This was part two of Yvonne Kapp’s enormous biography of Eleanor Marx, and I confess, not as enjoyable as the first (you can read about that one here).
Perhaps this is partly because so many of the grand personalities are dead or moved away by the end of the first volume, and there is not the immediacy of family drama. That is undoubtedly part of it. You know the rest will die by the end.
But really, mostly, I think it’s due to the deadly and boring factionalism of the left between 1884 and 1898, after all, that’s what I had to plod through in Morris’s biography as well. A few highlights shine through like the organising of the gas worker’s union and their victory in obtaining the 8 hour day, or the dockers’ first strike, and of course Eleanor is there supporting them. Why I love her. But she spends so much time trying to bring male egos together, to create movement, to keep schisms from growing ever further.
Unless we’re talking about the anarchists. That is one bridge she is busy burning rather than trying to put back together again. I’m still not sure I can wrap my head around the politics of those days, but I didn’t try too hard. Many of the descriptions and long detailed accounts of infighting here made my eyes glaze over I confess…I am also rather jaded by the continuing dose of them still fracturing movement today.
Still, this is well worth a read. Even if you can’t make yourself care about all that the way many still seem passionately to do. So here are some highlights of what I did love — from the frivolous to the important.
Frivolous, but cool: to find out that Eleanor and Edward Aveling spent their sort-of honeymoon in Middleton-by-Wirksworth, where Mark and I just were for our own holiday and loved enormously. We weren’t at the Nelson Arms, and in Wirksworth proper, but still. A lovely place.
There’s some lovely scatterings of social history on the East End:
The fight for free speech and the right of assembly had a long and stormy history. In the early ‘eighties, the East End Radicals who held regular meetings on Mile End Waste in Stepney were constantly chivied by the police. They then adjourned to Limehouse where an open air meeting in Piggot Street, off the junction of the Commercial Road and the East India Dock Road, was addressed by a member of the SDF. it was stopped by the police for causing and obstruction. Thereafter both Radical Club and SDF speakers took to nearby Dod Street, mainly occupied by factories and warehouses and thus deserted on summer Sunday mornings. (69)
The importance of these East End Radical Clubs — which covered the boroughs from Poplar and Hackney, Bermondsey and Stepney as far west as Islington and Finsbury, with their local Federations — lay in that they drew together politically conscious working men…(196)
On Sunday 27th September 1885, 60,000 people marched from Stepney Green to take possession of Dod Street to protest ongoing arrests.
I loved how theatre and literature never ceased being important parts of Eleanor’s life — and Aveling never stopped trying to make his fortune through plays either, curiously enough.
The impact of Ibsen upon Eleanor and her immediate circle was violent: as violent as the sense of outrage felt by the majority of English critics at the first performance of his plays. This new “social drama” stunned them — though not into silence — by its complete break with the theatrical conventions of the time, both in manner and content. (100)
Although it seems that Eleanor lost many of her female friends (a tragedy that I am sure put her more at the mercy of her own depression and Aveling’s moods — though it was Aveling that was the most likely cause), it does seem that at one time, Eleanor met them regularly to go to the theatre– herself, Dolly Radford, Olive Schreiner, Honor Brooke and Edith Lees would pour out afterwards and argue and talk on and on about them.
There a number of curious little views into the left society of her time — like the programme for an Arts Evening to raise funds for the SDF. G.B. Shaw and Kathleen performed in a piano duet composed by Mendelssohn, Aveling read Shelley’s Men of England, Mother Wright read from Adam Bede (!), Bax played Schumann (and went on too long apparently), Morris read his own poetry (went down very well), and a dramatic piece filling the 2nd half saw Eleanor and Aveling playing main roles in In Honour Bound.
There are some interesting asides on Marx’s papers as well, such as Engles ruminating on the translation of Capital, and the difficulties of it:
To translate such a book, a fair knowledge of literary German is not enough. Marx uses freely expressions of everyday life and idioms of provincial dialects; he coins new words, he takes his illustrations from every branch of science, his allusions from the literature of a dozen languages; to understand him, a man must be a master of German indeed, spoken as well as written, and must know something of German life too… but there is something more required. Marx is one of the most vigorous and concise writers of the age. To render him adequately, a man must be a master, not only of German, but of English too… Powerful German requires powerful English to render it; the best resources of the language have to be drawn upon; new-coined German terms requires the corresponding new terms in English… (113)
Then there was that time Michael Davitt refused to meet Aveling because he was an atheist, while both were speaking at the Easter Sunday ‘gigantic demonstration’ in Hyde Park, 1887. Maybe there were other reasons, he is the constant unsettling rather unprincipled presence that seems to taint everything. This in spite of Kapp trying to be rigorously fair. But he causes drama and discord everywhere he goes, undoing every effort by Eleanor.
At least they are equals in calls for speaking, Eleanor spoke at that same rally with Aveling and Davitt, and there is a constant whirl of public speaking engagements that continues through the whole of her life. More than I can possibly imagine.
Returning to 1887, a brilliant description of direction action tactics I wish I’d thought of:
One of the “small matters” which had become “a great question” was the conduct of the unemployed. Some of them had hit upon novel ways of drawing attention to their plight, such as holding church parades in various parts of the country, marching into places of worship to swell the congregation which they treated as a public meeting, objecting loudly and strongly whenever they did not agree with the sentiments of the speaker in the pulpit. (219)
We are also coming to what Kapp believes was a pivotal moment in Eleanor Marx’s life, she writes to her sister Laura that the year is harder than any within recent memory, and quotes Maggie Harkness as a source. Later she writes to her friend Dolly Radford:
…in the streets here one sees so many starving people — people with hunger in every line of their faces that one cannot but be wretched… (222)
This is the background for Bloody Sunday in Trafalgar Square, that day that so impressed everyone on the left, but in very different ways. Eleanor writes in a letter to Laura:
Last Sunday the troops had ammunition ready and stood with fixed bayonets. Next Sunday I think it very possible they will actually fire. That would be very useful to the whole movement here. It would complete the work some of us have been doing this long while past, of winning over the better Radical element to Socialism. (230)
She is determined to march, to provoke. Kapp’s interpretation is rather lovely, but I am not sure she is entirely right about these being Eleanor’s thoughts:
In Eleanor’s view only those who tried their wings would ever learn to fly. Revolution for her did not have a “a very big R”: it was a process inherent in the small act of standing your ground, asserting and extending your rights, defending your dignity as a human being in every situation and in all the circumstances of daily life. In that way, and that way alone, would men and women change their conditions, their circumstances and, in doing so, themselves. (231)
This was also a pivotal moment for Morris, but from it he took the lesson of retrenchment and building the revolution more seriously. Many felt that way, many experienced and understood the day not as Eleanor did, but as Shaw’s letter to Morris revealed, dated 22 November:
you should have seen that high hearted host run. Running hardly expresses our collective action. We skedaddled and never drew rein until we were safe on Hampstead Heath or thereabouts. Tarlton found me paralysed with terror and brought me on to the Square, the police kindly letting me through in consideration of my genteel appearance. On the whole, I think it was the most abjectly disgraceful defeat ever suffered by a band of heroes outnumbering their foes a thousand to one. (footnote, 231)
A report of a meeting at the Patriotic Club in Clerkenwell Green on what to do following Bloody Sunday from George Standring, editor of the Radical (who later became a member of the Fabian Society in 1893) describes her thusly:
In front of the platform sat Lady Macbeth Aveling and the redoubtable Edward, S.Sc. They were, of course, in favour of a spirited dash at Trafalgar Square; and very fine it was to see the lofty scorn of Lady Macbeth when any speaker on the pacific side rose to address the meeting. When the resolution proposing the Hyde Park meeting was read Lady Macbeth turned to Edward, D.Sc., and hissed ‘C-o-w-a-r-d-s!’ between her teeth. It was very fine indeed… (233)
It’s not flattering, and hard to tell how much the caricature is personal and political, but throughout reading this biography I wondered how much that love of the stage translated into everyday life. I still don’t have an answer.
1888 sees final split of the Socialist League. Important I know, but still. Yawn. But also this continued Eleanor’s evolution, and finally she begins to spend more time with actual working class people and their struggles.
1888 was a year of trade recovery and the great wave of demonstrations subsided. But it was something beyond the ill-usage of the unemployed that now produced a shift in her attitude to the working class. She had begun to explore the East End, sometimes alone, occasionally with Margaret Harkness, not as a speaker nor a demonstrator but more as an explorer, and what she discovered left her deeply and personally involved with the lives of the people. They were not any less the downtrodden and exploited “masses”…but they were no longer featureless crowds… (261)
In letter after letter written at that time, whether from London or the country, this preoccupation with suffering is reflected. (262)
Curious her wandering about with with Margaret Harkness. She describes the docks:
To go to the docks is enough to drive one mad. The men fight and push and hustle like beasts–not men–and all to earn at best 3d. or 4d. an hour! Si serious has the struggle become that the ‘authorities’ have had to replace certain iron palings with wooden ones–the weaker men got impaled in the crush!…You can’t help thinking of all this when you’ve seen it and been in the midst of it… (263)
This is the year of the match girls strike, Eleanor becomes fast friends with Will Thorne, labour leader of the gas workers to victory. After reading his biography and without this assumed familiarity, it was funny to read this:
At that time Thorne was not the stout and stolid figure familiar at the House of Commons to later generations. (323)
As Eleanor shifts her work to focus on working class struggle in the East End, there are some more cool glimpses of history, like this of Silvertown:
In 1852 S.W. Silver & Co., “the well-known outfitter of Cornhill”, bought one acre of land between Bow Road and Braking Creek to which it removed its small waterproofing works from Greenwich. It was the oldest factory on the waterfront. Seven more cares were added in the next few years and, by 1860, the premises were so extensive “that the name of Silvertown was given to the district of which they formed the centre.” (336)
There’s a fascinating aside (possibly just to me) about the transportation links available to Eleanor when she was going to Silvertown daily from Chancery Lane in support of the strike:
- Metropolitan and Inner Circle line running 6 am to midnight, taken from Farringdon to Aldgate, connecting to Great Eastern or Blackwall Railways to Silvertown.
- North Metropolitan Company tramcars between Aldgate and Bow, Stratford and Dockland.
- A Blue Bus from fleet St or Ludgate Hill, a Green Bus from Holborn every ten minutes.
Eleanor became secretary of the Silvertown Women’s Branch of the Gasworkers’ Union in October 1889, and remained connected to them for many years, being elected time and time again to office.
Another little interesting fact from the Trades Union Congress, Liverpool, 1890 — Eleanor was excluded though elected by the Gas Workers and General Laborers’ Union, because she was not a working woman. The representative included 447 men and only 10 women, representing eight womens’ unions with 2610 members. 1300 of them belonged to the Matchmakers Union.
The highlights really, of the whole book, are the letters between Tussy (Eleanor’s childhood nickname) and the General (good old Engels), stories told off the cuff and in great often hilarious detail of the congresses and people attending, and others simply full of personalities, politics and daily life. You remember how much you like her as you read them, a feeling sometimes lost in the detail of the history.
It is even more sad, then, when Engels begins to fail. All the personal drama that surrounds him, and puts Marx’s papers at risk — and god did he have a curious relationship with women. The blow of finding out Freddy is actually her illegitimate brother, tarnishing her view of her father. Aveling was always fairly horrible, and then he goes and marries some very very young woman even though he has an open abscess in his side (I don’t have words for either the ethics or the logistics of that), but Eleanor continues to take care of him, old friends are ill and dying, I’m still unsure of how close her relationship with her sister was, some of their letters are wonderful but not at all personal. She cuts herself off from those who might have been wise and supportive.
And then all the drama at the end. Such immense sadness. The role Aveling may or may not have played. I wanted always a different life for her, but she did so much, spoke to so many people in so many places, supported most humbly working class organising and struggle, tried to bring together a movement across the insularity of different factions and organisations…
Eleanor Marx, presente.
Sylvia Pankhurst is by far and away my favourite Pankhurst. She has all the fire and belief in her cause of her mother Emmeline Pankhurst and sister Cristobel, but is also so much more sensitive to issues of class and privilege, and much more self-aware along with it.
The site dedicated to her at sylviapankhurst.com, shows that I am not alone in this…
I’ve had this on my kindle for a long time when the new film coming out inspired me to read it. But sadly I hadn’t realised that this particular version of The Suffragette was written in 1911…I had meant to read the one written later, but there is still lots of good stuff in here. It overlaps heavily, however, with her mother’s account of the movement from 1914, and I hate to say it, but Emmeline Pankhurst’s account is both more infuriating and more interesting as tactics had shifted dramatically in these three intervening years as the Liberals continued steadfast in refusing the vote (she dramatically supports violence against property for example, and there are some brilliant stories of stone throwing and banner dropping). I also wanted more about the founding of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and the more community centred work Sylvia did in the East End. It’s not here.
Here is what is here. An overview of the purpose Sylvia had in writing the book, a piece of how-we-did-it and who-we-are campaign propaganda:
In writing this history of the Militant Women’s Suffrage Movement, I have endeavoured to give a just and accurate account of its progress and happenings, dealing fully with as many of its incidents as space will permit. I have tried to let my readers look behind the scenes in order that they may understand both the steps by which the movement has grown and the motives and ideas that have animated its promoters.
To many of our contemporaries perhaps the most remarkable feature of the militant movement has been the flinging aside by thousand of women of the conventional standards that hedge us so closely round in these days for a right that large numbers of men who possess it scarcely value.
A passionate love of freedom, a strong desire to do social service and an intense sympathy for the unfortunate, together made the movement possible in its present form.
These are some of the opening words by E. Sylvia Pankhurst, dated May 1911 and written from London. It covers the early history, the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the Pankhurst’s home at 62 Nelson Street Manchester on 10 October, 1903… she writes that almost all present were working women, ‘but it was decided from the first that the Union should be entirely independent of Class and Party.’
On class and Annie Kenney
As I say, I found Emmeline Pankhurst quite infuriating around issues of class, but Sylvia was already much more thoughtful about the meaning of struggle and victory for women in different stations. Much of this must be due to the wonderful Annie Kenney, such a pivotal figure in the Pankhurst’s lives. The relationship between Annie and both Christobel and Emmeline made me worry deeply for her after reading Emmeline’s book on the movement, but she seems to have greatly inspired Sylvia with an honest respect for working women. She tells of how Annie went to work in the Oldham cotton factories at the age of ten, fitting bobbins into place full of cotton to be spun, and piecing the threads together when they broke. She lost a finger doing this work. She writes:
The premature launching forth into the world of wage earners had left its mark upon Annie Kenney. Her features had been sharpened by it, and her eager face that flushed so easily was far more deeply lined than are the faces of girls whose childhood has been prolonged. Those wide, wide eyes of hers, so wonderfully blue, though at rare moments they could dance and sparkle like a fountain in the sunshine, were more often filled with pain, anxiety and foreboding, or with a longing restless, searching, unsatisfied and far away.
And here, finally, Annie is also able to speak for herself (she wrote her own book, harder to find but it is now on its way to me). Sylvia quotes her speaking in 1908 to a conference of women in Germany:
I noticed the great difference made in the treatment of men and women in the factory, differences in conditions, differences in wages and differences in status. I realised this difference not in the factory alone but in the home. I saw men, women, boys and girls, all working hard during the day in the same hot, stifling factories. Then when work was over I noticed that it was the mothers who hurried home, who fetched the children that had been put out to nurse, prepared the tea for the husband , did the cleaning, baking, washing, sewing and nursing. I noticed that when the husband came home, his day’s work was over…Why was the mother the drudge of the family, and not the father’s companion and equal?
It is also clear from Sylvia’s account (as it was clear that this was important to Sylvia) that many working women had been part of the driving force of the movement from the beginning. She talks about a protest for the opening of Parliament, February 19th, 1906. A crowd of 300 to 400 women marched, ‘a large proportion of whom were poor workers from the East End.’ They carried banners painted in Canning Town. It was only at the House of Commons that they were joined by women who were strangers to them, there to satisfy their curiosity — ‘amongst the rest were many ladies of wealth and position…’
Later in the year of a similar march as Parliament reassembled, she wrote:
the government had again given orders that only twenty women at a time were to be allowed in the Lobby. All women of the working class were rigorously excluded. My mother and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence were among those who succeeded in gaining an entrance.
Class would continue to be a lever the government would use to drive women apart — as would the lack of respect from the middle and upper classes towards the other. As the government increased its repression, handed out longer prison sentences and imposing larger fines, Sylvia is the one to recognise the way that such a tactics actually made it much harder for working women to play the same roles as middle class women who did not have anyone depending on their labour for survival. She doesn’t quite connect all the dots, about who then gets named, who then gets credit, but the insight is there to grow:
Had the movement for Women’s Enfranchisement been a movement solely of poor women with others dependent upon them, as might have been the case, the new Bill might have proved a serious menace to the movement, but, as it happened, there was fortunately no lack of women who were able and willing to risk imprisonment, therefore this Bill could make no difference to us.
The words and stories of these other women, both working class women and women of colour, are being brought to light but still more work needs to happen here — a good source of other places to begin to look is Sarah Jackson’s Guardian article ‘The suffragettes weren’t just white, middle-class women throwing stones‘. That’s what Sylvia’s book is mostly about, of course. There are, however plenty of interesting things to be drawn from it.
Violence in Politics
First, perhaps, is how this highlighted for me (as did her mother’s book) just how good our cultural and political system is at forgetting the levels of protest and violence that once attended relatively unimportant by elections, much less the whirlwinds of destruction that came before we ever won any serious and lasting political change.
So the contest went on — Liberals and Conservatives smashing up each other’s meetings, howling each other down, pelting each other with vegetables from the market and snowballing each other on Dartmoor.
At the most privileged level, there is this story from Lady Mary Montague’s “Memoirs”:
of the way in which the Peeresses of the eighteenth century had frequently disturbed the serenity of the House of Lords debates, and how they had triumphed over the Lord Chancellor Phillip Yorke, First Earl of Hardwicke, who had attempted to exclude them from the House of Lords. Lady Mary describes the “thumping,” “rapping” and “running kicks” at the door of the House of Lords, indulged in by the Duchess of Queensbury and her friends, the strategy by which they finally obtained an entry…
This fairly brilliant and sarcastic letter of support from Mr T.D. Benson, Treasurer of the independent Labour Party:
Of course, when men wanted the franchise, they did not behave in the unruly manner of our feminine friends. They were perfectly constitutional in their agitation. In Bristol I find they only burnt the Mansion House, the Custom House, the Bishop’s Palace, the Excise office, three prisons, four toll houses, and forty-two private dwellings and warehouses, and all in a perfectly constitutional and respectable manner. Numerous constitutional fires took place in the neighbourhood of Bedford, Cambridge, Canterbury, and Devizes. Four men were respectably hanged at Bristol, and three at Nottingham. The Bishop of Lichfield was nearly killed, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was insulted, spat upon, and with great difficulty rescued from amidst the yells and execrations of a violent and angry mob. In this and other ways the males set a splendid example of constitutional methods in agitating for the franchise. I think we are all well qualified to advise the suffragettes to follow our example, to be respectable and peaceful in their methods like we were, and then they will have our sympathy and support.
the suffragettes made it their strategy to raise the intensity of their actions, as Sylvia writes:
Votes for Women in those days was regarded by the majority of sober, level-headed men as a ladies fad which would never come to anything and the idea that it could ever be a question upon which governments would stand or fall, or be associated with persecution, rioting and imprisonment had been alike unthinkable to them.
They changed that.
Strategy and Tactics:
The Daily Mail first called the WSPU the suffragettes to
distinguish between us and the members of the older Suffrage Society who had always been called Suffragists, and who strongly objected to our tactics.
It was these tactics that I loved most in Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography, and there are more here (though given the year, Sylvia’s book is much more focused on the fighting of elections and boring lists of results. I still don’t know what I think of that strategy). My favourite?
The Pantechnicon Van Strategem
Which sounds amazing, though really it was just hiring a van to drive a load of suffragettes past police lines to the doors of the House of Commons. I also love how they set flying a great box kite over the Houses of Parliament, and a flag over Holloway Gaol to cheer the prisoners there. And what is lovelier and more supportive of solidarity than the tradition of free ‘public welcome breakfasts, which have since become an institution’, held at Anderton’s Hotel to welcome each suffragette upon her release.
I think even today we’d find it hard to organise such a march to Hyde Park as they did — 7 different marches converging, 20 women to speak on 20 different platforms, they organised 30 special trains to run from different towns. London was divided into districts with an organiser assigned to each one — Sylvia was in charge of organising district of Chelsea, Fulham and Wandsworth. I am all admiration.
I admire too their celebration of the women who had come before, fought before as part of this movement. The march remembered history, celebrated Elizabeth Fry, Lydia Becker and Mary Wollstonecraft. Walking in procession came Miss Emily Davies, Dr Garrett Anderson, Mrs Fawcett, President of the National Union of Suffrage Societies. I love too that Sylvia highlights the international nature of the movement, notes contingents of suffragists from many different countries, all with their flags. The spectacle organised must have been wondrous, the flags of many countries were followed by graduates from universities in robes and colours, a contingent of writers — Beatrice Harraden, Elizabeth Robbins and Evelyn Sharpe. Artists and actresses, gardeners, pharmacists, physical trainers, typists and shorthand writers, shop assistants, factory workers, home makers.
For a brief and glorious moment the Royal Mail announced the ability to post “human” letters…crikey. So of course the WSPU posted two suffragettes to Asquith at 10 Downing Street.
It is nice to know that the movement was led by women, but men gave their support. One evening Lloyd George and Mr Sidney Buxton were to speak in Limehouse — twenty men entered into the meeting to champion women’s rights. One climbed up the pillars at the back of the hall and forming a swing for himself with rope, hung there displaying the flag of purple, white and green.
But there are more stories of women doing their own climbing, sneaking, banner dropping. They were awesome.
The role of the ladies…
One thing that is fascinating is the way that Sylvia mobilises gender here — first noting the change in women’s roles within a movement in quite stirring ways that I heartily approve of:
The time was gone when she must always play a minor part, applauding, ministering, comforting, performing useful functions if you will, incurring risks too, and making sacrifices, but always being treated and always thinking of herself as a mere incident of the struggle outside the wide main stream of life. Today this battle of theirs seemed to the women to be the greatest in the world…
But there are also long passages that ring quite strangely to my modern ear, but also represent I think a strategic claiming of the essential and the feminine (which bothers me, though sometimes it reads a bit like a lesbian romance novel, which might make it okay). Here is just one example describing Mrs Cobden Sanderson as she spoke before the magistrate:
You must not picture her to yourself as being either big boned, plain looking and aggressive and wearing “mannish” clothes, or as emotional and overstrung. On the contrary, she is just what Reynolds, Hoppner, Sir Henry Raeburn, or Romney with his softest and tenderest touch, would have loved to paint… She is always dressed in low toned greys and lilacs, and her clothes are gracefully and delicately wrought, with all sorts of tiny tuckings and finishings which give a suggestion of daintiest detail without any loss of sympathy or breadth. She has a shower of hair like spun silver…then she quoted in her defense the words of Mr John Burns…”I am a rebel because I am an outlaw. I am law breaker because I desire to become a law maker.”
There is more on soft and downy cheeks flushed like roses, and dainty dresses and such things — perhaps to set in stronger contrast suffragette actions and resolve. Their attempts to address meetings of Liberals, and their stands on street corners (like the corner of Peter St and South Street — I love this book’s concrete geographies), until arrested and dragged away. The detailed descriptions of prison life, the clothing and rations and cold, and the beginnings of the horrifying forcible feedings of those women on hunger strike.
That indeed required an immense and indomitable courage of the kind that I don’t know I possess.
There is another letter quoted from the Daily Mail that follows this pattern, though perhaps not in quite as troubling a manner:
Three happy girls, eyes laughter lit, breezy, buoyant, joyous, arm in arm, talking like three cascades, are making a royal progress down the lane that leads to Rye. Such is the head of the comet…
They were off to disrupt the elections there. A controversial strategy that caused splits in the radical wing of the women’s movement, trying to ensure the Liberals lost every seat until they fully supported women’s right to the vote.
Connected to both gender and class, I think, there is an interesting aside describing Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, and how she entered the movement as a recruit — what were her early inspirations that had led her to the suffragettes? The story of Hetty Sorrell in Adam Bede…I have just read that, found the treatment of Hetty Sorrell quite appalling so this fascinates (and oh, it definitely appalls) me. Other influences? Marguerite in her prison cell in Faust (I’ll give her that one maybe, I haven’t read it), Besant’s Children of Gideon. God, Sir Walter fucking Besant. I have vented some spleen on him and his horrific prejudices against poor people…but it troubles me sorely that these books helped her decide, like so many others, to go to the East End to spend her life in striving to alter these conditions.
I’m slowly reading more about these middle class women who moved to or served in the East End and all that has been written about them. I’m not quite sure what interests me about them, perhaps the clash of class and gendered oppression, or the glimpses they offer into the way some of the women of my family perhaps once lived. Sylvia was in fact one of them, though I find her one of the better ones, but there isn’t much of any of that in this text. And I’m almost done with this text, I promise.
A few key figures of the time as you have never seen them
Meeting with G.K. Chesterton! Sylvia attended a meeting addressed by him at Morriss Hall, Clapham. He was eulogizing the French revolution, and sketching people in the audience during the question and critique session that followed, he did not answer Sylvia’s point on the women’s movement — so he actually came up afterwards and apologised, and even signed her petition. He would later became an active anti-suffragist.
Mr Winston Churchill! After losing his parliamentary election because of the suffragettes, he bursting into tears apparently, and in his mother’s arms no less, and the suffragettes there felt so sorry for him they tried to comfort him.
It didn’t work.
There are also some choice insulting descriptions of Lloyd George, ‘a plain little man, with a pale face…’ His hair was most disappointing apparently.
Coming to an end, finally…
Given this is a text of propaganda, it has a good, if overly optimistic ending:
So the gallant struggle for a great reform draws to its close. Full of stern fighting and bitter hardship as it has been, it has brought much to the women of our time — a courage, a self-reliance, a comradeship, and above all a spiritual growth, a conscious dwelling in company with the ideal, which has tended to strip the littleness from life and to give to it the character of an heroic mission.
May we prize and cherish the great selfless spirit that has been engendered and, applying it to the purposes of our Government — the nation’s housekeeping — the management of our collective affairs, may we, men and women together, not in antagonism, but in comradeship, strive on till we have built up a better civilisation than any the world has known.
But I thought it best to end on this, a song I have yet to hear: the Women’s Marseillaise (by Miss F.E.M. Macaulay):
Arise! Though pain or loss betide
Grudge naught of Freedom’s toll,
For what they loved the martyrs died
Are we of meaner soul?
Are we of meaner soul?
A meditation on death and loss, lives taken in the struggle for freedom against the colonial power, against fundamentalism. A meditation on writing and all of its risks, language and all of its meanings, Algeria and all of its tragic complications.
Love and loss, hope and despair.
A travel through memories, like this one:
I took off for Kader’s Oran, the city and its deepest depths, which he had sketched out for me… we drove around the town, splattered with cries and laughter, full of youths (oh, the youths of Oran, everywhere, leaning against a wall, on the vertical, in the sun, at every street corner, watching, laughing, cautious!), our tour was gradually fed by Kader’s memories. (21)
A town to be loved. I had only just finished The Plague, also set in Oran. Albert Camus writes, with the eyes of a European that must always be comparing the rest of the world to an ideal of home:
The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centres in other parts of the world. How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves — a thoroughly negative place in short? … Our citizens work hard, but solely with the objective of getting rich. (1-2)
There are no Arabs in the Oran found in these pages, though Camus does write of walking through the Negro district (and what does that word mean to him exactly?), ‘steep little streets flanked by blue, mauve and saffron-yellow walls… (79) He writes of the plague starting in the poorer and more crowded outskirts, but there are only Spaniards and Frenchmen.
This absence is possibly one of the largest presences in the literature I have read.
To Kader, returning to Oran, Djebar writes:
You must have often unveiled for others the naked, tumultuous and impulsive, raucous, mocking town. (22)
This town and the town of the Plague — two Orans, two visions of what a city could and should be.
Camus is in Algerian White as author. His lack of understanding of the complexities. His effort to make peace. His early death in a car accident. She later writes:
Camus, an old man: it seems almost as unimaginable as the metaphor of Algeria itself, as a wise adult, calm at last, at last turned toward life, ordinary life… (103)
I think it true that ordinary life escaped him, you see it in his words.
But he is really the least among this pantheon of writers, too many of whom I still know almost nothing, despite all my recent reading.
But first we return to the theme of dust:
Three Algerian days.
White with dust. The dust you didn’t notice, on any of these three days, but which seeped its way in, unseen and fine, into all those who came together for your departure.
A dust slowly forming, which gradually makes that day grow fainter, further away, a whiteness which insidiously effaces, distances, and makes each hour almost unreal, and the explosion of a word, the gasp of an ill-repressed sob, the bursting spray of chants and litanies from the crowd, all of the excessive on the day itself, from then on paled, worn hollow to the point of evanescence.
So, white days of that dust in which tens of witnesses, friends, those around you, who went with you to the graveside, they the followers, thereafter caught up; clothed in it stiffly and awkwardly, unknowingly. Dust of oblivion which cauteriuzes, weakens, softens, and …. Dust.
Three days white with that dust and that mortal fog. (51)
I cried for the death of Mouloud Feraoun, his words still live with me, I almost feel as though I know him. Feraoun, one of six murdered together in two sets of three, machine gunned down, with 109 9 mm cartridge cases found. The son of another there, Jean-Phillipe Ould Aloudia, spent thirty years investigating, identified the assassins granted amnesty by the French State.
Nothing could be done to them.
There is Djebar’s chance meeting with Mouloud Mammeri in Algiers, 1988:
‘Before I saw you in the distance, I was walking with my head in the clouds.. How lovely this city is, iridescent like this! I can’t get enough of it: as if it were the first time! I never tire of the facades or the balconies of the houses, and especially not of the sky!… (139-140)
I learned about Emir Abdelkader, who fought the colonial invasion, whose bones have been fought over:
Abdelkader, if he has truly come back to this land where he was first a soldier, will be better able than I to make the list of those who write and who, like so many others, are persecuted, silenced, pushed to suicide, to suffocation, or–through the intermediary if desperate youth, transformed into paid killers–killed by a single blow. (225)
There are Franz and Josie Fanon, Jean-el and Taos Amrouche, Kateb Yacine, M’Hamed Boukhobza, Mahfoud Boucebci, Anna Greki, Abdelkader Alloula among many others. And, like Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, a return to language, nationality, home…the tangle of words and the limits language and culture place on what can be expressed.
Algerian literature–we must begin it with Apuleus in the second century and continue to Kateb Yacine and Mouloud Mammeri, passing Augustine, the emir Abdelkader, and Camus–has continuously been inscribed in a linguistic triangle.
–a language of rock and soil, the original one let’s say. Libyco-Berber, which lost its alphabet momentarily except among the Tuareg:
–a second language, that of the prestigious exterior, of Mediterranean heritage–Eastern and Western–admittedly reserved for lettered minorities…
Arabic and then French
–the third partner in this triangle presents itself as the most exposed of the languages, the dominant one, the public one, the language of power: that of the harangues, but also the written one of the forensic scientists, the scribes and the notaries.(227-228)
This has been Latin, Classic Arabic, Turkish, French, again Arabic…
These are just a few quotes I liked, there is so much more here, particularly for someone who knows more of these writers and the recent history. I am setting out to learn…
Perhaps the best of all, though was this (a facebook update from July 28th, as I mix my social media)
Today on the tube I met a Maori who asked how I came to be reading Assia Djebar and I told him a quick summary of the long story about this article I can’t finish and he told me how in New Zealand his university classes on colonialism had featured a professor who studied violence in Algerian women’s fiction, and then we talked about Djebar and Feraoun and Fanon and Paris and damn but did it bring happiness to my day.
For more on the struggle in Algeria…
This year’s march against austerity was a good march, so much bigger than I was fearing, though not quite numbers I would have loved most. But it felt good to be taking to the streets with a quarter of a million people to demand austerity come to an end. I liked the route as well, and the best thing by far? My friend Sean well enough to come out for the march and Mark by my side and ending up in the Chandos as always with friends old and new. Also, the drummers. Thank you drummers.
FBU! I hope the fight-the-cuts firetruck was out and about in London playing ‘Ring of Fire’
There was a small Bitcoin contingent (Bitcoin? Is it really going to revolutionise everything and make the world a better place?)
There were plenty of jokes about Ruth dressing as a widow hoping to get lucky at the funeral
Cats! Always fun…
And this guy…
This book uncovers for me some of the contributions of certain priests of the Church of England to the struggle for a better world here and now. It is a tradition I knew very little of, being more familiar with Liberation Theology such as that written by Gustavo Gutierrez and Camilo Torres, learned through the words and practice of some of the people I respect most in the world like Leonardo Vilchis and Don Toñito. So I was happy to find this, a booklet Manifesto of the Catholic Crusade in the early 1920s by Father Conrad Noël:
if you would destroy the kept Press and fight for freedom of expression; if you would destroy the Capitalist Parliament and build a People’s Republic; if you would abolish classes, artificial distinctions, snobbery; if, while you know the most deadly tyrants are not kings but financiers, speculators, captains of industry, you would also, with St Thomas of Canterbury, destroy that nest of flunkeys, the Court; if, while you measure swords with the New Plutocracy, you are ashamed of that ancient fraud which calls itself the old Aristocracy…We offer you nothing–nothing but adventure, risks, battle, perhaps ruin; with the love and loyalty of comrades and the peace of God which passeth understanding.’ (15 – William Purcell ‘Birth of a Rebel’)
Father John Groser gave it to William Purcell telling him it was ‘a bit unbalanced, but still pretty splendid, don’t you think?’ (14). Father John was himself entirely splendid I think — how else could such a volume as this exist, written in sections by various colleagues and friends and a few pages from his son to keep alive his history and legacy and the vitality of his praxis? No activist could ask for a better tribute to their life’s work.
This form means this book is full of not only of struggle and theology, Marxism and Christianity, but also delightful glimpses into the character of the man, as well as the East End’s past and its life during two world wars. This is one of my favourite stories, of a church I hope to know better soon, and comes from Rev. Denys Giddey, Groser’s last curate at St George’s:
One evening in the blitz a small bomb dropped in the Rectory garden, which had at one time been part of the churchyard. We found that the explosion had disturbed some human remains. Father John went off to get a spade and told me to fetch a prayer book. I was then required, in the light of search-lights and various explosions, to read the Committal as he re-interred the remains. (56 – Kenneth Brill ‘Of Lawful Authority’)
I love the note that Groser takes it as understood that senior police officers see their duty as protection of property above all else. Then there are these splendid words — Charles Dalmon’s hymn for St George’s Day:
God is the only landlord
To whom our rents are due,
He made the Earth for all men
And not for just a few.
The four parts of Creation,
Earth, Water, Air and Fire,
God made and blessed and stationed
For every man’s desire. (79 – ‘Parish Priest’ – Kenneth Brill)
He was only ever parish priest in Stepney — Christ Church on Watney Street to be exact, though it no longer stands. It was destroyed early on by German bombs in WWII — I think it is hard for us now to imagine lives touched by not just one but two such great catastrophes — Father John was a chaplain on the front lines in WWI and this is part of what radicalised him and brought him to the East End in the first place.
This sentence is so reminiscent of Arthur Morrison’s opening to Mean Streets, but here these streets are transformed — the power of struggle certainly but I will allow religion as well:
Few, however, can take part in the Eucharist without a pang of regret for the ugly building, in an ugly street, in an ugly society, within which Groser ensured for them a vision of transcendent spiritual and material beauty which they are unlikely to enjoy again in its full glory this side of the grave. (96 – Brill, Parish Priest)
All of these things are grand, like his friendship with George Lansbury, his support for the docker’s strike, multiple arrests and police beatings. I’ll probably write more about those. It still surprised me to find him president of the Stepney Tenants Defense League. It began in 1938 when he gave space in vicarage for young solicitors and law students to interview & advise tenants, and clearly just snowballed from there as these things do. In May 1939 the League issued a broadsheet titled:
PERSONAL APPEAL FROM FATHER GROSER
In the nine months of our development we are able to say that we have beaten back the Landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney. Your organisation has not only given the lead to the people of Stepney but also to the whole country. Our aim is to continue to wage the war against high rents and bad housing conditions. As well as your demand from the organisation the protection it offers, your organisation demands from you an understanding of the enormous problems that face it in it its fight.
There are 4 points on what tenants should do:
(i) Persuade neighbours to join the League and attend Meetings.
(ii) Set up committees in your streets and blocks of Buildings.
(iii) Bring in loans and donations for a thousand pounds to fight back against the powerful Landlords’organisation and to retain what has already been won.
(iv) Remember the struggles of the tenants in Brady Street and Langdale Mansions and the other strike centres are the struggles of every one of us. (101 – The World His Parish – Brill)
The League announced Tenants’ Week, gave a public showing of the film Tenants in Revolt (need to find that), and did a charabanc (charabanc!) outing to Hastings.
What did they do that we didn’t do in LA so many decades later? And we thought we were inventing it all (I know already how silly that sounds, but we didn’t really know what we were doing — I guess there aren’t so many ways to do it). I look back on my years of doing this same work and I am both thrilled to be part of this movement that stretches back over years and simultaneously dismayed that it fucking stretches back over so many years. The League even organised a fund tenants could pay rent into while on strike. Groser held thousands of pounds in this capacity. We are still doing this same thing and it makes me both happy and sad. It does emphasise to me, however, that until housing ceases to be a commodity that people profit from and instead becomes homes to be lived in and treasured, there will be tenant organisers just like us another hundred years from now.
Still, I am proud reading the events of Tuesday, 20th June 1939, when tenants of Alexandra Buildings on Commercial Street (45-55) ‘built barricades of tables, doors and sofas at each entrance and a “drawbridge” to resist the bailiffs. Six were arrested for obstructing and assaulting the police.’ They held pickets at the landlord’s offices while both the Mayor & Bishop of Stepney, Rabbi Brodie and Father Groser argued the tenant’s case inside with landlord 2 hours. Bringing politicians, priests, rabbis together to pressure slumlords to do the right thing? Shit, we did that too — but no such barricades sadly, and no drawbridge. That was a stroke of genius. The article in the next day’s Daily Herald stated Landlord Tarnspolsk agreed to stop evictions and negotiate. The barricades came down again.
Then war came, changing everything for a few years. Slowly Groser moved away from the League. But not from his politics.
Another favourite story is of the time Groser recited the following poem of G.D.H. Cole when preaching evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. The verger conducted him to the steps of pulpit carrying a staff and bowed to him, Groser surprised him by bowing back, then said:
For I tell you one thing success cannot stomach the sight of,
And that’s failure, the sort that you can’t get away from or write off.
But that shabbily, shamblingly, haunts you and cringes for pence,
Am I wrong thus far, though I cause you offence?
Headlines in the Daily Herald the following day: ‘Means Test Denounced in St. Paul’s Pulpit’ (105 – The World his Parish)
In 1951, Groser helped to found the Stepney Colored People’s Association. In the article he wrote for their first newsletter in 1952 talking about how Stepney has ‘always been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of London, perhaps that is one of the reasons why it is such an interesting place to live in.’ and that it had ‘always provided a haven for foreigners and seamen…’ (107)
you thought he couldn’t get much better, and then you find out he performed as Archbishop Becket in the 1949 film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, directed by George Hoellering. I have to hunt that down. So he knew T.S. Eliot, John dos Passos, a few others.
He understood faith, and how Marxists have their share:
‘I believe that God has made the world for that sort of life in the world [a free and equal society], and man will not rest till he attains to it. But it is to me an act of faith which is in accord with my philosophy. It is equally an act of faith on the part of the Community Party. (From ‘Methods of Change.’ A lecture to Watford Deanery School of Religious Study, October 1934, quoted in ‘Socialist Because Christian’ – David Platt)
I enjoyed the point of view of his colleagues writing in the 1960s as though the battle is almost over, as though Keynes solved it all and we were well on our way to utopia. They look back on Father John’s more fiery days as a period over and done. Still, if only all Christians felt this way:
This incarnational doctrine leads to the necessity of the Christian’s identification of himself with human beings in need. In the 1920s and 1930s this led inevitably to participation in the class struggle. (167 – Platt)
There are more wonderful quotes, like these from the 1932 Manifesto of the Christ Church Campaign for Socialism:
“We believe that the principal duty of the Church is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom of perfection, a Kingdom of love, justice, comradeship, beauty, and all that we know as good.”
The first stage in the programme is the establishment of a classless and democratic Socialist State in this country. The second step is ‘the establishment of a World Cooperative Commonwealth of ‘Socialist States’.(176 – Platt)
Can you imagine? Yet this is written as though we are on our way to achieving this, as though it is nothing very radical. This chapter on Father John’s Socialism by his son-in-law David Platt is almost as eye-opening as Angela Davis’s first autobiography where she knows the revolution is just around the corner. What I wouldn’t give to feel that just once, just a little touch of it.
You can tell that he worked with people, knew people. He argued strongly for the need for a transformation of rank and file through struggle and religion:
Sacrifice and cooperation are required when men are no longer driven by fear of unemployment and insecurity and not likely to suffer from their own sins and mistakes as before. Those who fear the development of too much centralisation of power need to be reminded that decentralisation is only possible if there is a sufficient number of people who are able and willing to accept responsibility below. A voluntary and peaceful transition from one order of society to another demands the active participation of all or at least of a sufficient number of people in every area of life to carry conviction and a following. It demands a readiness to surrender voluntarily rights which stand in the way, and a voluntary acceptance of sacrifice and responsibility by people willing a common objective. (‘The Vision of the Church’s Work’. Lecture to C.E.Y.C. Conference in Oxford, September 1950. 181 – Platt)
I shall end this with his denunciation of capitalists, a position I’d like to see more from the church as we still tighten our belts and continue dealing with their crisis: Father John could not be more clear that
their economic position so binds them that they are unable to do that which is necessary to make the Kingdom of God possible for them as for other men…It is these people who are in the position of control in international affairs, and it is the same interest that dictates there…when their economic position is threatened, their loyalty to the Kingdom of God becomes secondary, because to their consciousness the economic factor is the one most important thing in their lives. (‘The Vicar’s Letter’ in Christ church Monthly, December 1935, quoted Platt 185).
There is so much more left unsaid, and a few things to follow up as well, as always: Look up Ethel Upton, social science student from LSE working in Stepney and at St Katharine’s. Find Father John’s own book Politics and Persons. Find Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a novel that examines the horrors of the Means Test Father John spent his life campaigning against. More about the Stepney Colored People’s Association. So much.
If you want more right away, look at the wonderful page from St-George-in-the-East, packed as usual with facts and links.
And more on London’s East End from myself…
Protests all look the same in pictures, and sadly these days they all feel the same too. Bigger than you feared, but not as big as you hoped.
We’ve had years of cuts. There’s no way more won’t hit an artery or two and bone. This year Lambeth Council is proposing selling Waterloo and Minet library, and using the proceeds to allow communities to run (poorly) three more for which ALL other funding will be cut — Durning, Carnegie and Upper Norwood. Goodbye librarians we love and services we need. Jason Cobb has done a brilliant rundown of what the Lambeth Council Cultural Consultation holds in store when you slog through all 22 documents — the first part can be found here. There are lots of other cuts to investigate.
The Tories know that once we lose this land, lose these services, lose these qualified and wonderful workers, we will never get them back. And they are profiting from all of it.
The Council’s just carrying out their hatchet job. Reprehensible as I feel not taking a stand and doing that is, we really should have brought down the precarious coalition government by now, shamed anyone with actual power in the Labour Party for refusing to fight and supporting their councillors to fight. For bowing to neoliberal logics and refusing to be an alternative. For being so stupid and lame.
All I want is a real fight. This wasn’t it.
On the positive side, however, standing outside City Hall is so much nicer when not surrounded by SWP signs branding everything, but nice hand-drawn ones instead. And flags, I love flags. Unions are good for flags, if not for leading the battle against austerity and preserving their own existence into the future. I don’t want to be too pessimistic and say it’s all over for the unions once the librarians are gone, but it might very well be true.
But more than puppies on signs and flags, I love Cressingham Gardens. Like the Ritzy Living Wage Campaign, like the Guinness Trust Occupation, like the Co-op tenants, they are keeping some hope alive with their awesomeness.
Boris Johnson’s budget is severely lacking. Social and genuinely affordable housing are missing, both from the budget and from his housing policy. In his vision statement for London he says:
The strategy also aims to make sure that the homes we build better reward those who work hard to make this city a success – by massively increasing opportunities for home ownership, by improving the private rented sector and by ensuring working Londoners have priority for low cost affordable homes to rent.
Back to discourse of the ‘deserving’, and the delusions that more than a fraction of ‘hard working’ Londoners will ever be able to afford a home here. Back to delusions that the private market has ever provided quality housing for the mass of working people. Look at the Royal Mail building fiasco at Mount Pleasant, with ‘affordable’ flats at £2800 a month.
This budget is just taking us back, and we sure as hell don’t want to go there. Let’s go back to Maud Pember Reeves and the glory days of private renting, describing Lambeth tenants in 1913:
They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).
But nothing is more horrifying than how she cross-references housing conditions, particularly the cheapest basement flats, with the babies who have died. So many babies died. More than lived, for families in basement flats. They wanted to only study healthy families, but had to accept asthma and other pulmonary complaints as almost universal.
So fights are on across London to save council housing and to build more — folks from the Radical Housing Network and Lambeth Housing Activists among others, and prominent banners proclaimed the fight in the Aylesbury Estates and Guinness Trust’s Loughborough Park Estate. It’s not just housing, we all know libraries are on the cutting block this year, and the Save Earl’s Court folks were here too protesting the budget that is destroying the social fabric of the city.
A miserable, cold, rainy sort of day, that started with snow and sleet. In spite of that there were a lot of us gathering for the South London feeder march to City Hall.
Cressingham Gardens in the house (one of them, you can just barely see, had the best pair of boots I have seen in forever, in campaign colours as well!):
Bring Back the Bow Back — nice to see the National Bargee Travellers Association here:
Making up and little for the rain and cold, it was good to see tenants emerging from their balconies and doorways, cheering us on, picking up the chants:
Fortitude seemed a good title.
We met up with the East London contingent at Tower Bridge…scenic, but no place to get a feeling for how many people came together at all.
And finally arriving at the Town Hall.
I have few words for Ferguson, for yet another Black kid shot and killed and no justice for the killing. I sit and think about what I should say, and there is so much to say, but mostly it just hurts my stomach and my heart, and the screen blurs. Still, I have to say something.
At the centre of this is a young life lost to us. Someone here who lived and breathed and laughed and dreamed, and who is not here any longer. Whose last moments were of pain and fear. Surrounding that terrible new wound of an absence is the pain of families and friends and those who loved him. That pain will stretch forever into the future. We never stop mourning the loss of those we love. Surrounding that, the pain of the wider community, the reawakened trauma of all other families who have survived these same circumstances around the world, and the pain belonging to all of us who grieve. There is also an ever deepening fear among youth that they could be killed at any time, and among parents that they could lose their children whenever they leave their homes. And of course, there is an intense anger. Because no one should suffer this ever. Because things like this should never happen. Because if this does happen, our society needs to take steps to find justice and do whatever it can to ensure it does not happen again. Instead it does worse than nothing — it blames the dead.
Because all of this intense pain and suffering that marks one grouping of reactions to this murder sits encompassed within a larger, and much whiter group of people across the nation that does not value Black life, does not value Black children, does not see these children as its own to love and protect and cherish. Instead it fears them, it desires protection from them, and it refuses to convict those who kill them in the name of that defense. It is a tragic split that is eating away at the U.S., that perhaps has already destroyed it because this goes so far back. My only hope is in the communities coming together to stop this, end this, change this. People bridging old boundaries and fears. A growing dialogue about just how bad things are and how things have to change. That is the only way that hope lies for everyone.
But so many lives have been lost. It has been good, actually, to go through this, to share this, through my social media community. There was this posted, that made me cry:
I have gone through the violent death of a child with one family I love well, and a piece of my heart was literally burned away by their grief, and the sound of Maria screaming over his grave will echo forever in my ears. I hear it every time a child is killed.
More intellectually, there is James Baldwin to educate about the measure of justice:
Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
More from Baldwin on Martin Luther King’s assassination is here from Esquire Magazine, from 1968 and I can’t believe we’re still in the same place. This encapsulates what is happening now:
Q. How can we get the black people to cool it?
James Baldwin: It is not for us to cool it.
Q. But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?
James Baldwin: No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.
There’s this from the Howard Zinn page, just a handful of collected stories of the many Black men who have been shot in cold blood, whose murderers were known, and where justice has still been denied:
That’s from before the decision, because all of us were afraid this would happen given our country’s track record over several hundred years. This headline could not state better how many of us feel I think:
And this breaks my heart all over again, because it is all true:
With riots raging in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death by police of an unarmed African-American youth, the nation has turned its eyes toward social injustice and the continuing crisis of race relations. Here are The Onion’s tips for being an unarmed black teen in America:
- Shy away from dangerous, heavily policed areas.
- Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
- Be sure not to pick up any object that could be perceived by a police officer as a firearm, such as a cell phone, a food item, or nothing.
- Explain in clear and logical terms that you do not enjoy being shot, and would prefer that it not happen.
- Don’t let society stereotype you as a petty criminal. Remember that you can be seen as so much more, from an armed robbery suspect, to a rape suspect, to a murder suspect.
- Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view: You may be unarmed, but you’re also black.
- Avoid wearing clothing associated with the gang lifestyle, such as shirts and pants.
- Revel in the fact that by simply existing, you exert a threatening presence over the nation’s police force.
- Be as polite and straightforward as possible when police officers are kicking the shit out of you.
I’m noticing more and more that the Onion can no longer practice satire, because our society has reached the point where satire is impossible. These are literally the conversations my friends are being forced to have with their children. It breaks my heart. Just like being here, in London, through all this. Massive protests are happening all over the U.S., including my friends taking the streets back in L.A. I am so proud. What else is there to do when nothing else is creating change? I am also proud of the movement coming out of this, the demands as they are being developed by Ferguson protestors and the invitation to comment and contribute to this struggle that affects all of us, but people of colour as the most vulnerable to institutional violence most. I am proud to follow their lead, wherever they choose to take this fight. Take a look, comment, support. They are:
Demand #1 — Political Accountability for the Death of Michael Brown, Jr.
Demand #2 — Special Prosecutor for All Deadly Force Cases
Demand #3 — Police Held Accountable for Use of Deadly Force
Demand #4 — End Overpolicing and the Criminalization of Poverty
Demand #5 — Representative Police Force and Intentional Officer Training
Demand #6 — End Funding for Discriminatory Police Forces
Demand #7 — Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Structural and Systemic Inequalities in Missouri
Demand #8 — The Right to Protest
Here in London we at least were able to show solidarity and thankfully made the BBC news to do so, to send as much support from one city to another, one people to another. Hopefully put just a little more international pressure on the federal government to step in. Sadly, our nations are too connected in the ways Black men are killed and justice never comes, and changes are desperately needed in both places.
One of the most powerful things I’ve seen has been this collection of artwork emerging over twitter from Shirin Barghi @shebe86, the last words of Black people shot dead in recent years. Their names are so familiar, and they are only some among many: Kendrec McDade, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin. In the UK it is Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Smiley Culture, Stephen Lawrence, again among too too many others. Carole Duggan spoke at the London protest, and it struck me when she said that we will be fighting injustice for the rest of our lives. So be it. This needs to end, and we all need to be part of ending it.