Protest: What’s the Point?

When I posted a link to Reddit about the End Austerity Now demonstration in June I said it was a ‘big success’. Several comments reacted to this rather sarcastically with one asking if austerity is now over. Whilst I didn’t appreciate the tone of the comments, I realised that ‘what makes a successful protest?’ is a perfectly valid question. It is true that protests rarely bring about large scale change, but they serve other purposes too, such as raising awareness, recruitment, demonstrating solidarity and boosting morale.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a 'big success'.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a ‘big success’.

It can be difficult to find examples where protest has directly led to wide-scale change, although the 1990 Poll Tax Riots is one case where protest significantly contributed to change. It is much easier to find examples of protests that have led directly to small-scale, local change. For example, housing protest groups like FocusE15 and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) have managed to prevent an increasing number of evictions and long-distance relocations by London councils over the past few years. Looking further back, the female workers at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, East London won themselves better working conditions and helped to kick start New Unionism when they went on strike back in 1888. These examples demonstrate that protest is not always as ‘unsuccessful’ as it is perceived to be.

Even protests that do not lead to direct change can be ‘successful’. For example, a protest can raise awareness of an issue amongst those who witness it and the wider public via media coverage. Fathers4Justice are a group that know how to garner publicity, as their tactic of scaling landmarks dressed as various superheroes demonstrates. As well as dramatic or comic stunts, violence can also increase press coverage, as happened in the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in late 2010. It’s a risk though, as violence can often alienate would-be supporters. On the 13th December 1867 the Irish Republican Brotherhood attempted a prison breakout in Clerkenwell by blowing up the prison wall. They used too much gunpowder however, and the explosion killed 12 people. The event became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, and support for the Fenians in London, which had been quite strong up to this point, evaporated. Nevertheless, regardless of exactly how you go about it, protest can be an effective way of raising the profile of an issue you care about.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Linked to raising awareness, protests can also help with recruitment. Put simply, you can’t attract new recruits if nobody knows who you are. Protests get people talking, and provide the opportunity to win people over. After the publicity resulting from the fourth anniversary demonstration of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1936, which has since become know as the Battle of Cable Street, BUF membership spiked. Membership in London almost doubled, jumping from under 3000 to around 5000 (Tilles, 2011). Whilst this is not a positive example, it does show just how effective protest can be at attracting new activists to a cause.

Solidarity is a crucial concept amongst protest groups and social movements. Holding a protest, or attending someone else’s, is a good way of providing both practical and emotional support. The work of Lesbians and Gay Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 miner’s strike, popularised by the 2014 film Pride, is a good example of this. The actions of LGSM not only raised money for the miners, but let them know that they were not alone. In return a delegation of miners led the 1985 London Pride parade, and voted for gay rights motions at Labour and TUC conferences (Kelliher, 2015). Protest can help build and maintain ties between diverse groups.

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains his definition of solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

The final purpose that protest serves isn’t easy to pin down, but I think is best described as morale boosting. Being active in a social movement can be difficult and draining. It often feels as though you are putting in a lot of time and effort for very little return. Protests can provide a sense of accomplishment, of getting something done. They can also be fun; protests often have a carnivalesque atmosphere which provides the chance to relax and let go. Chanting a slogan at the top of your voice surrounded by tens, hundreds, or thousands of others who share your frustration and anger can be a wonderful feeling. It can be hugely helpful to be reminded that you are not the only one who feels the way you do, and this is rarely more obvious than at a protest.

There are several ways in which protest can be successful. It may well be that protests frequently fail to cause change, but this does not mean that they fail as a tactic for dissent. Protests also serve to raise awareness, recruit new activists, show solidarity and boost morale, and at these tasks they are very successful. Austerity may still be in place after the End Austerity Now demo, but I stand by my statement that it was a big success.

Sources and Further Reading

Kellier, Diarmaid. ‘The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the Spirit of Solidarity.’ Soundings 60 (2015): 118-129.

Tilles, Daniel. “The Myth of Cable Street.” History Today 61, no. 10 (2001): 41-47.

Contesting the Capital: Exploring London’s History of Protest at the International Conference of Historical Geographers

The International Conference of Historical Geography 2015 took place at the RGS-IBG in Kensington, London.

The International Conference of Historical Geography 2015 took place at the RGS-IBG in Kensington, London.

Between the 5th and 10th of July, the International Conference of Historical Geographers (ICHG) took place at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers in South Kensington, London. The conference takes place every 3 years in a different city; in 2012 it was in Prague, in 2018 it will be in Warsaw. This year the conference was 40 years old, and over 700 delegates, 60% of which came from beyond Britain, gathered to talk all things historical geography.

Along with Diarmaid Kelliher, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, I convened a session called Contesting the Capital: Historical Geographies of Protest in London, exploring the relationship between protest and London. As regular readers of this blog are probably aware, London has a long and vibrant history of protest. This is often attributed to Londoners themselves; “Londoners have for many centuries been considered far too ‘bolshie’ to do what they are ordered for long” (Bloom, 2010; p.xxxviii). Whether this is the reason or not, London is a particularly contentious city. For example, on the 30th of May this year (2015), there was a demonstration in Trafalgar Square to support striking workers at the National Gallery; a protest outside the offices of the Daily Mail about the paper’s treatment of Pilipino nurses; and a march organised by UKUncut in Westminster, in which a huge anti-austerity banner was hung from Westminster Bridge. Three major protests, all in one day. London’s rebellious streak makes it fantastic to study, and Contesting the Capital aimed to celebrate and explore this rich history.

This anti-austerity demonstration was just one of several large protests taking place in London on the 30th May 2015 (Source: Evening Standard).

This anti-austerity demonstration was just one of several large protests taking place in London on the 30th May 2015 (Source: Evening Standard).

Contesting the Capital included 4 papers; by myself, Gavin Brown, Claire Nally and Diarmaid Kelliher. My paper was about the characteristics of urban areas in general, and London specifically, that encourages protest. Gavin Brown discussed the geographies of the 24-hour picket outside the South African embassy between 1986 and 1990. Claire Nally talked about the Crossbones graveyard in Southwark, the ways it has been represented and ways it fits into networks of memorialisation and feminism. Finally, Diarmaid Kelliher presented a paper about solidarity and London support groups for the 1984-5 miner’s strike.

Claire Nally presenting about the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark (apologies for the poor-quality camera phone!)

Claire Nally presenting about the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark (apologies for the poor-quality camera phone!)

For me, the session highlighted some of the key issues involved in studying protest in London, one of which is networks. Walter Nicholls (2009) has demonstrated that networks are a useful tool for thinking about the processes and activities of social movements. Fran Tonkiss (2005) has argued that cities tend to have good information and mobilisation networks, which allow the easy circulation of ideas and people. She also points out that cities bring together extensive social networks that can support protest. Contesting the Capital demonstrated how some of these theories work in practice, placing London in national and international networks of solidarity, communication, and support.  For example, during the 1984-5 miner’s strike multiple support groups were active in London offering financial, physical and emotional support to the strikers in far flung places like Wales and Yorkshire. The Non-stop picket outside the South African embassy in the 1980s was part of an international anti-apartheid movement that aimed to put pressure on the South African government. Neither of these issues are obviously related to the lives and concerns of Londoners, but nevertheless people felt strongly enough to take action.

Protests in London highlight the city's place in local, nation, and international networks (Source: City of London Anti-Apartheid Group).

Protests in London highlight the city’s place in local, nation, and international networks (Source: City of London Anti-Apartheid Group).

Another key issue which Contesting the Capital highlighted for me is that London is constantly changing. As Roy Porter (2000; p.7) says “change is the essence” of cities. Economically, politically, socially, culturally, demographically, physically; London hasn’t sat still since it was founded two thousand years ago. For example, the Crossbones graveyard in Southwark was rediscovered during the construction of the Jubilee Line; London’s future helped to uncover its forgotten past. In terms of protest, solidarity has to be carefully constructed and maintained. The strong networks of solidarity that were evident during the miner’s strike have arguably been lost; the fierce criticism of workers whenever there is a tube strike is evidence of this. Along with the city’s sheer size, these constant processes of change make it very difficult to make any meaningful generalisations about London as a whole.

Contesting the Capital aimed to explore the relationship between London and the historical geographies of protest, and it was pretty successful, if I do say so myself. The history of protest in London is an almost inexhaustible resource for studying dissent, alternative politics and the urban, and there is lots more work to be done, although I think it’s fair to say we’re making a good start.

Sources and Further Reading

Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Nicholls, Walter. “Place, Networks, Space: Theorising the Geographies of Social Movements.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33 (2009); 78–93.

Porter, Roy. London: A Social History. London, Penguin, 2000.

Tonkiss, Fran. Space, the City, and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

‘Still the Enemy Within:’ May Day Screening

‘Still the Enemy Within’ film poster.

Last Friday (May the 1st), I went to a showing of the documentary film Still the Enemy Within (2014), organised by Reel Islington and Radical Islington at London Metropolitan University. The film tells the story of the 1984-5 miner’s strike, from the perspective of those who took part. The film’s executive producer, Mike Simons, and Mike Jackson, the secretary of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miner’s (LGSM) were there for a Q&A after the screening. I have been meaning to see the film for a while, and it seemed like an appropriate thing to do with my May Day.

Still the Enemy Within reconstructs the narrative of the miner’s strike using archive footage and photos, interviews and dramatisations. It starts in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, and runs right through to the recent anti-austerity protests, although these only get a brief mention in the last few minutes. It is engaging and entertaining, and does a fantastic job of telling the story with a nice balance of poignancy and humour. With the 30th anniversary of the strike recently, and films such as Pride and Going through the Change!, I had an awareness of the miner’s strike and knowledge of specific parts, but Still the Enemy Within improved my general knowledge of the strike immeasurably. It goes through the major events of the strike in chronological order, including how the strike began, the reluctance of Nottinghamshire miners and other unions to join the strike, the death of David Jones at a picket, and the eventual defeat.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to think of the miner’s strike as doomed to fail, but the interviews with strikers and their supporters tell a different story. Especially at the beginning of the year-long strike, the miners were confident in their ability to win, largely thanks to their victory over Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1974. The National Union of Mineworker’s (NUM) was one of the strongest in the country, and the miner’s had faith in the NUM’s president, Arthur Scargill. Hearing the story from the perspective of those who took part gives a sense of what it was like to live through the highs and lows, the joys of solidarity and strength and the bitterness of hunger, failed marriages and defeat.

2015-05-01 20.45.00

Mike Simon and Mike Jackson after the screening of ‘Still the Enemy Within’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Those interviewed for the film also have a wonderful sense of humour, which brings me to my next point. I think the film really benefited from being seen with a large group of politically-minded people. Some of the jokes and stories that the strikers tell are laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed the experience of everyone else in the crowded lecture theatre laughing along with me. A political audience also made for a lively, if brief, discussion after the film. It turned out there was a former Nottinghamshire miner in the audience, who was keen to share his experiences.

However, I would highly recommend watching the film even if you were on your own. It really is a wonderful resource, and would be fantastic for undergraduate teaching. The film-makers have a list of screenings on their website, from which you can also buy the film. I myself am now a proud owner of the DVD!

‘Going through the Change!’: The Story of the National Women Against Pit Closures

A banner from the National Women Against Pit Closures (Source: Pastpixels, n.d.)

A banner from the National Women Against Pit Closures (Source: Pastpixels, n.d.).

On Tuesday evening I went to the London premiere of the film Going through the Change! at the Bishopsgate Institute. Made by Anne-Marie Sweeney, it is a film about the 20th anniversary weekend of the National Women Against Pit Closures (NWAPC) in 2004. Anne-Marie Sweeney and Bridget Bell, Joint Secretary of the NWAPC, both spoke and led the discussion after the film. Because of the recent 30th anniversary, the 1984-5 miners’ strike has been the focus of renewed attention, most prominently in the form of the film Pride. Going through the Change! is a reflection on this commemorative process, as well as a celebration of the past, present, and future work of  working class female activists.

The NWAPC is a national organisation set up to coordinate the efforts of local Women Against Pits Closure groups that sprang up around the country almost as soon as the miners’ strike started. The film is made up almost entirely of footage from the weekend held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the strike. It uses footage of the weekend’s speakers, many of whom were involved in entirely different campaigns from the miners’ strike, to show footage of other disputes, including dock strikes in Liverpool, action by the Fire Brigade’s Union and protests demanding improved treatment of asylum seekers. In this way the film really emphasises the importance of solidarity between campaigns and social movements, in terms of moral as well as financial and practical support.

A badge from the 20th anniversary of the NWAPC, with a stirring message (Source: Feminist Times, 2014).

A badge from the 20th anniversary of the NWAPC, with a stirring message (Source: Feminist Times, 2014).

One thing that the film and discussion made me think about was the way in which anniversaries such as the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike are used. As I said, many of the speakers shown in the film were from campaigns that were nothing to do with the strike, many of them still ongoing at the time the footage was filmed in 2004. Then, as now, the NWAPC is using the anniversary not as an excuse for a nostalgia trip, but as a focus point for what is still yet to be achieved. In a similar way, the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group (LGSM) has received a boost from the publicity surrounding the anniversary and Pride (see @LGSMPride on Twitter). Unlike other historical events, the anniversary of the strike is being used as an opportunity to look forward as well as back.

Women grappling with police during the miners' strike (Source: Bristol, 2014).

Women grappling with police during the miners’ strike (Source: Bristol Radical History Group, 2014).

When the women of the NWAPC do look back, it seems to be mainly for the purpose of taking inspiration and lessons for future campaigns. Education is clearly an important part of campaigns such as this one. Many of the women involved in NWAPC had no experience of activism or politics before the strike began. The title of the film Going through the Change! initially invokes thoughts of the menopause, but is actually a quote from one the speakers. And the change she is referring too is that from housewife to political activist. All of the women featured seemed to have experienced this sense of empowerment, the realisation that actually they can make a difference and cause change. They were fierce and proud, and perfectly capable of articulating themselves in public, something several of them said they never dreamed they would be able to do before they were politicised. As campaigns continue and develop, more women will be empowered in this way, will learn how to use direct action and campaigning to fight for their goals. Women who have already gone through this transformation should be able to help based on their own experiences, which is another reason that solidarity and networks between different campaigns are so important.

Going through the Change! is an inspiring film, and it was a pleasure to be part of a discussion where so many of the women from the film were present. These are strong women who have had long, accomplished activism careers, and who continue to fight in times that they see as just as bad, if not worse, than the 1980s. Many of them are now fighting for the futures of the grandchildren rather than their children, but they remain as passionate and fierce as ever, and a lesson to us all.

The people involved in making Going through the Change! are keen for the film to be seen. If you would like to buy a copy, or arrange a screening, then get in touch via their Facebook group.


Sources

‘Going through the Change!’ Bristol Radical History Group. Last modified 6th February 2015, accessed 4th March 2015. http://www.brh.org.uk/site/events/going-change/

Graham, Sarah. ‘Women Against Pit Closures: memories from the miners’ strike, 30 years on.’ Feminist Times. Last modified 5th March 2014, accessed 4th March 2015.  http://www.feministtimes.com/women-against-pit-closures-memories-from-the-miners-strike-30-years-on/

‘Greetings card: The Banner of the National Women Against Pit Closures.’ Pastpixels. No date, accessed 4th march 2015. http://www.pastpixels.co.uk/en/product/greetings-card-banner-national-women-against-pit-closures

Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the Movie and Politics Now

The Pits and Perverts Revisited panel.

The Pits and Perverts Revisited panel.

Last Friday, I went to an event at Birkbeck College called Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the Movie and Politics Now. It is almost exactly 30 years since the Pits and Perverts fundraiser in Camden was organised for the striking miners by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the group depicted in this year’s hit film, Pride. This event was a reflection on the film and LGSM itself, with Mike Jackson and Siân James speaking, upon whom characters in the film were based. It included a screening of the documentary All Out! Dancing in Dulais and a panel discussion also featuring Diarmaid Kelliher (a PhD student at the University of Glasgow working on solidarity groups for the miners in London), and Bev Skeggs (a professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths). All Out was made in 1986, and is about the work that LGSM did for the miners. It was a great evening full of passionate discussion, which raised a lot of interesting points.

The key thing that really came home to me during the course of the evening was the importance of solidarity to protest movements. The point was made in All Out that it is illogical to fight for the right of one oppressed group or minority but not others. Solidarity can take many forms, from a declaration of support to volunteers to help man the picket lines, but all types are important. There is a long tradition of solidarity amongst social movements in Britain, for example miners from across the country joined the Grunwick strike on the picket line in the 1970s. However there is also a tradition of groups not receiving the support they need, for example many of the big trade union’s attitudes to women workers. Solidarity between different protest movements is still not a given, but as Pride demonstrates, it can be an invaluable and incredibly beneficial experience.

The original Pits and Perverts publicity poster.

The original Pits and Perverts publicity poster.

Another important characteristic of social movements that was emphasised was networks. Exchanging solidarity with other groups involves making connections, sharing knowledge, resources and experience. Several of the speakers emphasised the importance of making connections with other movements and activists, particularly internationally as many of the issues campaigned on now have international causes and implications. Academic geographers frequently analyse social movements from the perspective of networks, and it was nice to know that this is a legitimate perspective to take.

The final thing that came out of the discussion that I think is really important to emphasise is the necessity of fundraising. The main things that LGSM did in support of the miners were collections and fundraisers. At the height of the strike the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valleys Miners Support Group needed £5-8000 per week to feed 1000 mining families. These funds were essential for the strike to continue, and without it, the miners would have had no choice but to return to work. Fundraising is not glamorous or exciting, but no campaign will last for long without some form of income.

The audience for Pits and Perverts Revisited was more mixed than your average academic seminar, which I think contributed to the vigour and practical nature of the discussion. The evening gave me a lot to think about. Pride is a fantastic film, funny and heart-warming, but it is also inspiring activism and discussion, which I think is a truly wonderful achievement.

Thoughts on ‘Pride’: What’s Left Out and Why Does it Matter?

This post was written by Diarmaid Kelliher, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. His research is on solidarity in the miner’s strike in 1984-5, including Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who the recent film Pride is about. Follow him on Twitter at @Diarmaid84, or go to  http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/pgresearch/diarmaidkelliher/


One of Pride's promotional posters.

One of Pride‘s promotional posters.

The story of London Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 strike has circulated amongst lefties for a while but more broadly has been relatively unknown. This year, however, LGSM has featured in a play, a documentary, and the film Pride which is based entirely on the group. Pride has, rightly I think, received almost universally enthusiastic reviews. One exception is Brendan O’Neill’s ridiculous blog for the Telegraph which concludes that if the miners had been more ‘blokey and rough’ (the opposite of gay apparently) they might have won. Still, with the many positives covered so widely I want to focus on what’s missing.

The film, I think, gives an overly narrow portrayal of LGSM which, while perhaps understandable in narrative terms, somewhat cuts them off from broader political relationships, including with the larger solidarity movement for the miners. In the film, the group never grows beyond the handful of members drawn in early on. In fact, London LGSM at its peak attracted up to fifty people to its weekly meetings. There was eleven or so LGSM groups established outside London. This matters because it suggests that the politics of the group appealed to other lesbian and gay activists – and part of the point of LGSM was to engage and challenge lesbian and gay politics. As one member said at the time, they sought both to bring sexual politics into trade unionism, and to bring ‘socialism onto the agenda of sexual politics in the London lesbian and gay community’.

In the film, LGSM never grows much beyond the original members.

In the film, LGSM never grows much beyond the original members.

One effect of making the group so small is seen in the treatment of Lesbians Against Pit Closures – a group that separated from London LGSM. The split is largely played for laughs along classic leftist splintering lines. The extent to which women were outnumbered – even at the largest meetings of fifty there were never more than a few women – is not evident in the film’s small group. The idea that having a separate lesbian group was a bit silly is not easily distinguishable from the idea that LGSM itself was unnecessary – why not just work in the broader support campaigns? But how much fragmentation is too much, who decides and how?

One aspect of LGSM pushed a bit to the background in Pride is the political ideology. There is a glimpse of a hammer and sickle on the wall of founder Mark Ashton’s flat and someone calls him a commie – but you might not realise that he was a member of the Communist Party. Other activists in the group included members of left organisations such as the Labour Party and the Socialist Workers Party. The language of socialism so prominent at the time is largely absent from the film. This matters for the way in which we understand the construction of alliances: lesbian and gay support for the miners made sense not just because they were two groups of people under attack by the government, the police and the media. This was significant and possibly enough for some. But  it also relied on a broader left-wing politics which understood the different struggles in something like a totality.

Sheila Rowbotham’s recent reflections on the book Beyond the Fragments (1979) is, I think,  relevant here: ‘At the time, we had a credible word for what we wanted: “socialism” […] I still identity with the word “socialism”, but I realise that many others on the left no longer do so. To avoid unnecessary hair-splitting, I will say, then, that a vital component in “how” is imagining and articulating what else might be possible – what is beyond the beyond?’ Perhaps Pride avoids the language of socialism not as an attempt to appeal to an American market but as a reflection of the fact that ‘socialism’ doesn’t play this role any more. But part of the lesson in LGSM, for me, is the need for this alternative vision of ‘the beyond’ in building such alliances – and if that vision is not socialism, then what is it?

Diarmaid Kelliher, University of Glasgow.