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Trigger Warning: a response to Jack Halberstam.

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Content note: this post will contain reference to collective trauma, political murder, and police brutality.


The first thing I wrote when I sat down to compose this response to Jack Halberstam’s piece on trigger warnings, which is over here, was a content note. A content note is a little flag at the start of a piece that says, “yo: there’s some heavy shit in here. Maybe you wanna read it when you’ve got time and energy to spare for it”. I like content notes and I think they’re super-advisable in an internet activist community. We spend a good deal of our time clicking through to all sorts of nonsense on the internet (Hey look! A PALLAS CAT!!). On Twitter or on a blog, maybe all you see is someone saying “this is interesting”, followed by a link that doesn’t give away what the content of the blog is. Different content requires different kinds of attention: if you’re anticipating a Pallas Cat, you’re going to approach it in a pretty different mind-set to reading about the murder of Mohamed Abu Khedeir and its aftermath. So a content note says, “Hold up! This isn’t cats, it’s politics, brain engaged!” which is great for any number of reasons, chief among them being that it might remind you to bookmark that and come back to it when you can give it your full attention, not read it hiding behind your computer screen at work where you’re just gonna become a massive rage-ball and not be able to think about anything else for the rest of the day.

Another Really Good Thing about the content note, in my opinion, is that it changes how we approach reading news and current affairs: instead of being fed apparently “objective” (lol, right?) composites of images and words by major news corporations, we’re being given a little bit of a frame and a distancing device: this is about stuff that’s happened, but it’s also in conversation with a number of strains of things that happen in society: maybe when you’re thinking about Abu Khedeir you also want to be thinking about imperialism, the history of the Israel-Palestine situation, and so on and so forth. News isn’t events it’s systems, and content notes work to engage people in that approach to politics and current affairs.

A content note is related to a trigger warning but it’s not totally the same thing. Trigger warnings are used when you think you’re going to say something that is kind of likely to really upset someone in your readership, because of an experience that they’ve had, or of a kind of experience that is common to a raft of people. People who live with self-harm and eating disorders (E.D.), for example, can end up being drawn back towards those practices once they’ve moved away from them, just by thinking about them. So someone else’s recovery story could in fact trigger your own harmful behaviour. That is something that we know about and have known about for ages – in the internet’s earliest days, I was a teenager and a Manic Street Preachers fan (whut? Gotta start somewhere). Relatively often, you could click through from Manics fan-sites to pictures of people who had cut themselves, and even back then, WAY before trigger warnings were the commonplace they are now, there would be notes at the top saying “you may find these images triggering” – because people in that community know how that works. Indeed, I understand that people would seek out those websites for precisely that reason, as with “thinspo” or pro-ana websites about eating disorders.

Now, Halberstam says of triggering:

“Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.”

In the light of my previous comment about trigger warnings in the context of self-harm or E.D., I think it’s pretty clear that there is more than one way to use a trigger-warning, and I think that this conflation leads to most of what I don’t like in Halberstam’s article. There’s a good deal in there that I absolutely agree with. If you’re part of a community that behaves in a certain way and you trigger-warn because you’re about to do something that might make someone feel worse but you don’t want to self-censor, or not post something, for that reason. And you know what the rules are for your gang.

This is to do with behavioural triggering, rather than emotional triggering, the causing of flash-backs to, or opening up of, past traumas. in the above quotation, Halberstam is clearly talking about traumatic memory. Now. I will trigger warn if I am going to talk in any detail about: domestic, sexual or police violence, or personal grief and loss. Why? Because I have been through those things and so have a huge number of my friends. There are women in my friendship circle who became my friends precisely because of a shared experience of domestic abuse or sexual violence, which changed the way that we behave and the way that we see the world. Things that we encountered shaped us to be able to understand each other. And those sisters of mine are incredible and tough – but some of them have been through what I went through or something like it, often much worse, much much more recently than I have. So it’s still on their minds all or most of the time. And I remember what it was like when a relatively common kind of joke would make me vomit, and I remember what it was like when I would dream every night about coming out of my university graduation ceremony into a police kettle. Those things do fade over time: the touch-paper doesn’t remain a touch-paper forever. I got crushed to the ground three times at a Libertines gig in Hyde Park on Saturday. I didn’t at any point panic or think that the police were trying to trap us under harris fences and run horses over us. (Yes! The police do these things! To children! AREN’T THEY SWELL!) I didn’t think I was being attacked. Sure, I was pretty scared occasionally, but I was completely mosh-pit phobic for a decent couple of years because it would trigger panic attacks for me to be in conditions so much like the conditions of a riot. And I know that people who have been through those things and way worse, way more recently than me, are going to be reading what I write, because they’re my pals, my community, and I know them in real life, and I don’t want them to be unprepared and to end up shaky and tired and sad if that’s not what they’re up for right now. They’re allowed to choose how far into the gross stuff that’s happened they want to go at any given time. Entering the martial arts class, for example, putting on the dobok & standing in graded lines: that’s your preparation framework for getting punched in the face. Someone punches you in the face when you’re walking down the street, you’re entitled to be upset, freaked out and pissed off about it. Same thing goes if you’ve no idea what you’re about to look at and you think it could well be a picture of a Pallas Cat and it turns out it’s actually an intense narrative about sexual violence, very like your own, which you were managing not to think about that day, thanks very much.

Again: you know what the rules are for your gang, how you’ve agreed to look after each other and make each other tougher and support each other through talking about all the shit that needs to be talked about, precisely WITHOUT censorship, and without more emotional disintegration than people want to face.

It is for exactly this reason that I agree with all of Halberstam’s points about Trannyshack. We’re our gang, you’re not. We’ve decided to identify as “trannies”, identifying ourselves internally with one another, and externally against a general social trend that tries to STOP us being what we are and labels that thing, “Tranny”. Sod off yo, we know what the rules are for our gang. Nobody gets to tell a group of queer people not to call themselves what they want to call themselves. Telling a cishet person not to use “tranny” as a term of abuse is a COMPLETELY different ballpark to telling a TG person not to identify as a tranny if they want to.

And, yeah, liberal politics have hijacked some of the language of trigger warning and call-outs, in order really to stop anyone from ever being weird or aggressive or transgressive or TALKING ABOUT DIFFICULT SHIT. And that is absolutely a damaging thing. I’ve also apologised before for gang-mentality twitter stuff: internet activism is still kind of new and it still needs to find its feet, but I DO think it’s okay to shut down people who say heinous shit – it’s just not okay if that shutting down carries over into completely crippling people who are vulnerable themselves…

What I really want to say in all of this is I think not complicated at all: there is more than one trigger warning culture. One of them is trying to stop people being weird and talking about the nasties. One is trying to make people aware of their behaviours and support people trying to move on from particular conditions. One is about creating emotional space and trying to share experiences precisely without becoming a victim culture.

The crucial thing I think is not to have a blanket policy. To think about where you are writing and who you are talking to. I’m talking most of the time to a pretty immediate coterie. I know what they’ve been through and what could well hurt them. Say “2011” to me and some of my friends and we do go quiet and reach for each others’ hands. Because we know what happened then, and it isn’t super long ago, in fact. Endemicising “victim culture” is totally different from actually inhabiting a community of survivors.

So – you know who your gang are. You make your rules.

Activist Burnout Part II: Gender.


This piece has been, if anything, harder to write than the last, as it is introspective: I’m talking about things we do to one another that make people drop out or cause people to expend all of their energy deflecting personal attack, and fighting for internal change – distracting from whatever ideal it was we joined the movement to oppose.

I can only write as a white, cis-female, relatively middle class and highly educated, activist. I have tried my hardest to be properly intersectional – if I need helping out with anything, please call me on it.

Gloss for those unfamiliar with the term: to be “cis-gendered” means to broadly identify with the gender that you were assigned at birth.

I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist, so I don’t have any statistics to offer in support of what I’m saying. I have to ask you to believe me. If you don’t believe me: perhaps you should hold that in mind as you read this article.

I’d be willing to bet that more women, trans* and genderqueer people experience more acute, or at least faster-acting or simply MORE, activist burnout than cis-gendered men within the movement. It is certainly my experience and the experience of many of my sisters that our own burnout has been exacerbated by explicitly gendered factors within leftwing organising of all stripes. Broadly, I would identify those factors as they appear to me into the following categories: “”everyday sexism:  recreating and endemicising pre-existing inequalities; “repetitive strain”: fighting the same fight time and again; rape; rape apology. I have kept the final two categories distinct for reasons that I hope to make clear. I have tried to structure this analysis systematically so that you can see how, from my perspective, each of the more basic flaws and the kinds of things we let roll, lead to the more obviously catastrophic and heartbreaking consequences further down the list.

 Everyday Sexism.

A fundamental part of this conversation is about hierarchy: any kind of hierarchy is liable to replicate power dynamics as they already exist in wider society. That’s an assertion it’s really hard to back up, but I think it’s worth looking at the composition of central and executive committees, and any committees with a particular degree of power, in hierarchical leftwing organisations. My experience is that even in the organisations which make a real effort to have prominent female full-time activists, there are less of them than there are men; trans* people are almost invisible, especially in the longer-standing organisations and people of colour are also pretty few and far between compared to the actual racial composition of the country.

This isn’t the space to explain exactly how those power structures work: what I want to talk about is how this relates to burnout. It is the experience of women and trans* people in the movement that:

  1. They are nearly invisible in the “higher” levels of some forms of organisation.
  2. It is manifestly the case in all forms of organisation besides spaces that exclude cis-male participation that there will be a tendency for men to talk over women and that women’s voices will be de-prioritised.
  3. In practical situations, men assume people of other genders to be less capable than them.
  4. Those who are effective activists are often revered and fetishised rather than respected and treated as equals.
  5. They’re STILL treated differently according to what they look like.
  6. They spend as much of their time calling out people and groups for sexism and misogyny as they do organising for whatever the banner aim of the organisation was.

I haven’t given examples for all of these – but if you need them, ask the women and people of other genders around you in your home movement. Pretty sure you’ll find evidence quickly enough.

Repetetive Strain.

I have written previously about how exhausting it is, to constantly fight losing battles. It is true that battles within the movement can sometimes be won and that our ways of organising do move forwards. It is nevertheless the case that I, personally, as one individual, have been involved in feminist interventions into the organising structures of: Climate Camp groups; Trotskyist groups; Student and anti-cuts groups; Occupations and Occupy groups; if I enumerate every campaign or event that I’ve needed to intervene into, I lose count somewhere after ten. That’s way, WAY too many. And I’ve been out of commission for a while and I’m pretty green by most standards ANYWAY.

And even after all of these interventions, there are still times when many of us feel that our voices can’t be heard, that our skills aren’t valuable, that we’re ignored because of what we look like – and that what we look like is the only reason that people are listening to us.

I’ve found it really interesting looking over blogs about Occupy in the UK how few theoretical discussions are led by women, and how many of the articles by women are about gender. And how many of the articles about gender are in fact about rape, and how many of the conversations about rape in women’s writing are picked up on by their male comrades.

Thing is, you see, they’re not.

If we don’t think you’re listening, we stop talking.

If we don’t think you care about us and about whether we’re safe, we will not put ourselves at risk by coming near you.

Rape within Leftwing Communities.

Imagine the man you’d been going out with and struggling beside for more than a decade, and had started a family with, turned out to be a cop.

Imagine if engines of the state believed it was okay to rape you because of your political beliefs.

Imagine holding political beliefs that meant the state thought it was okay to rape you – in pursuit of other people, more important than you!

Imagine trusting people intimately in spaces that were built around those political beliefs.

Here I abandon this trope because I will not ask you to imagine what happened to women at Occupy camps. It can be terribly triggering to be in any way reminded of rape or sexual assault. If your aggressor wears a mask, that mask may well become a trigger. And if everyone around you is wearing that mask all of the time? How long are you going to stay around that movement for? And if accounts of what happened to you and other women like you (I’ve heard stories of women being raped in very nearly every Occupy camp I’ve heard about) aren’t even part of the criticism of that tactic, that way of organising, if the criticism is “this lacks momentum” or “this is not permanent” rather than “this space is not safe for women” – how much energy are you going to put into rescuing it?

We don’t just burn out from exhaustion. We also burn out in anger, fear and despair.

I return here to power structures: in the SWP, Martin Smith, who had already in previous years faced allegations of violence, which I believe, received APPLAUSE at a public conference for obfuscating what had happened and in actuality saying that he wasn’t going to let puny rape allegations stand in the way of his continuing to be prominent in the organisation and part of key decision-making processes.

We also burn out in disappointment and humiliation.

There are other stories I can’t tell because they’re not public knowledge and I haven’t asked the survivors’ permission to talk about them. Just know that there are more stories.

Rape Apology.

Don’t tell us that things that have happened within the movement are not symptomatic of the movement. They obviously are. Don’t try to pretend that your form of organisation is exempt, because it’s horizontal or whatever. It’s obviously not. Don’t try to blame individuals. Especially don’t try to blame individuals if the group didn’t try to do anything about it. Don’t say you never heard about it – why was that? Why couldn’t the survivor speak out?

Any tactic or mode of organising has failed if a member of the group using that tactic is raped or sexually assaulted by her comrade and it is time to re-structure; to think not only about means of reporting and addressing such violations after the event, but also organising in such a way that people are at less risk. Maybe ask us, the vulnerable members of your group, what we think might be best.

Listen to us more.

You haven’t excused the police tactic, right? And you’re freaked out about the presence of agents provocateurs making everybody and especially women more vulnerable? I don’t know what we do about that aspect of it, yet. But I know that other things we are doing as a movement are making women similarly vulnerable – and we ought to not only talk, but to act, on that.

Love us better. You need us.

The next instalment in this series will address some state – policy and policing – tactics that have contributed to increased burnout levels among activists recently and that I think we ought to take into consideration when we’re taking stock and designing methods of organisation.

I still hope to get to a little Positive Visualisation eventually.

Thanks for sticking with me here. Again, this is just hard to talk about in any way that doesn’t sound like an attack. It’s not meant as an attack: it’s an approach and an appeal.

Love, Reckless. X X X X X X X

Activist Burnout I: An Anatomy.

[TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of suicide, police violence, mental breakdown.]

“its hard to beat the Black Bloc
but I’ve seen them beaten down.”
– Decca Muldowney

A note here on context: over the last – suddenly ten and more – years I’ve been involved in various campaigns around climate change, education, immigration, the rights of women and trans* people, and against war, and probably other things that have slid from my mind just now. For the purpose of this particular post, I am drawing primarily from my experiences in the student and anti-cuts movement which began in 2010 and was characterised by a series of beautiful and hopeful occupations and a series of clashes with the police. Subsequent posts in this mini-series will address different movements and different aspects of burnout. The next post will be on burnout and gender, which is an important and frequently overlooked conversation.

I’ve been writing and writing and writing about burnout and trying to put together a blog-post. Which I mention from time to time, and everybody cheers, as if they are thirsty and I’ve just announced my card’s behind the bar. Because we need to talk about burnout. Even people who have never been involved in activism beyond really big demonstrations, who want to act now because of the depth of the cuts and the brutality of the Tory government, are looking on us, some old hands, and some just a season or so into a life that’s built around actively fighting, and they are scared and despairing.

Because what do we look like right now?

It’s there physically in a lot of us. Our skin’s pale, there are bags under our eyes. We’re fatter or thinner than we habitually are, or were last time we were happy. We lose our tempers really, really fast. We talk to people with moderate politics as if they are evil or as if they are stupid.

When I say we lose our tempers fast: I mean, really REALLY fast. And I’m pretty sure by now it’s not just me. The slightest indication that someone can’t see that the situation is fucked and that ordinary people are being aggressed against, and that suicide among the more precarious members of society is a direct effect of government policy, that we are therefore actually being killed at present, is a massive trigger, quickly producing tears, shouted insults, incoherent rage.

That’s a symptom of burnout: that you’ve sustained “reasoned argument”, often alongside radical direct and demonstrational action, for as long as you possibly can and you’ve got nowhere. And whether it’s true or no, it becomes impossible for those of us with combat fatigue to believe that everyone really is a distinct person with the capacity to reason and have their mind changed, because we’ve HAD THIS CONVERSATION BEFORE, and it didn’t convince liberals f our part and it lead to us being against police lines in kettles, hungry and cold in the dark, having cavalry charged at us, being criminalised, having our faces smashed in. It’s lead to friends in prison, comrades in hospital.

Another reason that we lose it, that we fall apart, isn’t just that we’re traumatised and by saying that you think demonstrations went “to far” and that activists were violent you’re triggering us to fuck, beyond what we can reasonably be asked to cope with.

You’re also reminding us that we’ve believed and fought and hoped and offered alternatives and fought and fought and FOUGHT, and given up our time and our lives and our sanity, and we pretty much think it’s too late. Because there are STILL people who don’t side with the government who haven’t taken up arms against them and still want to have a calm and quiet conversation about it, even though it’s now so expensive to attend university that pretty well everyone who attempts it will be expected to live in debt more or less forever; even though people are, as I have mentioned, dying; even though racism and fascism are manifestly on the rise on our streets and the far right are frequently represented on television as if they represent a legitimate political concern.

You looked at those facts and couldn’t see how necessary it was to oppose them, and now, almost like an exercise, you’re asking an activist to explain to you exactly what’s so bad?


That’s how we feel. We feel like that maybe twice a day on a good day. And the bonds that have tied us together, our resistance and our belief in what is right, have become externally defined by our having suffered and been traumatised, together. Of course there are times when we see in each other’s faces the bright and beautiful spirits that dreamed another option – when I was in the Old Schools occupation in Cambridge in 2010 I had fleeting, momentary glimpses of the kind of university that these minds would be capable of creating together, just like at climate camp it was possible from time to time, for instants in that temporary, experimental space, to re-imagine the village – there are times when we see those great, generous hearts beating full of potential. And at all times we know how lucky we are to keep the company we do.

But so much of the time we are sitting together in anger and sorrow. Even when we’re not fresh from the fight and shaking and in tears and hurt, we are caged by totalising powers that mean every day at work we’re faced by alterations to process demanded by new legislation, we’re inspected, prodded, poked, bureaucratised and asked not to trust our colleagues and the people around us. And it makes us angry – which is right. And it hurts us when we hear of suicides, and it hurts us when we hear of disabled people literally tortured by being denied the support they need and forced to work. And seeing your friends angry all the time makes you angry on their account too: someone is hurting them and that agent is too big for you to fight.

Because last time you fought, you lost.

In the last few years we’ve fought an increasing number of losing battles.

It’s funny, it’s taken me a long time to realise how much of this is to do with the concrete fact of having lost every battle we’ve fought. I thought it was just about being exhausted because the enemy is so big, being stretched too thinly, and about the real-terms violence that we have faced even in the UK where an activist’s life is still pretty okay in global terms. But it’s also about the feeling of having given everything for a long time and having failed. It is psychologically hard to recover from repeated, consistent failure.

And we burn out because there is nowhere for us to go to charge our batteries. There is no escape from capitalism or from patriarchy. It defines the terms of our existence.

So we drink or we take drugs to get out of our heads, or we find some other means of running away.

And we’re really creative and imaginative people, and plenty of us have begun to take our balls home. I wrote previously about preparing to go on the last big march against university fee hikes. I didn’t write about the run-ins that I had with the police, the way that I was manhandled for WALKING DOWN A STREET or the subsequent night that I spent in my friends’ arms shaking and crying. Like, disintegrated into bits. No more capacity to keep a handle on my emotions. It is frightening to feel like that and it is probably unhealthy to pursue situations that will make you feel like that again. So I, for one, have looked out alternative spaces where I can be creative and imaginative and which are in no intrinsic way radical, which are doing nothing to change the exterior situation, but which let me feel like I have sometimes felt, glimpsing the best of all possible worlds. And I’ve gotten stronger and started to cry less and to be less filled with rage.

But I have conscience, and I know that I am not helping right now, and I know that I need to find a way to rejoin the fight. So this post constitutes a sort of characterisation of how it feels to have burnout, what it is like to inhabit that particular mental state from day-to-day. Over subsequent posts, I will address particular aspects of the condition – I sort of want it to be recognised as a Real Legitimate Thing – which derive from structures of organisation and behaviours within movements, rather than from how we interact with those who are not with us. Out of that, I’ve challenged myself to try to imagine something better – maybe just psychological tricks, hopefully something more profound: if I can dream the resistance I want, maybe I can start to recognise aspects of it, in the resistance as it is.

I’m not the only one who’s stuck and I’m not the only one who wants a change – and I’m not condemning any of the current struggles: indeed, I stand in solidarity with all voices raised against capitalism and against the government and against a complicated web of further oppressions. This isn’t an attack. It’s just that right now all I can do is talk – and I have promised to do all that I can.

Reinstate Owen Holland!

I’m happy to say that Owen Holland is now back at Cambridge finishing his PhD.

Dear Professor Borysiewicz –

As an alumna of the University of Cambridge, I am ashamed.

As a postgraduate student, I feel betrayed.

As a champion of democracy and free speech, I am embarassed that you have muddied the names of causes I hold dear.

As a poet I am angry, sad and spitting gall, embittered by the crass disregard an institution I was once so proud of has shown for gentleness and compassion, for fellow-feeling with future students, for careful thought, well-chosen language and the courage of a young person in using our tools – our words – to stand in defence of all a university is or ought to be.

I cannot comprehend how educators could stand with government vultures who hover to pick cash-purses from the bones of what should be a seat of learning, and against one student – one scapegoat from among the many – who stood to protect the free flow of information and ideas against hegemony and indoctrination from an aggressive government.

What can I do? How can I protest at this? I am not rich enough to hit you where you just might feel it. All I can do is hold my association with the university at arm’s length, and denounce you wherever I go.

I am ashamed I ever went to Cambridge. I call on you, and any of your peers who still believe in education, in ideas or in your much-vaunted right to free speech to repeal the two-years suspension of a student for nothing more than speaking his mind and proceeding in peace against a very real and dangerous aggressor.

I am ashamed. I am angry. I call for the immediate reinstatement of Owen Holland, and an end to this gross and malicious hypocrisy.

Most Sincerely,
Alice B. Reckless



Don’t Shoot!

Remember when they threatened to shoot at us for walking through London? ///OLD MATERIAL///

By the time of publishing, “tomorrow” should read “today”.

Tomorrow morning I will get up for the first time in my life knowing that, at some point during the day, somebody might shoot at me.

I know that I am lucky to be in this position at the age of twenty-four. Luckier still that the rounds I may face will be plastic; luckier once again that it is pretty much certainly just a scare tactic that the Metropolitan Police are employing to try to keep the people from the streets.

Tomorrow is the November 9th student walkout and demonstration against fees and cuts.It’s the first big anti-cuts demonstration since the 23rd of March last year, when trade unionists marched on Hyde Park to hear Ed Miliband say something slightly disappointing, and UK Uncut activists, many of whom are also involved in the labour movement, descended on Picadilly and occupied Fortnum and Mason. Police behaviour on that day was atrocious in itself: designated legal observers were arrested in the course of their duties and are still awaiting trial, there were kicks and thumps and cuts and bruises to very nearly anybody who came face-to-face with a police officer at Picadilly, some worse incidents of police violence using shields and batons and bizarre attempts by police to disable demonstrators – one activist using black bloc strategies on the demonstration had their shoes removed by Her Majesty’s Finest, and had to hobble home in their socks.

Prior to that, the last time I had been on the streets among my fellow students was on December 9th, the day of the Parliament Square kettle. Nobody I knew got out of that without bruises from police boots and batons at the very least, one of our party had her collarbone broken by a police officer and I was myself nearly crushed under Harris fencing as cavalry were ridden at us hard.

So I was already nervous about hitting the streets tomorrow. Because before bullets were threatened, I was expecting violence on the part of the police. I was expecting to have my activities criminalised: on the 9th, we were unable to leave Parliament Square long before the “violence” against the treasury started. (And please, in future can we limit the definition of “violence” to act that harm sentient animals?) I was already trapped when the site was declared a crime-scene. I should like to be clear that I do not condemn any of the actions taken by members of this movement so fa; I stand in support of all those young people serving custodial sentences for their participation in these events, and in particular my friend Charlie Gilmour. However. Even if I had wanted to b e a long, long way from the “criminal” activity taking place at the treasury – in fact the other side of the square from where I spent my day – I couldn’t have got out. I had no choice.

Of course, this is how the kettling technique works: it causes temperatures within the containment area to rise to boiling point, so people, angry, frightened, tired, hungry, frustrated, start to do things that they can be arrested for. Of course a lot of them are also kicked and batoned before they take any form of retaliation, too, but that is considerably harder to prove.

Members of this movement who have been around since last year have already been traumatised and frightened. Thanksgiving dinner last year was for us a night of sitting quiet and huddled, exchanging battle stories. And now the government are letting the police have access to bullets. Make no mistake but that this is an attempt by the law-makers to frighten students, many of whom are still children by law. The threats had me considering staying away – and I’ve been marching against every government we’ve had since they started killing people for oil, or being Muslim, or whatever excuse to cover those two reasons they were making at the time. I’ve occupied three universities (two of which I even attended), I’ve camped for climate action, I’ve sat in, I’ve sat down and I’ve sat on the roof of a school as part of struggles against top-down injustice, and I was still almost scared away.

Among my friends, I am one of the less experienced, less cop-savvy and less risk-happy. If I didn’t know that I had better informed people, whom I could trust and who have seen situations I can barely imagine, right there with me to inform me and willing to support me, I would have been frightened away.

How dare they. These are the people who brutalised my friends for walking through the streets. Those who gave the orders, or condoned the giving of the orders, are to my mind as culpable as the people who struck our bodies with their weapons. And they don’t want me to march.

So of course I will.

I am going to march – and I intend to do it entirely safely. My solidarity to anyone taking any form of action against fees and cuts tomorrow; I will be following social media very closely, smartphone in hand, and if there is a whisper of a kettle I’ll be beating a hasty retreat. But when the numbers of people in the street are counted, the number of people who came out in defiance of the threat of artillery, who saw that kind of violence as entirely consistent with the violent cuts that are crippling the poor in this country and keeping ordinary people out of higher education, sounding the knell agains social mobility, I will be in that number. And if I am arrested or kettled, it will be entirely the fault of the police. Tomorrow, I am just going to walk through London.

This threat of gunfire is as unsurprising as it is unjust. I am willing to wager that there will be no shots tomorrow; the gathering of students at MALET STREET at  TWELVE NOON will doubtless constitute a giant game of Call My Bluff.

But this is the first time anyone has ever threatened to shoot at me and my friends.

And I’ll be damned if I’ll let it happen again.

See you on the streets!


August 29, 2011

This is the letter that I am sending to my MP, Caroline Lucas, about Nadine Dorries’ and Frank Field’s disgusting proposals for abortion counselling reform. Please feel free to use the text as a model letter to your own MP if you wish to do so.

It is with anger and genuine fear that I read today of the Department of Health decision to push independent bodies, often with pro-life agendas, into the abortion counselling process. It is already remiss that there is not a complete state-funded counselling service for those considering terminating their pregnancies. Organisations like Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service should be recognised as doing stellar work in providing objective and non-judgemental counselling for women undergoing what is often one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives.

The decision, falling just short of legislative procedure for the time being, comes from Conservative back-bencher Nadine Dorries and Labour MP for Birkenhead Frank Field, and it is ideological. It may be aimed at reducing the rate of abortions in the UK and I have little doubt that this astronomically high statistic, with 200,000 terminations taking place in the UK annually, needs addressing; but the introduction of private companies with their own political agendas into the decision making process risks damaging women’s physical and mental health, and quite possibly their entire lives, in the process.

In taking the decision to terminate a pregnancy women are already determining to give away the pound of flesh closest to their hearts.  It must be their decision to do so; this decision must be made with access to strongly regulated, impartial advice and consultation from healthcare professionals. In an ideal world abortion counselling should be brought under state control as part of the NHS, available free to everyone who needs it.

Under the present government this will not happen, but Andrew Lansley and the Department of Health are pushing us towards a world in which private companies have a say in our reproductive freedoms and that is a dystopia in which I had never imagined living.

I know that my voice is not alone in our constituency in opposing this new and radical reform to our abortion rights and I hope that you will recognise our voices and speak out and publicly campaign against these changes over coming weeks.

Stop Abortion Counselling Reform!

Another one from the archives:

This is the letter that I am sending to my MP, Caroline Lucas, about Nadine Dorries’ and Frank Field’s disgusting proposals for abortion counselling reform. Please feel free to use the text as a model letter to your own MP if you wish to do so.

It is with anger and genuine fear that I read today of the Department of Health decision to push independent bodies, often with pro-life agendas, into the abortion counselling process. It is already remiss that there is not a complete state-funded counselling service for those considering terminating their pregnancies. Organisations like Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service should be recognised as doing stellar work in providing objective and non-judgemental counselling for women undergoing what is often one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives.

The decision, falling just short of legislative procedure for the time being, comes from Conservative back-bencher Nadine Dorries and Labour MP for Birkenhead Frank Field, and it is ideological. It may be aimed at reducing the rate of abortions in the UK and I have little doubt that this astronomically high statistic, with 200,000 terminations taking place in the UK annually, needs addressing; but the introduction of private companies with their own political agendas into the decision making process risks damaging women’s physical and mental health, and quite possibly their entire lives, in the process.

In taking the decision to terminate a pregnancy women are already determining to give away the pound of flesh closest to their hearts.  It must be their decision to do so; this decision must be made with access to strongly regulated, impartial advice and consultation from healthcare professionals. In an ideal world abortion counselling should be brought under state control as part of the NHS, available free to everyone who needs it.

Under the present government this will not happen, but Andrew Lansley and the Department of Health are pushing us towards a world in which private companies have a say in our reproductive freedoms and that is a dystopia in which I had never imagined living.

I know that my voice is not alone in our constituency in opposing this new and radical reform to our abortion rights and I hope that you will recognise our voices and speak out and publicly campaign against these changes over coming weeks.

Archives #1: “Politics” and the 2011 Riots.

So, the next few posts are From The Archives, originally published elsewhere, bear with me…

I’m re-posting this from a note I wrote on Facebook, so that I can engage with more people about what we’ve seen on the streets this week.

To be clear, I don’t think I’ve got any special insight into the rioting; I don’t live in one of the affected areas, I’m very lucky in that respect. I also feel, whole-heartedly, for those who have been affected. This situation is not good and we need to think about how we are going to move on.

A lot of the analysis that I’ve seen from other Regular Folk like me has troubled me, and I think it’s incredibly important that we have this debate as much as possible and in as calm and thoughtful a manner as possible. I’ve seen liberals advocating treatment of the rioters that is nothing short of labour camps, and I feel a very profound need to make sure that people are thinking about reactionary statements like that so that we can avoid such throwaway lines taking hold of the dominant discourse about one of the most troubling times in the recent history of this country.

There have been deaths in this situation. It needs to end and we need to stop it from happening again. May Mark Duggan, Haroon Jahan, Shazad Ali and Abdul Musavir rest in peace. My heart is with their friends and families.

*   *   *

The first thing I want to say is that I’m a bit baffled by the continuing “condemn or condone” discourse that’s going on. We’re not, as individuals, a mainstream political party – even if we belong to one (I don’t). It therefore doesn’t matter whether we condemn or condone what is going on; we are not the law-makers or enforcers. Perhaps sadly. Saying “I was really upset to see someone’s home being burnt down”, and “I was really upset to see a police officer brutalising a sixteen-year-old girl” are not contradictory statements; they are both statements that I hold to be true and they cut against the reductive dichotmising of the situation into “for” and “against” categories. I feel the need to admit that really bad things have happened in London and around the country this week. I don’t feel the need to say that everything that has happened on the streets is bad or that everything that has been done by the state, against the streets, is good. Let’s talk about what’s actually going on, and not in glib maxims about support or opposition that absolve us of looking closely at the situation.

The other thing that’s muddling me up a bit is people saying that the rioting is not “political”. Left-wing friends seem to be using this to mean that it hasn’t taken the form of organised demonstrations (or uprisings etc.) with specifically chosen, class-conscious targets; we’re not seeing Whitehall ripped up, for instance, or Molotovs in the City. Right-wing, or at least liberal and more rightwing, friends seem by and large to be saying that it’s not political because they don’t believe it to be in any way related to government actions or socio-economic circumstances. Even Harriet Harman on Newsnight had a hard time explicating the view – which I was glad she implied and irritated that she dropped – that those hit hardest by the cuts and the economic climate are the ones who are rioting for that very reason – that they have been hit hardest by the cuts and the economic climate.

For my part, I don’t think there can be any doubt about the “political” nature of the rioting. Look at how it began, with Mark Duggan’s shooting last Thursday. A young black man from a poor area was killed by the police, who it seems then tried to disguise the conditions of his death – ballistic reports and IPCC investigations show that the bullet in a police radio that Duggan is supposed to have fired is police issue. Members of his community, I presume friends and family members among them, then banded together and marched on the police station. Too right they did. Surely this meets everyone’s criteria for a political action – for the left, it is organised and focussed; for the right, it is a direct response to a state action.

The rioting began there, in Tottenham, after that action against the police. It began in the highly political anger of those who have been instulted by the state, one time too many. Rioting is an expression of disenfranchisement; I don’t understand how smashing up your own back yard can be seen as anything other than an expression of helplessness, or hopelessness. Surely the statement is, quite clearly, “I don’t care anymore”? I have never held much truck with those who think that apathy is in some way apolitical; to be apathetic is, usually, to open the doors to being reactionary and really quite right wing – in such circumstances as “being apathetic” means going unquestioningly with the status quo. Middle class kids who don’t vote put “apathetic” under their political views on Facebook. This in reality means “willing to let what’s happening keep on happening and to make excuses for it half-heartedly from time to time, so I don’t have to trouble myself with action” – see why I think that’s reactionary and right-wing? On the streets though we’re seeing a different and infinitely more important form of apathy. People who just don’t care about their home communities, about their neighbours, at all. Homes and grocery stores being torched are to me a far greater signifier of political apathy than the big places, like Sainsbury’s or EMI, going up. It shouldn’t be that you can live every day just round the corner from somebody and then set light to their home without thinking twice about it. The sentiment “but for the grace of god, there go I” seems to have taken on an ironic sneer, so that in this angry moment, the only available form of status elavation available is, “well it’s their house burning, not mine”. I have found this particular sentiment very difficult to phrase but I think that destroying one’s own home area is indicative of a kind of mass dip in self-esteem – “we don’t matter, who cares if we mess this place up?”

For people to feel that they have no economic or social value, that they might as well be on fire as anything else and at least they might get a new telly out of it, that’s political. Cutting people’s jobs, benefits and services isn’t automatically the cause of a riot – that’s an argument I’ve seen the right-of-me contingent throwing around quite a lot too. “When their benefits were cut, they weren’t replaced with a crow-bar and brain-washing with a ‘smash, destroy’ message.” Sure; people have individually taken the decision to run out, smash a window, take a DVD player, drop a match. They have done this as autonomous individuals, not under the control of anybody else. It would be extremely disrespectful of me to suggest otherwise than that these actions have been taken by individuals with brains and the capacity for independent thought. They are people however who have been driven to the point of despair.

Things have happened in my own life, as they have happened in nearly everybody’s, that have made me extremely, extremely angry and extremely, extremely sad. Made me question what the point is of anything at all (amittedly I’ve read enough Beckett and Sartre not to look for a “point” in quite that way). But I don’t burn things down or run through the streets smashing shop windows and taking what I can. Partly because of the nature of a riot; in a psychogeographical scenario not disimilar to that of the creation of designated Temporary Autonomous Zones, new rules apply when large numbers of people act together. Anger feeds off anger, adrenaline builds and bricking places and mugging people becomes acceptable within the new rules of that space. That’s part of how it works and why it catches – but it has to begin with anger and sadness more extreme than mine, or at least with less space for expression and development and less faith that actually, someone will listen and respond. I think it’s really telling that when a journalist asked one of the rioters whether they thought it would work they said, “This how we get change here. After ’85 [Broadwater Farm uprising] we got a brand new swimming pool. It wasn’t coming here before.” (I got the quotation from a Workers’ Power article, I’m not a member of Workers’ Power, this article isn’t anything to do with them, advocating them or condemning them etc.).

So maybe no good comes of rioting. Maybe it is wrong to smash and burn things, rob people (whether it’s wrong to steal from corporations is a different matter), the rest of it. Maybe it isn’t inevitable, and maybe it does destroy communities. None of that means that it isn’t political. We do not stop riots like this from happening by locking up everyone involved for as long as possible. I’ve even seen people advocate “sending them to Afghanistan to look for mines” – doesn’t that mean slavery, and slavery of a kind as physically dangerous as it is ideologically? In essence, a singularly aggressive form of labour camp? Punishment won’t fix it – it’s too deep-rooted a problem for that. It is social structures and political systems that need to be reviewed to stop this happening again – surely the fact that there were riots under the last austerity government speaks to that? Each individual circumstance isn’t the cause of the riots; people aren’t automatons; nobody made them do it. But I’m pretty sure that we are collectively responsible for making them feel that it didn’t matter if they did do it, and that besides, they had to do something right now and nothing else was making a blind bit of difference.

I think more things about other aspects of the riots, but these are responses to things I’ve seen come up most frequently on Facebook/ Twitter/ Blogosphere.

My unconditional love and solidarity to all of those affected by the rioting and especially to the families of the deceased.

Ten poets I couldn’t live without right now.

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Writing tonight from the best place in the world to write from – not just at home, with guitar sores on my fingers and nowhere to hurry to, but writing from a position of the kind of love that props itself upright on rage instead of a spine. A friend of mine told me, via the Hive Mind Application on my mobile phone, that she had been at a Masters degree conference where as any of the proposed theses were on J.H. Prynne as were on writing by women.

Jeremy Prynne is an important poet and a good man who stands up for his convictions. But he is not the only important poet and I don’t even think he’s the most important poet: I could write, at length, about the political basis of my concerns about Language Poetry, and my fears for the kind of coterie it creates. I think I will, at some point, and these discussions are already key to my doctoral thesis which is, broadly, about Utopianism and Transformation in contemporary poetry about place.

For now, I will can the soap-box: all I really want to do, (and this is for you, Hive Mind Application, for calling for it) is introduce you to ten poets I could not currently live without, all of whom are women. They’re not all writing currently; we lost Adrienne Rich last year. Some of them, like Rich, are big hitters whom many of you I’m sure will have heard of already.

But many of you have heard of J.H. Prynne.

There is another canon and it’s the one I wish to be shot from when I go. These are my favourite poets: this is the only claim I’m making for them, but I sort of think that’s fair enough.

1.       Juliana Spahr. She’s my favourite poet right now and I’m sure that if I’ve seen you lately I’ve chewed your ear at length about the miraculous way that Spahr inserts space into text: by way of lineation, attention to breath and realisation of particular spaces, intimate and national, with which she finds herself interacting. She writes about tech-addiction in a way that does not distance the intimacy of personal touch, and she writes about the way that our constant awareness of what is happening all over the world simultaneously hampers our ability to inhabit, to occupy, the present, and makes us aware of and responsible for the actions of our machine-states and corporations everywhere. She challenges every accepted structure and she’s funny and she’s kind. Go first to This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, her first collection post-9/11, the second half of which is, for me, a kind of foundational text for what poetry – responsible and beautiful poetry – ought to be at present. She is mighty and resistant.

2.       Anne Waldman. Anne Waldman is a visionary. I mean that literally – Anne Waldman has visions. I’ve just been working on her 2010 collection, Manatee/ Humanity and was stuck by the extraordinary way in which she employs parataxis to represent false consciousness. The way we act in the world in relation to things because we have to, because that is how phenomenal reality acts on us and we act back, in conversation with what we know, what we understand as subjective minds but don’t quite have the muscle to push out of. She also writes so gently, loving animals and hating people and forgiving them simultaneously. One of my favourite tricks is her awareness of all the rats in New York City and the fact that she includes them in her understanding of the place and does not write them out. For me, I think one of the most important things we can do in the world is pay attention to the rats.

3.       Eileen Myles. Eileen Myles was a gateway drug for me. She writes hip, tough verses in short lines that move very fast between images and between places. It’s queer poetry after Frank O’Hara, with I think more beef behind it. Camp voices and imagery with an eye unshakeably trained on what really matters which is, as it turn out, our relationships between one another and the atrocities committed in our names all over the world. And if not in our name at least on our watch. The relationship between the beginning and the end of most of her poems is basically metaphysical and her first-and-second person poems create an inter-subjective relationship that situates readers in real streets with real feelings: Myles has mimeses and pace, intimacy and politics, and an extremely low threshold for bullshit. Her “poets novel” Inferno is amongst other things the best coming-out story I’ve ever read and it made me feel proud to be in the world.

4.       Alice Notley. She’s one of the big guns, right? I mean you know her already for sure. She’s another of the New New York School poets even though that school of poetry is as nebulous as any other has ever been. I’ve been lucky enough to see Alice read on a couple of occasions; the first time I was eighteen and I didn’t know what had hit me in this majestic figure with her Bob Dylan imaging and dedication to putting babies back into verse, but I know that I wanted more of it. Last time I saw her read, she read poems about losing her husband to cancer; she made me understand the disease better and what it means to love better. Go ahead and read Close To Me And Closer – I always want to hand this straight to people before we start talking about and language, and how it shapes and escapes us.


I’m sorry, I’ve got to confess to a really prosaic disability here: my standard-issue grad-student RSI is making my arm swell up and I can’t write any more for now, so here’s a link for each of the remaining people I wish to begin with. Helen Macdonald and Decca Muldowney I am prouder than proud to call personal friends. The way that Decca combines academia, art and activism just like they were the same thing continues to be a profound inspiration to me.

          5.       Patience Agbabe.
          6.       Helen Macdonald.
          7.       Decca Muldowney.
          8.       Adrienne Rich.
          9.       Patti Smith.
         10.      Kate Tempest.

Tech-mentality, feminism and the etiquette of calling out.

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Quick, probable, apology for the prose here, I’m in the middle of Work Writing, which means my head’s all full so I thought I’d get this down before it goes.

I’ve just read this really great article about Femen, and the importance of understanding them in their Ukrainian context when we’re criticising them for maybe not hitting all the right notes in intersectionality. The only criticism I’d have of this article is that it’s maybe over-praiseful of “intersectional, progressive western feminists” but that’s probably just because I’m innately distrustful of the word “progressive”; besides which, that’s a group that probably includes me, and certainly includes nearly all of the New Statesman’s readership for this piece, so fair cop.

All of the conversation around Femen here on your Friendly Neighbourhood Internet is feeding into another conversation that I actually think blogger/ tech-head/ regular tech-addicts need to have REALLY FAST and this is coming from a massive “mea culpa” position on my part.

Intersectional feminism, and a politics based in privilege analysis* operate on a “calling out” system, under the slogan “check your privilege.” The deal is, I’ll call you on your shit, you call me on mine. Now, that’s a hard thing to do, calling someone on their shit, and it’s hard to be called. Jesus, I fucked up this week and a lot of people did, in the way we attacked Helen Lewis, and I was brought pretty low when my friend called me out on it. So, when Femen have taken an approach to muslim women that we (us! Over here! White, cis-gendered, All The University Degrees – you’re the people I’m addressing) that we don’t like, we’ve denounced them really really loudly. Made fun of them, sent them up, posted, blogged, re-blogged, tweeted and re-tweeted pictures of muslim women who oppose them. Those pictures are FINE, but there’s a crowing delight, really, to the way that we’ve used them.

And I gotta ask: are you really as PISSED OFF as you sound? You really so mad you have to tweet ten times and post three pictures, and swear and attack Ukrainian women demonstrating in a culture that is ravaged by an intersection of poverty and patriarchy that, actually, our liberal sisters running big-money anti-trafficking charities are maybe more constantly aware of than we are.

Because, the internet’s a really great place for angry and sad people to find matching voices and support, and like minds maybe, or even just minds that are currently paying attention – which is pretty major for a lot of us over here on Team Dodgy Mental Health.

But it’s also a place in which, for exactly those reasons, we can become braying attack dogs, performing our radicalness as anger for one another, egging each other on to say angrier things, be more disparaging, safe behind our keyboards and yet, exultant in that feeling of Having A Gang! At long fucking last, right?

And we DO have a gang now, and that’s really great. And we’ve got to be able to call people out and have conversations. But there’s something troubling me about the current buzz on “intersectionality” and specificity all round – I haven’t figured out what it is yet, and obviously I do fundamentally believe that my feminism WILL be intersectional, or it will be bullshit. But I’ve gotta be really careful: when I attack Helen Lewis, Femen, others in the past: I’m attacking people with varying degrees of vulnerability who are varying distances from Getting It Right. We attack other women much louder and with more vitriol than we do men – this is weird. It’s weird and it’s not right, and it’s related to feelings of betrayal and in some places probably jealousy. All of those patriarchal constraints that we’re SO AWARE OF.

Like, on the Helen Lewis thing, by the way: there was such an awful lot of reason for criticism. But it was mainly I think criticism of carelessness, of callousness. We need to use the right language for the thing we’re actually feeling, at the particular time. Read the article twice, you know? And maybe start with, “hey does anyone wanna talk about this thing.” Especially if you’re not totally clear on the background of the people you want to call/ attack. There are plenty of invisible things that de-privilege people.

So I’m just saying, really: we’ve got a community of intelligent, angry people here. And critical faculties most other groups can only dream of. So, I want to be more careful. And I want the space for debate WIDER open, not with more locked-down profiles and people blocked and all that. It’s actually just causing festering and frustration.

And when the bad guys show their colours, shoot from the hip.

*(I say based: my politics are still fundamentally based in Marxist theories, but privilege is such a massive part of the stuff we interact with day-to-day over here in The Land of Much Privilege, where we can see it clearly and define it exactly).

A letter to lonely and anxious women.

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We’re all sitting at or near our desks late at night.

The ones who have gone somewhere else are enormously aware of the tension between them, and where their desk is.
Some of us are working more than one job.
I should not be taking the time to write this

We feel stupid until what we have written has been rubber-stamped.
Then we assume that we’ve got away with it and they hadn’t really read our work.
We feel like we’re cheating.
We’re waiting to be found out.

We feel like we’re ugly because we’re single.
We feel like we’re ugly because we’re fat.
We feel like we’re unloved because we’re ugly.
We feel unkind because we’re jealous.
We feel uneasy because we never admit to any of that.

Maybe we’re still poor because we’re unsuccessful –
Even though we don’t define success by cash,
There must be some reason
That everything is harder
and the reason must be because what we’re doing
is worse than what everyone else is doing.

Half of us are looking in the mirror to that rationale whilst working on Marxisms.
We feel bad because we ought to know better.
I feel bad because I’m not thin enough, not bright enough, not femme enough, not quiet enough,

and not radical enough not to care.

I don’t think of this as a poem and didn’t intend it as such, but it has come out in fragments, because we are constantly expressing support for one another,

and then turning the false standards we have disavowed inward onto ourselves.
We’ve torn ourselves out of our pattern for systems in the Outside World.

I don’t have any idea how to stop it or how to change it,
but I thought it might be some kind of a start to put a voice to it.

We are all doing this all of the time.
All at our desks, with our books and our computers,
And we’re all feeling the same.

Just… FYI.

Reckless. x x x