Memories of Resistance

In the few days since the election result in the USA, people started reaching out to each other: to show solidarity, to get organised, to share ideas. One of those ways was the sharing of memories of previous forms of resistance to fascism, racism, and sexism, and the conditions we were resisting. In particular, I thought back to the 1970s and 1980s, when we lived in fear of nuclear annihilation, and the majority of people were unapologetically sexist, racist, and homophobic.

The 1970s and the 1980s were bloody awful. I was a child then, but I remember the first Indian kid at my school, and someone saying something racist to her, and me shouting at them. I told them that they were afraid of her because she was different.

People would openly say the N-word, all the time. And when my parents sold their house in 1987, the neighbours came to ask them not to sell it to anyone non-white.

And if you challenged anyone’s racist crap, you got called a n*****-lover.

And the “jokes”—the utterly sick “jokes” that were bandied around.

And the sexism — utterly blatant. The homophobia — utterly blatant. It was horrible, all of it.

I remember a woman telling me that in the seventies, she went to open a bank account, and the bank manager asked if she had her husband’s permission!

I remember seeing National Front graffiti on walls.

When I was a teenager, I used to dress in a gender-neutral way. I can remember people shouting after me, “are you a boy or a girl?”

When I was 17, a kid at my sixth form college proposed a motion in the debating society that “all homosexuals should be rounded up and shot”. The debate was allowed to go ahead. I’m not even sure if anyone considered banning it, actually. Before the debate, there was a vote, in which something like 40 people supported the motion. I opposed the motion. I won the debate. At the end of the debate, twenty fewer people supported the motion than had done so prior to the debate. Standing up to bigotry is important. It shows minorities that we are not alone; and it may even change people’s minds.

I remember when Section 28 was in force in the UK, which forbade the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. It was only repealed in 2003.

During my years at university, there were boycotts of the apartheid regime in South Africa. I had a bank account with NatWest instead of Barclays, because Barclays propped up the apartheid regime. As cashpoints (ATMs) were not interchangeable in those days, that meant long queues at the cash-point. It was also the time of the miners’ strike, one of the longest running resistance movements in the UK in recent memory. I remember Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (the subject of the film Pride); I remember going on a demonstration in Lancaster in support of the striking miners.

A South African friend of mine who resisted apartheid has a great series of articles on his memories of that struggle: Tales from Dystopia.

I always challenge racism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, misogyny, and ablism when I hear it. If we don’t challenge it, people will think it is “acceptable”.

I was on the bus a couple of years ago, when two slightly drunk guys started harassing a man (possibly of Middle Eastern background) for speaking on his mobile in a foreign language. They’d already been bugging me slightly because they’d been looking over the back of their seat at my iPad. I said, loudly,”There will be no racism on this bus.” They were suitably cowed and even apologised to the guy on the phone on their way off the bus.

I also reached out to others to ask them for their memories of resistance. Sabina Magliocco’s article, Resistance around the table, emerged out of that conversation (she had already posted about it, so I encouraged her to write more).

Here are some more memories of past struggles:

David

I am old enough to remember during the Reagan and Clinton administrations how we had to unite, protest for rights and stage die-ins to fight for support for HIV/AIDS funding. The 80s and 90s saw some of the most radical protests in both the US and Canada against government led oppressions. Younger generations have expanded on and refined those techniques in the fight for equity and human rights. We have better skills at finding solidarity and maintaining it because of the work of our elders and the passion of those who are coming after us.

We shall overcome because now we understand principles of solidarity across movements and intersectionality.

We were born for these times otherwise we would not be here.

Lucya Szachnowski

I remember the Thatcher and Reagan years. I went on many protest marches and eco-camps to save forests and the like. Even a weekend at Greenham Common. At the age of about 13 I was in a film called To Save a Fox, produced the League Against Cruel Sports and the Wild Animal Protection Society. I look like a right hippie! I used to regularly go on hunt sabotages, with my parents’ approval of course. That film might still be out there somewhere.

Sass Wolf, ADF Druid

My first story is about the Dutch Resistance. When my mother was born during WWII, she was one of four babies in the UK with a rare gallbladder disease that meant consuming any fat could kill them, unless they received a special medication. That medication was only manufactured in the Netherlands, which was occupied. The occupying German authorities cut off the supply of the drug to Britain and her allies. The Dutch Resistance smuggled supplies of the drug to the UK throughout the war. Despite their best efforts, three of the babies died due to the irregular supply, but my mother survived, despite a narrow escape when, as a toddler who didn’t know any better, she grabbed a block of forbidden butter and ate the whole thing. I and my three wonderful children would not be here today were it not for those Resistance members risking their lives for those four babies and their unborn descendants.

Some medications may become harder to get in the US following Trump’s electionespecially those connected with birth control, but also those that will be too expensive for many if Obamacare is reversed. Some of us in Europe may be able to help; we will not even need to risk our lives. If you can, please consider it.

A more personal one: Walking home one night, I saw a group of several white men and one black woman pushing and shoving each other. There was a lot of laughter, so at first I wasn’t sure whether it was horseplay between friends or something more serious. As I passed the group, I realised there was a child watching the group and heard the woman yelling for the child to call the police. I turned back, placed myself between the men and the woman and child, banking on the likelihood that it was a racist incident and that they would be less inclined to attack a white, female-appearing person. This turned out to be the case. I think I said something fairly inane like “What’s going on here, then?”, but that was enough for them to back off. They disappeared into a nearby pub, casting some choice racist slurs behind them. I called the police, stayed with the woman until the police arrived, comforted the child while the police took the woman’s statement, and then gave mine. The police searched the pub, but meanwhile I think the perpetrators had left. The pub itself was shut down not long after, however, having apparently become something of a rallying point for white racist thugs.

Thugs are often cowards, and they operate on a prey/predator model that would shame a pack of animals. If challenged by someone they haven’t learned to see as prey, they often back down. If you visibly share their privilege, use that.

In somewhat similar vein to the previous one: I was on the Tube and witnessed a man arguing with his female partner. He quickly escalated to physical intimidation, leaning over her, grabbing at her and following her from the vestibule of the carriage to a spot almost directly in front of my seat when she tried to leave. I stood up, which put me in her space and caused her to instinctively take a step back. I moved into that space before he could follow and said in what I call my Voice of Doom (the one that is resonant but not loud, useful for dealing with animals, small children, drunks and people whose hormones are in charge of their decisions), “YOU ARE GOING TO BACK OFF AND LEAVE HER ALONE NOW”. He said something along the lines of “I just want to talk to her”. I said in the same voice, “NO. YOU ARE GOING TO BACK OFF”. He slunk back to the vestibule. I remained standing between him and her until she got off the train (which involved going several stops past my destination, but was totally worth it.)

If you can get the tone of voice right, phrase what you want as a statement rather than a request, and use assertive body language, people (especially if already in a somewhat irrational state) obey more often than not. Looking privileged helps, and an outsider intervening is often in a stronger position than the person being attacked who by definition has already been categorised by the attacker as vulnerable. Still, I’ve also successfully used this technique to deter an attack on myself as a gender-ambiguous person. It’s one worth cultivating, if you can.

Here’s another one, from when my son was about 12. Some boys at his school were bullying a classmate with learning difficulties. My son told them to stop. They said, “But he’s stupid.” My son said, “He might not be very clever at book learning, but he’s clever at understanding people’s feelings, and I think that’s more important.” Unsurprisingly, they turned to trying to bully my son instead after that, but another boy who witnessed it offered to go to the headmaster with him and explain the situation. The culprits were suspended, their parents got called in, and I got a lovely call from my son’s Head of Year apologising for their initial failure to prevent the bullying and telling me to be proud of my son (which I already was, of course).

Mark Pritchard

I found this wonderful article by Mark Pritchard on Medium.com, What I Learned About Resistance in the Street Patrol. It was 1991, and we wanted to stop gay bashing. Here’s an excerpt, but do go and read the whole thing, as he draws some important conclusions about what works and what doesn’t:

In 1991 I joined Queer Nation in San Francisco. This activist organization was fighting for queer visibility and the assertion of queer identity during the last years of the G.H.W. Bush administration. Bashing was on the rise, and one of the groups that formed within (and eventually grew out of) Queer Nation was the Street Patrol.

We were a bunch of men and women, mostly misfits, who wanted to prevent gay bashings. We got training from the only group who would train us — the Guardian Angels — and adopted many of their tactics. We trained to surround and diffuse confrontations — how to deal with someone with a knife, how to deal with a crazy person, how to take down an attacker.

Mainly, we walked around the Castro District from midnight to about 3:00 a.m. every Friday and Saturday night wearing pink berets and watching out for danger.


This post is part of an ongoing project, Memories of Resistance. I am collecting people’s memories of resistance to racism and fascism in past decades, to inspire younger activists who are scared rigid by the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit. If you would like to contribute, email me at yaburrow [at] gmail [dot] com.

When all the terrible things that are happening now seem overwhelming, it is useful to reflect on past struggles and try to find what worked. It is clear that broad coalitions are needed between different groups, as happened with the UK miners’ strike and LGBT people — the miners supported same-sex marriage when it came up as a policy in the Labour Party. Solidarity is real.

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Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. Her most recent book is “All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca”. She has also written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.


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