Show Hide image

Is it crass to compare the protests in London, Cairo and Wisconsin?

The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance.

I'm standing in Euston Road with 150 anti-cuts protesters, who have occupied the thoroughfare after being wrestled out of Camden Council's budget meeting by a solid wall of police. "London, Cairo, Wisconsin!" yell the demonstrators. "We will fight, we will win!"

As two rows of cops contain the demonstration, an elderly lady in a woolly hat hands me a pamphlet about a local unemployed workers' caucus and invites me to pet her Yorkshire terrier. It's not exactly Tahrir Square -- but is the comparison with the Middle East uprisings really so crass?

For anyone who's seen pictures of heads split open by sniper bullets in Tripoli, claiming a common cause can't help but feel insensitive. The brave people of Libya, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia, after all, are fighting the sort of police states that skip the CS spray and stop-and-search forms and go straight to the torture and British-made machine guns.

Suddenly, it seems rather a luxury to be fighting a right-wing government that merely wishes to impose brutal cuts for which it has no mandate. Clegg and Cameron may be stabbing us in the back, but they're not yet shooting us in the head.

The desperate workers and welfare claimants occupying their local councils, however, refuse to be told that their fight is of no importance simply because more violent standoffs are taking place overseas.

"What we're fighting here is very, very different from what they're fighting in the Middle East," says Jess, a 20-year-old activist. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight."

Telling British protesters to stop whingeing because the fight for self-determination is more perilous in the Middle East is a little like telling people not to build soup kitchens in Britain because there are starving children in Africa.

There is nothing exotic, however, about inequality. It was youth unemployment, graduate unrest and soaring food prices that catalysed the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia; meanwhile, in Britain, where Muammar Gaddafi was a "close personal friend" of successive PMs, youth unemployment is almost as high as in Egypt. The demographic driving the resistance, moreover, is growing in every major world city: unemployed graduates with no future and the tools to build networks.

The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance. Across the world, ordinary people are being denied a voice, shut out of work and education, having their dignity trashed. While armchair liberals express sympathy with protesters in the Middle East, workers and students in Britain have begun to express something far more powerful: solidarity.

Solidarity, the watchword of this movement, hashtagged and chanted across the world, is not about pretending that there's no difference between a flashmob in London and a riot in Tripoli.

Solidarity is the shared conviction that while the disposessed lead vastly different lives across the world, those lives may yet lead them to the same place of greater freedom. It's not just a word; it's a weapon.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Show Hide image

My time as an old woman with a £4,000 prosthetic face, working for the Daily Mail

On the Tube, a man offered me his seat. “I’m not an old woman,” I told him. “I’m a Daily Mail features writer wearing a prosthetic face.” He moved away.

I was, for a time, a Daily Mail features writer. My job was to sanctify and incite the prejudices of its editorial staff and readers – ideally while wearing fancy dress, because that is more palatable and moronic.

I have been, at various times and for money, a Saxon peasant, a Restoration hussy, the back half of a cow, a devout Muslim, an ice dancer and a man. It quite often went wrong.

I was, for instance, asked to dress up as an old woman, in order to find out what it was like to be an old woman. Any newspaper that was not institutionally insane would have simply asked an old woman what it was like to be an old woman but, since the Mail thinks in fantastical stereotypes, that would never happen. The results would be too shocking.

I was given a £4,000 prosthetic face. I went to the East End because that, according to the Daily Mail, is where poor people live. I was supposed to get mugged, so I walked around with £50 notes falling out of my pockets. A boy came up to me, handed me the £50 note I had dropped and said: “You want to watch your money. You’ll get mugged.”

Editorial was disappointed. Perhaps I should try again in Kensington? This was considered unsuitable (nice people live in Kensington), so I went to Tramp nightclub.

“My grandson comes here,” I said to the woman on the door, in my old woman’s voice. “What tabloid newspaper or TV reality show are you from?” she asked. (She was obviously a Daily Mail reader.) On the Tube, a man offered me his seat. “I’m not an old woman,” I told him. “I’m a Daily Mail features writer wearing a prosthetic face.” He moved away.

I was asked to wear a burqa for a week. A black burqa was no good for the photographs – the Mail hates black clothing, even to illustrate a story about black clothing – so I hired a golden one from Angels, the costumiers. I later saw a photograph of myself in that burqa, illustrating an actual news story in the Evening Standard.

In the US, a woman passed herself off as a man, convincingly, for a year. I was asked to do the same, although the budget would not run to a year. Even so, the idea that the Daily Mail would pay a female journalist to pretend to be a man permanently is not, if you know the paper, that weird.

I went to the BBC costume department and was given a fat suit and a wig. I was a very ugly man. As I left the BBC – my instructions were, among other things, to chat up women – a woman said to me, “You’re not a man, you’re a lesbian.” I hid in a pub and engaged in a telephone stand-off with editorial. I explained that I did not want to leave the pub because I didn’t look like a man at all but a very creepy woman, which is exactly what I was.

Suzanne Moore is away

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State