Gil Southwood, BSc Economics
This writer got arrested at the Free Education Demo early in November. He came out of it an entirely changed activist.
Since the last issue of the Spirit went to print at the end of October, we’ve seen a fair few protests, one member of staff suspended, and then reinstated and plenty of the activism that SOAS is known for outside of the university. To a fair few of us, this is A Good Thing. It’s great to have our voices heard, to stand for something and, in a lot of cases, actually see something performative and functional come out of it.
In my ridiculous and ultimately futile attempt to change the world, I managed to get myself arrested at the Free Education demo on the 4th November. Besides cementing my position as the buffoon amongst my friends, I found the experience quite eye opening. The vast majority of demonstrators who joined me at the station, were white men. The vast majority kicking up a fuss at the station or withholding information, were white men, and many who I’d seen running around Victoria beforehand, were also male.
This must surely raise a few alarm bells. From a general left movement almost entirely centred on the provision of democracy and inclusivity, why are we comfortable with the loudest people, the most active, all being part of the same, exclusive group?
We as a male student population seem to intrinsically think that the forefront of these protests is a male student’s space, while simultaneously denying other, non-male students their right to make noise, be angry, and have access to that same space. We intrinsically believe that in order to make a difference, not only do we need direct action (of course), but also, we need to fight, we need to get out there and hit things, set cars on fire, maim a defenceless animal and get arrested for doing these things, all in the supposed name of anti-austerity. We have somehow convinced ourselves that this is the most productive (and democratic) thing to do.
Ultimately, those of us privileged enough know that it doesn’t really matter if we have to spend a night in a cell. We don’t have a job to get to the next morning, we don’t have someone to care for, or a mental illness that makes the entire ordeal unbearable, or a colour of skin that will ensure that we get a brutal treatment. Being able to get arrested and spend a night locked up, is a privileged thing to be able to do. Being at the front line of a protest and being able to have your voice heard, is a privileged thing to be able to do; we men seem to think we’re the only ones macho enough to be there, and are much less likely to fear for our safety when occupying those spaces.
There will be nodding heads here, amongst people who have encountered this enforcement of white male machismo first-hand. Amongst the male student and activist population, however, we clearly don’t realise that our actions validate our intrinsic beliefs that safe spaces are something for the weak. We don’t realise our actions validate our intrinsic beliefs that showing our protests as being ‘weak’ in this way will compromise the power of the message we are trying to get across. To us, safe spaces don’t belong at the front of protests, since the only things that belong at the front of protests are ACAB screaming white guys holding polystyrene shields.
So, if we’re going to go out and actively demonstrate, it is absolutely crucial we do so with the full consensus of a comprehensive student population. We should never have an instance, let along multiple, where one group of people, unaware of their privilege, lead a protest and provide the voice for it. We shouldn’t be getting arrested, since those of us who can, exercise their privilege in doing so. And we certainly should be creating a safer space where people of all races, and of all genders, can all take part, have a say and be just as angry about a common cause as the rest of us.
We asked SOAS students: Have you experienced privilege in the activist scene and at protests? How can we tackle privilege in activism?
“Activist spaces are often betrayed by a misunderstanding of safe spaces. This is often the case at SOAS, where activists fall into a trap of believing that safe spaces are a question of simply outlining rules, that are then applied to events without context. It is extremely important to adapt to situations, and understand that safe spaces aren’t static guidelines, they’re a process. Otherwise, the question of a safe space becomes a matter of a secondary and dislocated priority, rather than an ethic that is embedded in the politics you seek to practice.”
– Zenab Ahmed MPhil/PhD
“I think that in order to implement safe spaces in a real sense it’s important to have regular women’s and BME caucuses so that potential tensions can be addressed in an environment which isn’t charged with the same biases as wider society. I also think that good facilitation is large meetings is key and that we need skillsharing particularly on this front. This way we can allow for the agenda to be set by a variety of people rather than the same privileged voices in an echo chamber.”
– Sheherbano Ahmed BA Development Studies and Study of Religions
“There needs to be a mechanism for ensuring that working class voices get heard. People with class privilege tend to have greater ease and confidence in asserting themselves, and SOAS is an overwhelmingly middle class environment.”
– Neelam Mehmood BSc Economics
“It’s crucial for everyone to be mindful of tokenising members of particular interest groups – just because someone is BME or LGBTQIA+ or female doesn’t mean they automatically represent their whole community’s perspectives or eperiences.”
– Zainab Husain BA Anthropology
“I think privilege comes across in activist spaces as it does anywhere else, with certain voices being heard better than others. In term of activism in particular, especially where there is the threat of state surveillance or arrest at protests, there is no doubt that people of colour and Muslims are more likely to be targeted. If not directly targeted, there is still a higher sense of paranoia amongst the Muslim community in being involved in certain activities because of the the way we are portrayed by the media and the way the state perceives us. There is constant reference to Prevent and the likelihood that we will be labelled as ‘terrorist.’”
– Osamah Aiar BA Politics
“It’s vital to make sure the facilitator ensures that rude or aggressive comments, or in fact anything that contravenes the safer spaces policy (up to and including making fun of someone to discourage their participation) is actively called out. People often tend to let actual instances of such behaviour slide, especially if they are mild, and rarely is the object of the behaviour defended openly – and that can have the effect of legitimising the tactics and the attack.”
– Nehaal Bajwa MSc Political Economy of Development