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
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.