ReclaimEdi: Organising to create safe communities free of gendered violence
Over the space of one week, the UK saw threats against both women and the right to protest. The connection between the two has brought into relief what many have long known: that women are not helpless victims that need state protection against an undefined boogeyman and that a politics that frames them in such a way serves to conceal the many ways in which the state is complicit in gendered violence. In Edinburgh, members of the community came together to protest and mourn at the Meadows. I spoke to the organisers about the event, the reasons for it, and future plans.
Could you provide some background on the context of the protest?
In the space of a week that started with international women’s day, we saw the murder of a woman walking home, allegedly at the hands of a police officer, and the violent police suppression of a vigil for her. The two are linked – patriarchal and state violence are inextricable.
It’s worth noting that Sarah’s death made white middle-class cis women feel vulnerable, but we want to highlight the fact that this kind of violence is inflicted constantly on women who experience other intersections of oppression. It is routinely overlooked because they don’t look like the mainstream idea of a good victim and they aren’t the centres of mainstream feminist discourse. The gendered violence many women experience is compounded by a silencing or dismissal when they speak out and is made worse by the suggestions that harsher imprisonment laws and more policing can be the answer.
Our organising wasn’t a direct response to the murder itself, but to the police retaliating violently against women trying to mourn. A group of women had tried to organise a vigil here and were forced to shut it down. On top of that, the state response has been to increase policing. It doesn’t seem to factor in that the police officer who was guarding her body was dismissed for posting lewd messages about it. This isn’t one bad apple, either; last year police officers were taking photos with the dead bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. The problem is systemic. And so it makes no sense that people are advocating for more police in nightclubs and giving them more powers to suppress protest. No one is asking for these things; women aren’t being consulted or listened to. The state is acting as a violent patriarch enacting violence and taking away freedom and privacy and telling us it’s in our interest. We don’t need to be protected by a system that consistently threatens, attacks, silences, incarcerates, and deports us. We need to resist it and be liberated from it.
The original event was organised for St Andrews square; why did you pick the Meadows as the location for the vigil?
We picked the meadows for the protest as a symbolic site. Every woman in Edinburgh has been warned against going to the meadows at night. We wanted to reclaim this space as a way to reclaim all public spaces in Edinburgh and reject the notion that we need state protection. We wanted to be clear that we protect each other – we walk each other home, we text each other to let each other know we’re safe, we exchange tips and knowledge, we build networks. We wanted this event to sow the seeds for how that need to protect each other and build those networks could do more; how we can organise to create a safe community that is built on harm reduction, care, and agency, rather than the violent, patriarchal model of carceral feminism.
Why did you feel this was needed in Scotland right now? What are some of the key issues we’re facing?
Gendered violence, and specifically as within this case gendered violence that comes from the state, is not an explicitly English problem, it’s a global issue. But as you can see from the list of women murdered by the Police and Scottish Prison System, these issues are pervasive right here in Scotland, within our society. They are amplified by racism; by the fear of migrants as encouraged by the hostile environment; by transphobia; and by prejudice against women with a history of criminalised workplaces or drug use.
In March, Rangers fans were politely allowed to march through the streets of Glasgow by the state without the presence of social distancing. Weeks later, women attempting to hold a space for a socially-distant vigil to remember women murdered by men were threatened with £10,000 fines. Our anger at this, as Scottish women and non-binary people, cannot be overstated.
This country is willing to allow men to destroy memorial benches in Glasgow, to flout all virus-suppression guidelines, in order to celebrate the results of a football match, but won’t allow women to mourn, and this issue is emblematic of the wider issues, that men routinely feel empowered to carry out acts of gross vandalism, whilst women are scared to walk home at night and threatened when they try to mourn. We are not asking for more police violence against football fans, we’re demanding an end to punitive policing methods deployed by an organisation which props up and enables abusive men, and abuses women and trans people with aggressive and unsympathetic actions. We understand that it is us as a community who keep each other safe, it is not the police or the state.
Scotland loves to paint itself as a progressive forward-thinking European nation, with a female head of state and a liberal attitude, but the reality is far from that. Over the past four or five years, deeply transphobic rhetoric has been enabled and allowed to propagate and spread from the pages of the papers over to the Parliamentary debating chamber. 2020 saw a consultation exacerbating the criminalisation of sex workers and the continued progress towards the Nordic Model of sex work legislation. This model which UNAIDS and Amnesty International all agree increases the violence and police abuse that sex workers already face while working.
Whilst the police did not show up at our event on the Meadows, they clearly circled our event and chose not to engage because of the optics of such action in the wake of what happened on Clapham Common. But the threats of fines towards women involved in the Reclaim These Streets event that was sadly cancelled, it’s clear that the police attitude to public protest — and our right to mourn violence and murder – is the same here as it is in London.
Scottish exceptionalism, whilst often postured, has no grounding in reality, and there is currently nothing to suggest an independent Scotland will be any safer for women and trans people. At the time of this interview, the Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation has once again released demands for more criminalisation of sex workers, a decision that continues to showcase what an independent Scotland would really look like for Women and Trans people behind all the empty promises.
In organising this event, what were your goals and methods?
We organised this entirely by word of mouth and through the connected channels of existing radical networks across the city. We chose to do it that way because of the threat of police violence, as had already happened in Clapham. We also wanted to avoid having the event hijacked by organisations with a history of sexual violence, or being infiltrated by the transphobic discourse that plagues so many attempts at feminist organising in Scotland. In other words, this was the best way to organise it in a way that ensured it was a safe space for the people who most need it.
In terms of goals, our goal is to end gendered violence. There isn’t a prescribed set of actions that will end gendered violence, so we will continue to be responsive to the community and to allow ongoing discussions. We want to work towards models of transformative justice, abolition, and harm reduction.
Both organising the event and being there were transformative and emotional experiences. It has enabled us to begin to build structures of solidarity that we know will continue and grow. It was a way of saying that we protect each other as both a statement of fact and a goal, and a way to build a space in which we can come together to begin to work towards that.
At the event, we heard how people of colour are sidelined from discourses around gendered violence, how migrant women are afraid to speak out because they don’t feel that it’s safe to do so, how transphobia is endemic in our communities, how the criminalisation and stigmatisation of sex work – including the nordic model – is dangerous for women, how the problem isn’t unchaperoned women in public spaces but violent men, often within the home. We were able to create a space where we could speak and listen to each other, which is crucial. We need to understand each others’ struggles in order to organise to overcome them together.
Do you have plans for the future? What’s your vision going forward?
It’s hard for us to talk about the future without acknowledging how our viewpoints and ideals have been shaped by wider feminist, radical leftist, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist organising. Our understanding of feminism is that we want to work for a future that doesn’t just only work towards the benefit of white cisgender middle-class women; instead, we understand that no woman is free until all women are free. As such, our demands are multiple. They include the end to deportations and the ‘hostile environment’, especially if Scotland secures independence. The rhetoric that migrants receive – ‘if you live in Scotland, this is your home’ – needs backing up. We want the decriminalisation of sex work to end the police’s ability to abuse and harass women selling sex. The government has framed conversations around the Nordic model of sex work as a way of protecting women and girls, but what would actually protect women and girls is supporting, funding, and housing for women with complex needs instead of incarcerating them.
From the outset, and in light of the aggressively transphobic environment Scotland has become of late, we also wanted to ensure trans women feel included in feminist visions for the future. As part of this, taking a stronger stance against transphobic language within parliament and against the distribution of hateful and harmful anti-trans material across the city are immediate demands. We understand that forced inclusiveness can often feel jarring, and instead, our organisation simply had a natural inclusion of trans women as women within our organising group and ensured all women’s voices were heard, and that we had things in place to ensure everyone felt safe to attend.
Our vision for the future is a world wherein all women are safe to exist in all parts of society, where no women are arrested, deported, or incarcerated, where there is a fully functioning and adequate welfare system, a well-funded NHS, and where all women have access to meet their needs. Much of this vision is applicable to all genders, but we also demand the full reform of gender affirming medical care, to adopt an informed consent model, and to enable all trans people to access timely and free healthcare.
Our goal is to set up and maintain a network for people working towards a similar vision, organise future actions, and continue to challenge dangerous discourse around gender violence, the police, and the state.