Reclaim the Night: how analog campaigning can triumph in an age of archair activism

Modern feminism is all webzines and change.org, but there is a lot to be said still for campaigns like Reclaim the Night, launced in a time when there were no hashtags, no Facebook event, and no Instagrams of placards.

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.

 

A Take Back the Night march in Mexico. Photo: WikiCommons
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”