Over the past few days, we’ve seen a surge of support for feminist and police abolitionist activism, resulting from the Metropolitan Police’s horrendous and inexcusable violence towards vigil/protest attendees in Clapham Common and Brighton on Saturday. Whilst Saturday has been framed by some as an almost rare incidence of police mistreatment, others have highlighted the fact that police brutality in the UK is nothing new.
The police have historically enacted abuse of marginalised groups – including women. Examples of their violence against women include Black Friday in 1901 and the 415 referrals of sexual abuse by police officers in the space of two years; the damage that the institution perpetuates continues through actions like taking pictures of murder victims, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry and leaving Blessing Olusegun’s parents without answers about their daughter’s death.
As we mobilise to work towards a society where women don’t experience injustice and mistreatment – especially at the hands of an establishment that is supposedly there to protect us – I believe that this can only be led by grassroots, radical feminism praxis, rather than pleading with, and conforming to the wishes of the very institutions that we should seek to abolish.
“It’s clear to me that direct action, rather than requests to converse with the police, is what is necessary.”
After what we’ve witnessed over the past year – from the police charging at Black Lives Matter protesters on horses, to the alleged murderer of Sarah Everard being a serving Met police officer, and the police’s violent response on Saturday – it’s clear to me that direct action rather than requests to converse with the police is what is necessary. The purported necessity of the police is something ingrained in us from a young age. When I started my feminist journey, I probably would have supported meeting with the police over risking arrest or fines for protesting. I thought representation for representation’s sake was important, with the exception of Thatcher. I didn’t really question what having people of my gender (or race) in institutions that actively harm us, would achieve (though I wouldn’t have advocated for someone to remain in post just because of their gender).
Subscribing to carceral feminism is not the way forward. It never was. How does putting more power in the hands of institutions that harm us help? Sure, it’d help some women, but not the most disadvantaged. Not sex workers, not Black women, not trans women. Ultimately, it’s trickle-down feminism, which, just like trickle-down economics, doesn’t work. It almost feels like a slap in the face for Reclaim These Streets to say that they’ve “lost confidence in Cressida Dick” and “the Met Police’s willingness to work with” them.
“Whilst I had what I now believe were naive views, I also wasn’t attempting to lead a movement for an entire gender in the UK. Trying to “accommodate police concerns” whilst ignoring a universal right to protest only pushes us further down the rabbit hole of inequality.”
Marginalised women that this group endeavour to speak for – but instead speak over – had been vocal about the futility in attempting to work with the Met Police, let alone audaciously advocating for their Commissioner. This didn’t seem to be a lesson the group could learn by simply listening to the women they seemingly seek to not only represent, but “empower”. I understand why some may think making demands, like asking the Met to “explain the actions” of the police on Saturday (even though there are no valid answers) is the right step. It’s certainly a more palatable feat than seeking to eradicate institutions entirely. But what is the progress that we’ll achieve through this approach?
Whilst I had what I now believe were naive views, I also wasn’t attempting to lead a movement for an entire gender in the UK. Trying to “accommodate police concerns” whilst ignoring a universal right to protest only pushes us further down the rabbit hole of inequality. Conforming to every wish and desire of those who oppress us will never liberate us.
“In the past 9 months or so, I’ve learned so much more about smaller, grassroots organisations – both current and historic – like Sisters Uncut, or the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the difference that they made to often excluded groups of people. These groups were/are often unapologetic and uncompromising in their radical demands.”
Slowly over time, my views moved away from girlboss feminism to the more radical feminist beliefs I have today. Partly because I have learned more about systemic, worldwide injustices than 17-year-old me was ever aware of. The revival of the Black Lives Matter movement last year radicalised me more than anything else. In the past 9 months or so, I’ve learned so much more about smaller, grassroots organisations – both current and historic – like Sisters Uncut, or the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the difference that they made to often excluded groups of people. These groups were/are often unapologetic and uncompromising in their radical demands.
Through educating myself on such activism, I realised that the way to implement change goes beyond coffee with politicians or the police, or making TV appearances. Grassroots groups have often the most marginalised in mind and act accordingly, even when it’s not easy. Activism centred on radical change is vital in a society where the opposition abstain on a bill that allows undercover cops to get away with rape, whilst the government tries to push through a bill that increases police powers on protests. Campaigning from a revolutionary viewpoint is necessary to create change for the 67% of sex workers who want their work decriminalised; for 80% of women in a detention and removal centre who have had suicidal thoughts; for the trans women who are shunned from the channels which should be protecting them, and for so many other women who that carceral, girlboss feminism excludes.
Attending the Black Lives Matter protests, Sunday’s Kill the Bill protest, and seeing Monday’s protest on social media has filled me with hope and joy for the movement. It’s been beautiful to witness speakers talk unashamedly about their radical demands and I felt a strong sense of unity during our anti-police chants. It’s liberating to have goals centred around funding housing, or trauma-informed services and organisations rather than the police who harms us. It’s extricating to think of a future in which sex work, drugs, (and not paying a TV licence!) are decriminalised. And it’s all entirely possible if we dare to dream bigger than implementing new hate crime laws.
Groups with respectability politics leave the most excluded demographics behind. But those are precisely the groups that can’t afford to be forgotten and ignored. As my friend, Bella put it, “daring to be radical now means that we bring everyone along the 1st time.” Taking our activism forward, we should keep this in mind.
Lauren Pemberton-Nelson is a Black left leaning feminist, writing about gender, race and sexual orientation. @laurenepn_
Photograph via Jack Hill/The Times