Women's March, London, Sat 21, 2016. Credit: Che Ramsden
In London as across the world, a Women’s March was organised in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. Taking place the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President, the marches are an expression of outrage at the unabashed misogyny and hatred that Trump has espoused and risen from. It is estimated that 100,000 people took part in London; double what the organisers were expecting. By the time I arrived at Trafalgar Square, some two and a half hours after we had shuffled past the US Embassy on Grosvenor Square, the rally had already started and the last marchers had only just set off.
You could tell from the atmosphere that it was many people’s first protest. On the underground, younger women eyed each other nervously as though daring themselves to break ‘tube protocol’ and strike up conversation with strangers. When it was announced that Bond Street Station was closed, a more stalwart protester started singing ‘woman power!’ all the way up the escalator; no one joined in but everyone smiled and a group further down cheered. Pockets of the march were mostly silent, although people were chatting individually and as groups, apart from the occasional collective ‘whoop!’ spreading through the crowd.
People marched with friends, families and colleagues, alongside established groups like Women for Refugee Women, UK Black Pride, trade unions, and a number of student unions. People had put effort into creative posters, many riffing on the theme ‘this pussy grabs back’. Inspiration from US marchers also came in the form of pink ‘pussy hats’ sported by some women.
The fact of Trump in the White House does not exist in isolation to what is happening in the UK. Nigel Farage, key architect of Brexit, delights in boasting about the link between Trump’s rise and the Brexit vote, and Trump has also acknowledged this. In addition to the anti-migrant and anti-human rights sentiment which is coming to define the UK Government’s official Brexit position, we are now also looking at the British economic system potentially becoming closer to the USA’s, as a haven for the super-rich and the soaring inequality which would come with it.
For some people, marching on Saturday will feel like the ‘something’ they can do in response. There were also people marching who are used to organising for the change they want to see. Unite the Union co-sponsored the March on London, in solidarity with women from United Steel Workers in the USA, and in continuation of its organising in Britain for workers’ rights and equality. In 2015, when the Trade Union Bill threatened workers’ right to strike, the trade union movement launched a major campaign which forced the government to climb down on what TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady calls ‘populist but innumerate’ positions.
Organising to win
Recent trade union action in the UK should give us hope that, faced with right-wing populism, we can organise to win. Last year, working women – hospital staff, couriers, teaching assistants and cleaners – organised around the living wage and proper recognition of their working conditions. This year, in parts of the UK, we will celebrate both the 50th anniversary of abortion rights and the decriminalisation of men having sex with men, both pieces of legislation brought about through grassroots organising and supportive union action.
Credit: Che Ramsden
A few days before the Women’s March on London, on 18 January, members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PSC) and Unite who work at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) went on strike. They oppose proposed job cuts, office closures and the decreased ability of the EHRC to do its work due to budget cuts.
The EHRC exists to hold the government to account on its record on equality and human rights, and provides advice to public services like the police on how to stop racism. There has been a marked rise in hate crime since the Brexit vote in June 2016, and in a week which has seen a police force taser their own race-relations adviser after mistaking him for someone they were looking for, the EHRC’s work is needed as much as ever. Yet the EHRC has seen a 69% budget cut since 2010, with a further 25% cut to be imposed over the next four years.
What is happening at the EHRC is consistent with the austerity agenda endured by the UK since 2010. Austerity has disproportionately affected people of colour, women and disabled people. The closure of women’s refuges, including specialist services for women of colour and LGBT people, has left more women at risk. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, the UK government confirmed that it would keep the so-called ‘rape clause’ in the policy which limits tax credits to two children. The clause requires women who have a third child as a result of rape to ‘prove’ it in order to receive the tax credits they are entitled to.
Women’s rights have had a tough seven years in the UK, but Trump’s election has seemed to mark a tipping-point, coming as it does so soon after the Brexit vote. Importantly, this moment has also tied people in the UK – particularly the first-time marchers – to people around the world. We are united in a particular expression of outrage which has manifested in a willingness to do something about it.
Credit: Che Ramsden
Literally standing together can be a very powerful thing; as a physical expression of solidarity, individuals know they are not feeling and fighting alone. People in the same space have the opportunity to learn from one another and become empowered to act through new knowledge and skills. Groups can also make connections, plan jointly and form coalitions that are stronger than the sum of their parts. The energy which created the Women’s March on London and inspired so many people to turn out should now be channelled into organised activity that will help us protect and deliver our rights.
On the same day as the March on London, some three-and-a-half miles south east of Trafalgar Square, another demonstration was taking place. Movement for Justice marched in Peckham against immigration raids and deportation of people living in the UK. The action at once showed migrant and diaspora communities in the UK that people will turn up for them, and was a message to the Home Office that there is an active resistance against their divisive and destructive policies.
If the Women’s March on London is going to be more than an occasion, albeit an important one, those of us who took part need to be listening, learning, organising, and putting our bodies on the line for groups like Movement for Justice as powerfully as we pushed our placards into the air on Saturday. Guilaine Kinouani points out that if just 3-4% of those at the march commit to further intersectional organising and activism, ‘we can effect fundamental change’.
The guiding principles of the Women’s March on London are unabashedly intersectional: ‘We believe Gender Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice… We firmly declare that LGBTQIA Rights are Human Rights… We believe in Reproductive Freedom… We must divest from corporations that make profits from extractivism… We recognise that women of colour carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape…’ If this is the banner under which 100,000 people and many first-time protesters marched, and will continue to organise, then the Women’s March on London will be remembered as a historic tipping point for feminist struggle in the UK.