No matter how worthy the cause, demonstrations aren’t always worthwhile, says Caroline Criado Perez, a relative novice when it comes to the protest march.
Is there any point to marching? For many people of my generation the answer is a weary ‘no’. We came of age on the Iraq war march (not being a politically engaged 19-year-old, I didn’t go myself, but I do remember ducking into St Christopher’s Place with my boyfriend to escape an oncoming horde) and what did that achieve?
Seven years on and we were out on the streets again, this time in opposition to the introduction of university tuition fees (I say we: again, I was not a politically engaged 26-year-old so I stayed at home). And again, the protests of hundreds of thousands of students fell on deaf ears.
Although I didn’t join in on either of those marches, their lessons nevertheless took root in my subconscious: marches are a pointless waste of in-group signalling energy. And so even after I firmly woke up, politically speaking, I wasn’t a joiner-inner. Not for me the warm affirmation of chanting slogans in step with thousands of comrades-in-arms. What was the point if we were only chanting to ourselves?
But then a little boy’s body washed up on the Turkey shore. It was 2015. The Syrian war had been going on for four years and its human toll had been spilling out into Europe for months. And the British government continued to insist that the answer to millions of desperate people fleeing conflict in the Middle East was not to offer them refuge. I finally took to the streets.
I didn’t know if it would change the government’s mind or not. But I knew I couldn’t let them speak for the country. We needed to shout over our government’s mean-spirited anti-humanitarian response. We needed to show that the government was out of step with the people. That hundreds of thousands of us believed that refugees were welcome here.
Did that march work? Well, shortly beforehand, and in direct opposition to his previous insistence that taking in extra refugees was not the answer to all the extra refugees arriving in Europe, David Cameron announced that Britain would take in… extra refugees.
It was obviously not simply the threat of the march that forced his hand: the sudden shift in how the media reported on the refugee crisis in the wake of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s death played a hugely significant role. But the march felt like it had been part of that.
I next went on a march two years later. It was January 2017. Donald Trump had just been sworn in as pussy-grabber-in-chief of the United States. And millions of women spilled out onto the streets of cities around the world. And people told us it was pointless. One male commentator tweeted: ‘Do the people organising a women’s march against Donald Trump realise it’s precisely this sort of stuff that lead to Donald Trump?’ tweeted one male commentator.
History has not looked kindly on this tweet: the 2018 US midterms saw a record number of women both running for and elected to office, and there is little doubt that the women’s march played its role here as an organising tool and builder of sign-up lists, as well as activist training. Not so much leading to Donald Trump as leading to America’s second ‘Year of the Woman’, then.
This weekend it is the third annual women’s march, and again, women are likely to take to the streets in their thousands. Will I be joining them? I’m not sure.
Here in London the theme is to demand an end to austerity, and there is no doubt that this is a hugely important issue for women, who have borne its brunt. Since 2010, 86% of cuts have fallen on women. And women are now at the front line of the Brexit-induced cost of living crisis. Women cannot take any more cuts, without a doubt. But will a march do anything?
Maybe I’m Brexited out, but I’m not sure it will. A march can be a powerful instrument – but it’s also a blunt instrument. And so its demands need to be precise and targeted. Let in refugees. Stop the war. Don’t grab our goddamn pussies.
The organisers of the London women’s march say that they ‘are demanding specific assurances from the government UK government’ – but what are these assurances? Do we know? Does the government know? How will we know what success looks like?
I probably will join the London women’s march. There is power in women standing together in the streets. But let’s dispense with assurances. Let’s make specific demands. And let’s organise to get them done.