Student Solidarity

On Saturday 4 August, riots erupted in Tottenham, North London.  It started after a peaceful protest against the killing of Mark Duggan, a local young black man, by the police.  The rioting then spread, not only across London, but across England.

Tragically, many people have lost their homes and livelihoods in the riots.  Just because we realise there are socio-economic and political causes to these riots, doesn’t mean we cannot recognise the pain and suffering of those who have been directly affected and express our solidarity with them.  The riots are desperately sad because of the suffering they’ve caused and because they have exposed deep underlying problems in our society.  We need to think about why this happened and how to stop it from happening again.

Many explanations have been cited for the rioting – poverty, inequality, hopelessness, public service cuts, social networking.  But as student activists, there are two causes that we must highlight and actively campaign to change.

The first is education.  The education system has failed a generation of young people.  Not because teachers are doing a bad job and not because parents are failing to instill discipline at home.  The education system is failing young people because there is minimal funding for schools that aren’t in “good areas”.  Because schooling in 21st century Britain, may as well be called “examining”.  School students are only taught to learn something because it will help them pass an exam and get them a job, not because learning is valuable in its own right.  All of the fun, joy, creativity, imagination and passion has been stripped out.  No wonder poor kids are under-performing; school’s shit.

All the while, of course, the rich kids down the road in the neighbouring borough attend school for £30,000 per year, with sparkling new facilities, PhD educated teachers and training in how to get into Oxbridge.  They are prepped to be the lawyers, doctors, politicians and Prime Ministers of the future.  The unfairness is painful, it’s outrageous, it’s vile.

And now, students from working class backgrounds have little hope of going to university.   The opportunity they thought they might have, to pull themselves out of poverty, to achieve some elusive social mobility, has been cruelly ripped from beneath them.  No matter what Nick Clegg says (that it is now easier to go to university because you don’t pay any money back until you earn £21,000), everyone else knows that if you’re poor and facing £27,000 grand of debt for a degree, you’re not going to do it.  Why would you?  There are no jobs for graduates anyway!

As university students we are in a privileged position.  We are the last generation to benefit from a (reasonably) affordable university education.  It is up to us to continue to assert the value of learning, not because it will get us jobs, but because we love it.  Because we know an education shouldn’t be a “privilege”.  Because we believe that education should be accessible to all people in a society, not just those who can afford it.  Because we understand that educating citizens is the responsibility of the government, not bailing out banks that gambled with and lost our money.  Because we know giving all children opportunities and a future is the only way to create a peaceful, caring society.

We have to continue our fight, for university education for all, for EMA, for equal opportunities, for a future.

The second cause of the riots that we are collectively familiar with, is police brutality.  Many students experienced heavy-handed policing for the first time this year.  The student protestors were charged with horses, kettled for hours on end, beaten with batons and arrested arbitrarily.  Police brutality is something poor communities, particularly young black men, have been familiar with for decades.

The police murdered Mark Duggan.   333 people have died in police custody since 1998.  And yet, the general public is calling for more police powers, for more robust and tougher policing.

We have to stand up and recount our experiences of police brutality: to remind people that the police, given half the chance, will attack all sectors of society.  We must stand in solidarity with those facing absurdly disproportionate prison sentences, like the student imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water.  We have to show our solidarity with the young men who are stopped-and-searched everyday just because of their age and the colour of their skin.

There is a protest in London tomorrow to ‘Give our Kids a Future’.  If you’re in London, please attend.  If you live in other parts of the UK, organize similar demos in your area.

When the next academic year starts, we need to re-energize, re-mobilize and keep education on the agenda.



Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

When Peter Singer was right: why we should give to the East Africa appeal

“As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care.  The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable…”

“At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way.  Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed towards providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs.”

History repeating itself – a sad but true cliché.  As Britain is embroiled in a media scandal, thousands of people are slowly starving to death in East Africa, largely unnoticed.

Peter Singer has lost a few fans in the UK following the New College for Humanities scandal.   He did, however, write one of the most significant articles in contemporary political philosophy, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” .  His argument is worth re-stating here to remind us of why we should all be donating to the East African crisis appeal .

Singer begins with the assumption that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.”  He argues, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

This principle seems obvious, but in reality, it fundamentally challenges the way we live our lives in consumer societies.  To prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we would have to give up almost everything we own until the level of marginal utility; that is, until the level where we have the most basic standard of living necessary to survive.

Singer argues that this is morally correct.  He admits, however, that the demanding nature means that most people will not adopt such a principle.  He suggests instead that, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought morally to do it.”

For example, if you walk past a shallow pond where a child is drowning, you ought to go into the pond and save the child.  All you are sacrificing are wet, muddy clothes and a loss of time; these are not as morally significant as the death of a child.

What does this mean for individuals in developed countries?  Singer suggests, it means not buying new clothes, or a new car, or whatever consumer item you feel you need, but giving that money to famine relief.  If what you already own is acceptable, owning these items is not of comparable moral significance to the death of an individual due to famine.  It would not be good of you to give that money to famine relief, it would not be an act of charity; it is a moral obligation.

If you can prevent something bad from happening (death through starvation) without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (clothes, booze, electronics), you ought morally to do it.

What’s wrong with this argument?  Well, it is an argument about individual morality.  We know that the causes of poverty and famine are structural.  So simply appealing to individual morality is inadequate.  We need to rethink and transform the political and economic structures that allow chronic poverty and famine to occur.  Individual morality, however, is a good place to start.

If you are still not convinced, let me suggest a further reason why you should donate.  Famine is not a natural disaster; it is man-made.  As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy.  While the years of drought that have precipitated the crisis in East Africa are natural phenomena, the ability to cope with this is not.  A functioning government, which can fairly distribute food and resources, can prevent disaster.

Why doesn’t that exist in these countries?  Bad governance?  Partly, yes.  But also as a result of IMF policies that prevented them from developing viable public sectors.  In the 90s, the IMF demanded developing countries open their markets to foreign direct investment (FDI) if they wanted to keep receiving loans.

Foreign multinational corporations and governments have bought up the most fertile land in these countries, leaving wasteland for those who live there.  This neo-colonial land grab, designed to keep Western countries functioning at their current levels of consumption, has also gone largely unnoticed.

Have you lobbied British companies that are involved?  Have you checked if you pension fund or bank is involved?  Have you written to your MP condemning this heinous practice?  No?  We are all complicit in this – this famine, and the next one, and the next one.  It’s time, at the very least, to mitigate some of its effects.

So instead of going to the pub tonight and spending £50 on booze and partying, give it to the DEC.  As Singer has shown us this isn’t a matter of choice, it’s a moral imperative.

Quotes from Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, reprinted in Thom Brooks ed., The Global Justice Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008


Filed under Democracy, Human Rights, Uncategorized

New College for the Humanities: Emperor’s New Clothes

On 5 June it was announced that philosopher AC Grayling and a team of celebrity academics are launching a new private university.  For £18,000 per year students will be taught law, economics, history, English literature and philosophy by the most eminent thinkers in their field.  A furore among lecturers, students and commentators has ensued.  Contrary to Grayling’s claims that he is saving the humanities from mass destruction, here I sketch three reasons why NCH is a new front on a tired old cliché – elite institutions serving the elite.

The Arguments for NCH

In an email exchange with the chair of Birkbeck students’ union, Sean Rillo Raczka, Grayling argues that the NCH fees represent the “true economic cost” of university education.  This is reflected in the fees charged to international students and in the US. This argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

International students might pay extortionate fees, but they have the option of paying much less in their home countries.  That option is becoming increasingly unavailable to British students.  It is the richest students (or the lucky ones who get a scholarship) that study internationally; it shouldn’t only be the richest students who study at home.  Higher education ought to be subsidised out of the public purse.

In fact, this move to privatized education in the UK could see more British students studying abroad, because the fees might actually be cheaper.  We could be facing a mass exodus to EU countries, where fees are lower.  If I were about to start university, I would definitely take this option.  Not only would you get a degree for less money, but also learn a foreign language and experience living abroad.  These experiences are valuable in themselves, but thinking in the government’s narrow economistic terms, it would also boost employability post-graduation.

Two points on the US system.  Just because another country’s education system charges astronomic fees, doesn’t make it right.  British academia has traditionally prided itself on the fact that it doesn’t charge fees like America, that it has a publically funded education system; we should continue to fight for that.  Secondly, while Harvard’s fees may be circa $40k per year, most students don’t pay that.  The majority get bursaries and scholarships because the financial resources of US universities are vast; the middle classes generally pay a percentage of the fees, and only the very rich pay full price (at least this is the analysis that a visiting American professor at LSE gave me last week).  In this country, everyone will be paying £9000 per year or what looks like £18,000+ at private higher education institutions (except the very poorest).  That’s a very different prospect to the US system in reality.

The main argument in favour of NCH seems to be that it is the only option to protect the humanities now that higher education is being privatised anyway.  But as Adam Ramsay points out, there were alternatives.  Lecturers and students have been fighting to preserve and increase funding for higher education for years.  If Grayling was serious about saving the humanities, he would have got involved in the fight, not dived in to open a private university the second that option became available.  His status, and the status of the other academics involved, lends a credence to the project of privatisation of education that it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

What’s the alternative now?  Well apparently the college has a £10million start-up fund.  Why do students then have to pay  £54,000 per degree on top of that?  If NCH has that amount of fundraising power, why not fund the college entirely by private philanthropy and award places based solely on merit?  (Of course, merit is difficult to judge in an education system determined by class, wealth and geography; but this would at least lend some weight to their argument).

The academics involved

Part of the injustice of NCH, is that the “top” academics in their fields will only be accessible to the very rich.  (I say top in quotation marks because some of those involved are more the media personalities of their field than the leading intellectuals – Steven Pinker, Grayling).  However, that aside, this could represent a worrying trend.  We already have a two-tier education system in this country.  We are heading towards an even more stratified system where the leaders in their fields teach exclusively at private institutions, while state universities are populated with lesser-known academics, who as soon as they get a few notable publications will disappear to the private unis.

In effect, these private institutions will be the elite teaching the elite, churning out the future academics and decision-makers to the exclusion of the rest of the population.  A sad thought, but if academics of seeming integrity (Singer, Dworkin) are so quick to jump on the bandwagon, it seems to me a likely and ever imminent proposition.

What’s also sad about this is that all but one member of NCH’s “professoriate” are men, and only one isn’t white.  The children of the elite will be taught almost exclusively by white men, perpetuating yet another cycle of privilege so many have fought so hard to overcome.  This represents an astonishing level of arrogance on these men’s part, to think that they needn’t look outside their narrow, self-serving demographic to promote diversity.

Apparently students will take a compulsory module in “critical thinking” at this institution.  The make-up of the institution proves what an empty term critical thinking has become, because these supposed leading critical thinkers haven’t thought remotely critically about their own privilege.  It will be a rich, white man’s version of critical thinking,.. I wonder how much feminism, critical race theory, post-structuralism etc. will be taught?

Richard Dawkins response to the furore  is interesting.  He seems keen to distance himself from the venture.  His comment suggests that Grayling called up his mates and asked them to give some lectures at his new pseudo-university. It could be that the NCH is really just a huge ego-trip for Grayling, which has nothing to do with providing educational opportunities to the most talented as he claims.  This isn’t very surprising given his ubiquitous presence in the British media (some people might think he is the only philosopher in Britain); and since the original name of the college was “Grayling Hall”, it seems a plausible interpretation.

The Language

One of the most disturbing aspects of this venture is the language being used to promote it.  Grayling claims NCH will open doors to the talented underprivileged with a range of bursaries, while simultaneously setting the college up as the institution of the elite.

Teaching the “gifted” – in the true time-honored self-serving tradition of the elite, gifted is equated with rich.  It is not the gifted who will attend this private institution, but those who can afford it.

Rivaling Oxbridge – Oxbridge is already the institution of the elite.  7% of the UK population attends private schools, yet they represent 45% of the Oxbridge intake. A public school student is 55 times more likely to be admitted than a student on free school meals.  In 2010, one student of Caribbean descent was admitted to Oxbridge, while there were over 200 applications from black students.

Career options – On the website it states, “Your options will include careers in industry, healthcare, accountancy and finance, public administration, civil service and defence, retail, business and management, construction, law and the media.”  And in the media the College claims it will “inspire the next generation of lawyers, journalists, financiers, politicians, civil servants, writers and teachers”.  So on the one hand they claim to promote talent, on the other they’re prepping students for traditionally middle to upper class careers that the upper echelons of society aspire to and are primed for from birth.

Emperor’s New Clothes

The New College for the Humanities is not the answer to the UK government’s dismantling of the education system, as Grayling claims.  It is an excuse for a few rich, privileged men to make a lot of money at the expense of vulnerable students desperate for a leg-up the career ladder, while leaving their disadvantaged peers to rot.  Creating elite institutions – while offering a few bursaries to the “deserving poor” – will necessarily end up serving the elite.

What is especially disappointing about this development is the people involved.  It is expected of some (Niall Ferguson), but others should know better (Peter Singer).  Their opportunism, arrogance, lack of self-criticism, and egoism is astounding and unconscionable.  This is not an attempt to save the future of humanities, but to make a lot of quick cash.  We can’t let them create a system where Oxbridge seems like a less elitist option.  We have got to fight back.

Action tonight, more to follow.  Join the facebook group for updates.


Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

Black Bloc: A Self-Defeating Tactic?

March 26 saw this country’s biggest demonstration since the Iraq War. Over 500,000 people marched through the streets of London, shutting down the capital, to protest the government’s ruthless austerity measures. A small group of protestors, known as Black Bloc, broke away from the main march and engaged in direct action including smashing the windows of banks and the Ritz hotel, and throwing paint and smoke bombs. The police retaliated with violence, and riots ensued in Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.

The right and the mainstream press have branded the Black Bloc “thugs”, “hooligans” and pariahs. The liberal left bemoans how they “ruined” the otherwise peaceful protest for everyone else. The radical left denounces any criticism of the group, espousing solidarity and unity, and defending their “legitimate anger.”

None of these narratives is accurate nor adequate.

Whether you agree with Black Bloc or not, we need to discuss their actions, try to understand why they did it, critically engage with it and then make a decision. Knee-jerk reactions whether from the right or the left are useless. Let’s start a conversation about this…

Property damage: the theory

The right argues property damage is violence. The left argues it isn’t violence.

For the right, property rights represent the fundamental cornerstone of a civilised society. The argument, dating back to John Locke, is that if property is privately, rather than collectively owned, it will be better cultivated and more productive. This will improve society for everyone.

For the left, property rights are the bane of any civilised society. They prevent human beings engaging with each other as human beings, rather than as owners, producers and consumers. We must abolish private property, the argument goes, so that we can all own the earth’s resources collectively; generating freedom for those who have been oppressed by the capitalists’ monopoly over property.

So for those on the right, an attack on property is an attack on society. For the left, an attack on property is legitimate and justifiable.

What’s the answer?

Well, there isn’t one. It’s up to you to decide what you think. The point is, however, in a liberal capitalist society where the majority believe in property rights, an attack on property will be interpreted as an act of violence. The question for the left is, do their opinions count or are principles more important?

The practice: a self-defeating tactic?

An important point to remember in all this, is that Black Bloc is not an organised group – it is a tactic. Anyone who dressed in black and masked-up on March 26 was a member. While clearly targets had been picked in advance – The Ritz for it’s connotations of capitalist hierarchy, the banks for causing the current economic crisis, Starbucks for its globalised corporate greed and banality, Anne Summers for its profiteering co-option of sex and its misogynistic advertising – the members of the group were not coordinated.

This lack of coordination, for me, is one of the fatal flaws of the Black Bloc tactic. Anyone could take part in it. While the left argue that everyone in Black Bloc was politically motivated, there is no way of knowing if this is true.  Unfortunately (at the risk of sounding like a right-wing reactionary) there are people who enjoy smashing stuff and engaging in violence against other people. To believe that people will only get involved in property damage for political purposes is naïve.  There is no way of knowing if such people will turn up ready for Black Bloc, and their actions (if ill-considered or simply out-of-control) could seriously damage the credibility of the anti-cuts movement. I’m not saying that this happened on March 26; but now that Black Bloc is not just a tactic known among left-wing radicals but is very prominent, it could easily be hijacked on future demonstrations. Everyone wears a mask – so there’s no way of knowing.

We saw on the November 10th demonstration, where 50,000 students marched through London, how the media focused on the actions of one person – Edward Woollard who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof at Millbank.  One person’s ill-judged violent act stole the headlines and has etched itself on the public consciousness, firmly entrenching itself as the narrative of that protest.  In other words, it only takes one person to destroy the movement.  It could even be (and would likely be) an agent provocateur

A second problem comes back to the theoretical discussion: what’s more important – the opinions of the majority or Marxist or anarchist principles? Black Bloc defences of their tactics take the following line: all successful movements of resistance have used violence. Look at the Suffragettes, smashing windows, even using bombs, or the violence of The Chartists or the Poll Tax riots. Popular opinion didn’t matter then – it came later – and they were vindicated.

While I have sympathies with this argument, I’m not sure it applies now. Many people are getting active against the cuts – 500,000 marched in London and thousands more have been involved in UKuncut actions, university occupations and local anti-cuts groups. There is an appetite for protest and direct action at the minute; it doesn’t need a vanguard to kick it off. When the cuts start to bite, more and more people will want to engage in these already abundant activities. Violence, whether it is property damage, could scare them off.

What we need now is a mass movement. And we need a mass movement that involves the centre left and the right. Why did the government do a u-turn over selling-off forests? Because conservative constituents were against it. Why are they now back-tracking on the NHS reforms? Because traditionally conservative doctors are opposing it. Everyone, whether red, blue, yellow or non-affiliated, has good reasons for being against the cuts. Getting everyone involved and out on the streets will stop them. Violence – whether you consider it violence or not – will alienate all but the most committed activists.

The right-wing press and the government play on the public’s fear.  They can so easily manipulate the actions of Black Bloc activists, portraying the protests as anarchic riots, scaring off those who want to take part.  It has already given Theresa May an excuse to introduce draconian police powers.  This is compounded by the group’s aesthetic.  While people in the group are ‘ordinary people‘ and they believe themselves to be unintimidating – just  a person engaging in legitimate protest tactics – to the untrained eye a large group of people dressed all in black and wearing masks is terrifying.  Black Bloc wear masks to protect themselves from the Big-Brother-type surveillance that pervades British cities, but that it doesn’t make it any less intimidating and off-putting to outsiders.

My final reason against the tactic of Black Bloc is, in my view, the most serious and important. It’s a truism that violence begets violence. Someone could have gotten killed at Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square. The police killed Ian Tomlinson, who wasn’t even a protester, and put Alfie Meadows in hospital.  If the rioting continues, this is almost inevitable. If young people have been involved all day in smashing windows and running rings around the police, adrenalin pumping through their veins, they will want revenge. It’s a slippery slope from property damage to violence. Like I said above, there is a strong movement for peaceful direct action at the minute. Property damage is alienating to the majority of people already; if it turns to violence against people, they will all step away – even if it was started by the police.

More fundamentally, I don’t believe violence against people is justified in this struggle. We live in a democracy (albeit a poorly functioning one, run by a tiny self-serving elite); but there are channels for resistance. This is not an oppressive dictatorship where people resort to violence as their only way out. I, personally, don’t support political violence even in these situations (I’m naturally averse to violence as an individual, but also as a product of growing up in Northern Ireland); but I really don’t see any justification for it in our situation now. While I’m sure everyone in Black Bloc on the 26th was entirely committed just to property damage and would find the idea of violence towards people (although, worryingly, maybe not the police) abhorrent; if things continue the way they are, I worry it’s only a matter of time. To reiterate, you don’t know who’s going to mask-up in future, and you don’t know what’s around the corner…

This article will not go down well. Anyone who has tried to give nuanced interpretations of March 26 so far has been derided by the right for condoning violence, and from the left for denouncing protestors.  Everyone else has sided one way or the other.  What Black Bloc has done is highlight a grey area in our thinking about protest, property and violence. We need to think deeply and critically about that, not just thoughtlessly denounce or defend. This is my first tentative attempt at doing that. I hope to simply start the debate and I intend to write more on this as it develops.


Filed under Democracy, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

Crackdown on Student Occupations

Another wave of student occupations has sprung up this week in the run-up to the national anti-cuts demonstration on March 26th. Media coverage has been scant – occupations are old news now, and the story is being eclipsed by Japan and Libya. But it’s time that the brutal crackdown on students became news.

On Tuesday, the police turned up en masse at Glasgow University to evict a small group of students occupying the Heatherington Research Club. The BBC reports there were 80 police officers, 18 police vehicles and a helicopter, to evict 15 students. There were clashes between the police and protestors. One woman allegedly had concussion and another was taken away in an ambulance. As the chaos mounted, more and more supporters of the occupation showed up, with around a hundred students protesting in the university quad in the afternoon.

Glasgow University Management has since sent an email to staff and students expressing their regret over the action. The Principal, Anton Muscatelli, has said that the events were “deeply unfortunate”. He claims that staff called the police in to peacefully end the seven-week occupation, but “Unfortunately that was not the outcome, and the police then took the actions that many colleagues and students witnessed. I regret this and the train of events that was set in motion. I fully understand the concerns that many of you have that the action was excessive and unnecessary.”

Why, however, would you call the police to peacefully end an occupation of fifteen students? What did he think would happen? Using excessive, disproportionate force is not the way to peacefully end a peaceful protest; it’s surely just asking for trouble.

At the UCL Occupation, university management is using psychological rather than physical force against students. The students are occupying the university registry (the administration wing) in solidarity with the University and Colleges Union (UCU) strike on Tuesday and Thursday this week.

Management responded by threatening students with disciplinary action and with the full imposition of legal fees arising from the occupation and any other costs they deem to have been incurred. Instead of taking legal action against “persons unknown”, as is the usual practice, they are claiming to have CCTV footage of individuals involved and they will hold each of them liable for the costs. The students tried to negotiate with management, but they have flatly refused to budge from their threats, prolonging what was supposed to be a short-lived occupation in support of the strike.

Clearly university managers across the country are getting tired of this year’s spontaneous wave of direct action. But instead of bullying students either physically or emotionally, why don’t they listen to what they have to say?

Students are standing up for educational establishments, so that they continue to receive state funding and that lecturers and other staff don’t lose their jobs and pensions. They are also standing up for future generations of students, so that they too can go to university and not be lumbered with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. They are fighting for their own futures, against austerity measures that will slash available jobs and gut the public and education sectors which many of them hope to go into.

University management surely has an interest in maintaining state funding. It also has a pastoral duty to its students, and responsibilities towards staff as employees. The universities should be supporting the student protestors, not blindly doing the government’s bidding. If management welcomed the protests and got behind them, it would make the whole movement more powerful and deeply challenge the government cuts to higher education.

Their heavy-handed, domineering responses violate their responsibilities to students and striking staff. It makes no sense for them to battle their students in this way. They need to be open, to listen and to stop using bully-boy tactics. And if they don’t, anyone supportive of the students must help fight their corner.

UCL Occupation are asking people to sign their petition to end management’s threats of victimisation of individuals.


Filed under Education, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests, Uncategorized

Street Harassment: My Story

Today is the first annual anti-street harassment day. The organisers are calling on women to share their stories of street harassment to break the silence surrounding the subject.  So today, I will share mine (with a bit of theory thrown in!).

Street harassment doesn’t have an official definition. Stop Street Harassment describe it thus:

“Gender-based street harassment is inappropriate, rude, scary, and insulting speech and behavior from men directed at unknown women (cis and transwomen) in public places, simply because they are female. In countries like India and Bangladesh, it’s termed “eve teasing,” and in countries like Egypt, it’s called “public sexual harassment.”

It includes: whistling, leering, kissing noises, sexist comments, sexual comments, vulgar gestures, stalking, sexual touching, masturbating and flashing, assault.”

I would guess that every woman in the world has a story to tell about street harassment, and yet we rarely talk about it, almost never report it; some assume it’s sort of a compliment and yet feel uneasy or even sullied by it, and some women even think it’s their own fault. Here I want to offer some theory about it, and then report my own experiences.

Gender inequality and street harassment

Street harassment may seem innocuous. When a guy shouts “nice tits” at you, or says something seemingly complementary like “hey beautiful”, what’s the big deal?

It’s a big deal because it’s all about power. Street harassment says, “I am more powerful than you because I can say anything I want to you and you just have to take it.” Men constantly reassert their power over women by harassing them on the streets.

The anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu called this form of power “symbolic violence.” Symbolic violence represents the habitual, everyday practices that the dominant use to assert their power over the dominated. The practices become so normalized as to seem inevitable, even natural. Street harassment is a form of symbolic violence committed against women; it keeps us in our (inferior) place.

Another theoretical issue is the role of women in the public sphere. I have written here before about how men historically have been associated with the public sphere and women with the private. The emergence of women into the public sphere is threatening to norms of masculinity; shouting us down is one way to crowd us out.

Public spaces can become dangerous, no-go areas for women, especially at night. The threat of rape and harassment prevents women from venturing out – the outside world is a male-zone. The message is the public space remains male; women should stick to the home.

Finally, street harassment forms part of the pervasive problem of the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies. Men ogle women’s bodies in porn, lads mags, adverts, pop videos, TV programmes and film on a daily basis. They are at liberty to say whatever, or behave however, they like to these alienated images in the privacy of their own home. And after years of exposure to this shit, they seem to forget that the women they view outside are in fact human beings who cannot be spoken to like that. Women become sexual objects for men’s consumption; not individuals with feelings, lives, hopes and ambitions in their own right.

Street harassment is a global phenomenon. The image of the naked female body is ubiquitous in Western cultures but this is not necessarily the case worldwide. In Arab countries women are covered from head to toe, so as not to entice men who are supposedly unable to control themselves. What is consistent across many cultures, however, is that men dictate the state of dress assigned to women’s bodies. So why shouldn’t they comment on it? Every minor deviance from the norm is their concern, or anything they like is worthy of their approval.

My experiences

The worst experience of street harassment I had was in Manchester, where I went to university. I was waiting for a bus one night outside Platt Fields. It was about 11pm in January and very dark.

I was sitting at the bus stop and a man came round from behind the shelter. He whispered “Pssst…” at me, then walked across the road, stood on top of a wall and started to masturbate. I was terrified and just kept looking down the road for a bus, or a taxi, or even just a car to come. But there was nothing. He kept staring at me. He ejaculated on a shrub, then walked off.

Finally a bus came. I went home and was really shaken up, so my flatmates asked me what was wrong. I told them about it, but none of us really knew what to do. I didn’t want to tell the police, because I didn’t think they would do anything.

However, a couple of months later there was a headline plastered across the student newspaper – “Fallowfield Rapist”. The man described fitted the description of the man I had encountered, and he had raped several students in the area. I decided to tell the police.

It took the police about two months to take my statement, and when they did it was not a pleasant experience. The interrogation (by a female police officer) lasted 1 hour 40 minutes, in which I was asked “Are you sure you saw his penis?” “Could you have made a mistake?” What were you doing there at that time of night?” etc.

Other experiences in Manchester included walking through the city centre at night, a man walked past, leaned in and said “do you want stretching apart love?” One night, I was walking home from a gig with a friend down Platt Lane.  A man followed us, hood up, wearing a mask, and shining a lazer light in our path until we reached our house, when he shined it all over the door.

In London, I was walking home about 11.30pm one night. My street is poorly lit and this has concerned me ever since I moved in. A man approached me. I didn’t want to judge so I stopped to see what he wanted. He rubbed his penis against my leg and said, “What’s your name princess, will you come home with me?” I said no and walked away.

I told my local MP, Lynne Featherstone, about the incident. She said she would deal with the poor lighting in the area. This was a year and a half ago. She hasn’t.

I used to work on Seven Sisters Road: a street notorious for its incessant street harassment. It felt like I could have walked down the road wearing a bin liner and someone would still call me “sexy”. Wood Green is another hot spot of male commentary on women. I now just try to avoid it.

You see… the personal is political!

What can we do about it?

Hollaback calls on women to shout back at these idiots. But I know from experience that this can be scary. I’m 5 foot 2 and petite. I might match any man in an argument, but in terms of physical strength I’ve got nothing. Retaliating in daylight when there are lots of people around is one thing; but at night when you’re alone on a dark street, I prefer to clutch my rape alarm and walk away as quickly as possible.

Another tactic could be to fight for legislation. There would obviously be a lot of resistance to this – “freedom of speech” will get rolled out endlessly. But I’m also not sure it would be terribly effective. Street harassment isn’t really something the law can deal with; it’s a problem of attitudes, mindsets, habit and power.

The real way to overcome street harassment is to achieve equal respect for women. If the men that engaged in street harassment truly respected women, they wouldn’t shout lewd things at us in the street or behave inappropriately. If these men saw us as equals who have every right to be in the public sphere, not as dehumanized objects that they are free to comment on in whatever innocuous/sexual/obscene way takes their fancy, we would no longer have to suffer this daily reminder of masculine dominance.

The first step is exposing the problem; we have to show that it’s not natural, and we have to talk about it with women and men. That responsibility falls on everyone.

If you have a story about street harassment you would like to share, comment below, or send it to Hollaback or Stop Street Harassment.


Filed under Gender Based Violence, Human Rights

Consensus Decision-Making at the UCL Occupation

On the 24th November 2010, a group of students protesting about education cuts entered University College London’s (UCL) Jeremy Bentham Room. Someone asked, “Do we want to occupy?” A resounding “yes” was the answer, and so it began… a two and a half week occupation of one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

But what did it mean to occupy a room? How long would we be there? What would we do next? Luckily, there were a few climate camp veterans among us, who swiftly took action and showed us how to organise.

The first thing we did was have a meeting. At this meeting we decided on our list of demands. Most importantly, however, we implemented the process that would drive the occupation until the end; in fact, we are still using it in our meetings now. That process is consensus-decision making.

What is consensus decision-making?

UCL Occupation

Typically at large meetings, decisions are made by voting. There will be a few speakers for and against a topic, then questions from the floor, a chairperson to mediate all this, and finally a binding vote. If you are in the losing group, you simply have to accept that you lost and move on.

Consensus decision-making, by contrast, is non-hierarchical and inclusive. Typically, the group will sit in a circle formation, with a facilitator or two at the front (if there is a front!). The idea is that everyone who wants to speak, gets to speak; and because the set-up is in the round, it feels less intimidating than standing up in front of a panel of speakers and a room full of inquiring faces. Everyone is “in it together”.

Decisions are made by the whole group. Anyone can make a proposal. A proposal can only pass if it is agreed to by everyone. If just one person says, “I disagree, I veto this proposal”, then it won’t pass. We hardly ever encountered this at the occupation, because whenever there was a disagreement we talked it through until the proposal was sufficiently amended so that everyone agreed.

The role of facilitator is to make sure everyone who wants to speak gets their turn. The facilitator cannot make substantive comments themselves (although sometimes we did, but made it clear it was in a personal capacity rather than in the role of facilitator). They keep the meeting moving forward, may restrict the time of discussion for topics, try to draw out those who haven’t had their say and try to limit those who never shut up!

The participants use hand signals, rather than clapping, to show how they feel about what is happening in the meeting. Waving your hands in the air (like jazz hands) shows approval. Waving your hands towards the floor is disapproval. And wavering hands, shows wavering support.

There are several tricks a facilitator can use to check the mood in the room. A “temperature check” is where they ask everyone in the room to do the appropriate hand signal for how they are feeling. This way they know that everyone in the room is engaged and whether it’s an appropriate time to “move to consensus” or whether to continue the discussion. When we move to consensus, we see if there is consensus on a proposal in the room. If there isn’t, the debate continues; if there is, the proposal passes.

Working groups

If we had tried to make every decision about everything, and discuss everything that needed to be discussed at General Meetings, the entire time would have been spent doing that. Instead, we designated working groups for particular topics. The core working groups emerged during the occupation as media, tech, events, outreach, process, escalation, demands, security and kitchen.

Anyone could join any working group, or leave a working group at any time. I think at one stage I was a member of about six working groups! Some people devoted themselves entirely to one working group for the whole occupation– such as a few dedicated members of the media team, the techie team who were the evil geniuses of the occupation, and the events team who assiduously organised a timetable of lectures, comedy and gigs to keep us entertained. Other people floated between groups, depending on the time they could give and their interests.

While working groups worked autonomously, if there was an important decision to be made they had to bring it to a General Meeting to get consensus. For example, camera crews frequently wanted to go on demos with us, so the media team would ask the general meeting if that was ok or not. The demands team worked on negotiations with management, so regularly fed back to the General Meetings projecting draft documents onto the big screen and adding amendments from the group until everyone was happy with it.

Why did it work?

This organisational model worked for several reasons.

Firstly, people joined working groups depending on their skills. It meant that everyone was using their skills effectively and to the utmost. If there were no working groups, a lone techie may have built us a website; but they wouldn’t have been able to collaborate with a team, delegating specific tasks to those who could do it, and knowing who to talk to for info on media, events or demands.

Secondly, the general meetings provided an open forum for working groups to test their ideas but also for people who weren’t involved in those groups to have a say about what they were doing.

Thirdly, by getting consensus on decisions rather than voting, it meant we were all co-authors of the group’s actions. Nobody felt hard-done-by and no individuals could be blamed if something went wrong.

Everyone could have their say. It wasn’t about “experts” giving their opinions, or the usual suspects dominating debates; it gave the opportunity to those who wouldn’t normally speak to feel included and listened to.

Fifth, rather than stating your opinion on something and sticking to it, to open dialogue allowed people to listen, learn, change their mind, be persuaded and to persuade. The consensus decision-making model encourages open-mindedness.

Finally – no leaders! Because anyone could speak, make a proposal, facilitate a meeting, join a working group, suggest an idea, reject an idea, call a meeting, make an agenda or change the agenda, there were no leaders. Everyone was an equal part; at least, what you put in, you got out.

What are the drawbacks?

Ok, so this sounds amazing. Too good to be true even. There must have been some problems? And there were…

Meetings could go on forever! The meeting we had on the first night of the occupation lasted for four hours!!! However, this problem was ameliorated to an extent as the occupation progressed. The process was tightened up and amended to suit our group’s needs, and people learned what to expect from meetings and whether to bring something to the whole group or the relevant working group.

At times people got frustrated with the model. One night we had a one-and-a-half hour process group meeting debating whether or not to implement voting rather than consensus. A few people thought consensus meetings dragged on too long and that we weren’t making enough clear decisions. We had a trial of voting at the meeting the next night, but the group decided to stick with consensus.

Facilitating meetings could be a draining and unrewarding experience at times. If there were lots of people who repeatedly wanted to speak, it became a tricky question of whether to stop recognizing them.  There was also the problem of people being sneaky. To make a point, you simply raised your hand. But you could also make a direct factual point to correct someone’s comment (putting both hands in the air, with your index fingers parallel), or a technical point to mention something external to the meeting e.g. there’s a fire we need to leave (making a T shape). These hand signals were abused. Of course, as a facilitator you don’t know someone’s abusing them until they speak; but you still get the blame!

Power relations could be an issue. Those in the process group who had control over the agenda and how meetings working, and facilitated meetings, could be perceived as having more power than others. Also, those in the media team who coordinated external communications also could have been seen in this light. Of course, anyone could join any working group, but these perceptions still emerged and occasionally caused friction.

Because a working group could be set up anytime on anything, sometimes there seemed to be hundreds of them, with nobody knowing who belonged to what group and what the group was doing! This lack of coordination was important in terms of anonymity in the face of UCL management – they couldn’t pin anything on anyone. But it did become frustrating when you needed to talk to someone in outreach, for example, and had no idea who was in that group or where they were.

Finally, while the aim of the consensus model is to be inclusive and non-hierarchical, at times the discussions did come to be dominated by the same faces (and they were usually male). Some of the younger, female, and ethnic minority members of the group could feel a bit intimidated. On one occasion a group of three first-year women asked me to bring up a point at a meeting because they were scared of being shot-down by the vocal older men in the group. The facilitators tried their best to overcome these issues; but unfortunately you’re not going to overcome all of wider society’s nefarious power dynamics in two weeks no matter how inclusive you try to be.

Would I recommend it?

Before the UCL Occupation, I had chaired lots of meetings at school and university Model United Nations and debating societies; but I had never used the consensus decision-making model. After a little initial discomfort at the seeming lack of structure, I soon settled into it and now much prefer it over any model I’ve used before. While consensus cannot overcome the power relations of unequal societies, it is much better at doing this than traditional hierarchical models of meetings. The open discussions were fascinating and challenging. I frequently found myself changing my mind on issues based on what others had said, or discovering new ways of looking at things. The model really encourages you to see things from another’s perspective, to listen respectfully and respond honestly.

It can be a drawn-out process but ultimately I think it’s worth it. Consensus decision-making is truly democratic and avoids the dreaded tyranny of the majority. And despite the issues I raised with the model, the occupation’s success resided on the fact that we could bring all these issues up and discuss them openly; or at least set up a working group to deal with them! Best of all, consensus decision-making makes potentially boring meetings fun!

This is a longer version of a guest post for BeyondClicktivism.


Filed under Democracy, Education, Student Protests