The power Of CreaTive Activism
For some of us, it is a struggle to have our voices heard. We do not hold consequential positions of power, and our voices are not afforded a platform due to prejudice against our class, race, disability, gender, sexuality, or some troublesome combination of those things and more. For some of us, this means turning to grassroots activism, to direct action: a way to create our own platform that needs no formal qualifications but instead requires only passion and an open mind.
Groups organising peaceful protest face one major issue: the overwhelmingly conservative mainstream media, the very thing you need on your side to bring attention to your message, don’t give a fuck about peaceful protest. When you’re fighting a system that not only wants to ignore but actively wants to distract from your cause, of course they will only give your protest any attention if they can cast those behind it as destructive, violent criminals who clearly should not be listened to. So what can you do? Luckily, it turns out social media and smartphones do have their uses beyond making us veer between feeling bad about our bodies and salivating over delicious-looking foods. (That’s not just me right? Kthx.)
Anyway, you may have noticed, people like to take photos of cool shit. So, you make some cool visual shit happen, and ta-da! You’re trending on Twitter, and the press will be quick to follow. Creative peaceful protest, that makes a bomb-ass Instagram photo and at the same time makes a symbolic point about the issue you are fighting to bystanders, can connect to their emotions in a genuine and lasting way, and is much harder to ignore.
A group of radical activists who exemplify this point perfectly is Sisters Uncut, who fight against cuts to domestic violence services and other services that affect women and non-binary people. A few weeks ago, they occupied the visitors centre of the now empty Holloway Prison, to protest the site of the prison itself being turned into luxury flats. During that week they held a community festival for women and non-binary people in the building which they demand to be turned into a women’s building to provide support for ex-prisoners and other vulnerable people. The festival was a beautiful, educational and profoundly loving event: all free with cooked meals, childcare, well-being activities, and workshops facilitated by many local organisations and some Sisters themselves on other social issues such as immigration raids, domestic and sexual violence, prisons, and gentrification.
One sister told me that on the day they began the reclamation, they entered the building through an open window and displayed their rights and their demands in the windows so they could be seen from the outside. Right there hanging from the roof, banners announced their triumph in the Sisters colours of purple and green: “Sisters Uncut have reclaimed this space for the community of Holloway,” and their demands, “This is public land. Our land. We don’t want luxury flats and homeless spikes. We demand actual affordable housing and a women’s building.” A few members stood on the roof with their arms in the air, blowing coloured smoke from canisters and so creating a picture-perfect moment for the crowd of protesters walking up Camden Road towards them. The police arrived at the same time and a 10-hour stand-off followed, until eventually they packed up and left the tired but jubilant activists to open the space to the public for their community festival, with no arrests.
This action was reported on, with the savvy of Sisters media team and the striking photos taken by the public that first day, in almost every major UK online news outlet. Sisters did a brilliant job of expressing to the press the links between domestic violence and the prison system, and about this specific campaign around Holloway Women’s Prison. They spread information such as how 46% of women prisoners are survivors of domestic violence, there is a huge scarcity of refuge spaces for those fleeing violence, and the the injustice for the women who were in Holloway who have been even further isolated from their families and their local community in the move to rural prisons, thus increasing their chances of leaving prison with nowhere to go and their likelihood of being incarcerated again. The government is building 6 new megaprisons in other rural locations but cutting services that should be provided for vulnerable people who instead end up criminalised and abused, filling those new spaces. The fight continues for this cause, but the momentum gained by this action, so carefully and creatively executed, will be a huge boost for the Reclaim Holloway campaign.
Included among other rather daring and poetic stunts Sisters Uncut have pulled off in their efforts to fight cuts to domestic violence services are vaulting over the barriers at the Suffragette film premier to lie down and “play dead” across the red carpet, and dyeing the fountains in Trafalgar Square red. As a group who are obviously anti-violence, they and other direct action groups have been motivated to explore new methods of causing visual disruptions.
There is power in this strategy. It cannot be completely ignored and it cannot be so easily misconstrued or misreported. With Sisters’ perfectly crafted “Reclaim Holloway” bunting, the painted tyres in the childcare area that say “Teresa is a tyre-nt” and Know Your Rights workshops which spread the word on what your rights are during the increasingly frequent (And overwhelmingly racist) stop & searches, these activists are clearly peaceful, clued-up, and dedicated. And if that isn’t powerful, if that isn’t the way forward, if those authority figures still won’t listen, well then the activists can’t be the problem, can they?