Protest Stickers: Berlin Part 1

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As with many large cities, Berlin’s street furniture has a lot of stickers, of all kinds (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Earlier this year, I went to Berlin as a member of staff on an undergraduate field trip. I had never been before, and I was really looking forward to the chance to explore a city with such a complex history, as well as a reputation for alternative culture and politics. Berlin did not disappoint; it is a vibrant city, with an admirable approach to coming to terms with the most difficult moments of its past. It has a lively culture of protest stickers too, so much so that I have decided to do two blog posts on the topic. At this point I would like to say thank you to my German-speaking colleague, Dr. Julia Affolderbach, who never once ran out of patience with me for repeatedly asking “What does this sticker say?”

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This sticker translates as “The AFD is no alternative.” The AFD is Alternative fur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), a far-right political party founded in 2013. After failing to secure any seats in the German parliament in the 2013, in the 2017 federal elections it became the 3rd biggest political party in Germany, and many see its rapid growth as a cause for serious concern. This sticker is encouraging people to not to see the AFD as a viable alternative to the mainstream political parties, with whom many people are feeling frustration and disillusion. What the connection to Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants is I’m not sure, but it is not uncommon to see characters from popular culture on protest stickers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is another anti-AFD sticker, adapting the well-known logo of the 80s hip-hop band, Run DMC. I have seen quite a lot of protest stickers using this style in my travels (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is the remnants of a sticker produced by the AFD; the white letters in the blue rectangle with the red arrow is their logo. The only remaining text translates as “Germany protests”, but someone obviously took offence at the sticker’s message and removed most of it, so I can’t tell what the AFD is ‘protesting’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Fuck off Google is a campaign group trying to prevent Google from opening a ‘campus’ in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood. Opposition stems not just from what the campus would do to the local area, with rising housing prices and gentrification already a problem, but also Google’s questionable business and surveillance practices. So far, the campaign has been successful, and in October 2016 Google announced it will not be going ahead with its plans for a Kreuzberg campus (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I’ve got to admit, at first I thought this sticker was about the gender pay gap. When I was in Berlin, there was an event to highlight the this that involved women paying reduced fares on public transport. However, this sticker is actually about agricultural subsidies. The text at the bottom translates to: “Agricultural subsidies only for good agriculture and good food.” I assume it is arguing that EU agricultural subsidies should be used to encourage sustainable farming practices (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Women’s rights did crop up quite often in Berlin’s protest stickers however. This distinctive design was produced by BesD (the Professional Association for Erotic and Sexual Service Providers), a group of current and former sex workers who campaign on various issues to improve the sex industry (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker relates to the representation of women in advertising. It was produced by Berlin-Werbefrei, a group which is campaigning for increased regulation of advertising, including: the removal of all commercial advertising in public spaces, the regulation of advertising and sponsoring in schools, universities, and other public organisations, and the introduction of binding rules relating to derogatory and discriminatory advertising (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As with most cities, anti-fascism is one of the most common topics of Berlin’s protest stickers. This sticker is simple, but effective at communicating its message (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker roughly translates as “Against ethno-nationalism (it is actually quite difficult to directly translate ‘volkische,’ but it is strongly associated with fascism and Nazism), sexism, anti-Semitism.” Anti-fascist groups can be quite territorial in the way that that claim space, so it is not unusual to see stickers that declare the vicinity an “Antifa area.” Jugend Widerstand is a group whose name translates as “Youth Resistance,” and it turns out this sticker is a manifestation of a dispute between two left-wing groups who dislike each other’s stances. Thanks go to the many people on Twitter who helped me with the translation and context of this sticker (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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It is also not uncommon to see stickers that encourage the viewer to “Support your local antifa.” This sticker has the added element, however, of telling people not to move to Berlin. My guess is that this is a criticism of the increasingly expensive and overcrowded housing and overstretched public services that many major European cities struggle to deal with as people move there in search of better opportunities and jobs (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Annoyingly, it seems impossible to escape from Donald Trump. This sticker is looking very good for 3 years old! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This anti-American sticker has not aged quite as well. I assume it was produced when Barack Obama was US President, so it was probably made in 2016 at the latest. It can be quite difficult to gauge the age of stickers, as most do not include a date (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Hands Off Venezuela is a group that campaigns for the lifting of sanctions against Venezuela, and against military intervention there. They were founded in 2002, but appear to be experiencing a resurgence due to the recent political upheavals in the country (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Critical Mass is a global cycling protest in which cyclists take to a city’s streets in large numbers to remind people to be mindful and respectful of other road users, and to assert cyclists’ rights to be on the road. This sticker is advertising Critical Mass Koln, which takes place on the last Friday of each month (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is in French rather than German or English, and reads “Everyone hates the Police.” The small boy in the foreground is holding a gun behind his back, hiding it from the police officers in the car who are talking to the other boy. Whilst tensions with police can be high in cities, particularly among ethnic minorities who often feel profiled and discriminated against, this is a disturbing image (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I’m not sure that this technically counts as a protest sticker, but I wanted to finish on a positive note 🙂 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

Violence, Landscape, and Gender in Woman at War

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An English-language poster for Woman at War (2018).

I recently got the chance to see Woman at War, an Icelandic film that’s been receiving excellent reviews. Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and staring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, it tells the story of Halla, a choirmaster who leads a double life as The Mountain Woman, waging a one-woman war against the expansion of heavy industry threatening the climate and Iceland’s natural environment. She’s very good at it too, until she is offered the chance of fulfilling her life-long dream of becoming a mother, and suddenly has to make some difficult decisions. The film is fantastic, and it draws on some really interesting debates and issues related to the geographies of protest.

Halla’s tactics are the cause of much controversy amongst the Icelandic media and politicians in Woman at War. She only ever commits violence against electricity pylons, never animals or people, but she is criticised for this nonetheless. When deciding on their tactics, activists must walk a fine line between doing something that will get attention and alienating people by going ‘too far’. Most of us consider violence against people and animals unacceptable whatever the cause, but people tend to be more tolerant of violence against objects. Despite this, Halla’s opponents use her tactics to undermine her argument. Her critics also accuse her of bypassing the democratic system and making unilateral decisions about Iceland’s future that she has no right to make, as she is not an elected official. In this way, Woman at War raises interesting questions about whether or not protest is democratic. It is widely understood that dissent and protest is an essential part of a healthy democracy, but how much pressure can we put on elected officials before it becomes unethical? Generally speaking, protest marches, rallies, petitions, and lobbying are considered acceptable, but violence, blackmail, or bribery is not. But does this lines shift if politicians refuse to engage, or if the future of the human race is as stake (as many people believe it is because of climate change)? This is not a debate with an easy answer.

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Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla in Woman at War.

Halla wages her one-woman war by sabotaging electricity pylons that supply an aluminium smelting plant. Sabotaging machinery and equipment is nothing new for the more militant wing of the environmental movement, but Woman at War was released during a surge of non-violent direct action on behalf of the environment by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future (also known as the school strike for climate movement, kick started by Grea Thunberg). Although these groups argue that non-violence is the most effective approach, they share a sense of urgency with Halla about the need to do something quickly. They are not alone; for example, The Guardian has recently announced a change in the language it will use, favouring “climate emergency/crisis/breakdown” over “climate change,” and “global heating” over “global warming.” Woman at War is not preachy, but it does convey a sense that drastic changes are needed very quickly.

Landscape is another prominent theme in Woman at War. Large portions of the film take place in Iceland’s rural highlands, and Halla has a strong connection to the natural world around her. It is her intimate knowledge of the landscape that enables her to evade capture, using crevices and streams to hide from helicopters and throw dogs off her scent. As well as the world as a whole, it is this landscape she is seeking to protect through her activism, and in return it protects her. When the film’s action shifts to Ukraine, the contrast with the Icelandic landscape is stark; the large cooling towers and desolate factories a warning against exactly the kind of economic development that Halla is trying to prevent in Iceland.

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Halla takes refuge in a hot spring in Woman at War.

The final theme that jumped out when I watched Woman at War is gender. When the chance to adopt a little girl from Ukraine is presented to her, Halla realises she must choose between being and activist and a mother. She takes her role as eco-warrior very seriously, but she has dreamed of becoming a mother, and it is obvious that she would devote just as much attention to this new role. Perhaps the choice between her passion and her dream of motherhood is more literal than that which most women face, but I’m sure that many can identify with Halla’s dilemma, and it was painful to watch her agonise over it. However, it is also Halla’s concern for future generations that drives her to her activism, she is trying to protect the world on their behalf. So perhaps without her motherly instincts, she would not have embarked on her one-woman crusade. Activists often sacrifice a great deal in their fight for what they believe in. Woman at War confronts the emotional toll of these sacrifices, as well as examining the forces that drive women to take action.

Woman at War is an excellent film. Despite it’s topical storyline about the future of humanity, it manages to be very funny at times, and retains a note of hope. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a difficult balance to strike. It hasn’t had a big cinematic release in the UK, but if you get the opportunity to see it, then I thoroughly recommend that you do. Who knows, perhaps Halla will inspire you to go out and save the world.

Book Review: Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

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Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Fern Riddell. Death in Ten Minutes. London: Hodder, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Thanks to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018, there has been a significant amount of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the campaign for women’s suffrage over the last two years (see all of my blog posts on the topic here). It is no easy task, therefore, to come up with something that stands out from the crowd. I have been looking forward to reading Death in Ten Minutes since its publication last year, but I have been waiting for the paperback to come out. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait.

Death in Ten Minutes is a biography of Kitty Marion, a German-born actress and singer who came to live with her aunt in Britain as a young girl to escape an abusive father. During her time in the theatres and music halls she was subjected to sexual assault and mistreatment by men who held power over her career. She became increasingly disillusioned with the way women were treated by society, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) proved to be an ideal outlet for her frustrations. She became one of the group’s most militant suffragettes, responsible for multiple arson and bomb attacks around the country. During the First World War Kitty was forced to leave Britain because she was German, despite living in the UK for most of her life. She took refuge in the US, where she became heavily involved in the birth control advocacy movement. She continued to fight for what she believed in until her death in 1944. In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes. The result is an account of Kitty’s life that is vivid, engaging, and feels like it is told from her perspective.

There are lots of things I like about Death in Ten Minutes. One of the main characteristics of the book that surprised me is that Riddell uses Kitty’s story to make a broader argument about the way that women’s history in general, and the suffrage movement in particular, has been sanitised in popular memory and dominant historical narratives in order to (re)produce a particular patriarchal understanding of women. Riddell also critiques the way that the suffragettes are idolised in popular memory, glossing over violent and life-threatening acts of terrorism to present a picture of perfect women. But no one is perfect, and it is just as important to acknowledge that about our admired historical figures as it is about ourselves. In most historical biographies aimed at a popular audience, I do not expect the kind of critical analysis found in Death in Ten Minutes.

The second major strength of Death in Ten Minutes for me is that it doesn’t end in 1918. Many of the women involved in the suffrage campaign went on to use their skills for other causes and social movements, and Kitty was no exception. She worked for the birth control advocacy movement for just as long, if not longer, than she campaigned for the WSPU. Social movements and political campaigns in the twentieth century were empowering experiences for many women, allowing them to develop skills they never anticipated, and the confidence to use those skills (the 1984-5 miner’s strike is another good example). Death in Ten Minutes contextualises the suffrage campaign within Kitty’s life, and shows that there was much more to her than being a suffragette.

Death in Ten Minutes is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that gives Kitty Marion the recognition she deserves as a fierce and passionate, but flawed, campaigner for women’s rights. I highly recommend it.

The Commemoration and Celebration of Dissent in Tolpuddle

The small village of Tolpuddle in Dorset would be just like every other picturesque rural village in Britain if it wasn’t for a clandestine meeting of six men under a sycamore tree more than 150 years ago. George Loveless, James Loveless, James Standfield, Thomas Standfield, James Brine, and James Hammett would become known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and their story is seen by many as the defining moment in the development of British trade unions. Tolpuddle receives thousands of visitors each year, particularly during the annual Tolpuddle Festival every summer. There are several memorials in the village, including a museum, a statue, one of the martyr’s gravestones, and a plaque, many of which date back to the centenary of the martyrs’ conviction. The Tolpuddle App (which you can download onto your phone or tablet) guides visitors through the points of interest in the village and includes videos that explain the martyrs’ story. In May, I dragged my family to visit the museum and explore the village using the app.

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The map and interface of the Tolpuddle App, which visitors can use for a self-guided tour of the village. Each stop has a series of videos associated with it about the story of the martyrs and what life was like for agricultural labourers in the early 1800s (Source: Tolpuddle App).

The six men were agricultural labourers, and they met under a sycamore tree in the village to discuss their poor working conditions, low wages, and how to prevent things getting worse. They decided to form a Friendly Society, hoping that working together would give them more bargaining strength. The local authorities found out about the new trade union, and with support from central government, decided to put a stop to it. Trade unions weren’t illegal, but the political and social elites were afraid of the impact they could have, so an obscure law against taking secret oaths was used to charge the six men. The men were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation. The severity of the sentence caused a public outcry and the martyrs were eventually pardoned, but not before they had spent several years in Australia. They returned home as heroes. The authorities had hoped that the men’s treatment would scare people and stop them joining trade unions, but the martyrs’ story had the opposite effect. Many argue that it kick started the fledgling trade union movement in Britain, which is why Tolpuddle is so important to modern-day trade unions.

 

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The sycamore tree that the martyrs met under is still going strong in the centre of the village. In 2002 it was declared one of 50 Great British Trees by the Tree Council to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The museum shop sells seedlings from the tree in you want to grow your own piece of trade union history (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In 1934, the National Trust built this shelter next to the sycamore tree in the village. The text on the back says “In memory of the Dorset labourers who made a courageous stand for liberty in 1934” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The centenary of the Tolpuddle Martyr’s conviction was marked with huge celebrations in the village. A series of events were organised, and commemorative souvenirs were produced to mark the occasion. A number of physical memorials were also built in Tolpuddle. The most substantial is the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Memorial Cottages, a row of 6 cottages that were built by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to house retired agricultural trade unionists. The cottages included a  library, which grew over time to become the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Museum. The museum is small, but it tells the Martyr’s story well, and contains several interesting items, including a tile from the local church that James Hammett scratched his name into, and commemorative items from various anniversaries.

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The Tolpuddle Martyr’s Museum is located in six cottages that were built by the Trades Union Congress in 1934 for retired agricultural trade unionists (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The headstone of James Hammett, the only martyr who stayed in Tolpuddle until his death. He is buried in the graveyard of St. John’s Church in the village. The stone was installed as part of the centenary celebrations in 1934 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Outside the museum is a statue by artist Thomson Dagnall. It was installed in 2002, with funding from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). It depicts George Loveless, who is considered the leader of the martyrs. Visitors are invited to sit beside George on the bench and contemplate what it must have been like for the martyrs to be separated from their families and transported around the world to a life in forced labour.

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This sculpture by Thomson Dagnall (2002) sits outside the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Memorial Cottages (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As you walk through the village, past St. Johns churchyard where James Hammett is buried and the sycamore tree, you will come to the cottage where James Standfield lived. It was here that the men held their union meetings, with up to 40 men crammed into an upstairs room. The cottage is marked with a plaque, installed by the TUC.

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James Standfield’s cottage where the agricultural union met and (inset) the text of the plaque installed on the cottage by the TUC (Photos: Hannah Awcock).

Most of the martyrs were Methodists, and quite heavily involved in the Methodist community in the village; George Loveless was a lay preacher. There are two buildings in Tolpuddle that have been used as Methodist Chapels. The first was built in 1818, but fell into disuse sometime after 1843. Since then it has been used for agriculture and storage, but in 2015 the Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust was set up to purchase the building and renovate it. The Trust are raising funds to open the building up for “activities, exhibitions and community use”, so all being well there may soon be another memorial in the village to the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

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The Old Chapel building in Topuddle, where at least 4 of the 6 martyrs worshiped. Fundraising is currently underway to reopen the building (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

If you continue walking along the main road through the village, you will eventually come to the current Methodist Chapel, which was built in 1862-3. Outside is an arch dedicated to the martyrs, built in 1912. On one side is engraved the following text: “Erected in honour of the faithful and brave men of this village who in 1834 so nobly suffered transportation in the cause of liberty, justice, and righteousness, and as a stimulus to our own and future generations” followed by the names of the 6 men. On the other side is engraved a quote from a speech George Loveless made during the martyrs’ trial: “We have injured no man’s reputation, character, person or property, we were uniting together to preserve ourselves, our wives and our children from utter degradation and starvation.”

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Tolpuddle’s current Methodist Church and the memorial arch outside. Visitors are welcome to look around inside when the church is open (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There are numerous memorials in Tolpuddle that commemorate the martyrs and their story. They represent a wide variety of different types of memorial, ranging from the more traditional (plaques, a museum, and a sculpture) to the less conventional (cottages, a tree, and a gravestone). The also range in age: the sycamore tree is hundreds of years old, the memorials constructed during the centenary celebrations are 85 years old, and the sculpture is less than 20 years old. If the Old Chapel is successfully renovated, then that age range will be stretched even further. Looked at together, the memorials represent a fascinating landscape of commemoration that has been added to by successive generations. The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs has remained important to several generations of activists and trade unionists, and the plans for the Old Chapel and the annual Tolpuddle festival demonstrate that that significance has not diminished. I hope that the story will be remembered and celebrated for many more generations to come.