My experience of 26th March

Colourful placards on the TUC march

Some of the colourful placards on the TUC march

I said I’d write about it on Sunday, and every day since, but I’ve been really too busy to. Busy with a social life and busy with trying to catch up with all of the news coverage of the protest and events that happened on Saturday. I still am not satisfied with what I’ve seen, because I still can’t really see exactly how it was portrayed – but I gather it was all in a negative context (we all know that bad news is better than good news!)

My day started very pleasantly, with breakfast near Russell Square with a small group of friends from Twitter. Our plan was to meet people in the education bloc, the parent bloc, then go to UK Uncut, then Trafalgar Square. We joined the march at about 11am, and were all in good spirits, talking about what the day might be like, what we might achieve… As we got to Embankment, the crowd slowed down and ground to a halt. We had lost half of our group, and were standing in the middle of a crowd of people with scarves covering their faces – mainstream media will have these labelled as ‘anarchists’ but this assumption makes me uneasy. FIT officers were on railings filming the crowd. We chatted with various people around us – most of whom were covered up – and we heard someone say that they’d seen one of the FIT officers before and didn’t like him. Conversation turned to frustration at not being able to move, and consensus was reached that stalling marches like this will only make people angry. The crowd eventually started moving off, albeit very slowly, and we were eager to get ahead. Standing around in the street somehow feels futile. So we made our way through the crowd along Embankment.

At Trafalgar Square we headed off towards Soho Square, to meet fellow UK Uncutters to go to a ‘comedy gig’ at 2pm. We found a fair few people in Soho Square, including UK Uncut supporters and comedians Chris Coltrane and Mark Thomas. We were told to go to a certain place, and groups headed off. As we followed people in front and crowds merged, it soon became clear we’d lost UK Uncut and were now with the black bloc. We decided that we should just stay with them – nobody felt unsafe or threatened – until we could figure out what else to do. As we were walking along a couple of people decided to move some huge green wheelie bins, and some of the crowd responded “Fuck the bins!” “The bins are to blame for this mess!” etc. I don’t think anyone really thought it was appropriate or necessary to move the bins.

Smoke canister outside vandalised HSBC

Smoke canister outside vandalised HSBC - note the number of photographers

Outside the Palace Theatre, we saw a HSBC suddenly get spray painted and hit with paint balls (I was splashed with a small amount of paint too), and then people started to hit the windows with whatever they could. As far as I can remember, there were a handful of police around, dozens of photographers and a small amount of people actually doing the damage. After about ten minutes of this, when the black bloc had decided to move on, riot police moved in. This caused interest, and people went back to see what was going on. One man in riot gear not only pushed back people, but ran after one person (over a small distance) to hit him with a baton. This is on video, just about.

Eventually after a few clashes with the police when a couple of riot vans turned up (they were spray-painted and hit with sticks, predictably) – people decided to move on. I don’t quite remember what happened next, but we headed to Oxford Circus to try and take part in the UK Uncut ‘secret location’ sit-in. We waited at Oxford Circus for ‘the signal’ and as there were hundreds of people there who weren’t involved in UK Uncut this was pretty difficult. We got word, somehow, that it was at Fortnum & Mason. So we made our way there. On arrival, police were attempting to block the doors to prevent anyone from getting in (it must be said that this was the one point I could say the police were not being too aggressive – it was clear they were being told to be restrained in their approach), but the crowd kept pushing and pushing, and me and another friend were pretty much pushed in. There were about a dozen police officers inside, and a couple of hundred (maybe? Not good at estimating numbers) protesters. Many were sitting down eating their sandwiches that they’d brought with them. Some of them had put up banners and written ‘Pay your tax’ on price labels. Someone had brought a beachball with them that was thrown across the huge round balcony section, until it fell to the basement floor level – and nobody went to get it. We were in there for 30-45 minutes at a guess, and after we found some other friends, we decided to head out. It had turned particularly nasty outside and police lines were there waiting for protesters to come out – we were shoved out of the way by them even though we were going in the opposite direction.

We left F&M and went up the road to try and find other friends; we ended up on a side street just off the main road which was clearly causing a headache for the police. I don’t know how long we were there but it must have been a while and there were small skirmishes with police as they stood their ground, then formed a line (for very little reason that we could see? But we were on the wrong side anyway – looking in) and then started beating people back. Part of the problem started when police started gathering barricades on the side of the street. I was stood very near them, and what I can only figure (though I don’t know if it was or not) as a petrol bomb came flying past me, almost hit me, landed on the pavement right in front of the police and set one of their boots on fire before spreading up the pavement a little. Luckily no one was hurt, although it seemed extremely close to me particularly (hard to tell because crowd was sparse but from what I remember I was the closest) and it was the one part of the day where I would say I was genuinely scared I might get hurt. But only momentarily. What followed was an attempt by the police at blocking the road off, hitting back anyone who wanted to move through the line to get to their friends. When the line of police turned round as if to begin kettling us, we left as soon as we could.

After a quick dinner, as we hadn’t eaten all day, we headed down to Trafalgar Square and found a noisy, but peaceful, crowd of a couple of hundred people. Some were huddled around fires for warmth, some were dancing, some were chanting, but not one of them was causing any issues that I could see. We stayed for a while but as it got colder went to the pub, and came back later. When we returned, we saw police starting to move in at the steps near the national gallery (ie down into the square) and police forming lines at the bottom. In other words, beginning to set in to squeeze the protesters into a kettle. The protesters at the bottom, facing those police on the stairs, panicked and picked up barriers and threw them at the police. Things were getting nasty, I’m sure, but I couldn’t really see much other than barricades going over peoples’ heads. We moved to the top of the square, near the stairs, and as we realised police were shutting the stair exits off, we shouted at frantic protesters – some may have even been passersby, encouraged by the earlier noise – to climb up the walls where we were. Soon, half a dozen of us were helping people scale the walls to escape being kettled. Some that were inside specifically didn’t want to leave, and just shrugged. The situation turned really nasty and we could tell that fights were going to break out, as they had done earlier, so we left.

That’s my honest and full (perhaps too wordy?) account of what happened on Saturday. I spoke to Julia Hartley-Brewer, a presenter on LBC 97.3 on Monday – and I’ll explain about that in another post, analysing the response to what happened (as in, what people have been arguing with ME about, what the general media narrative was and what I think about it, and policing tactics etc).

Congratulations if you made it this far, and thanks for reading. I know it’s been a long one. There are loads of other, probably better, blogs out there. But I wanted to record my experience.

It’s Called Social Media for a Reason

Bing is the latest company to have fallen foul of the Twitterati. On Saturday 12th March they tweeted the following: “How you can #SupportJapanhttp://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K.” After a flurry of thousands of replies and comments to Bing (including myself) condemning their marketing practices, the account then tweeted an apology. But the sort of apology you’d expect from a teenager. More a half-arsed admission of wrongdoing, but also blaming everybody else in the process.

It starts: “We apologize the tweet was negatively perceived.” Note the ‘perceived’ there. It’s our fault for thinking that it was wrong, and they’re sorry on our behalf that we perceived it to be wrong. Next: “Intent was to provide an easy way for people to help Japan” – so why didn’t they do something similar to Google’s Person Finder, which is a fantastic resource. It seems more genuine than Bing’s approach – subtly branded, and genuinely helpful. So, Bing, there are other ways to help that don’t hinge on your brand getting maximum, in-your-face exposure. And which aren’t as simple as throwing money at the problem. Which brings me to the last part of that apologetic tweet: “We have donated $100K.” So, they’ve only donated the maximum amount of money which they would have wanted to donate through retweets anyway? Nicely done.

It’s not the first time a company has been attacked by members of Twitter – in 2009, Habitat made the awful mistake of adding trending hashtags to their advertising tweets, which happened to include hashtags about unrest in Iran.

Companies across the world have been jumping on the Twitter bandwagon and assuming it works the same way as any other advertising medium: You broadcast your advert; people buy your stuff. That’s absolutely not how Twitter works. Twitter is ‘social media’, and the ‘social’ part is really the part companies need to pay attention to. It’s not merely a web of words and hashtags with no context. It’s a convoluted network of people all over the world, who attribute different meanings to hashtags, to tweets and to other people… On its most basic level, Twitter is about relationships between human beings. It facilitates an organic development of those relationships, much like in real life – and when you think about it like that, it’s no wonder that so many companies get it utterly wrong. It’s like walking into a party uninvited. Nobody wants to be harassed by spambots based on keywords in tweets. And nobody wants to engage with accounts or read tweets unless they are engaged back. It takes two to Twitter!

Additionally, hashtags should be viewed as a whole (ie an entire feed) rather than simply the word itself. So, the hashtag #Solidarity, for example, is not textbook definition. It has been used to illustrate solidarity with protestors in London, then across the UK, then to symbolise sympathy with those in Egypt or Tunisia, then with those in America; its meaning changes depending on when it is used… The context of what is actually happening in the world. It changes every day. And the same is true for many other hashtags – the words have a deeper meaning behind them.

There are some companies who get it just right on Twitter, though. The companies who have a very big, but very subtle presence. They don’t force themselves onto hashtags, they are friendly and approachable (ie they actually seem like real people you can have a conversation with!), and they search on twitter for people who mention them. Take Lush’s twitter account. I follow them and often see, inoffensively tucked away in my feed, tweets about the brilliant sunshine in Poole, tweets asking how I am (of course not just me but all of their followers) and retweets from happy customers. Looking down their feed I can see tweets to specific users about McFly concerts, asking what people are doing, and suggesting products to people who are stuck. So there’s more to the account than simply self-promotion, but they manage that too – in a way that isn’t aggressive, blatant or obtrusive.

Three things to remember: It’s not okay for companies to come in and jump on trending topics without first having an understanding of what it means to people or what people are saying in connection with that hashtag. It’s not okay for companies to request retweets as a way of guilt-tripping people into promoting their brand for a good cause. And it’s certainly not okay to keep spamming me every single time I use the word ‘write’ in a tweet.

International Anti-Street Harassment Day

If you didn’t know it, today is International Anti-Street Harassment Day. I can’t take part in it physically as this is the first year and as is to be expected, there’s not much going on near me, so I thought I’d participate the best way I know how!

What is ‘street harassment’?

Street harassment is a piece of the huge jigsaw that is rape culture and it happens to loads of women everywhere, every single day. I don’t think the term ‘street’ is literal (or at least it isn’t to me); more a reference to generally being out and about in public places. It can happen in the street, but it can also happen in clubs, pubs, at house parties, at concerts, or in the shops. It’s where any form of harassment is carried out – though the focus of Anti-Street Harassment Day tends to be sexual harassment. So you’ve got inappropriate touching, being shouted at, being stalked, and the list goes on.

It’s a feminist thing, but men are not excluded

On IWD, a lot of men chimed up ‘what about us?!’ and not only is there an International Men’s Day for you, but you’ll find that concepts in feminism – even rape culture and street harassment – can apply to men too. As an example, I went out clubbing with my housemates to a gay bar. My male housemate was accosted in the toilets by a gay man who wanted him to keep the toilet door open so he could see. When politely told no, the man went to the cubicle next door, pulled himself up in between the two cubicles and confronted him again. Luckily, he didn’t see anything, and my housemate was polite and told him to go away. Yet for the rest of the night, every time he went to the toilets, he was followed by the same man. Eventually, he decided he would go into the ladies’ toilets (for the club’s rules stated that men were allowed in the womens’ toilets but not the other way round) and ‘pretend to be gay’ in order to get away with being there.

He had to change his behaviour in order to avoid being harassed – and this is exactly the conundrum I and many other women are faced with every single time we go out. We want to look good, but we need to make sure that we don’t look so good that we’re ripe for the taking. If we wear a low-cut top, short skirt or anything slightly more revealing than a nun’s habit, we are to expect to be ogled and shouted at, maybe even approached, by men who think that they somehow have the right to say or do anything to a woman if they see enough flesh.

Street harassment is essentially ‘unwanted attention’

For as long as I’ve had a social life, I’ve been harassed by men when I’ve been out; even just walking along the street. One of my first memories of this is when I was about 14. I was walking home in my school uniform minding my own business. I don’t think I had an MP3 player then (nowadays I am never seen without one, because it works as a barrier to stop people from talking to me) so I could hear every single word. Three young black men who were standing on the other side of the road to me, or walking along, noticed me and started calling me a “white prostitute”, “slag”, “whore”, “fucking white bitch” and other variations; you name it, I was called it.

And for what? Walking home. In a school uniform. By this time I was past any shops that I could walk into, so I had no choice but to carry on, trying not to react to promote further shouting, or worse. I then realised that they were following me. My heart was racing, but all I could think was that if I could just make it home, I’d be safe. I got home okay, but they had followed me, right up to my doorstep, and rang on the doorbell. I remember crouching on the floor, hiding under the door window, hoping that they would get bored and go away. They did, eventually. But I refused to walk home alone from school after that, and for a few weeks I lived in fear that now they knew where I lived, they would come back.

Of course, that is probably an exceptional occurrence. You’d think, anyway. The most recent form of harassment I had was in Brighton at a Hurts gig. I’ll keep it short – there was a man stood behind me, crotch touching bum, breathing down my neck. He was much taller and of a bigger build than me and all of my friends, and when I politely asked him to move backwards he started shouting incoherently at me. I thought he was going to physically hurt me. Is it really that unreasonable to expect personal space when you’re a woman?

More subtle forms of harassment take place on a daily basis. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been touched, grabbed, or approached in an aggressive way by men, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. These are just a couple of my stories. If you want to find out more, there’s more information on street harassment at the Stop Street Harassment website.

How to Write Effectively to your MP

This post is inspired by a conversation I had with the lovely baby dragon Puffles. There’s a longer post here (with a sample letter about the cuts that people can send to their MP) and a PDF file explaining how to lobby here – but I thought I’d keep it short & sweet. Lots of people feel writing to your MP is ineffective. But many don’t know how to do it properly – or in a way that is likely to get a satisfactory result. Clarity and being specific are key.

1) Be polite throughout the letter

2) Establish that you are actually in their constituency – always include your address (also useful so you can get a response too..!)

3) State the concern you have. ie “I’m worried about the recent proposals to sell off forests”… If you can, state the name of the act, or the details of what it is you’re writing about, to make it clear exactly what is concerning you.

4) Relate it to yourself. How will this affect you? Why should the MP care? ie “I am a horse rider, I go to ___ forest every week and I am worried that if these proposals go through, I won’t be able to go into the forest.”

5) Keep it non-partisan. It’s important that political differences between your MP and you (if any) are left aside. At the end of the day, they are there to represent you, regardless of whether you voted them in, or whether you agree with them.

6) Ask for some kind of action. Advice, reassurance, or a representation to somebody higher. ie “Can you reassure me that this will not be the case?” or “Can you please put this forward to the Minister of ____”… That way, they know what’s expected of them and can respond appropriately.

Tools you can use to write to MPs

TheyWorkForYou.com – Find out what your local representatives are doing in Parliament
WriteToThem.com – Find and write an email to your MP

An Internet Internship

This is my application for an internet research internship in America. I think it’s relevant to this blog as it really explains my views about the internet, social media, etc. We live in exciting times, and I find it incredibly interesting:

People have described me as ‘addicted’ to the internet. To them I say, I am simply endlessly fascinated with the possibilities it holds – the way that we can interact with people across the world, and how we can utilize social media and new media tools to make the world a better place. Recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have given us a taste of the kind of freedoms the internet holds for ordinary people.

I’m currently writing my dissertation (10,000 words) on how people use Twitter to access and engage with news. I have been on Twitter myself for a few months now and found my network expanding beyond anything I could ever imagine. I have made fantastic contacts across a whole range of industries – and all without even specifically trying. There is so much potential on social networks that people don’t yet understand.

I am also working on a project about activism in the UK at the moment, which falls somewhat into the ‘civic engagement’ topic. How can we use what we have – the internet, animations, video, audio, etc – to educate people and politicise them? How do we turn ‘likes’ on Facebook to real-life direct action on the streets, or to encourage people to vote? How can we better inform people about the world we live in? These are questions I have been asking myself over the last few months. I don’t yet have the answers – but I am having a brilliant time trying to figure it out, through discussions on Twitter, Facebook and email. Connecting with people I haven’t met and having enlightening debates; this kind of collaborative and informal online self-education is what I thrive on and want to encourage other people to do.

I honestly believe that the world we live in today, with all its technological advances, was never envisaged by previous generations. Even the millions of ways in which the internet is now used, was never visualised. And in the same way, I believe that the future will be so vastly different to what we can possibly imagine – we need to continually innovate and think of new ways to harness the technology we have to improve our experience of life.

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