When Philadelphia student Susan Alexander Speeth was stabbed to death walking home one night, her fellow women on campus, furious at being advised by police to stay indoors in the aftermath, staged the first Take Back The Night. Within two years, the concept - women-only marches, publicly marching in protest against violence against women - had spread to Italy, West Germany and Belgium, hitting the UK as angry Reclaim the Night rallies against the ridiculous “don’t go out” police response to the Ripper murders. It was the late Seventies, and the idea had crossed continents despite the internet being no more than a gleam in an LED.
It’s still spreading without much technological help. When Reclaim the Night was revived in 2004 by activist Finn MacKay and the London Feminist Network, Facebook was still in its infancy, and Twitter had yet to hatch. There were no hashtags, no Facebook event, no Instagrams of placards. Today, it has a sparsely used Facebook page and no Twitter account.
Compare it with the rest of modern feminism, all webzines and change.org, and Reclaim the Night seems a little old-fashioned. Despite having its roots in flaming postboxes, modern feminism is a cyber beast. We’ve embraced the web like billy-o, because it’s given us something often hard-fought for: a place to air and share opinions freely. This year alone, as a result of online campaigns, Twitter and Facebook have taken steps against sexist abuse, a woman has been kept on UK bank notes, and lads mags have been removed from Co-Op shelves.
In the context of all of this, Reclaim the Night’s offering is little analog. “RTN does have a Facebook page and lots of the organisers are on Twitter publicising it,” says MacKay, but that’s hardly a full blown social media presence. And yet - in this world of armchair activism - people still come. MacKay isn't abashed at all at the event’s online under involvement, and why should she be? It’s a success without it.
Both she and event organiser Sarah Bell underline how many activists come back year after year, due to the uplifting air of the protest and, more importantly, because of what they’re marching for. “All women have experienced feeling intimidated on a dark street,” says Bell. Harriet Vickers, a marcher, agrees. “Get my keys out coming up to my door so I can go straight in. Walk in the best lit areas of the road. We do these things all the time, every day, even though it's not our fault and not our responsibility to change our behaviour. That’s why I marched.”
The physical, boot-stomping nature of the protest is a big draw too. “Actually reclaiming parts of London where I'd been tense,” Harriet continues, “shouting about the problem rather than avoiding it, felt bloody brilliant.” MacKay backs this up. She states proudly that “ultimately [Reclaim the Night is] obviously a piece of direct physical action,” that “the role of direct action and face to face meetings cannot be forgotten.”
She’s right of course, and digital activists would do well to embrace the value of face-to-face, in person protests. They don’t just feel more satisfying to Harriet and thousands of others like her, but they’re undeniable. 100 tweets to a company’s PR account can be swept under the carpet; 100 angry protesters at a company’s head office cannot - at least not so easily. For Reclaim the Nighters, social media is used to organise protest, rather than becoming the protest itself - and this combination of tweet-savviness and placard brandishing may be where the future lies.
To see how it may work, it’s worth turning attention from the London “flagship” Reclaim the Night, and onto its often under-reported sister marches across the UK. Largely organised by tech-savvy students who couldn’t rely on what MacKay calls the “second wave” legacy of the London event, they relied heavily on social media to get people out on the streets. Sophie Butcher, who organised the 2012 Basingstoke event, says Twitter and Facebook played a “huge part in the success” whilst Tabz O’Brien-Butcher of last year’s event in Manchester says they went out of their way to “engage with the wider community” across social networks. Both Basingstoke and Manchester were considered successes not just for their engagement on social media, but the effect they had - getting large numbers of people out on the streets, putting the questions raised by the demonstration into the heart of the community.
In a few weekend’s time, a big player in the digital feminist movement, No More Page 3, will be holding a weekend of direct action. They’ve already encouraged guerilla felt-tip pen clothing of Page 3, and leafleting newsagents, but 16 November will be a big test of how easy it is to convert petitions to placards. This feminist for one will be joining in, and encouraging others to do the same. It’s about time we really took back the streets.