was in its infancy. Building any political event whether it was a meeting, a picket or a march had to be done by getting out and talking to people. There wasn’t any creating an ‘event’ on Facebook where people could idly click Going or Interested (with only one in ten actually turning up!). Big marches were built with a range of tactics that all involved real life engagement with other people. The classic was street paper sales and street meetings leading to meetings in hired rooms to mobilise the more committed. Evenings spent flyposting any surface that provided visibility to the passing public. Telephone trees and word of mouth. Apart from the flyposting, they all involved having to talk to, debate with and convince people. Mind you, even on a flyposting team, communication was important with the most important job being that of the lookout…

All of these methods involved talking to people face to face on a variety of levels from preaching to the (almost) converted to having to persuade people of your case and why they need to act. Granted it was bloody hard work but it was that real life face to face engagement that built the solidarity that was needed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing the Internet or social media – they can both be very valuable tools for activists but it has to be said that there’s an over-reliance on them these days.

The experience of actually being on a protest has changed a lot. It’s not just CCTV which twenty seven years ago was a relatively new technology but is all pervasive now along with police drones up in the sky discreetly observing your every move. Although it has to be noted the cops don’t appear to be giving up on their helicopters which do play a role as a form of intimidation as they hover directly overhead! It’s digital photography and bloody smartphones… It’s bad enough when the enemy use this technology to record your mug to share on their dodgy far right websites. What’s worse is when people ostensibly on your own side feel they have to document every minute of the action they’re on without realising they’re compromising the security of everyone around them. FFS, if things look like they’re getting a bit ‘tasty’, do us all a favour and put the smartphone away! Even better, don’t bring the sodding thing out on a protest in the first place – get a cheap burner phone instead. As for what to wear on a protest or action and feeling the need to have to go black bloc if you’re doing anything other than a point A to point B – a lot of that is down to the ubiquitous presence of CCTV and digital media…

I don’t want to come over as grumpy old sod who can’t keep up with the times and is nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ of protest. As written earlier, the Internet can be a brilliant tool for activists as it offers publishing capabilities and reach to a broader audience that we could only dream about twenty seven years ago. Also, when it comes to research, providing you can develop your own critical filters, the Internet is an invaluable tool. Where the Net and social media can and do fall down is when it comes to building and organising events. We all need to start thinking about other ways we can build for actions and protests that don’t rely on social media and that make us talk to each other and to the public at large. Face to face engagement with people is more likely to result in commitment than asking someone to tick Going on a Facebook event and hoping they actually make the effort to turn up…

I’ve thrown a few thoughts and ideas out in this piece. Hopefully, they’ll act as a catalyst for discussion about strategies and tactics. What would be great is if that discussion could be face to face:)

Dave (the editor)

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Trying to get to grips with privilege theory

Sometimes it’s best to get your head round a particular issue by using an analogy – so here goes… I work as a freelance photographer and recently had to do a photo shoot at a warehouse in Basildon. It was a freezing cold day and having worked for the best part of four hours, I felt frozen to the core. Yet the lads in the warehouse had to put in an eight hour shift in the freezing cold – so that put me in a better, more privileged position than them. When I was working there, some of the lads were loading up a consignment of blankets, sleeping bags and other items which the company had donated to a group helping homeless people in Southend. We all agreed that frozen though we were when working in the warehouse, we were all better off than the homeless in Southend having to fend for themselves on the streets in sub-zero temperatures.

This could be described as a hierarchy of privilege with me sitting on top in the most privileged position as I only had to endure the freezing cold for four hours! This analogy may seem flippant to the purists but it’s a useful starting point in understanding privilege theory and seeing where you stand in relation to others. Let’s face it, privilege theory can be a minefield and it’s all too easy to inadvertently put a foot wrong and find yourself blown sky high for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time! So anything that helps in gaining an understanding of it is to be welcomed…

Is there any point to privilege theory or is it, as some commentators have suggested, a way for a certain section of the activist community to signal how virtuous they are? I see privilege theory as an extension of intersectionality that as I’ve written previously, has plenty of merits, so I should see privilege theory as also having some merits. Acknowledging that someone involved in a struggle with you is getting screwed over worse than you are because of their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. should really be a matter of basic human decency and common sense.

Listening to someone who is being screwed over in more ways than you can be a useful and educational experience as they could well have some useful insights into the power structures that dominate the society we endure and more importantly, some useful tips and tricks on how to fight against them. The aspect of privilege theory that says those who are more marginalised, exploited and oppressed need to be able to have a voice should be taken as a non-problematic given, with one caveat… Namely that the range of experiences articulated be aggregated as far as is possible in order to come up with a coherent analysis of the situation and more importantly, a strategy to deal with it. That means those of us who are perceived as more privileged also being able to take part in the discussion in a role of solidarity to help to formulate an analysis and a solution.

Check your privilege! This is one statement that delivered in the wrong tone, can get peoples backs up and start to drive them out of activism altogether. We live in a deeply flawed and dysfunctional society and it’s a struggle to avoid internalising some of the shite assumptions that underpin it. Some of us do out level best to recognise that we have inadvertently internalised some crap assumptions and try to not let them creep into our conversation or the way we behave. But you know, we’re only human and sometimes we slip up and come out with stuff that on reflection we shouldn’t have. Shouting at someone who’s slipped up to ‘check your privilege’ isn’t going to help matters in any way, shape or form.

Following up ‘check your privilege’ with ‘it’s not my role to educate you’ only serves to make the situation even worse. Believe it or not there are some of us in activist circles who have not had the benefit of a university education and might need a few pointers to resources that will educate us as to how the existing structures of power screw some groups over more than others. So instead of coming out with a snotty ‘it’s not my role to educate you’ response, how about showing some common human decency and help to point people who want to learn more in the right direction?

What makes things really shite is when someone you don’t know makes assumptions about you based on your appearance. I may be white, male, working class and (just) the wrong side of sixty but it doesn’t mean I’m narrow minded, set in my ways and not prepared to listen to a different point of view. All I ask is that if I make an inadvertent slip, that could well be down to the jingoistic, patriotic shite we had rammed down our throats when we were at school in the 1960s. Please accept that not everyone is perfect and in what is still a racist society, with the best will in the world, dodgy assumptions do get internalised. All we ask is that we’re helped in acknowledging and overcoming them rather than written off as uneducated trash.

It’s all about the context though… If I’m being pulled up over an inadvertent slip, how I react very much depends on who is doing the pulling up. If for example, I’m being pulled up by a woman of colour who is at the sharp end of the shite society throws at her ranging from having to look over her shoulder to avoid any racist bonehead who wants to abuse or assault her through to trying to avoid unwanted attention from Home Office immigration vans, I’ll listen to her and happily acknowledge my error. That’s because that with her experiences, it’s probable that she’ll have some pretty sharp insights into the way power structures work that me in my relatively more privileged position may well not have picked up on. Listening to her story will be an educational experience and an act of much needed solidarity.

On the other hand, at the end of 2013 when an Oxford educated writer from a well off background with a regular column in a left leaning weekly publication pulled me up in an online discussion and suggested I ‘check my privilege’ please forgive me for having gone ballistic! This was in relation to a massive online row involving numerous participants over comments made about the Multiculturalism & Identity Politicshttp://www.iwca.info/?p=10146 – article I wrote for the IWCA back in September of 2009. At the time this happened, I was scraping a living as a door-to-door leaflet deliver on the streets of Thurrock while struggling to deal with what was then an undiagnosed prostate condition. Being told to ‘check my privilege’ when I was feeling anything but privileged didn’t exactly help matters. As I stated earlier, it’s all about the context isn’t it?

There are certainly merits in acknowledging where people are being screwed over in more ways than you are, listening to them, showing solidarity and being able to aggregate their experiences with those of others to develop an analysis of a situation and devise a strategy to deal with it. This should be one of the basic building blocks of any movement that’s serious about delivering radical change.

Where it goes wrong is when certain elements in radical movements twist privilege theory to suit their own agendas of shutting down debate with people they disagree with. I’m not talking about debate with right wing bigots because we don’t debate with them! I’m talking about the disagreements we have in radical circles where people in a certain clique shut down debate with any other radicals who they disagree with by saying ‘check your privilege’ in a tone which pretty much suggests they’re beyond redemption. It’s this holier than thou attitude from certain elements that’s creating a level of toxicity which is driving good people away from the movement. Given the dire threats we face from a resurgent right, we cannot afford this level of division so please, can we all just chill out, learn to accept each others imperfections and then work together to overcome them?

Dave (the editor)

Intersectionality – some tentative thoughts

Dave (the editor)

When I wrote Multiculturalism & Identity Politics for the IWCA way back in 2009, I hadn’t heard of the term intersectionality. If it had been explained to me at that time in plain, understandable, jargon free language, I may well have taken some of the concepts on board when writing Multiculturalism & Identity Politics and would have written a better piece. This is because some aspects of intersectionality dealing with overlapping discriminations echoed what I found when I was out doorstepping for the IWCA in Thurrock.

Simply talking to working class people on the doorstep brings home the fact that while people obviously experience issues because of their class, other aspects such as gender and ethnicity also have an impact as well. It should be a matter of common sense to recognise that these issues overlap with each other and that a bit more nuance is needed when coming up with an analysis of a situation. If that’s intersectionality, then believe it or not, there are aspects of it I’m happy to take on board.

However, intersectionality is one of those concepts that’s open to a variety of interpretations… Some people have come up with interpretations that far from bringing different struggles together, are creating hierarchies of oppression that only serve to create division in progressive movements as people are afraid to say anything in case they’re accused of denying someone else a voice. It’s with this in mind that I’m going to make an attempt to tackle the issue with the possibly naïve aim of trying to create some degree of unity on how we see intersectionality and start to move away from some of the toxicity that is characterising the discussion.

A starting point in looking at intersectionality is going back to when the concept first emerged and more importantly, why. Back in the 1980s, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, articulated the concept of intersectionality using the legal case outlined below as one of the starting points: In 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid and several other black women sued General Motors for discrimination, arguing that the company segregated its workforce by race and gender: Blacks did one set of jobs and whites did another. According to the plaintiffs’ experiences, women were welcome to apply for some jobs, while only men were suitable for others. This was of course a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded. You see, the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites. Thus, while a black applicant might get hired to work on the floor of the factory if he were male; if she were a black female she would not be considered. Similarly, a woman might be hired as a secretary if she were white, but wouldn’t have a chance at that job if she were black. Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white. Wasn’t this clearly discrimination, even if some blacks and some women were hired? [1]

The workers in question should have had the option of being able to sue General Motors for discrimination on the grounds of both gender and their race. The US courts didn’t see it that way – they wouldn’t acknowledge that the workers were being discriminated against in multiple ways and insisted they had to make a choice of which grounds to sue General Motors. The application of basic common sense and human decency should mean that anyone looking at this case would recognise that the workers were being screwed not only because of their class but also because of their gender and race. My understanding of what Crenshaw set out to achieve with the concept of intersectionality was to devise a toolkit that could draw attention to situations where people were experiencing multiple oppressions. So as well as acknowledging the obvious class imbalance that informed the way General Motors treated their workforce (cynically using divide and rule) the intersectional analysis also focused on the extra levels of discrimination various sections of the workforce experienced due to their race and / or gender.

Maybe, I’m being naïve, but an analysis which highlights the varying levels of discrimination and oppression people endure should ideally be getting used in a way that draws different struggles together. It’s certainly something that can be used to draw attention to the cynical use of divide and rule and to highlight the way that various oppressions overlap each other and why struggles against them should strive to achieve unity while acknowledging the different experiences of the various groups involved. The hope being that it will generate solidarity between a range of groups on the basis of all for one and one for all.

One issue that has to be dealt with in unifying a range of struggles is acknowledging that some people face more in the way of discrimination and oppression than others. What needs to be born in mind is that while recognising that someone is getting screwed over in more ways than you are, is that it’s not done in a patronising way. This is simply because from my experience, people who are having to deal with multiple oppressions can turn out to be the most effective and feisty campaigners going! They have to be in order to deal with all the issues being thrown at them and we should be listening to and learning from their experiences.

What I’m discussing goes by the name of privilege theory. Which in theory should be the decent and common sense acknowledgement of when someone is more oppressed / discriminated against than you are and acting accordingly to show solidarity and support. One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can all too often come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. When it becomes understood as such, it becomes a real problem as it denies people the agency to fight back against the system that’s oppressing them.

Giving people being screwed over by multiple oppressions a voice shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise – it should be a learning experience for all involved. People who are being oppressed on multiple fronts generally have a pretty sharp perception of what’s wrong with the social, political and economic order as it stands and what needs to be done to change things. Listening to them talk not just about their oppressions but how they fight back against them is a learning experience. In other words, let people more oppressed than you have a voice because more often than not, they have a valid contribution to make to the struggle.

Having said this, we have to have the leeway to aggregate people’s experiences to draw general principles from them which will guide our action. This is what political theorist, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has to say about this: Listening to people’s stories is important. But if it is to have any value, besides satisfying people’s desire to be heard, then we need to do more than listen. We need to be able to generalize from those stories to more abstract principles, which then inform our action and guide policy. Particular experiences and personal testimonies are of political importance because they can help to illuminate general principles; they cannot trump those general principles. [2]

For various reasons, one being the crap education system that many people at the bottom of the social ladder have endured, not everyone is going to be as articulate as someone who’s had the privilege of a university education. On the other hand, the experience of life of those at the bottom will most likely be more real and just because they can’t spout the right kind of jargon, it doesn’t mean their opinion should be disregarded. Sometimes – and only sometimes, they may need some assistance in articulating their opinions. That should simply be a matter of tact and done in a way that helps to empower them and doesn’t patronise them.

One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. That’s an incredibly patronising way of viewing the situation when it’s the most oppressed who can often be at the forefront of the fight for a better world. The struggles of cleaners, delivery workers and others across London is a case in point. In London, these sectors are primarily operated by migrant labour who refuse to accept their allotted role of cheap, disposable labour and they’re vigorously fighting back against that with demands for decent pay and to be respected for what they do. Somehow, while they will acknowledge the multiple oppressions they experience, I don’t think they will recognise the hierarchy of victimhood that some proponents of privilege theory describe.

Another example of intersectionality in practice is the setting up of Sisters Uncut Doncaster. [3] Yes, Doncaster – about as far away from cosseted middle class liberal privilege as you can get. A town that to all intents has been thrown under the bus with issues ranging from high rates of domestic abuse, low wages and part time work for many women through to the trauma of adjusting to a post industrial future in a society that still judges people by what they do (or don’t do) in the way of work for a living. A town where austerity cuts threatened the only Women’s Aid in South Yorkshire.

A worker at Women’s Aid contacted Sisters Uncut in London to see what help they could offer. Sisters Uncut in London responded and as a result Sisters Uncut Doncaster was set up and Women’s Aid was saved. This was an intervention that drew a whole range of issues from class through austerity to toxic patriarchy together and came up with a practical, cohesive response. Sisters Uncut may be better known for their dynamic direct actions on the streets but it’s this grassroots graft in places like Doncaster that will seal their reputation for putting intersectional principles into action in a way that brings about real change where it matters.

What I’ve written so far is my personal attempt to draw out the positives from intersectionality and hopefully start a constructive dialogue on how they can be used to unify struggles. I’m only too well aware that with some of the interpretations of intersectionality that have manifested themselves, it has become a contentious issue and to say that some of the discussion around it has turned toxic is an understatement. There are a number of reasons why this is the case and dealing with them would entail at least one or more full length posts. For the purposes of this piece, looking at how and why some of the debate around intersectionality has become so toxic is something I would rather leave for the future.

To conclude this piece, I’ll leave you with this quote from Rebecca Reilly-Cooper: Recognizing that there are multiple and interacting forms of oppression, and wanting to work to eradicate the negative effects of this on the most oppressed people, can and must divorce itself from this incoherent, self-defeating, nihilistic identity politics. It we are going to do anything to make people’s lives better, we have to be able to draw general conclusions from people’s experiences, and be allowed to represent those who cannot represent themselves. [4]

References

[1] Kimberlé Crenshaw – Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait – Washington Post, 24 September, 2015 – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/
[3] Vicky Spratt – How Sisters Uncut are changing the way politics is done – The DeBrief – 9 August, 2016 – http://www.thedebrief.co.uk/news/politics/sisters-uncut-who-are-they-20160864469
[2], [4] Rebecca Reilly-Cooper – Intersectionality and Identity Politics – https://rebeccarc.com/2013/04/15/intersectionality-and-identity-politics/