I heard you have an SWP problem

The Socialist Workers' Party newpaper in flames. Headline reads "There's no recovery for us." Picture from http://sussexasn.tumblr.com/post/69499029324/swp-off-campus
The Socialist Workers’ Party newpaper in flames. Headline reads “There’s no recovery for us.” Picture from http://sussexasn.tumblr.com/post/69499029324/swp-off-campus

Update: The same day that I wrote this, Comrade X (one of the sexual assault survivors) resigned from the SWP and wrote about it here. It sheds more light on the horrendous activities of the SWP.

The take-home message of the recent anti-privatisation protests at Sussex and the #copsoffcampus demos in London has been “solidarity is a weapon, not a word.” “Solidarity” is  an action, not an empty utterance. It means you stand with me, even when it is easier not to. It means those who stand against us will have to put up a fight. It means you see my anger and don’t turn away, but listen and learn.

Some context

The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) have in recent months been revealed to be a pit of misogyny, rape cover-ups and apologism. You can find a summary of events here (content note: sexual violence, victim-blaming) and a testimony from one of the survivors here (content note applies here too).

It’s important to note that the survivor’s express wishes are that we no longer organise with the SWP, a request that decent people should respect. Rape and the silencing of rape survivors has been a central concern of the feminist movements for decades; we live in a society which condemns rape in theory, but in practice blames the victim, makes it traumatic to report assault, denies rape’s position as a form of gender-based violence and, as we’ve seen in the SWP’s case, has more concerns about the alleged rapist than the victim.

This must also be put in context of misogyny and sexism within the Left;  the second-wave of feminism started in the 196os partly because women were sick of being involved in lefty organising and being treated like second-class citizens. Unfortunately, this legacy of ignoring feminist issues has continued in many activists circles (I and some other members of the Brighton Feminist Collective ran a workshop only this year on sexism on the Left; you should have heard some of the women’s stories).

Creeps off campus

Sign seen at a Cops Off Campus demo in London. Reads "To the SWP: We're getting real tired of your sh*t. From #creepingfeminism2013". Taken from here.
Sign seen at a Cops Off Campus demo in London. Reads “To the SWP: We’re getting real tired of your sh*t. From #creepingfeminism2013”. Taken from here.

The upshot of the revelations about the SWP has created some division. Members have left in droves, and many have vowed never to orgnaise with the SWP again. Others have decided to stay in the party, and try to change the culture from the inside. Some have decided they don’t give a shit about it and are happily defending their rape apologist mates.

And so we return to events on Sussex campus. At the most recent protests against privatisation (and against the suspension of 5 students involved in the campaign), the SWP presence was very visible. The group’s modus operandi has always been to arrive at any lefty protest with hundreds of SWP-stamped placards, their ubiquitous newspapers and usually a stall; you’ll see their signs in photographs of any protest from the student marches of 2010 to Slutwalks in cities across the UK.

This used to be merely annoying; now, it is utterly sickening. The presence of SWP members is one thing – you can’t tell who’s a swuppie just by looking at them. I have my opinions about people who have stayed in the party, but realise some are genuinely trying to change the culture from within. However, the visible presence of the signs and stalls, the merchandise being hawked around and literally shoved in your face is un-fucking-acceptable. If you’re still an SWP member, you answer to your conscience, but at least have the decency to be slightly embarrassed and not proudly display your allegiance to rape apologists. 1 in 5 women are raped in their lifetimes, and 1 in 12 men. Rape survivors are at these protests, and they deserve to feel safe, believed and able to take part in the campaign.

Arriving at the most recent protest, I felt punched in the stomach when I saw the SWP stall outside the library. My heart was beating double-time, I felt sick, I could barely concentrate on the speeches. I felt like crying, because I knew I couldn’t stand there without confronting someone, and I felt scared. Then, there was an almighty crash from behind me; someone had knocked the SWP stall over, ripped up their placards, and splashed their papers with water. The people who were brave enough to do this have tweeted and blogged about it; my contribution was to shout in response to an SWP member who called them sectarian, “it’s not sectarian to stand against fucking rape apologists.” It’s the small things.

The politics of trashing stalls

Is it OK to upturn a stall, rip up placards, aggressively confront people in this way? I know that many in the anti-privatisation campaign think not. I would remind them of the techniques their own campaign has employed. Remember the people who said occupying a building was too far? Who said ‘why don’t you just talk to management instead’? Who could only focus on a smashed-in door rather than your message? If you can, you should also remember your reply. When democratic channels break down, when people refuse to listen to the people being fucked over, it’s not only right but necessary for direct action. It’s absurd to focus on a smashed-in door, a burnt-out bin or a knocked over stall rather than the angry and righteous message being conveyed.

I have heard people try to talk about the necessity of chucking the SWP off campus, and I have heard them being ignored and shut down. A woman behind me at a recent Sussex protest defended the SWP by saying, ‘it was only one member’ who was raped. How many rapes, cover-ups and angry confrontations will it take?

A final consideration: the sexual violence and cover-up is not only the actions of a few people who happen to be in the SWP. This is an institutional problem. A large group of people ostensibly in charge of resolving ‘disputes’ within the party put a rape survivor on trial in a kangeroo court. The SWP recently had their annual conference; the pre-conference bulletin contained a long rape-apologist screed (pp. 5-11) and instructions to recruit young students who are less likely to be aware of the recent rape cover-ups (p. 81). There are also reports that during the conference, a member expressed the view that because women lie about rape, the SWP’s actions were completely justified.

What we should do

We need to keep the pressure up. The more voices are raised against the SWP’s visible presence on campus and at protests, the quicker we can shut them down.

If you feel you can, verbally confront those giving out SWP merchandise, and those accepting it. This shouldn’t be our job, and goodness knows I rarely have the mental energy or courage to do it alone, but if you can, do.

If you see someone confronting SWP members, back them up. Even if it’s only shouting encouragement, or talking to them afterwards and letting them know you’re on their side.

Write, tweet and blog about it.

For those of you involved in the anti-privatisation campaign or Occupy Sussex, hear your own words. “Solidarity is a weapon, not a word.” When the word “solidarity” slips out of the mouth of an SWP supporter, it’s like a knife in the back of women, feminists, and rape survivors. It tells us you don’t understand what solidarity means. It shows us you’ll let us have some justice, but only after your revolution.

You have an SWP problem in your ranks. And we’re going to do something about it.

Further reading

Kill the SWP inside your head – Another Angry Woman

Rape Culture – Geek Feminism Wiki

“The politics of the SWP crisis – a response – International Socialism

SWP off campus – Autonomous Student Network Sussex

An infestation of SWP leeches – Revolting Pleb

UPDATE: Socialist Feminist in the comments noted that the Socialist Party are also having a misogyny problem, revolving around a domestic violence case. You can read about it here: The left and women’s rights: Why the cases of Steve Hedley is as serious as the case of Martin Smith – Women’s Fightback



Why we still Reclaim the Night

This article was originally published by the University of Sussex newspaper, The Badger.

“Text me when you’re home safely!” Such a common conclusion to a night out – especially amongst female friends – may seem innocuous, even sensible. But for some campaigners, such commonplace behaviour reveals that women feel responsible for avoiding their own harassment and assault. Since 1977, feminist groups have organised marches through the streets for women who no longer wish to feel afraid of rape and harassment. These Reclaim the Night marches are still being organised around the UK with an almost unchanged message, despite having roots in 70s feminism. The London Reclaim the Night website demonstrates that 2nd-wave feminist aims can nestle happily alongside contemporary anti-austerity politics:  “With ideological cuts threatening the refuge and rape crisis movements in our country we need to take back the capital to demonstrate women’s support for essential women’s services, demand justice for survivors and spread the message that no woman is ever to blame for male violence against her.”

Caitlin Hayward-Tapp, a member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, explains why the group decided to run a local Reclaim the Night march to coincide with the main event in the capital. “It made sense to do a local march, since one of the first Reclaim the Night marches was here in Brighton,” she explains, but also indicates some disagreement with the “mentality” of the London organisers: “There’s been a history of transphobia [at London reclaim the Night] and also a strong anti-sex work sentiment, and that’s not something we choose to support at all.” Unlike in London, the Brighton event is not women-only, and embraces the presence of trans* people and sex-workers who may have their voices silenced by more traditional feminist groups. Caitlin indicates that the silencing of those groups, who have a strong claim to needing safe streets, is “frankly offensive.”

She strongly believes that the task of ending street-harassment and victim-blaming is just as important as it was 40 years ago: “Women are still not feeling safe in the streets. People still think women should be walked home by a male friend at night, even though women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know. There’s a real culture of fear, and of blame too: if a woman was walking on her own and got attacked people will say, ‘well, she should have been with someone, she was asking for it.’”

The statistics reveal this to be no hyperbole. According to the Pixel Project, dedicated to ending violence against women, and the Stop Street Harassment campaign, the percentage of women who report being subjected to harassment in public is regularly recorded as 80-90%. The number of women who have experienced sexual violence is between 1 in 4 and 1 in 7. Defined by the Stop Street Harassment campaign as “[c]atcalls, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, groping, leering, stalking, public masturbation and assault,” harassment of this kind is a perennial feminist issue due to its strongly gendered nature: women are mostly the victims, and men are mostly the perpetrators.

Speaking to students on campus, it appears to be on the minds of many young men and women. Tori, a student at Sussex, suggests that street harassment should be of paramount concern to anyone who cares about women’s rights. “It happens to everyone I know whether they identify as female or not. If they’re perceived as female they get catcalled, shouted at, called a dyke…” They explain that Reclaim the Night is an important way of raising awareness and “making it into a national issue, because right now it’s being ignored.” Kye, another member of the Brighton Feminist Collective, agreed that street harassment was a common occurrence for women, “without a doubt. It’s one of those unspoken things that nobody wants to talk about.”

The NUS Women’s Campaign tackled this perceived ignorance around women’s safety with their Hidden Marks report, published in 2010. 1 in 7 female students reported experiencing a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university, and 68% had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institution. Despite reporting loss of confidence and increased fear after being harassed, only 2% of respondents reported ‘less serious’ assaults because they felt what had happened to them was not serious enough to report. It is this fear of being dismissed that Reclaim the Night aims to tackle by demonstrating the widespread nature of street harassment and sexual assault.

How to tackle the problem is a matter of some debate. In the UK, there is no specific crime of ‘street harassment,’ meaning that victims have limited options if they wish to report their attacker. Jennifer, a student in London, was groped by a man on the street earlier this year. She was told her options were to press charges of sexual assault, which would go to court, or the officer could book him for being drunk and disorderly. Jennifer felt that “just straight away it was down my throat as ‘are you serious enough about this to go through the criminal justice system over a man grabbing your butt?’” She is still waiting to find whether she will have to give evidence in court.

Many Sussex students worried that, were street harassment to become illegal, it would be a difficult crime to define. “I think it would make me feel more safe,” said Amy, who admitted to pretending to be on the phone when walking alone at night to deter harassers, “but it depends how it was enforced.” Tori agrees: “It would be difficult to enforce, but I would like to see harsher penalties for things like following someone home. I’d like to be able to call the police and for them to take it seriously.”

Some women go to great lengths to avoid harassment and assault, like psychology student Rhianna. She has a routine of safety measures for walking alone at night, including “a personal attack alarm that I always carry in my pocket, I actively avoid streets with poor street lighting, and I have a safety text ready send out immediately to my boyfriend or my mum.” Her measures are not exceptions, but seem to echo a feeling amongst other female students that if they don’t take precautions, they could be targets of violence. Esme, a first year Films Studies student, reflects on the messages she absorbed from family and friends: “always travel in groups at night, make sure not to go down any dark alleyways, that sort of thing.”

Other women feel that Brighton is home turf, and does not pose many threats to them. In light of that, campaigns like Reclaim the Night and Stop Street Harassment run the risk of over-emphasising women’s victimhood and reinforcing the culture of fear that is a daily routine for many female students. Vee, a student in her first year, expresses this concern but places the blame firmly at the door of misogynist culture rather than feminist campaigners. “When you’re kids…that’s when it all starts, in my opinion. Don’t tell girls that they’re vulnerable because they’re girls and that boys are tough and strong.” Alicja, a first year medic, feels that Reclaim the Night does portray women as victims, “but in a good way!” She explains, “It raises awareness that [women] are victimized. I’ll be going on the march this year.”

Despite the regular comments from the media on the ‘death of feminism,’ it is clear that Reclaim the Night’s message still resonates strongly with young people, and thousands are expected to march in London on the 24th November. As austerity measures kick in and funding for rape crisis centres and women’s refuges dries up, these protests are only set to get bigger, louder, and angrier.