*Trigger warning for police brutality, rape and generally the exhausting society in which we live.*
I’ve just got back from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn demo outside the Cambridge Union Society building and wanted to get some thoughts down before sleep wears down the intensity of what I’m feeling right now.
A catch up for non-Cambridge folks as best I can (I’m pretty ignorant about Cambridge student politricks). The Cambridge Union Society is a private members debating club which is, apparently, pretty famous. Touting themselves as promoters of free speech they invited Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or DSKumbag as I’ll now remember him as) to talk on the basis of his economic knowledge and position in French politics. They also gave him a posh meal and free wine ’cause that’s how they do things here. This obviously caused a lot of grief and anger as he is currently being accused of doing a lot of unspeakable things like rape, sexual assault and has been associated with a prostitution ring. CUS ignored the petition from their members for them to rescind their invitation for him to speak and, for the first time in the memory of everyone I’ve spoken to, they withdrew their normal ‘first come, first served’ policy on tickets and replaced it with a ‘random allocation’. Yeah, so random that no one who signed the petition managed to get a ticket… You can see how this works.
So, a protest was called. Things were pretty standard and demonstration-y for about the first hour. We stood in the cold, we made jokes about how the numbers would be misrepresented, we shouted through megaphones as we strode through the streets. But as we settled outside the building that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was hiding in something really special happened. For me, it was one of the most powerful and inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. Strangers came forward to share their experiences of sexual assault and rape with a crowd of 150ish people on the megaphone. I’m not a Cambridge student, I didn’t know many faces but at that moment I felt safe enough to share my own experiences, which doesn’t happen often. It was raw and sincere and the most heartfelt thing I’ve heard in a space like that. I will never forget it. The stories continued and as survivors merged back into the crowd they were greeted with embraces and warmth. There is nothing that the former head of the IMF can say that is more important than what some of those speakers shared with us and we gave them the best platform we could.
But then things turned ugly. I was horrified by the institutionalised violence that the police and private security brought to this very peaceful and positive demonstration. I am even more horrified to know that the beautiful, constructive and life changing speeches that people made will be ignored in press coverage to make space for columns about student ‘aggression’. Instead of questioning the brutality and structural oppression that helps perpetuate and normalise a culture where aggressive crimes like assault can exist, tomorrow journalists will, without a hint of irony, ask what the protesters did to deserve their victimisation from the police and say that we had it coming. I’d like to echo what a fellow protester said: us shaking fences and climbing walls is not violence but the police and security guards punching people in the face and shoving climbers off of 8 foot high walls onto piping and concrete flooring is. Were any of the security staff arrested for their behaviour? No. They were just ‘doing their job’. I’d like to think that as humans who had just heard sincere and heart-breaking accounts of rape and sexual assault, that we were just doing our ‘job’ as well. How could we not be angry? How could we not get upset? Our voices had been completely sidelined and ignored by the people organising the event while a man accused of rape was being treated to a black tie dinner inside. I think that rattling a temporary fence is pretty damn restrained all things considered.
It was a microcosm of a wider issue, the wider issue of the night. We cannot expect violent crime not to exist when live in a society where government-sanctioned police are given rubber bullets, riot shields and batons to ‘maintain the peace’. We cannot expect to be safe on the streets or in our schools or homes when our only way to bring attackers to justice is to hand them over to a violent institution. We cannot say that protesters are violent for thrashing against wire fences when they have people in uniforms shoving palms into their faces. It’s wrong that some of us were subjected to such disproportionate assault from the Cambridge police and yet we will be the ones demonised in cultural memory when the newspaper articles are written up.
Later, as I sat on a church wall, placard still in shakey hands but mostly winding down for the night, some Friday night drinkers squinted at the sign I was holding. “Rape is not a ‘sex scandal?’” When I asked them what was so funny, one of them replied deadpan, “Well it’s just human nature.” At once, all the horrors of the night broke through and I started to cry. As I came around and calmed down, I realised that five strangers were holding me and crying too. It was the one of the most powerful acts of solidarity I have ever experienced and I am heartbroken to think that when this gets written up about in various blogs and articles, that feeling will not be captured. Once again the voices of survivors and people fighting alongside us will be ignored and marginalised. I wish that we lived in a society where people standing together in the face of unyeilding oppression is seen as being human nature, not rape or violence, and that deserves to be said, hell, it deserves to be shouted from the fucking rooftops and tonight we did that. I was so proud and humbled to be a part of that crowd.
Thank you so much.