Lennon Wall for Hong Kong: Solidarity in Melbourne

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“Free HK”, part of the Hong Kong solidarity wall in Melbourne, Australia (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the time of writing this blog post in early September 2019, there appears to be no end in sight to the protests which started in Hong Kong at the end of March. The spark which lit the tinder was a proposed extradition bill which would make it easier to transport people from Hong Kong to mainland China for questioning and trial. People in Hong Kong do not trust China’s justice system to be fair and impartial. Under pressure from protests whose intensity seemed to take everyone by surprise, the Hong Kong government shelved the extradition bill. This did not end the protests however, as the bill had tapped into a deeply held fear among the people of Hong Kong. Since being returned to China by Britain in 1997, residents of Hong Kong have enjoyed a lot more freedom than citizens of mainland China do, and they protect this freedom fiercely. For the protesters, the extradition bill was just one part of a much broader attempt to strip Hong Kong of its cherished freedom, and they are not willing to give their special status up without a fight. Over the last few months, protesters have clashed with police around the city.

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Hosier Lane in Melbourne is famous for it’s street art, and has become a significant tourist attraction (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the start of August 2019, I visited Melbourne in Australia, and I was quite surprised to find a wall full of messages expressing solidarity with, and seeking support for, the protesters in Hong Kong. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been: Australia has strong connections with China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and in 2017 there were 500,000 Chinese-born migrants living in Australia. Melbourne is known for its cosmopolitanism, and the city’s Laneways (alleys) are famous for edgy street art, shops, bars, and restaurants. The most famous for street art is Hosier Lane; it has become a popular tourist attraction. The solidarity wall is at the bottom of Hosier Lane, near the junction with Flinders Street.

 

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The Hong Kong solidarity wall in Hosier Lane, Melbourne (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

The wall is made up of posters calling for support and explaining what is happening in Hong Kong, and post-it notes with messages of solidarity. It feels spontaneous, but it is actually the result of a piece by Chinese artist Badiucao. He created a piece of street art featuring Chinese leader Xi Xingping and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam, then invited people to add their own messages of solidarity. A box of post-it notes and marker pens has been left so that visitors can add their own messages. This practice has become known as ‘Lennon Walls,’ which have appeared all over Hong Kong during the protests. They are now springing up elsewhere, including Toronto and Tokyo. The original artwork of Lennon Wall for Hong Kong can just about still be seen in the above image: it is the black text on the white background peeking out above the post-it notes.

I spent a little while watching other visitors interact with the wall. Many had little interest, others seemed to be interested in finding out what all the fuss was about, and some, particularly those who appeared to be of Asian origin, seemed quite moved by the outpouring of solidarity. I would be curious to know if this message of solidarity reaches protesters in Hong Kong however: do they know how much support they have in Melbourne?

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A box of stationary attached to the wall so that people can add their own messages of support (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A message left by a member of an airline crew, explaining how much the wall meant to them (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A visitor to the wall adds their own message (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

It is very important to the protesters in Hong Kong that people around the world know about their struggles and understand them, which is one of the reasons they have targeted Hong Kong International Airport over the summer; a controversial tactic which risks alienating travelers instead of convincing them that the cause is just. The Lennon Wall suggests that the message is getting through, however. It gives a strong sense of solidarity and obviously means a lot to people from Hong Kong. It also highlights the obvious overlaps between street art and resistance; a subversive medium to begin with, street art is an obvious companion to protest.

Sources and Further Reading

BBC News. “Hong Kong Anti-Government Protests.” Last modified 3rd September 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c95yz8vxvy8t/hong-kong-anti-government-protests

Clark, Helen. “Should Australia Fear an Influx of Chinese?” This Week in Asia. Last modified 30th July 2017, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2100798/should-australia-fear-influx-chinese

Dalziel, Alexander. “Post-it Protest in Support of Hong Kong Backlash over Extradition Plan.” The Age. Last modified 20th August 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/post-it-protest-in-support-of-hong-kong-backlash-over-extradition-plan-20190720-p5293c.html

Sydney Morning Herald. “Chinese Political Artist Badiucao supports Hong Kong Protesters with Hosier Lane ‘Lennon Wall.'” Last modified 20th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.smh.com.au/world/chinese-political-artist-badiucao-supports-hong-kong-protesters-with-hosier-lane-lennon-wall-20190720-h1ge99.html

We Are The Lions Exhibition, Willesden Library

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The ‘We are the Lions’ Exhibition was at the Willesden Library in Brent from the 19th October 2016 until the 26th March 2017 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The 20th of August 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of the Grunwick strike, a 2-year dispute that was an important turning point in the history of trade unions and solidarity. Workers at the Grunwick photograph processing factory in Willesden, northwest London, walked out after an employee was fired for working too slowly. To celebrate the anniversary, a group called Grunwick 40 organised an exhibition about the strike at Willesden Library in Brent, which ran from the 19th October 2016, to the 26th March 2017. The exhibition was called ‘We are the Lions,’ taken from a quote by Jayaben Desai, one of the leaders of the strike. I finally managed to visit the exhibition in its last week, and I’m really glad I made the effort.

The exhibition was well balanced; it mentioned that Jayaben Desai was a leader of the strike, but didn’t devote too much attention to her. In fact, it didn’t spend much time on the leaders of the strike at all, which I thought was good; it is very easy to get distracted by charismatic leaders. Instead, the exhibition focuses on trade union politics and solidarity, detailing how the strikers won solidarity from a wide spectrum of workers. The factory owners refused to back down, however, and as the dispute dragged on the strikers were abandoned by union leaders, a sadly familiar story. The strike eventually failed, but it remained significant because it was the first time that migrant workers received widespread solidarity from British workers.

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A banner designed by Jayandi and painted with Vipin Magdani for the Grunwick strikers in 1976 (Photo: People’s History Museum).

The exhibition draws aesthetic inspiration from a distinctive banner produced for the strikers in 1976. It is owned by the People’s History Museum in Manchester, but it took centre stage at this exhibition. It was also part of the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in late 2014 and early 2015, so it might be familiar to some. There weren’t many objects in the exhibition; images of people, events, and texts were relied on heavily to illustrate the narrative. You do tend to expect objects when you visit a museum, but I realised that protests don’t often leave a lot of things behind, and what there is (banners, placards,clothing, flyers etc.) is ephemeral, and not intended to be kept or preserved. This must present a challenge for museums wanting to represent dissent.

The exhibition was firmly grounded in the local community, past, present, and future. There was a case of items putting the strike into the context of other radical events in Willesden’s history. There was a series of events associated with the exhibition, and its location in the local library made it quite accessible, although there are no guarantees that visitors to the library also went to the exhibition. There are also plans to produce a mural commemorating the strike, which will serve as a lasting legacy, long after the exhibition has been deconstructed.

Unfortunately, this post comes too late for me to encourage you to visit the exhibition. What I can do is congratulate the organisers for putting together such a brilliant exhibition. The Grunwick Strike was a key moment in the history of trade unions and solidarity. It often feels to me that solidarity is not something that we do so well anymore in modern society. We are the Lions was an timely reminder of how powerful it can be.

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.

‘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