Sexual violence against women and children. Domestic abuse. Police violence. Violence. Suicide.
Part 3: The Women They Rape
In the first two parts of this series, I showed you how The Police ignore the institutional misogyny that is policing, and that there’s practically nothing in place to stop cops abusing their power just to get their rocks off.
Here is where all of that culminates. But first.
Rape Has Been Decriminalised in The United Kingdom
If you’ve been raped, what might be on your phone that proves you’ve been raped? I’ve been sitting here for a while asking myself that question. The best I can come up with is a text to the rapist saying words to the effect of “you raped me”. I dunno. This is an uncomfortable thought experiment.
What about the opposite question? What would prove you weren’t raped? My woke AF brain is not happy with that question. My um best… answer for this is another text “wasn’t that sex fun?”
I’m not entirely naïve. And after lifetimes of dealing with male bullshit, neither are women. The above examples alone prove nothing. One can imagine how a defence lawyer might use sexts or nudes found on a victim’s phone in court. They’re just modern additions to the “what was she wearing?” defence.
Which brings us to the UK’s merit-based approach to prosecuting rape. Which certainly seems positive, or at least, not total utter garbage. In short, it looks at what the merits of a conviction will be, as opposed to how likely one would be.
For example; If it is statistically unlikely for a conviction to be achieved for rapes where the victim had been drinking, and a new case of rape involves a drunk victim, the prosecutor has to ignore that statistic, because the benefit of a rapist off the street is deemed more important.
But here’s the inevitable but: The latest Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Crime Survey found in England and Wales only 16% of rapes are reported. In 2019-2020 a bit more than 55,000 allegations of rape were made. 1.4% of those resulted in a charge or summons. There are no official rape statistics for children.
These are not precise numbers, but you work with the data you’re given:
So, the effective charge rate of rape in England and Wales is 0.2%. And that’s not convictions. Merely charges. It’s obscenely low. Obscenely. Like. What the actual fuck? Why is this happening?
Campaigners believe the merit-based approach has been unofficially abandoned by the Crown Prosecution Service in favour of a bookies approach. So, the End Violence Against Woman Coalition brought a legal challenge making this claim against the CPS.
The court ruled against the campaigners.
And so, the opinion of leaders of several women’s and victims’ groups is that rape is effectively decriminalised in the United Kingdom. Vera Baird, The Victim’s Commissioner, Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, and Shadow Solicitor General Ellie Reeves all said exactly that.
This seems to be in large part because cases are immediately dropped when victims do not want to hand over their phones to the police for one of those “digital strip searches” I described in Part 2. Who can blame them? While attitudes may be slowly shifting, women are aware of victim blaming questions like “what was she wearing?” That most victims know their rapist, and any indication that she may have had some sexual desire towards him at some point will be used against her, it’s not surprising that a woman wouldn’t want to hand over her phone.
And I presume they don’t know all the stuff you and I know from reading this. Goddamn it.
One tiny little teeny flickering ray of kind of maybe hope a little bit is that the police have U-turned on the digital strip searches. But it remains to be seen whether it’ll have any effect on the charge rate for Rape. For the past four years it’s been decreasing, and they only started demanding total phone access in 2018. There is little cause for optimism. Huh-fucking-rah.
So now we know the state of how the state handles rape cases as a whole: Shit out of ten. Let’s see how the police do when allegations are made against cops.
A 76% prosecution rate as a whole (not counting ‘Unclear’ or ‘Awaiting Trial’). Not Earth-shatteringly terrible. But like Sexual Assault, when we remove the children from the equation, the Guilty rate drops, this time to 57%.
I still can’t provide an explanation for this disparity. My hunch is that people, a jury, are more willing to believe a bunch of people saying, “this child was raped” than they are a woman saying, “I was raped”.
So yeah, it’s not good. I do not believe that a statistically significant number of rape complaints are false. Again, I reiterate that each of those numbers represents a woman overcoming all sorts of fears and reporting the cop who raped her.
Using the number of 16% of rapes being reported, we can extrapolate and estimate that the total number of women raped by police officers over the past ten years is closer to 469. But that number only counts cases that went to trial, were reported on by the press, and I found. And most definitely doesn’t account for the extra fears someone has when reporting a police officer. It’s a bare minimum, not-even-conservative kind of estimate.
Supposing aside, let’s break down the charges we do know about a bit. They’re split between thirty-five men. The charges marked as ‘Unclear’ are ones where I couldn’t find a story following up the one case being referred to – the accused officer had four charges against him.
Two cops are awaiting trial. The two reports concerning them each consist of one hundred words. Both officers are sergeants. That’s all we’ve got.
Not Guilty Does Not Mean Innocent
Thirty Not Guilties are split between thirteen men. Fourteen of those Not Guilty charges belong to Inspector Mustaq Patala. A bit of a shit.
Inspector Mustaq Patala physically attacked his pregnant wife. Inspector Mustaq Patala threw a chair at his wife. Inspector Mustaq Patala regularly attacked her for more than ten years.
In 2010 she reported him, and he was charged with domestic violence offences. He admitted two counts of assault, and all the other charges were dropped.
A few years later he was arrested again after several women reported him for raping them while he was still a cop. He allegedly told one he was a police officer who “could find and kill her”. Which, y’know, tracks as far as The Police go when they do crimes to people. In the end, the case was thrown out by the judge who said there was something wrong with the legal submissions. That’s all I’ve found as the reason.
Patala claimed the rape charges were due to the jealousy of his colleagues, and institutional racism. I’ll be clear here; I have no problem believing there’s institutional racism in The Police. Or indeed that they’re all a bunch of petty little dickholes. Because fuck the cops. But about three seconds of thinking pisses all over his stupid claims. He wasn’t employed by The Police anymore. Even they don’t let you keep your job after you’ve attacked your wife and been prosecuted for it. Though it’s only the first bit of that they don’t mind.
So, The Police just made up some rapes a while after Patala had been fired for… what reason? The CPS thought they had a good chance of prosecuting him because it got in front of a judge, and we know they’re super not keen on prosecuting rapes. So, they must have thought they’d had a shot. I dunno. It all fucking stinks to me. Someone fucked up somewhere. Everyone sucks.
I hope those women are okay.
The majority of the rest of the Not Guilty charges are cases where there have been other charges, some of which have been proven and returned a Guilty verdict. Rape has not been proven though. One case does seem to have been a false accusation.
Then there’s the case of PC Andrew Robertson. Allegedly, his partner held down a woman while PC Andrew Robertson raped her. In court it was their word against hers. I wonder if the jury believed them because PC Andrew Robertson is a cop. Maybe it was simply a numbers game, two versus one. Read the linked article and decide for yourself. But it seems pretty fucking iffy to me.
My point here is that I believe the women who made these allegations. I refuse to believe that half the women who accused cops of raping them were making it up. If you’ve been following this series, you know the kind of fights they’ll have had to go through.
You guys, I hate it.
The Eighteen Rapists We Know About For Sure
The outcome of all of the cases above reminds me of the words of the victim of the very first police officer convicted of rape that I read about:
“His not guilty plea caused me to have panic attacks. … Every contact regarding the trial heightened my anxiety. At times I thought I was suffering a cardiac event and thought I would not be able to continue.”
This is just one victim. Sergeant Derek Seekings was at work, on his meal break. Sergeant Derek Seekings wanted to have sex with the woman who was present with him at the time. She told him plainly and clearly that she did not want to have sex with him. Sergeant Derek Seekings didn’t care what she wanted. Sergeant Derek Seekings carried on regardless of her clear denial of consent. Sergeant Derek Seekings raped her.
Sergeant Derek Seekings’ subsequent denial of reality caused her to feel like she was going to die, that her heart was going to explode.
It sickens me. All the victims quoted in the press have similar sentiments of lingering terror. I fear the women in the previous section felt something even more intense when they were told that their reality was legally wrong. It sounds unbearable. It makes sense why an accused man would deny it of course, he’s trying to save his own arse. But it’s all a part of why women think they won’t be believed when they report that a man has raped them. And as a cop, there’s no way he’d not know that. I wonder what weight it adds when your rapist is a cop.
These numbers are from the ONS Crime Survey, they apply to the population as a whole, not specifically rapist cops. The reporting for them will be far lower.
I Fucking Hate A Man in Uniform
Rereading all the articles I collected, I noted that at least half of these men in some way used their status as a police officer to rape their victims. Some used it as a way to impress women, some to gain their trust. Some used it to scare them into staying quiet.
And once again, I can’t emphasise this enough: The stories I’ve collected are based on often short media reports. I don’t know all the details, their roles as cops could well have been significant or at least a factor in all of these cases. But here are three I picked at random.
I’m a white guy. So, unless I’m doing something illegal, I don’t pay the police much attention when they’re nearby. Sergeant Clive Garton, also a white man, presumably thought this is what most people think too. Mixed with that, he was a cop. He could do anything. Go anywhere. He didn’t need permission. It’s not suspicious for a cop to be anywhere. He owned the streets. Whose streets? Clive’s streets.
And for three years, that’s how Sergeant Clive Garton stalked his victim. A physically disabled woman. That’s how Sergeant Clive Garton controlled her. Sergeant Clive Garton would appear out of the blue wherever she happened to be. Sergeant Clive Garton lied to her and told her he was on police business nearby. Sergeant Clive Garton knew where she was because he was tracking her phone.
Sergeant Clive Garton had training in covert surveillance. Sergeant Clive Garton placed listening devices in her house. Sergeant Clive Garton made recordings of her.
Sergeant Clive Garton was in her house arguing with her. Sergeant Clive Garton approached her as she sat on her staircase. Sergeant Clive Garton started trying to hug and kiss her. She tried to get away. Sergeant Clive Garton held her down. She couldn’t escape. Sergeant Clive Garton raped her.
Sergeant Clive Garton wouldn’t leave her home. She called the police and told them that Sergeant Clive Garton had raped her. Sergeant Clive Garton begged her to retract her statement. She did.
She reported him again. He was arrested. Charged. Bailed. He was told not to contact her. Sergeant Clive Garton bombarded her with texts.
At trial, Sergeant Clive Garton said she was a liar. Sergeant Clive Garton said she was mentally impaired because of her physical disability.
“I felt very frightened of him. I still feel intimidated by him. I am convinced he will turn up again one day even if it is in years to come. I felt ashamed, betrayed, mocked, and not believed. He has made my life a misery.”
“Hence why I mentioned the sofa, I’m nice Lol”
In May 2020, my brother was supposed to get married in Chicago. That’s where his fiancée is from. Covid-19 put a halt to that. But the thought of a destination wedding was pretty fucking exciting. A drunken weeklong binge on American grease with my family sounded like a damn good time. At some point my sister and I might whip out our respective Tinders and bond by checking out the local talent.
I’d bet PC Lee Martin-Cramp felt similarly excited as the weeks counted down towards a family wedding in Antigua. What might he see, and whom might he meet?
They matched on Tinder. Chatted a bit. Arranged to meet up. She lived on a different part of the island to where he was staying. It was too far to walk. PC Lee Martin-Cramp told her what he did for a living. PC Lee Martin-Cramp sent her photos of him in his uniform. PC Lee Martin-Cramp asked if he could stay over. She agreed, but told him via WhatsApp:
“But if I'm being totally real with you, and we're hanging out & drinking, don't come with an expectation of having sex, aight? I would rather be real upfront, and i don't do that kind of thing with people I just meet. Ya dig?”
PC Lee Martin-Cramp lied and said he was happy to sleep on the sofa. Lol.
They drank. They chatted. They headed back to her place to hang out and watch a movie. She poured them both a glass of wine. She headed to her bedroom to change into something more movie-watching appropriate. PC Lee Martin-Cramp mixed the crushed up sleeping pills into her drink. She returned to the living room. The movie started. She took a swig of her wine. She asked him why it tasted funny. PC Lee Martin-Cramp said he’d poured some vodka in it. She took another sip. She started to feel dizzy. She passed out.
PC Lee Martin-Cramp dragged her into her bedroom. PC Lee Martin-Cramp stripped her. PC Lee Martin-Cramp began to rape her. She regained consciousness. PC Lee Martin-Cramp was on top of her, raping her. She screamed no. PC Lee Martin-Cramp kept raping her. She passed out again.
The following morning she awoke, naked, with him in bed next to her. She drove him back to his hotel.
"For many months, I felt numb if not empty. I cried myself to sleep at night every night for an entire year. I typed many suicide letters on my phone then after a few days deleted them, just to write another."
“I’m A Cop, I Can Do What I Want”
She’d reported him to the police once before. They didn’t believe her. PC Michael Graham told her they wouldn’t.
Describing something as lucky sometimes feels wrong. It’s relative, I suppose. Being in a park. In the dark. Scared. Crying. Injured. Found by his enablers, the police. It doesn’t conjure a vision of luck. But that September night in 2014, I reckon for PC Michael Graham’s victim, ‘luck’ is the best word we’ve got.
It’s not clear how long PC Michael Graham abused her for. But she first reported him in 2012. The eventual charges only dated back to December 2013. The following is an amalgamation of many, many nights:
She opened the app, and set it to start recording when she snored. She placed her phone on the bedside, stood up, and walked towards the door. PC Michael Graham entered, and she started to shake.
PC Michael Graham grabbed the front of her dress. PC Michael Graham ripped her dress in two. PC Michael Graham pushed her against the wall. PC Michael Graham took her by the throat and began to squeeze. PC Michael Graham told her what she’d done and what he was going to do to make her pay for it. She already knew. PC Michael Graham threw her onto the bed. With the cry she made, the app began to record.
PC Michael Graham strode over, pulling his belt from his trousers. PC Michael Graham turned her over into a prone position. PC Michael Graham lashed her across her backside. “You cunt.”
“Please stop please don’t.”
PC Michael Graham lashed her again. “I hate you, you cunt.” PC Michael Graham said as he lashed her again.
“I hate you.” Again. “I hate you.” Again. “I hate you.” Again.
PC Michael Graham used his belt to tie her hands to the headboard. PC Michael Graham tore down her underwear. PC Michael Graham raped her. Again.
Her phone kept recording.
At trial, after her recordings were played, PC Michael Graham called her a liar. PC Michael Graham said it was consensual rough sex. PC Michael Graham said he was only angry because he’d given up smoking.
“You told me as a police officer you could do as you liked, that no one would believe me and you would tell your colleagues I was mental. You threatened to kill me and dispose of the evidence. I can no longer listen to music or watch television in case I can't hear you breaking in to kill me.”
The Perfect Job for Aspiring Rapists
I started this piece with the line “Rape has been effectively decriminalised in the UK” and then proceeded to tell you about three men who were caught, tried, and prosecuted. I do not believe that these are contradictory positions. I think it is good that they were caught, and I hope their prosecution brought their victims some kind of peace. But we should be preventing, not prosecuting.
I said in Part 1 that this is a men’s issue. It is men who incite all these crimes. And cops are members of society, so society is reflected in policing. Well, there are roughly one thousand rapes a day in the UK. The horrors I described above happen one thousand times a day. I don’t know how many of those thousand will be committed by police officers. But some will be, and they’ll have used their state power in the ways the men above did.
So the list never ends. The actual number will be higher. Far higher. Victims of sexual violence are frequently vulnerable people targeted precisely for their vulnerabilities. Cops have a habit of abusing vulnerable people. Rape is wildly underreported. Cops aren’t actively searching for the corrupt among them. And people are scared to report the police to the police.
Yeah, it’s the perfect job if you’re into that kind of thing.
It's so fucking fucked.
Tear It All Down
Every time I return to the spreadsheet with the data in to find a source or something, I spot a crime I haven’t mentioned that’s strikingly abhorrent. It’s been hard to resist the temptation to cherry pick the absolute worst of the worst and use them to paint all of policing as maniacs on raping sprees.
From workplace sexual harassment, to murder, to misuse of police data, to rape. Every single one of these crimes is violating, and most are brutal. I found them draining to write. I tried my best to not sensationalise the actions of those men. Just plainly describe the choices that they made. If I have written well enough, then the plodding ambivalence with which male violence against women committed by cops is treated by The Police will have dripped through. And indeed, male violence against women in general, because The Police and the justice system don’t give a shit about it.
For the final time I must acknowledge that a project like this, that hopes to hold the powerful to account, is built on the courage of women and girls whose names I’ll never know. But I would also like to recognise the very large number of, and very real fears other women and girls have when it comes to reporting sexual abuse, let alone by a police officer. How do we help them? They deserve our help.
Every day they aren’t helped means society has failed in yet another way. And at these pitiful levels of prosecution, clearly the justice system has failed too. It needs to go. From Community Support Officers to the stupid fucking wigs that judges wear, and everything in between. It all must go. It’s all a bad joke. They are not here to protect us. Anyone who still has faith is either uninformed or lying to themselves.
In March 2021, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour interviewed two women: Susannah Fish, former Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police, and Olivia Pinkney, the Chief Constable for Hampshire. Pinkney said all the usual platitudes organisations say when they’re accused of being shitty. “I don’t recognise…” Zzzzzzz. “We’re committed to…” Snore.
The final question the presenter, Emma Barnett, asked Susannah Fish was; knowing all she knows about the inner workings of The Police from top to bottom, and being a woman, would she report a crime?
Fish said that she’d not hesitate to report a crime against her property. But she would if it were against her body.
Writes and reads about horrible things, and turns them into video soup. find him at www.LovelyAlexander.com and follow him at @LovelyAlexanduh
Download the spreadsheet here: https://we.tl/t-vqccs8iDIm
Sexual violence against women and children. Domestic abuse. Police violence. Violence. Suicide.
Part 2: The Women They Find
In the first part of this series, I showed you parts of the misogyny running through British policing. It’s much easier for cops to get away with domestic abuse, and the wives and girlfriends of cops that report it are frequently let down. Women who work for The Police are scared to report sexual harassment in their workplaces. The Police keep being told this is happening, and yet refuse to do anything about it. Blah blah Police Force takes these matters very seriously and blah blah public can rest assured blah blah. Every. Goddamn. Time.
In part two, we’ll cover how being a police officer is one of the very best jobs to have if you want access to vulnerable women and children.
Corruption Isn’t Just About Money
Most of us are taught from a young age to do what a police officer tells us to do. They are there to protect us. Their authority shouldn’t be questioned. Many people will never believe anything else - and if amazingly somehow, but it’s very rare I promise, a bad apple does pop up, BBC documentary series ‘Line of Duty’ will make sure everything is tickety-boo once again.
Police power is necessary. Without it there’d be anarchy. All hail Johnson. All hail Patel. All hail Dick.
In some ways the data the police have access to via the Police National Computer and other systems, is their most unnerving tool. It’s made up of a bunch of databases filled with all the data they’ve gotten their trotters on. If someone or something has been involved in a crime and the police know about it, they have data on it. The existence of this probably isn’t a surprise to anyone. Police write things down. But what can they do with this data?
Some cops use it like Tinder.
Until this research began, my understanding of police corruption was pretty much limited to the movie ‘Serpico’. But no, it’s not just bribes and entrenched racism! On paper, a lot of police forces apparently still think the same as I used to. But misusing police data, and abusing police powers for a sexual purpose are most definitely corruption.
The absurdly named PEEL Spotlight Report Shining a Light on Betrayal: Abuse of Position for A Sexual Purpose from September 2019 by… deep breath… Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) makes plain its displeasure at police forces’ failure to recognise these things as corruption and suitably deal with them.
Clearly, the report focuses on one particular type of corruption, but the points raised must broadly apply to policing as a whole. Here’s a list of some of the teeeeny tiiiny massive problems the report identifies:
Quite a list, eh? Anyhoo. That’s what HMICFRS found. What have I found?
I’m focusing on Abuse of Position for A Sexual Purpose and Misusing Police Data for the bulk of the following words. But the other two charges in the above chart are related to this topic too.
Abuse of Position for A Sexual Purpose is a subcategory of Misconduct in Public Office, a corruption charge. There were so many Abuse of Position for A Sexual Purposes that I gave them their own label. However, Misconduct in Public Office covers loads of other things too, and the crimes labelled as Misconduct in Public Office offences I’ve counted are actions where a woman or child has come to harm in some way, but not because a cop has abused his power for sex.
Gross Misconduct is workplace bad behaviour. Not a crime (although officers convicted of a crime usually get one of these too, though I haven’t included them). If an officer is found guilty of Gross Misconduct, they almost always lose their job. Again, I’ve included these where a woman or child has been harmed in some way. It’s all male police violence, all the male time, when it comes to my male charts, baby.
Power and Purpose
Abuse of Position for A Sexual Purpose and Misusing Police Data often go hand in hand. In theory, it’s entirely reasonable to give your phone number to a police officer when you’ve been a victim of crime. I won’t fault someone for doing that. And it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable if the cop puts it in his police issued phone. Right?
I couldn’t find out what the police can and can’t do with the Police National Computer on their phones. But they can definitely access it. Whether they can make entries to it, I’m not sure. If so, that’s where a victim’s details should go, right? On balance, it seems like better procedure to store it on a centralised database than as a new contact in the contact list of a phone. Well, cops sure do seem to end up with the phone numbers of victims without having misused any police data a lot. Hmm.
Each of these one-hundred-and-two stories is awful. None are quite as shocking as the one involving DC Michael McMillan from Part 1: none involves an officer holding the threat of dropping a case over a victim’s head. Few involve officers specially trained to deal with cases of domestic abuse. And only three involve cops falsifying or ignoring evidence in rape cases. So that’s good. Hoooraaaayyyyyyy.
Most of the cases play out something like this whether the victim is a woman or a child: Police officer responds to emergency call. Police officer deals with victim, or witness, or suspect who is vulnerable. Police officer fancies her. Police officer gets her phone number legitimately or otherwise. Police officer starts texting her for an apparently innocent reason a couple of days later.
That happens in most of these cases, mark my words. When you’ve read about as many as I have, it’s hard to pick one case out, because they seem so typical. So ordinary. Which is bad thinking. Bad Lovely Alexander! None of this is ordinary, even if it’s common.
A case study in the HMICFRS report describes a married officer who’d been using his work phone to text thirteen different women he met through his duties. Four of whom believed they were in a relationship with him. That seems like a shit load of effort, like, right? Must have been a power trip. I dunno. Still, I didn’t even find that story in the news while I was doing my research.
So, whether it’s a power thing or an attraction thing, it doesn’t really matter. It’s shitty either way. They start texting. At this point the stories go pretty much all the ways they can go. Except here they get the apparent backing of the state. Have a look.
PC Mark Wilkie liked to send explicit, sexual text messages to victims of crime. PC Mark Wilkie liked to anonymously call victims of crime and make heavy breathing sounds down the line. PC Mark Wilkie did this to at least twelve women. PC Mark Wilkie was caught with a stolen phone containing the phone numbers of over fifty women.
PC Ben Murphy liked to stop female motorists for made up offences and let them off with a warning. PC Ben Murphy would then start texting them messages of a sexual nature. PC Ben Murphy did this to at least five women. PC Ben Murphy sent at least one woman a picture of his penis.
PC Lee Kershaw stole the phone numbers of vulnerable women. PC Lee Kershaw didn’t like it when those vulnerable women rejected his advances. So, PC Lee Kershaw sexually assaulted at least four of them. PC Lee Kershaw also tried to rape a victim of domestic abuse.
Those are just three men who did this. Three men. Three policemen. Out of tens. Hundreds? Thousands? We’ll never know. They were able to do those things with authority and phone numbers. Just phone numbers. A 0, a 7, and nine random numbers.
Voyeurs and The Indecent
In the past few years, The Police have acquired technology that can quickly download the contents of a smartphone, cracking encryption in minutes and giving them access to everything. Contacts. Locations. Messages. Pictures. They’re known as “digital strip searches”. Let’s not mince words. This tech gives the police access to your nudes, and anything else you consider personal, private, or intimate on your phone. I’ve seen no cases involving police officers obtaining pictures like this. But I know they’re coming.
Well, two things.
Firstly, in an audit, 50% of digital strip searches by one force were done without the required warrant. Data is everywhere and The Police want it. Maybe in some cases they’ll even need it. They’ll do whatever they can to get it.
And secondly, well, have a look the numbers for y’self.
While a term like ‘indecent images’ sounds prudish, it doesn’t refer to porn. Porn is created willingly by the participants for the purpose of entertaining others. Oh, and that’s why we don’t call it ‘child porn’. ‘Child sexual abuse images’ if you please. That’s evidence of a crime taking place.
I’m not going to go into significant detail on child sexual abuse images, despite it being the most common charge by far. Fifty-nine cops were charged with related offences, many with multiple. For the most part, that’s because viewing, saving, and sharing all earn separate charges. It’s not a reflection of how many of the images they possessed. From what I figure the images were mostly of girls. It’s still male violence against women, well, girls. Clearly a lot of cops thought it was fine to watch and enjoy children getting raped. And that’s very fucking bad.
A few officers were part of units dedicated to combating child sexual abuse, but only one is definitively linked by the media to have used his police-taught dark web skills to try and get away with possession of the images. Lee Vincent Kelly. But for the most part, they’re caught the “normal” ways. It’s found after they’re caught for another crime, usually attacking a child. Or, by mistakenly leaking some sort of identifying information online, and then having their house raided. Like dumbshit of the fucking decade, PC Robert Branney who had his home address in his username on a child sexual abuse website.
One thing I picked up on is the common excuses used by men caught with child sexual abuse images. First is that they downloaded it by accident. Hmm. Nice save, guy! And number two is that they were very stressed… so… that made them… want to watch child sexual abuse? Two cops, PC Darren Wright and PC Adam Leighton-Price even blamed their leukaemia. The stress of having leukaemia made them want to watch children being raped. That is perhaps the darkest leap of logic I’ve ever seen.
But I digress. Returning to why I’m scared victims nudes will start being stolen. It’s because of cops like Detective Sergeant Benjamin McNish, who filmed a female colleague while she showered.
Or Sergeant Tim Lundy, who posted a woman’s “private sexual pictures” online with the explicit intention of causing her distress. That’s police-speak for “tried to ruin her fucking life.”
Both of those, and many more cases suggest the potential for blackmailing a woman or child with pictures or data from their phone. It’s only a matter of time.
Then there’s PC Dominic Dunne, who liked to secretly film women while having sex with them. PC Dominic Dunne liked to film women while they were unconscious. PC Dominic Dunne liked to film himself sexually assaulting women while they were unconscious.
Still, it was PC Dominic Dunne’s hubris that was his undoing. That he filmed his attacks made it easier for his victims to get justice. Everyone could see what he’d done.
When Your Sexual Assault Isn’t on Camera
I wonder a lot about the women who make an accusation of Sexual Assault, get to trial, and then the man, the cop, is found Not Guilty. I don’t know how I’d handle that. I can imagine sitting in a court room yelling; “But it fucking happened! He did it! What the fuck?! Why don’t you believe me?!”
And then I think of the officers who had multiple accusers and still walked free. What must that result have done to the minds of their alleged victims?
We’ve all been on an overcrowded train. Standing in a vestibule. It’s kinda gross. Hot. Moist. Awkward. I’m a large man, upward and outward. When I’m onboard, I try my best to respect the limited personal space of strangers. But I know I’m likely to bump into someone. Whatcha gonna do? It’s okay. It happens. I’d bet that’s the attitude of most people.
Over a six-month period, Ex-Chief Inspector Gary Davies was accused by three separate whole entire women of rubbing his crotch on them while on overcrowded trains.
He said he had a bad back (from a policing injury no less, how heroic) and needed to adjust his body’s weight distribution to relieve his back pain. As he shifted forward, his crotch came into contact with a woman.
Alright. Fair enough. I figure I’d overlook one quick accidental crotch bump on me. Again, bumping around into others a bit is standard on busy trains. So how long would it take for it to get weird? How long until I’d report it?
But if I were him, there’s no way I’d purposefully perform any kind of action where my crotch is pushed up against a stranger on a train. Man, woman, or child. He was a fucking cop boss. Fucksake he’s a goddamn human being alive in the twenty-first century. He definitely knew it was at leeeast inappropriate. There’s no way he didn’t.
While he wasn’t a cop at the time of the alleged offences, he said he was able to use his knowledge of policing to prove his innocence. Y’see at one point while investigating him, British Transport Police surveilled him illegally. Which he picked up on, because of his police knowledge. So, um that seems to be why he was Not Guilty.
This gets an “iffy” rating from me, what with the three different women reporting him. For the same thing! But nope. Not Guilty. Hmmm.
“My language might be seen as inappropriate and silly but it was to show police officers were not robotic and are approachable.”
Sergeant Richard Evans is a custody sergeant. He’s in charge of the people in the police cells. The above quote is something he said at his trial. His defence seemed to be that he’s a bit cooky. Not a sex-pest. A bit of a silly-billy. Harmless.
He was accused of three different crimes against three women. He had sex with one while she was in custody. He kissed and fondled another while she was in custody. The third had a blanket round her while getting changed and he pulled it down so he could see her breasts.
Not Guilty on all counts. Can’t tell you why. Bit fucking iffy.
Give Us A Snog
In 2011 PC Gareth Roscoe arrested a man for drink driving. The man’s nineteen-year-old girlfriend was with him. She came to the police station. PC Gareth Roscoe was accused by the nineteen-year-old woman of offering to go easy on her boyfriend if she engaged in sexual behaviour with him. PC Gareth Roscoe was accused by the nineteen-year-old woman of groping her breasts, and trying to kiss her.
He was charged and the case went to trial. PC Gareth Roscoe was found Not Guilty.
In 2016 while attending a call, PC Gareth Roscoe asked for a hot drink from a member of the public. A woman. She agreed and invited PC Gareth Roscoe into her home. PC Gareth Roscoe tried to kiss her.
He was found to have engaged in Gross Misconduct and dismissed from the police. Casts a little doubt on the result of his first trial, huh?
I wonder how often cops try to snog the public. PC Gareth Roscoe is not the only cop charged with doing this.
More Miserable Numbers
I’ve been on either end of a rejected kiss. It’s uncomfortable for everyone. But it’s only ever been with peers. There will have been the socialised male/female power dynamics, sure, but I’ve never tried to kiss a stranger at work. It’s never involved one of us having legal authority over another.
Of course, many men feel entitled to women’s bodies despite rejection; the addition of a uniform must only amplify that. Recently I learned men – strangers - will grab women either side of their waists to move them out of the way. If as a society that’s where we’re still at, fuck, man. Women aren’t chairs.
The overall state of successful prosecutions of Sexual Assault by police officers is relatively high at nearly 90% (not counting Unclear or Awaiting Trial).
Many cops are charged with multiple offences, and this is reflected in the total statistics. One officer was charged with five counts of Sexual Assault and was found Not Guilty for all of them. Another was charged with five counts of Sexual Assault, and was found Guilty of all of them.
However, once we remove the two-hundred-and-twenty Sexual Assaults against children from the picture the prosecution rate for cops that attack women drops to 63%, and it’s not clear at all why that is.
Infuriatingly, as with everything I’ve discussed, we only have a few small random parts of the story.
Sexual Assault is woefully underreported for both adults and children. For the year ending March 2020, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 618,000 women were sexually assaulted. 162,936 of these were reported to the police.
For children, there’s currently no way of knowing what the actual scale of the problem is. The ONS’ best estimate is 7.5% of adults aged between 18 and 74 were victims of sexual abuse as children. That’s 3.1 million people. Jesus Christ. For every boy abused, three girls were. If we extrapolate those numbers to the number of people under sixteen currently living in the UK, 12.7 million, we get 952,500. But I don’t know how to work that into an annual figure.
Frequently The Police don’t record data on sex crimes properly, so even the total number recorded against children is a guess by the ONS. 73,260 for the year ending March 2019. We don’t really know how many children are sexually abused every year. Yep.
Then there’s the March 2021 UN finding that 71% of women in the UK have faced some form of sexual harassment from men in public. The number rises to 86% for women aged 18-24.
55% of those women thought their experience wasn’t serious enough to report. 45% thought reporting it wouldn’t help. Again, it’s hard to pull any useful data from these figures, apart from the general lack of faith in society and The Police. The UN definition is as broad as can be. Though that’s not a criticism! Because it’s all unacceptable. It was all serious enough to report to someone. It was all serious enough to be worthy of help. It all fucking matters.
“[The UN] defines sexual harassment as the continuum of violent practices against women and girls. It can take the form of various acts including rape, other aggressive touching, forced viewing of pornography, taking and circulating sexual photographs, as well as verbal sexual conduct. In effect, sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct.”
While it’s not obviously comparable with any of the data I’ve amassed, The Independent submitted a Freedom of Information request to The Metropolitan Police querying how many officers had been accused of “sex attacks” between 2012 and 2018. They found 562 officers were accused of Sexual Assault and only forty-three faced subsequent proceedings. We don’t know how many ended up in court.
Finally, there are the most recent Independent Office for Police Complaints figures. The IOPC claims to publish quarterly reports about complaints for each police force. Except at time of writing – March 2021, the most recent quarterly reports were for Q3 2019. And the most recent annual report was for 2018/19. I can’t see a publication date for the report. It’s all probably completely fine that the IOPC aren’t publishing figures anymore for no obvious reason. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Well, whatever, I guess. Let’s have a looksee at their latest data.
The total number of complaints (not just of a sexual nature) fell for more than half the forces in England and Wales. Only four had an increased number of complaints. Are they getting less shitty? Or just recording fewer complaints? There were 5% fewer in total than the previous year, down to 58,478. But um, well, for that same year there were 123,171 total cops in England and Wales. That’s potentially almost one in two officers being complained about. Right? Probably nothing to worry about.
You know what? Fuck this. I’ve read through the IOPC report I’m referring to twice. It’s self-congratulatory bullshit. It can fuck off. The IOPC provide no real data of any use. The categorisations of complaints are vague. They just sing the praises of their own ability to count things. The vast majority of all complaints are not upheld. And guess who decides whether a complaint should be passed to the IOPC?
The police force being complained about. Because of course it is. What’s even the point of the IOPC?
We already know that the culture in policing is predominantly macho, they look after their own, and Counter Corruption Units only investigate something when they actually have to. They don’t bother looking for things proactively.
Speaking of which.
“If you can’t trust a police officer, then who can you trust?”
This is a question we saw asked a lot in March of 2021 after a cop was accused of kidnapping and murdering a woman. It’s the same question that’s asked in practically all of the cases I’ve described above and below, and the many, many more I haven’t.
Who gets to decide who gets to be a cop? The police, of course.
The vetting standards are… I dunno. Predictable? But the chances are, most people would pass a police vetting. None of the things they vet for are special. Seeing if someone has massive debts and therefore potentially open to bribery, checking whether their mum’s an underworld boss, that kinda thing.
I don’t think they need to be lowered, that’s for sure. I’m not sure how you’d vet for someone’s potential to carry out a sexual assault. The only mention of “sex” in relation to a crime in the vetting standards document is that an applicant to the police isn’t on the sex offenders register. Hooray for the bare minimum… But there’s gotta be more they can do. Someone somewhere knows. And has likely been ignored.
What’s unacceptable, but not that surprising is what HMICFRS found in their previously discussed report on abuse of position for a sexual purpose.
“All 43 forces agreed national vetting standards in 2006. It is not acceptable that there are still people working in forces without the correct vetting for their role. We are deeply concerned about the confusion in some forces as to the vetting levels required for some roles, and how many people still need their vetting status updated.”
In their reports for more than five years now the inspectorate has been specifically instructing, not just recommending, forces to complete vetting for all staff. And still, they haven’t. In the latest report 52% of one force were without the correct vetting.
Oh! One more thing! There’s no national requirement for staff to be vetted when they transfer between forces. So after being accused of the Sexual Assault of a child, PC Ian Naude was able to transfer to a different force. Kidnap a teenage girl. Rape her. And film it.
I wrote this section as an abolitionist. I don’t want The Police reformed. I want them gone. But I recognise that’s not going to happen any time soon. So, the absolute bare minimum that needs doing is finding a better way to keep men who are happy to carry out sexual violence out of policing. As long as these vulnerabilities exist, they’ll keep on being recruited. And it’s gotta be more than the “Have you ever been a member of the BNP?” box they have to try and keep out nazis. Currently anti-fascists are better at vetting cops than the cops. Though that’s not particularly surprising.
You’re All Fired
And now you know how The Police care very little for rooting out their corrupt officers. That it’s incredibly easy for cops to misuse the data they collect, and soon they’ll have access to even more. It should be even clearer that The Police have no interest in treating institutional misogyny with the seriousness it deserves. And the only thing in place to stop men who attack women and children from gaining state sanctioned power is that they haven’t been caught before.
Well, what happens when all of that combines and cops commit the very worst kind of sexual assault?
Writes and reads about horrible things, and turns them into video soup. find him at www.LovelyAlexander.com and follow him at @LovelyAlexanduh
Part 1: The Women They Know
Part 2: The Women They Find
Part 3: The Women They Rape
Download the spreadsheet here: https://we.tl/t-vqccs8iDIm
Sexual violence against women and children. Domestic abuse. Police violence. Violence. Suicide.
Part 1: The Women They Know
Like many people, I am a man. And like many people, I spent much of March 2021 reading stories shared by women covering the spectrum of shitty behaviour they’ve experienced at the hands of men. I am trying to keep the reason why that outpouring happened out of this series. But it should be clear what has inspired it. The memories of her should belong to her family and friends. Her name shouldn’t be used as bait to discuss the horrors below.
The more I think about it, I realise that this terrible piece of society that somehow, we’ve all just let exist forever, isn’t a women’s issue. It affects women, of course. Definitely of course. But in these attacks, the women’s role is simply to exist to satisfy the man. This is a men’s issue.
It is we men who make these choices. It is we who keep leering at you. It is we who keep groping you. It is we who keep assaulting you. It is we who keep raping you. It is we who keep killing you. This is a men’s issue. We make this shit happen.
As of March 2020, 68.8% of UK cops were men.
Policing is a deeply misogynistic institution that refuses to change. This has been pointed out numerous times over the past decade by various inspectors and victims’ groups. Yet all The Police do is pay lip service to the changes recommended. This lack of action has led to corruption, sexual assault, rape, and murder.
In the seventies, women were first permitted to become full blown cops. The numbers have risen since then. But an increase in female officers doesn’t mean The Police don’t hate women.
The Source For the Number in The Title
On my internet travels, I found a list of links to media reports about cops committing crimes. It’s from a source I’d usually dismiss as being dodgy as fuuuck. The author is a Freeman. A special kind of probably-harmless-conspiratorial-looney. “You can’t arrest me ‘cos I know magic words” kinda guy.
The list goes back twelve years. I combed through the nearly one thousand articles, verifying them all, and removed all the cool stuff like cops taking drugs, and stealing stuff from work (pssst if you’re a cop reading this, you should start stealing from work, take loads of drugs, and then quit).
And with the remaining information, I was able to create a spreadsheet with all the charges I could find that were brought against cops for physical or sexual violence against women and children.
Here’s a summary of what I’ve found. Not all the crimes are included on this chart.
What’s immediately clear from looking through this data, is that a recent murder of a woman, allegedly by a cop, is not an exception. What happened to her is particularly brutal. But police officers attack women and children all the time for gratification.
I’m not a data scientist, I’m just a blogger with time on his hands and a limited knowledge of Excel. The biggest insight I can offer is: Why the fuck is no one counting this?
That’s not hyperbole. No one is! Police forces count complaints against their officers, The College of Policing has annual statistics for officers who are fired and the category their offence fits into. But they don’t count which of those ends up in the justice system.
My data just shows the cases that have been charged and then reported on. I will not have found every case which is charged. It will absolutely be incomplete. Male violence against women is widely underreported already and many of the stories I’ve read feature quotes from survivors about fearing reporting a police officer. Or in some cases being threatened with that information by the piece of shit doing the violence.
They’re More Than Just Numbers
Each entry on the spreadsheet represents the courage of a woman or girl who decided to try and do something to stop the man that hurt her. It feels a bit trite to write that, but after reading so much of this bleak, bleak shit I had to find something positive to try and hold on to. For me, it has been their courage.
So, as I show you numbers, please try to remember that each piece of a total is something terrible that happened to somebody. It was real. It was something that affected them enough to brave going to the place where their attacker worked, to the literal source of his power, and telling one of his colleagues. That must have been shit scary. I hate that I can do none of their stories justice. In fact, my focus is very purposefully on the perpetrators and their enablers. I want them to own the terrible things they’ve done. They did it.
From the senior officer who raped two junior officers, to the PC who sent suggestive texts to a fourteen year old girl. It’s all male entitlement and misogyny, inflated by the state, and used in ways to abuse someone else just because she’s a she.
These men made choices to do these horrendous things. Remember that. This was all chosen. And keep in mind that people aren’t charged with every crime they’ve committed, just the ones the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) thinks it’ll successfully prosecute. Most of these cops will be worse than they appear.
Most importantly for understanding the data, I’ve combined crimes into more recognisable labels. There are so many different charges that are basically the same, or have significant overlap. I just think it’s simpler to categorise ‘Indecent Assault’, or ‘Unwanted Sexual Touching’ as Sexual Assault.
I refuse to accept that ‘Buggery’ isn’t Rape. Or indeed ‘Assault by Penetration’. The law may judge differently, but if you assault-by-penetration someone, you’re a fucking rapist in my eyes.
You can find further notes and detail of how I’ve grouped crimes together for easier data wrangling in the Information section of the spreadsheet I used to assemble this data. You can download a copy of the spreadsheet at the bottom of this page.
I haven’t collected data on whether victims or perpetrators belonged to any minority groups. This goes for ethnicity, and for things like sexuality, or if the victim was a cis or trans woman. I would have absolutely collected it, for sure, but details about victims are quite rightly kept out of the press. Generally the only way to tell the officer’s race is if a mugshot is included in the articles I’ve got the data from.
Last on the list of caveats is that a small number of the cops charged over this ten-year period committed their offences decades ago. It’s taken this long to bring them to justice. So, some are historic cases. I do not believe this makes them any less worthy of being counted here. Not least because there’s a high chance that in thirty years cops will be being prosecuted for crimes they’re committing today.
Cops At Home
I’ve heard several times over the years that domestic abuse is much more prevalent in police families. Maybe you have too. Academic literature from the US confirms this isn’t one of those bullshit facts that floats around, with three studies concluding that somewhere between 20% and 40% of families with a police officer experience domestic abuse. The level for a non-cop family is 10%.
You might be thinking “ohh but the Americans are all gun-toting maniacs” which is obviously completely entirely totally true. But also, y’don’t need a gun to hurt somebody else. And cops get training on how to be violent whatever country they’re from. I’ll find a source later. Ahem.
With that bleak statement of fact out of the way, here’s something relatively positive until you think about it for more than a second; I was surprised by how few of the total reported cases were domestic abuse-y in nature. Though limits placed on the media and details they can report might be hiding a higher number.
The category ‘Family or Ex’ is exactly that. And all sixty-five of the charges brought were prosecuted and the perpetrators were found guilty. So that’s good. Or is it? Well, yes.
But also, probably definitely not.
In 2020 The Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) brought a super-complaint (‘super-complaint’ is what they’re actually called, very cool) against The Police titled ‘Failure to address police perpetrated domestic abuse’. It discusses at great length the fear and difficulties faced by women who are being, or have been abused by partners in a police force.
While it doesn’t contain much in the way of statistical data, the super-complaint identified common themes amongst all the women they interviewed, more than half of whom also worked for the police. The most common being that the affected women feel doubly powerless. The powerlessness a victim of domestic abuse often feels, but also the man abusing them works for the police, the institution ostensibly there to protect them.
From the CWJ report; “What stands out as a common feature is the potential for improper manipulation and abuse of systems in the suspect’s favour. …Underlying this may be a belief that an officers’ career should not suffer as a result of these kinds of reports.”
I imagine these experiences matched that of a civilian police worker who was for a time the wife of PC Steven Riding. In fact, she became the second ex-wife of PC Steven Riding, who assaulted her repeatedly. Over twenty-two years PC Steven Riding abused three women. A wife, a wife, and a girlfriend.
It seems his girlfriend reported him. PC Steven Riding was found guilty of grabbing her by the neck, slapping her, and kicking her. PC Steven Riding’s second wife said he did similar violence to her. She spoke of having to wear a scarf to work to cover up the bruising around her throat left by PC Steven Riding.
The story doesn’t say whether she tried to report him. But eight years with a man like PC Steven Riding, who was content to regularly strangle her, and punch her, can’t have been easy or empowering. She said at his trial:
“I was nervous giving evidence and discussing parts of my private life. But it’s a necessary evil to ensure his proven violent behaviour stops. It was important for me to attend to try to in some way form a closure on a difficult and stressful chapter.”
I hate this. They separated in 2010 and he was tried in 2016. PC Steven Riding, trying to cling to power, denied the charges and so forced her to give evidence and relive her trauma.
Of the thirty-nine physical assault charges against women I’ve found, fifteen were committed by PC Steven Riding. The rest?
One was against a colleague. Four were against a partner. And six were against an ex.
PC Stuart Doran got dumped. That must’ve sucked. But we all get dumped at some point. It hurts. It leaves us confused. We write rambling mushy nonsense, drink ice-cream and beer in equal measure, send secretly hopeful texts and blah blah blah etc etc you know how breakups go. Most importantly, we get over them. It just takes a little time.
She was at a party. He wasn’t invited. PC Stuart Doran spent the night drinking. PC Stuart Doran turned up at the party he wasn’t invited to. PC Stuart Doran pushed her onto a bed. PC Stuart Doran straddled her. PC Stuart Doran grabbed her by the neck. PC Stuart Doran punched her in the face.
PC Stuart Doran punched her in the face again. PC Stuart Doran punched her in the face again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
PC Stuart Doran put his hands over her mouth and nose, cutting off her breathing. PC Stuart Doran leant forwards bringing his face closer to hers. PC Stuart Doran clenched her cheek between his teeth. PC Stuart Doran bit down hard and tore.
His victim? A fellow police officer. I hope she got a warmer reception on her return to work than this officer mentioned in the CWJ super complaint did:
“After her initial report of abuse … she returned from sick leave, bullying began: a wooden cross marked “in remembrance” was left in her tray, comments were made implying she was mad, three male officers drove with her to a forest in the early hours, suggested a cigarette break then drove away leaving her alone for 30-45 minutes. She was sexually harassed by another officer but when she told him to stop, her senior reprimanded her for upsetting him.”
It's Just Banter
With those kind of responses to a colleague who had been a victim of domestic abuse, no wonder it took three years for the victim of Detective Constable Nick Gravenor to report him for a sexual assault.
For several months while at work, DC Nick Gravenor told his junior female colleague that she had a “nice bum”. DC Nick Gravenor told his female colleague what he liked sexually.
On the day that DC Nick Gravenor attacked her, his victim had just ended a relationship with another man, and had recently been bereaved. In her own words, she was vulnerable.
DC Nick Gravenor forced his mouth against hers. DC Nick Gravenor pulled off her top. DC Nick Gravenor pulled off her bra. DC Nick Gravenor touched her inappropriately. DC Nick Gravenor made her afraid that she was about to be raped.
I wonder if DC Nick Gravenor and his male colleagues ever described the woman he assaulted as “job fit”. Apparently in The Police that’s what male officers call female officers who look good both in and out of their uniform.
I wonder if DC Nick Gravenor discussed with his male colleagues if the woman he attacked was “getting any cock?” Just like a team of five officers were caught doing, in their office, along with a whole bunch more sexist and racist comments.
Having read the CWJ super-complaint, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d done both;
“The concerns raised in this super-complaint should be seen in the context of a broader culture of ‘institutionalised sexism’ within the police service that condones and trivialises violence against women.”
Of the nine charged killings of women and girls by police officers I found, one is awaiting trial. The remaining eight resulted in the man being found guilty or were part of a murder suicide. Six wives. One ex-wife. One ex-lover. And one daughter.
All these cases are horrible. They all stick out in some way. How could they not?
Inspector Darren McKie’s wife was a police officer. Inspector Darran McKie strangled her.
Detective Constable Peter Foster’s wife was a police officer. DC Peter Foster beat her over the head with a baseball bat and stabbed her in the throat.
I could only guess at whether these were the miserable finales of domestic abuse.
Inspector Toby Day had just been fired for “misusing police systems and matters concerning honesty and integrity”. A few days later Toby Day strangled his six-year-old daughter. Toby Day stabbed her three times in the chest. Then Toby Day strangled his wife. Toby Day stabbed her four times. Toby Day stabbed his sixteen-year-old daughter in the neck. She survived. Toby Day stabbed his fourteen-year-old son in the chest. He survived.
DC Ivan Esack
In 2010 Detective Constable Ivan Esack, resigned from the police because he was bored. No, really. That’s not a joke.
In February 2012, after years of abuse, Ivan Esack and his wife separated. In April 2012 Ivan Esack walked into his ex-wife’s hair salon and stabbed her eleven times in the neck and chest. As Ivan Esack walked out, he said “She deserved it, the bitch”.
Before Ivan Esack murdered his ex-wife, he harassed and stalked her. She reported him to the police several times, but decided not to press charges because she didn’t want to damage his reputation. Ivan Esack sent her text messages saying “Death, death, death”.
She got a new boyfriend. Seven weeks before Ivan Esack murdered her, Ivan Esack walked into her hair salon and strangled her until she passed out. At Ivan Esack’s trial, her boyfriend described her state of mind in the weeks between the attacks; “She was a nervous wreck and absolutely petrified.”
Her boyfriend testified that she said, “[Ivan Esack] would do her family”.
One of the BBC articles about the trial of Ivan Esack begins with this line: “[Her] determination not to get her violent former husband Ivan into trouble ultimately cost her her life.”
Ivan Esack wasn’t a cop when he killed his ex-wife, but he had been for seven years. During the investigation, police learned Ivan Esack was verbally and physically assaulting her while he was a police officer. When Ivan Esack killed her, he was barely two years out of the police. Did he still have contacts in the police? Did Ivan Esack use his position as a police officer to scare her into silence? According to the Centre for Women’s Justice, this is typical behaviour of a police officer who is also a perpetrator of domestic abuse.
After Ivan Esack’s trial for murder, Detective Chief Inspector Paul Fotheringham told the BBC; “We take every incident very seriously and we won’t just look for the evidence provided from the person suffering. We look for evidence around it to see if we can support them.”
In 2014 a review of the case reported back. It stated The Police did nothing in the face of mounting evidence in the months before Ivan Esack stabbed her to death. That The Police did nothing when they could have arrested Ivan Esack for the charge of ‘Sending Malicious Communications’. The Police did nothing when she told them that Ivan Esack had threatened to harm himself. The Police did nothing after investigating and finding that friends and family had information about the ongoing abuse Ivan Esack inflicted on her. The Police did nothing when she reported Ivan Esack had turned up at her new home with a knife. The Police did nothing when Ivan Esack strangled her in public.
The Police did fucking nothing.
It’s unclear if The Police knew of Ivan Esack’s behaviour while he was employed by them. But the events leading up to and the eventual murder of his ex-wife make me wonder if they’d have even cared. Here’s a quote from the CWJ’s super-complaint:
“We are particularly concerned about the conclusion that because conduct took place in an officer’s private life there is no potential for misconduct. In one of the cases cited the Professional Standards Department stated that the officer had discredited himself but not discredited the police service.”
Domestic Abuse is NBD, Actually
I combined the latest sets of domestic abuse figures for England and Wales (excluding Greater Manchester, who were having computer problems - seriously), Scotland, and Northern Ireland. They totalled 1,380,507 reports to The Police, and of that first number 802,804 were recorded as crimes.
These of course are only the abuses that were reported. From what we have seen so far, it is likely the numbers don’t include those of women partnered with police officers.
Since putting together the spreadsheet the bulk of this series is based on, seeing large numbers related to violence printed like that has really started to affect me. I entered more than 1300 violent crimes by hand. I read about each one. Imagined the horror each time. It’s a small number compared to the total above. But I feel I can at least begin to comprehend the sheer amount of fear and suffering numbers like that represent. In the reports the domestic abuse numbers are from, when I read lines like “Domestic abuse has remained relatively stable in…” it starts to overwhelm me. The detachment of statisticians, innocent though it may be, is infuriating. Enough about me.
“I want to fuck you”.
David Temkin, the lawyer defending Detective Constable Michael McMillan said that “[McMillan] was never threatening or violent towards the complainants.”
“I want to fuck you”
Is what the message said, sent by DC Michael McMillan to the victim of a domestic violence case he was investigating. DC Michael McMillan then demanded “indecent pictures”. She refused.
DC Michael McMillan recommended no further action be taken against the first, nameless man who had attacked her. DC Michael McMillan said that she was unwilling to help the police with their enquiries and had retracted her statement.
DC Michael McMillan was a police officer trained specially to handle complaints and victims of domestic violence.
DC Michael McMillan convinced a rape victim that she should retract her complaint against the nameless man who raped her. Even though she didn’t want to. DC Michael McMillan lied to her and told her he was arranging protection for her from the first nameless man who attacked her.
DC Michael McMillan abused his position of power, and convinced two domestic abuse victims to have sex with him. DC Michael McMillan sent sexts and lewd pictures to victims of domestic abuse. DC Michael McMillan regularly demanded naked pictures from domestic abuse victims.
David Temkin, the lawyer defending DC Michael McMillan said that “[McMillan] was never threatening or violent towards the complainants.”
David Temkin can suck my whole entire ass. Explain to me how there aren’t threats or violence in the actions of DC Michael McMillan, the man charged with protecting women from other men who had already done violence to them.
The threats implicit in not complying with DC Michael McMillan’s demands are clear. The disparity in power between police officer and abuse victim are clear. The threat implicit in the demands made by a man such as DC Michael McMillan are clear. Do what I want, or I will not stop more of the violence you have already suffered. It’s my abuse, or another man’s abuse. Choose.
One of the first concerns in the CWJ super-complaint are reports from domestic abuse professionals afraid that officers believed to be perpetrators of domestic abuse are working in public protection roles dealing with victims of domestic and sexual abuse. While there is no indication that DC Michael McMillan abused his wife or daughters, what might a man who does perpetrate domestic abuse to his family do to a vulnerable woman who has asked him for help? What might he be doing now?
Corrupt As Fuck
As you’ve seen, misogyny runs deep through British policing. There’s fear within its own ranks to report men who sexually assault their colleagues. There’s indifference when a cop is suspected of abusing his wife. There’s outright hostility towards some victims. There’s failure after failure after failure.
It's sadly predictable that there’s a lot more to this story. A lot more women and children have been hurt. A lot more women and children have been let down. A lot more women and children have been scared into sexual exploitation by a man wielding state power for his own violent means.
Unless The Police get their act together and/or abolish themselves, we’ll never know how many. I have some numbers on the cops that have been caught. But like with domestic abuse, they are very bad at catching their officers when they abuse their position for a sexual purpose.
In most cases, they’re not even looking.
Writes and reads about horrible things, and turns them into video soup. find him at www.LovelyAlexander.com and follow him at @LovelyAlexanduh
Part 1: The Women They Know
Part 2: The Women They Find
Part 3: The Women They Rape
Download the spreadsheet here: https://we.tl/t-vqccs8iDIm
[translator's note: Ruymán is a member of FAGC (Federación Anarquistas Gran Canaria or Gran Canaria’s Anarchist Federation), which centres most of its activity around the issues of housing, rent and homelessness. They are known for housing homeless people in squatted buildings run along anarchists’ principles without the members needing to share the same ideology. The biggest one so far, La Esperanza, houses more than 260 people, around 160 of them minors. More recently the FAGC has called for a rent strike to demand better conditions for renters during the COVID-19 crisis. The strike is supported today by more than 60.000 tenants. This is the second of a series of three articles written in 2015 where Ruymán explains how the FAGC sees the way forward for anarchism based on their experience these years]
“On, on, onwards, for the fire is hot! [...] On, onwards, as long as you live.”
(Letter by Thomas Müntzer to his followers, 1525)
In the previous two articles I talked about the two types of anarchism I had identified, and of the potential and limits of the social struggle; now I’m going to talk about the necessity for combative anarchism, committed to the social struggle, to transcend its starting point and reach a superior revolutionary objective thanks to well-designed and solid strategy.
Analyzing the situation of activism, social movements, including the anarchist, have been on the defensive for years. We only come out to the streets and mobilize to not lose ground. We don’t know how to attack. The only thing we want is not to lose past conquests, but not to make new ones. Fights like militant unions, housing, education or healthcare are framed today in those terms. They are respectable movements of self-defense, not structures of attack. Honestly, I believe it is time to go on the offensive.
We need to overcome this ongoing situation where we are just trying to take punches as they come, and learn how to fight back, to trade blow by blow, to hurt. This last decade of struggle, and especially the experience in housing, has taught me that when one focuses their militancy in the management of a “small matter”, in the preservation of what you have, you risk losing the ambition to go further. And this can turn what was supposed to be just a phase, the means to an end, into an end in itself.
I know it’s not the best for me to talk about not limiting yourself. We live in a state of retreat, as anarchists and as social activists. A few, resigned but pragmatic, try to save the furniture from the shipwreck, and try to build something for the future. A majority is still impervious to the lost opportunity and, lost in their liturgy of banners and hymns, don’t want to see that even the most reformist collectives have overtaken them on the left, thanks mainly to their activity. Another significant part abandons ship and, seduced by the siren’s song of the establishment, flirts with electoralism, the new parties, and starts believing something incomprehensible: that voting is the transformative novelty; and that to abstain and create on the sidelines is the orthodoxy.
We raise our voice from the dirt, in the very heart of poverty. I won’t speak to you with a clean face, neither will I shake off the dust in your presence nor offer you a washed up hand; down here, where we get down to work, it doesn’t smell good, there’s no sterile debates and rhetoric doesn’t accomplish anything. While working in misery, we are trying to organise it. Let’s begin!
We are not interested in the war for acronyms, the scuffles about banners, the internal feuds of families, sects, tendencies and clans. It’s like seeing two starved insects fighting over the remains. Anything that tries to drag us into that is not welcomed. We also don’t want to hear intellectuals babbling or fighting among themselves, telling us about a past that cannot be repeated or inviting us to advance while they themselves don’t move their asses from their seats. There’s a new anarchist that is active, pragmatic, that wants to be adult but not to grow old, and that is not willing to get itself tangled in the ideological disputes of its elders. Our proposal is to make a call for all combative anarchists to work together. This verb is key: to work. To coordinate efforts based around practical work proposals, leaving asides brainy questions about the future of a society we still are not strong enough to preconfigure. We spend hours arguing about what type of fuels will be used in the post-revolutionary society, how will the means of production be managed, what resources will it use and which not; and we still haven’t made the revolution that’ll allow us to have these problems in front of us. Because of our incompetence, we have no capacity to decide about our present, so we try to decide about something that has no relevance and belongs to a future that is slipping out of our hands. Let’s work so that one day we could argue about these problems in workers or community assemblies, but until then let’s not waste time.
Once we come all together, willing to work together but not to think the same, to combine efforts but necessarily sensibilities, we can select the objective. The FAGC chose housing, and everyone interested knows the results. Yes, we are responsible for the biggest occupation in the whole Spanish state, but I already said in my previous article that that is not all, we still need a third movement. What was done alleviated the situation of many people, it has allowed to extend the life of some of the most urgent cases; and that is already the most important thing. But it’s not enough to stay there. It would be like organising an army and refusing to declare war. Everything lived, good and bad, must serve to extract conclusions, reflect and take the fight to a new stage.
And what about the long and surrealist shadow of assistentialism? We have learnt our lesson and found the way to avoid it. The social struggle, by offering real solutions to real problems, allows us to get in contact with the people. But for the relationship to advance it is essential that the person affected stops being a receiver/observer and starts being an actor. And that’s achieved by establishing as necessary that the person being rehoused takes part in their own rehousing. Do you want to receive help? Here we are for you, but first prove that you are capable of helping yourself and others. Do you refuse? Very well, we won’t give more solidarity than the one we are offered, that’s all. Whoever really needs a house will have no option but to question what they’ve learnt, what the system taught them, their own way of behaving with others, before they can make a decision. It’s possible that it won’t produce any change, but we would have made them confront a hard contradiction face to face. A what was said about rehousing also applies to the rest. In our last occupations we have been applying that principle and the results have been very positive. We certainly participate in less rehousings, but the experiences are better and the participants more in need, more committed and more active.We have also learned that behind the criticisms of “assistentialism” we often find voices with little experience that, unwilling to abandon their ivory tower and walk among the filthy and difficult reality, show their disdain for active militancy by looking for pretexts instead of offering alternatives. The risks of assistentialism are not overcome from a comfortable distance while surrounded by those already convinced.
Once organised, with an established protocol to avoid becoming an NGO or a real estate agency, we are missing that last twist that I mentioned in “Street Anarchy II”, that third movement: the way of conflict.
The third movement is the one that makes the difference between conventional squatting (an act that closes its cycle on its own, revolutionarily innocuous) and programmed expropriation of households owned by banks, with the objective of establishing a communal management of a collective good (an act that means a direct political, social, and economical challenge).
It’s not enough to occupy houses, which usually only affects a limited number of people. It’s not even enough to make them available for the people and use them for rehousing. In the end we can end up reinforcing the System by compensating for one of its shortfalls and inhibiting people in protest by helping them get back on the capitalist train. We need to occupy and rehouse, but as part of a political strategy of mass socialization that aims for the neighbours themselves to manage consumer goods through assemblies, just like we expect the workers to do with the means of production.
The strategy is simple: unite with those other combative anarchists, call a popular assembly about the most urgent topic that worries your neighbourhood (I use housing as an example because it’s the field we have more experience with), offer useful tools to the neighbours and establish contact with them. How many empty houses owned by the banks are in the neighbourhood? So occupy all of them and make the neighbours directly manage the public good of housing. We have to take the step, cross the threshold, and turn squatting into collective expropriation.
How many of your neighbours pay rents to the same real estate agency, bank or rich landlord? How many can’t pay or are about to find themselves in that situation? Once again, call a neighbours assembly and give that fatalism a conscious dimension. They soon are going to lose the home because of not being able to pay the rent, so give not paying a political character: propose calling a rent strike. No one pays, either until everyone’s rent goes down (if the disposition of the people doesn’t allow for anything more radical) or until the management of the houses is put in your hands with no intermediary.
Do you organise in a libertarian union? Propose to integrate the labour struggle with the social struggle (which doesn’t mean just having good intentions, writing statements and supporting campaigns, but to start your own way of intervention and confrontation, directly revolutionary). To compete with the establishment unions using their weapons is either a waste of time or suicide. The nature of libertarian unionism always was multifaceted, and extended beyond the purely laboural plane. In order to survive, anarcho-syndicalism needs to adopt integral solutions and offer tools not limited to factories or even consumer cooperatives, but that directly address the issues of the poorest neighbourhoods. We must bring back the renters unions that anarcho-syndicalism pushed for back in the 30s, and take neighbours demands to a different plane.
And what about the platforms that already work around housing? First, we have to distinguish between those that undertake a committed and altruistic labour, with a revolutionary base, and those that are ineffective, are in the pocket of the political parties, or are motivated by nefarious interests. Second, no one has the monopoly of the social struggle. If you think a campaign is lacking, that it is being used as a pawn for electoral purposes, and you think you can offer and structure things better, more effectively, more radically, there’s no reason why you should cede the territory to anyone - none that makes us that there has to be exclusivity or imposture in the housing front. Third, we have to be aware, as anarchists, of the necessity of articulating our own answers, our own programs, our own strategies. Yes, the fights have to necessarily be popular and collective, open to everyone; tactical alliances are equally desirable, as long as they are limited to the work and don’t require concessions. But we have to be able to structure a differentiated road map with our own objectives, we have to show to the people that we offer veritable solutions to the social issues, and know how to communicate that we have our own revolution going on.
The situation, thanks to the so-called “progressive candidatures”, can be more favourable than what it looks like. Develop this strategy everywhere, but don’t miss the chance of honing in on wherever the “champions of housing and social policies” have reached power. Squat en masse, with the support of the neighbours, and start laying the foundations, the theoretical support, to show the contradictions of these “progressive parties”. Whether because their insensibility and incompetence is what forces you to squat, or because they trigger or condone a repressive reaction.
This general proposal, of intervening in a struggle based around a good (or means of production or service) to radicalise it, take it to its final stages, and make the popular body (the assembly of neighbours or renters) that initiates and fights on said battle be the one that ends up organising said good, is a simplified way of starting a revolution. The councils or soviets were just this in their origins. This is what the third movement is about.
We are at a pivotal moment. Consumed by the electoralist fever, demobilized by the partisanship of the new generation, we forget that for those down below the shit is still covering them up to their necks. The sick and the hungry, the homeless and the immigrants can’t endure any more of your vote counting or your insufferable theories. We can run away from our responsibility as long as we want, but there’s nowhere to hide. I myself tried to address this matter by creating an idyllic community of rehoused people, believing that the revolutionary response would come later. Too concerned with guaranteeing the stability of the neighbours, and especially that of their children, it took me two years to understand that the path of the conflict must go hand in hand with the work of creation. It may make life more uncertain, but if the construction of the new doesn’t happen in parallel to the destruction of the old (like classics like Bakunin and Proudhon recommended), you will create a beautiful walled city, but you will leave untouched anything beyond its borders; and in the end the exterior will breach the fortress and will do the same that humidity does to the stone.
In this moment anarchism, the entirety of the social movements, is at a crossroad. There’s a gordian knot that seems unsolvable, and both the pure theoreticians and the institutionalists intend to cut it with a penknife; from the FAGC we assert that it’s time to use a guillotine. Get involved in the neighbourhoods, don’t be afraid of the hostility, the mistrust, the bickerings and the animal instincts that I assure you you’ll come across. Strike now while the mirage of recuperation hasn’t yet reached even those with empty stomachs. Look for the one who doesn’t have a home or a salary or government help or hope. Call the whole neighbourhood and confront them with the idea that it’s in their hands to change their situation. Grow little by little, with effective assemblies and free from pompous speeches. Offer reality, naked and coarse reality. And start taking, taking and taking until there’s nothing you don’t manage yourselves. It can be scary, but it’s the dizziness before a revolution that starts. The only thing left is for you to join. And what if you don’t succeed? Goddammit, at least you would have tried.
I’ve said it before but I won’t stop saying it. If they exploit misery, it is our task to organise it. ■
The Philippine government is another step closer to revealing its true self: an undemocratic, oppressive entity ready to protect and serve the interests of the powerful, wealthy, and privileged few. Before there was talk of lockdowns and quarantines during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was the issue of updating the Human Security Act, a law defining the parameters of terrorism. After many days and weeks of politicking, grandstanding, and red-tagging, Congress unveiled the 2020 Anti-Terror Bill.1
In it, the government aims to strip whatever semblance of constitutional liberties and rights are left after the Duterte administration’s stints into extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses, that have claimed upwards of 5,000 lives and left indelible marks on the lives of countless Filipino families.2
On the 28th of February 2020, the Senate passed their version of the Anti-Terror bill, with 19 senators voting yes, and only 2 voting no.3 Debate still rages in the House of Representatives on its merits and its dangers,4 however, as of the 29th of May, two congressional committees approved the Anti-Terror Bill.5 As the people of the archipelago face the greatest health crisis of this century without mass testing, public safety, and financial stability, Congress is trying to take advantage of us while we are down and already suffering from pandemic and the excesses of government.
A History of Insurgency
Different insurgent groups exist within our country, whose goals aim to threaten and change the status quo — to overthrow the people who benefit from it: the current ruling class. The most prominent of these groups are the Bangsamoro separatists (such as the MNLF and MILF), the Islamic fundamentalists (such as the BIFF, the Abu Sayyaf, and the Maute Group)6 and the Marxist-Leninist parties engaged in armed struggle (the CPP-NPA-NDF and remnants of MLPP-RHB).7
These sets of militant organizations with their own allegiances and motivations have been operating for decades across the archipelago, challenging government power in rural and urban areas around the country.
It is in this landscape of insurgency that in 1996, then-Senator Juan Ponce Enrile introduced a bill that would create a legal definition for terrorism, and outline what the police and military can or cannot do to catch and prosecute convicted “terrorists.”8 A “watered-down” and “toothless” version of this bill became the Human Security Act, signed into law by then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2007.9
However, the rhetoric since then has evolved as Rodrigo Duterte became the President of the Philippines. Duterte has condoned and even called for the extrajudicial execution of alleged drug users and pushers as part of his campaign against illegal narcotics.10 He also told soldiers to shoot female rebel combatants in the genitalia, a clear violation of the Geneva Convention.11
Meanwhile, police and military forces regularly illegally detain dissidents, regardless of their affiliation or intention.12 There are even cases where farmers, workers, and activists are murdered as part of “anti-subversion activities.”13 Worse still, indigenous Lumad ancestral land across the country are being occupied illegally, while atrocities against their communities continue to be perpetrated.14
Left and right, in the name of public safety and order, the current administration has committed grave violations of human rights. Civil and military officers even called for the restoration and enhancement of laws and measures to make their jobs easier, presumably so that they could claim more victims and plunder more territory. This included the push by Secretary Año to bring back the Anti-Subversion Law that specifically targeted communists and those with communist sympathies.15
In this context, one cannot help but be skeptical about the government’s motivations in changing the definition of terrorism, and extending the punishment to be meted out to suspects and convicts under this bill.
Reading Between the Lines
In the Senate, this bill was authored by Senator Panfilo Lacson, to “provide a strong legal backbone to protect our people from the threat of terrorism, and at the same time, safeguard the rights of those accused of the crime.”16
Terrorism has been given a different definition under this bill. Simply, terrorism is any organization of people proving to be harmful to the social, cultural, and economic structures of society, capable of causing harm to property or personage, and inciting other people in joining their cause.
Under the proposed law, suspected “terrorists” can be held for 60 days without an arrest warrant. Aside from this, a 60 day period can also be granted for digital surveillance, meaning any gadget connected to the internet, a phone, a computer, and appliance can be spied on, with a simple suspicion by an involved police or military authority. This basically means that freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and even freedom of conscience can be violated as soon as any investigator deems a person or a group “terrorist.” Anything suspects do can be considered a “terroristic act” and will be subject to the state’s extrajudicial ways and means.
Once convicted, those who will “propose, incite, conspire, and participate” in the “planning, training, and facilitation of a terrorist attack” face life imprisonment. The same punishment goes for any “recruiters and active supporters of a terrorist organization.” Lesser sentences are given to those who “threaten to commit terrorism, incite others to do so, voluntarily join any terrorist group, or be an accessory in any acts they do.” In short, anybody remotely related to any “terrorist organization” can be charged with a crime under this act.17
Overbroad and Overpowered
We can all agree that safety of the public is always the concern of our society. Our safety and the safety of our friends, our family, and our communities have been part of the Filipino psyche for centuries. Once this welfare has been violated, we come to each other’s aid, and struggle to restore it to them. An injury to one is an injury to all.
However, the government has consistently shown itself as the primary violator of our freedom, our security, and our right to live. Whether it be on issues of labor, civil rights, the indigenous peoples, or even human life, the State continues to side with the powerful and supports Capital, the wealthy, and the privileged.
Yet, the State itself has the audacity to declare what is a public threat, what is terrorist or not. Under this bill, any organization can be dubbed terroristic as long as there is enough “evidence” to secure a conviction. Anyone can be convicted as a terrorist just because they called to oust the current president, joined a rally that suddenly became a “serious risk to public safety,” or even shared posts or messages that are remotely critical of the government. They can be detained for as long as the police or military would need to build a falsified, trumped-up case against them.
For years, activists have been discriminated on without any proof from the government. Students, labor leaders, and even indigenous elders from Mindanao have been harassed and persecuted for their views and beliefs. If the Anti-Terrorism Bill passes, anyone the regime considers an enemy can be silenced with practically life imprisonment. No wonder why many people consider this bill as a Martial Law in all but name.
The Terror in Anti-Terror
Mikhail Bakunin once said that:
“The human being completely realizes his individual freedom as well as his personality only through the individuals who surround him, and thanks only to the labor and the collective power of society.”18
This means that freedom is only achieved when all people are themselves equally free. Freedom can only be achieved when a person’s beliefs and actions are recognized by their fellowmen. The fact that our conscience can be arbitrarily punished by any leader in government means that freedom can be punished for being in the way of greed for power.
Once we start thinking about this reality, it then dawns upon us that we have never really been free. We may have freedom to post online, to make our opinion and dissent heard, and to act according to our beliefs and interests. However, as soon as we point our fingers to those in power and disclose their weaknesses and faults, they will do everything in their power to silence us, and hide it from plain view. For years, this facade of democracy reigned over the archipelago. In reality though, it is nothing but a game the rich and powerful play to become even richer and stronger. This bill merely shows us the rules they want to play on.
A society that is libertarian, a society that respects liberty, does not rely on organizations that say they protect and serve us, only to break up protests, discriminate based on sex or race, and kill in cold blood. It recognizes and respects the autonomy of each person, the ability of each person to think, speak, and act however they want. As such, the power to protect themselves and those they care for from the threat of terrorism, perpetrated today by cops, bosses, and government officials.
We have a long way to go before we can even ponder on what we should do to build a better society. Today, we see what little freedom we have left collapse into authoritarianism and fascism. We have seen Bolivia, the United States, and Hong Kong. If this bill is not junked, we could see it too in the Philippines. This is not just an issue for Filipino libertarians and anarchists. This is an issue for everyone in the archipelago, regardless of age, sex, religious belief, or political affiliation. If the State can take away from us, how more are they willing to terrorize us further? Besides, how can we trust fascists to tell us who are the real terrorists? ■
Written by Malaginoo
Original post can be found here on Bangilang itim's website.
Bandilang Itim aspires to end the atomization imposed upon us by capitalist society, an alienation that separates us from each other. Bandilang Itim aims to be the banner that rallies together libertarian socialists in the archipelago known as the Philippines.
[translator's note: Ruymán is a member of FAGC (Federación Anarquistas Gran Canaria or Gran Canaria’s Anarchist Federation), which centres most of its activity around the issues of housing, rent and homelessness. They are known for housing homeless people in squatted buildings run along anarchists’ principles without the members needing to share the same ideology. The biggest one so far, La Esperanza, houses more than 260 people, around 160 of them minors. More recently the FAGC has called for a rent strike to demand better conditions for renters during the COVID-19 crisis. The strike is supported today by more than 60.000 tenants. This is the second of a series of three articles written in 2015 where Ruymán explains how the FAGC sees the way forward for anarchism based on their experience these years]
“To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.”
(W.H. Auden, Spain, 1937).
Let’s start by pointing out that the person speaking to you about social struggle fancies himself an individualist. I am an individualist because I am wary of my independence and personal criteria, but also for pragmatic reasons. When you implicate yourself in the social struggle is necessary to retain a large dose of individualism: to not become corrupted, to avoid letting yourself be dragged by gregarious impulses and majoritarian urges, to know why you do the things you do.
But I am sickened by aristocratism; I am an individualist because I want, for every single person, a unique and strong personality, and let everyone develop their own “self” without environmental limits or impediments. But how to tame the environment so that it is individuals who shape it and not it that shapes the individuals? By implicating ourselves in the social struggle, there’s no other way.
Our contempt for the current society can lead us to resignation. Be it through a satisfied nihilism (“there’s nothing to be done and it’s better to vegetate and occasionally make an appearance on social media or a well written article”) or the castaway attitude (“even if we don’t like it this is our habitat, let’s adapt to it and save whichever furniture washes on the shore”). To ask for everything to burn without raising a finger or entangle yourself in electoral reforms or popular electoral reforms are examples of both attitudes. Resignation, more or less an active one, but resignation nevertheless.
To resign oneself is to surrender, and that is as if one is dead inside. We need to implicate ourselves in the social struggle because only then we’ll be able to change something, even if it’s only a part of the portion of the world we’ve been given by chance. But we have to implicate ourselves with a big dose of realism; so much realism it sometimes hurts.
We need to know that you can implicate yourself, succeed, change people's lives and still not change anything on their minds. A petty person who is hungry is not different than one that is fed, except in their material capacity to hurt. They might have more or less possibilities, different priorities, but they are fundamentally the same. To idealize the “working class” (category that if it’s not limited to set the line between the oppressed and oppressors is of no use) is absurd. The male worker is not the character from the soviet posters nor is the female worker the one from the american WWII propaganda. The excluded and marginalized, the “class-less”, among whom I include myself by birth and calling, don’t fit the fixed romanticized vision of nomads and free spirits. We are beings of flesh and bone that cannot be observed from the outside, only lived from within.
To assign virtues and defects when they are not inherent is a source of injustices and frustrated expectations. Those of us who work for revolution need to have something clear: it won’t be done by nietzschean supermen; it will be done by people with prejudices, full of taboos, burdened by sexist, racist and xenophobic ideas. This is the human material of revolutions because people don’t change from one day to another no matter how much you try to change the circumstances. The initial enthusiasm mitigates these attitudes, but without a previous pedagogy we can’t expect people to throw away their emotional baggage instantaneously.
Are we sure that by changing material conditions we won’t be capable of changing subjective conditions? Not necessarily. Kropotkin is one of my favourite thinkers, and after studying him and trying to apply some of his proposals —those that seemed to me more urgently realistic— I can confirm that at least in some of the presuppositions of The Conquest of Bread¹ (1892) he was wrong. Or rather, to be fair with Kropotkin, the error is not on the main thesis of of this work (fundamental, otherwise), according to which the first question to solve during a revolution is that of bread; we are the ones who are wrong if we believe that just by being the first question must be the only one. The first question of the revolutionary phenomenon certainly has to be to satiate the basic necessities, but we would be naive to think that this fact alone will abolish all forms of hierarchy. If Tolstoy reminded us you cannot speak about non-edible things to someone with an empty stomach², we also can’t expect that by filling up that stomach we will obtain a behavioural change in that person. We can give shelter, roof and bread like Kropotkin recommends, but if the capitalist mental structure hasn’t been shaken, the improvement of the material conditions won’t have substantially changed the nature or the aspirations of the those affected. We can create a society of satisfied needs and economic equality, but that alone, without doing background work, won’t eradicate power and submission. Kropotkin used to say that if people had the means of production they wouldn’t have to kneel in front of someone like Rothschild; they may not grovel for bread, but they can still be made to submit by brute force, fear or deception. Economical equality doesn’t eradicate authoritarianism or hierarchical vices, nor does it swiftly erase capitalist tics.
This can be seen in the example of the communes and resistance communities. A microsociety that organises with an anarchist model, one in which this model proves itself efficient and effective, can be a showcasing of how anarchy works “too well”, because it’s capable of improving the conditions of the lives of those affected, of satiating their needs, but with very little effort required of them. You can’t create an oasis of anarchy surrounded by a desert of capitalism, because sooner or later the sand seeps through the door.
Most of the libertarian communities of the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, and even more so the hippie communities of the second half of the last century, failed for a clear reason: they constituted themselves in closed communities, isolated, without realising that people don’t leave their “old mentality” at the entrance. This was already explained by Reclus in his text The Anarchist Colonies⁴ (1902). A society doesn’t have a life of its own independent from its members, although there is some kind of collective group psychology that makes it behave like a living organism. As such, it dies if it stays closed off and can’t breathe, and lives when it lets air come it, can breathe and nourishes itself from the outside.
This centrifugal and centripetal qualities I spoke of on the previous article are not only applicable to different kinds of anarchism, but also of communities and militancies. In my experience on communities I’ve been able to experience how the periods of forced isolation and endogamy encourage depression and immobility, but when you interact with the environment you are part of and receive stimuli from the outside the organism that is the community renovates and revitalizes itself. Same thing with militancy. The activity centred on your own group, which doesn’t open and expand itself nor wants to interact with the outside, is useless and engenders calcification. It’s essential to move towards the outside, to irradiate. The blood that doesn’t flow coagulates and causes gangrene; movement is the basis of life, the basis of change.
But I will be asked: why should we get involved in the social struggle if material change doesn’t have the intended immediate results? And even if it were desirable, what strategy to follow?
The great aspiration for revolutionary anarchism, and for most social movements, is to reach the people. It may be true that through the social struggle, by helping them and promoting ideas of self-management, their mentality won’t change. But that’s the only way of establishing contact with them. I understand the good intentions, but to a family searching for food in the trash, who is trying to separate the rotten from the decomposed, you cannot tell them about the virtues of veganism or the pernicious effects of transgenics; it sounds like an insult or a macabre joke. These things, which are really a display of your consciousness, are relevant when you have your basic needs satisfied and a stable status; the malnourished are only interested in not starving to death. When you speak of things detached from the immediate reality of people and try to drag them into our politics, instead of evaluating what can our worldview offer to them, we are establishing a line of separation between the people without ideology and the anarchist. Which mentally, is not that different between the one there is between the dispossessed and the proprietor: different interests if not directly opposed.
We have to analyse what legitimate interests people have that may intersect with our ideas and praxis and try to get involved. Back in 2011 the FAGC realized the alarming need of housing that there was in the Gran Canaria Island: between 25 and 30 evictions every day while there are 143,000 empty homes in the archipelago. The people needed a roof; so that’s what we had to offer to them, because ours ideas are perfect for it and because historically, from the Paris Commune to the squatters movement, it has been part of our tradition.
I’ve already said that the politics of bread, even if they are a priority, are not enough on their own. We need to use big doses of pedagogy (steering away from indoctrination and proselytism), socialize formative tools, strengthen people’s independence and create committed circles willing to defend their gains. Yes, bread is not everything, but it’s the only way for that formless and ineffable mental construct that we call “the people” to take you into consideration and be able to tell you apart from all the other snake-oil salesmen. Yes, the propaganda by the deed has limits, and showing the correct path and taking it is not enough to get others to do it themselves; but it’s the most honest and coherent way of spreading an idea and trying to get people to adopt it. The experiential way, of doing what you preach, is the only one that gives you the right to put a proposal in front of people. If you haven’t lived it before, don’t sell it to me. To give basic necessities the priority it deserves, and not to offer poetry, liturgy or scholastics to someone who is in need of protein is the only way to start being serious, the only way to not appear detached from reality.
Certainly the capitalist reflexes and the bourgeoisie tendencies can persist in the mind of the person who just stopped being destitute thanks to your help. LIberated from hardship maybe their consumerist mentality will be strengthened. But if they managed to change their living situation through libertarian means, with direct action tactics away from legality, the reality is that the example remains and survives; and that serves as evidence that even if the human material fails, the ideas and practices don’t. And anyway, if the seed of your example of mutual aid and autonomous organisation only germinates in one in every ten people, that’s enough for the social struggle you started to have been worth it.
Wilde speaks in his “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”⁵ (1890) about how boring the “virtuous poor” were. To demand for the poor to be virtuous, on top of being poor, is not a matter of being “boring”, but of brutal and unjust insensibility. In the social struggle you’ll discover people who haven’t had any contact with anyone for years, who have been excluded from basic comforts, who have been in a permanent state of war for decades, who feel that everything that surrounds them is hostile. We should not be surprised if they have difficulties trusting and even take advantage of the people lending them a hand; it would be more surprising if they didn’t jump to your jugular immediately. But instead, many people who have been treated like wild animals since they were kids, constantly harassed by their environment, become inspired by a solidarity given in exchange for nothing, except compromise, and by a way of acting that rejects any kind of leadership and servislism. They learn to help others, they open houses for homeless families just like they were opened for them. They realise the next step is to protect themselves autonomously; the illegality they were forced to use before now serves a deeper objective. Maybe they’ll become interested in the ideas that took them this far and they’ll start talking about anarchism. And if not, they no longer ignore the meaning of the word or fear it. Inside them a change of paradigm takes place.
Despite that, something should be made clear: the anarchist model we propose doesn’t need to convert people into anarchists to work; that would be abhorrent. Anarchism for the anarchists is chauvinism. Anarchism becomes useful when is directed towards those that aren’t and will never be anarchists. That is when a project or model proves it works.
Our objective is to reach those who have nothing, not to turn them into conscious anarchists, but because only them, those who suffer and struggle the most, have objective motivations to want to change their life and reasons to obsessively tear down everything. The anarchist message of freedom and autonomy is for all of humanity; the one about three meals per day and a roof over your head can only be for those who lack that. The anarchy for the satiated, for the intellectually bored, is an useless artefact. The libertarian principles can be taken by everyone, they can change the inner life of anyone who consumes them no matter their ascendency. But its economic and social program is directed towards changing the life of those who today have to eat mud. That’s why it is important to intervene in that fight; there’s no other way to change what is around us.
How to do it? From the inside, without paternalism or impositions. The “parachute” tactic that jumps into a conflict, coming from the outside, will lead to failure. You only have the right to intervene when you have been seen to get your hands dirty, sweat and bleed; and not even that will dispel all suspicions. We need to create a project in which the difference between the anarchists who initiated it and the people with generally no ideology who join it gets blurred over time, without ranks, vanguardism or primacies.
By taking interest in the real worries of the people, the ones that come from them, and not the ones you want to introduce them to from the outside. Once we have taken part in their interests, their fight, their demands, our mission as anarchists is to take them a bit further, a step beyond. Malatesta understood this clearly:
“Let us make everyone who dies of hunger and cold understand that every product that stokes the warehouses belongs to them, because they are the ones who produce everything, and let’s encourage and help them to take it all. Whenever there’s a spontaneous rebellion, as has sometimes happened, let’s hurry to mingle in in it and to try to turn it into a coherent movement by exposing ourselves to the danger and fighting together with the people. Later, through practice, ideas emerge and opportunities present themselves. Let us organise, for example, a movement to not pay the rent; let’s persuade the field workers to take crops back to their houses and, if we can, let’s help them carry it and to fight against the owners and guards who don’t want to allow it. Let us organise movements to force the municipalities to do everything big and small that the people desire, like for example to lift the taxes for essential goods. Let us remain always among the popular masses and let’s make them accustomed to take by themselves those liberties that could never be gained by legal means. To summarize: everyone should do whatever they can according to the place where they are and the environment around them, taking as a starting point the practical desires of the people, and always inspiring new desires”⁶
What the FAGC tried to do with the “Group of Immediate Response against Evictions” and the “Renters and Evicted Union” was to intervene in a real aspiration of the population (housing) while staying away from the moderate and legalist proposals from the local platforms and collectives, to bring the fight for a place to live to new presuppositions, deeper and more radical. This is the first phase of our fight. By stopping evictions in a combative way and rehousing people without a home in individual houses expropriated from the banks, we started the contact with the people and demonstrated that things could be done in a different way, one that is more committed and efficient.
While embroiled in the popular aspirations for housing we started the phase of the “La Esperanza” Community, because we needed to make a show of force with a project big and showy enough that it couldn’t be hidden from public opinion no matter how hard anyone tried. Rejecting the victimism of thinking that no matter what we do we’ll be silenced, we’ve tried to show that regardless of the manipulations and misrepresentations of the media, if you do something of enough magnitude it is impossible to shut it down and sweep it under the rug (to this we must obviously add a great capacity to work and know how to design a good “media war”). After that comes a third phase that I’ll explain in the last article of this series.
What was done in this second phase has is importance and meaning, not only for its obvious social dimension of giving a roof to such a huge number of adults and minors, but also in other aspects. In our movement it seems like some think tanks squabble over a ridiculous hegemony. They invalidate what the competitor says with words, always with words. If a proposal looks to them to be too radical or too reformist they don’t try to oppose it by comparing it with a practical example that proves it wrong, they oppose it with another idea. When they criticised the legal reform proposed by the PAH (Platform of People Affected by Mortgages) to regulate housing in Madrid for being too useless and legalistic, that criticism may have been correct (in fact it was), but if you don’t present an alternative the people will have no option but to go with the only alternative that is in front of them. We criticised the legal reform and as evidence to back our criticism we created, for example, the “La Esperanza”. What we need is an action tank, action groups that take actions to validate our theories, an activist backing with real and quantifiable results. That is what validates your proposal; everything else is rhetoric, verbiage and paper, and that has the same weight as banging your fist on the table at a pub.
But we have to be realistic: if the division in the lived experience between the anarchists and the rehoused must be erased (as this is the only way of not only avoiding vanguardism but also of promoting self-emancipation and engaging those affected to the fight for their own cause), we have to be able to detect differences and similarities between our aspirations; there lies the limits of the social struggle. Personally, as an anarchist, and in relation to the “La Esperanza” Community, I could prefer an occupation sine die, a constant challenge against the state and the financial institutions, surviving in a constant emergency situation. But precisely as an anarchist I don’t like declaring a war on behalf of someone else. I cannot throw people, with kids of their own, to fight against windmills spurred on by my ideas. I must know and understand what are their real aspirations and how far they are willing to go. And if they’ve already gone as far as they can, I can’t force them to engage in ways of struggle that haven’t yet develop within them. The necessity creates the means, and those ways will develop naturally when it is the right moment. I need to understand that if for me illegality is an option and a resource to defend, for them it is an obligation born out of necessity. After the war people want peace and we can’t criticise them for that. With that in mind I redact legal documents that disgust me because the community I’m part of needs them and trusts me to give them substance. “La Esperanza” has decided to regularize their situation, going in with everything: if it goes wrong, it’ll continue existing outside of the law and won’t abandon the apartments; if it goes well it will have successfully challenged the system and forced it to give in to their demands.
Will achieving those demands be the end of everything? As a community, maybe yes, but as part of the global strategy of the FAGC obviously no. Achieving this victory will be an example of what can be accomplished through squatting, by making the banks and the political powers submit to a policy based on proven facts. It must and can be reproduced in other places. But if we don’t give this strategy a final twist, its practical result, if it were to be successful and go viral, would be to increase the number of council homes in the State and grow the public housing sector. And that’s not our objective. Our objective is to give a roof to the families, but under a completely different social paradigm.
When you intervene in workers union organising and try to achieve an improvement of working hours or salaries, what we achieve if we win is a partial victory and a show of strength. What matters is getting that practical experience, building the muscle. But if we limit ourselves to reduce the hours or increase the salaries, we will only be reinforcing the capitalist model of work. If we decide we have other aspirations, we’ll have to prove it with something more than declaring your intentions. It’s the same thing with housing. The idea is for no one to die in the street, that’s the priority; but understanding that what causes that to happen is the current model, and therefore we shouldn’t just treat the symptoms but also cure the disease. By giving a roof and stopping the reshoused person from being evicted from their home, we show strength and respond to an atrocity by tackling it directly; but if behind that there is not a third movement, that demonstration will go no further. It’ll remain as an end in itself.
The struggle is not something automatic (struggling for its own sake). You struggle to destroy barriers and reach objectives. When do you know if the struggle is important? When you’ve reached that objective and yet you have the feeling you are just getting started.
Make way then for the third movement! ■
Read Part One:- "Two Anarchisms"
Read Part Three:- "The Third Movement"
¹ Digital edition on the Anarchist Library: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/petr-kropotkin-the-conquest-of-bread
² “Before we give the people priests, soldiers, judges, doctors and teachers, we should ascertain if they happen to be dying of hunger” (The Triumph of the Farmer or Industry and Parasitism, 1888)
³ Although truth be told, unless there is a difficult global revolution, any form of anarchy will alway initially occur surrounded by capitalism, be it at a small two, a big city or a whole region. It changes the resources, the competencies and the scale, but its imperfection is a manifestation of anarchy. That’s why I can maybe say to have lived in anarchy, and that is beautiful and hard
⁴ Digital edition on libcom: https://libcom.org/library/anarchist-colonies-elis%C3%A9e-reclus
⁵ digital edition on project gutemberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1017
⁶ In Times of Elections, 1890
[translator's note: Ruymán Rodríguez is a member of FAGC (Federación Anarquistas Gran Canaria or Gran Canaria’s Anarchist Federation), which centres most of its activity on the issues of housing, rent and homelessness. They are known for housing homeless people in squatted buildings run along anarchists’ principles without the members needing to share the same ideology. The biggest one so far, La Esperanza, houses more than 260 people, around 160 of them minors. More recently the FAGC has called for a rent strike to demand better conditions for renters during the COVID-19 crisis. The strike is supported today by more than 60.000 tenants. This is the first of a series of three articles written in 2015 where Ruymán explains how the FAGC sees the way forward for anarchism based on their experience these years]
“Anarchism is not a romantic fable, but a hard awakening [...]”(Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness [Vox Clamantis en Deserto], 1990).
The dichotomies between “anarchisms” evolve periodically. During the late 19th century it was between collectivists and communists, organisation and anti-organisation, individualists and syndicalists, pure syndicalists and anarcho-syndicalists, etc. Today this theoretical brawl, which seems to develop cyclically, has been established between insurrectionism and social anarchism.
In the 19th century some anarchists wanted to unravel the Gordian knot by speaking of “anarchism without adjectives”, and in the late 20th century of “synthesis”. These days it is necessary to go beyond that.
The disputes, if they don’t fester and become stagnant, are positive. The theoretical debate is healthy; what is unhealthy is when the debate replaces militancy. Some anarchists confine their militancy only to anarchist spaces. Whether to protect its essence or bring it up to date, the dispute is still framed wrongly, as it was in the 19th century.
Yes, the dispute between collectivists and communists helped us realise that a subsection of anarchism at the time was still tied to a specific conception of private property and salary and that another wanted to transcend that and be generous; also how one tendency was trying to be realistic and practical and another could be too optimistic.
It was an underlying issue that revealed approaches and attitudes. But it was also a dispute about something that was yet to take place: a social revolution that put the economy in the hands of the workers. The debate may have helped to outline what would happen in revolutionary situations like in 1936, but the debate for its own sake, without transcending the theoretical realm, can imagine the best of futures, but remains mere speculation; a mental experiment about nothing, when you still need to create everything. It may have also been that the debate between the different syndicalist perspectives had a more practical dimension, but it was still based on the same erroneous premise: to transform the praxis of others. We are only in a position to change our own activity; if you don’t like something, work in the opposite direction and let experience prove if you were wrong or not.
Consequently, the debate should not focus any more – at least not primarily – on the ideological realm; the validity of an idea must be measured by putting it into practice, in the realm of facts. Enough of supposed divergences based on agreements, congresses, thinkers and models based on the imaginary.
From my point of view there are only two anarchisms: the contemplative and the combative. Regardless of if they are given the name of insurrectionary anarchism or social anarchism, any of them can represent one of the two tendencies depending on the situation.
The contemplative anarchism lives through other people’s lives, its terrain is one of inward debate. It sets up to analyse and discuss, to anathematize engaged in endless internal fights. Its field is that of theory and stillness, be it of the committee, assembly or demonstration, of the social network or the burning of rubbish bins (a theoretician of the Molotov is not less contemplative than a theoretician on an office). Immobility as a way of life; pontification as the mode of operation. Talks and the spreading of ideas is its natural environment, the place where it feels comfortable; incapable of transcending this habitat to get a taste of the pavement or the land. Anarchism itself is its battlefield, its object of dissection, the subject of its militancy. The contemplative anarchism is the childish and immature phase of the anarchist ideology, no matter how serious, respectable and experimented it may look.
Combative anarchism, that which we defend and practice in the FAGC, is the anarchism that rolls up its sleeves, goes into the streets and fights.
Whether it is raising the pressure on a demo to get people to respond when the police charges or forcing the circumstances so that a labour conflict doesn’t come to a halt. It’s the anarchism that gets its hands dirty. The one that fights in the factory, in the neighbourhood assembly, in the street. Gamonal and Can Vies are examples of this, the “La Esperanza” community too. It’s the anarchism that has surpassed the limits of talks and the militancy of the word. It doesn’t believe that putting something into words is enough to change it. Its activity is outwards, it’s not directed towards satisfying the “initiated”, to preach to the converted, its circle of comrades is too small. The discourse created for internal consumption is a cacophony for this anarchism. It doesn’t militate for the anarchists; it militates to bring anarchy to the soil, to bring anarchy to the people. It designs its tactics and strategies, its roadmap, by defining well what it wants and what is considered a victory, so it is able to advance to the next stage. Its habitat is the neighbourhood, the shanty town, the park, the ditch, abandoned land, the expropriated houses. It’s the anarchism understood as an adult ideology, no matter how daring and audacious its aptitude, or how new its approaches may appear.
In my experience in these last four years at FAGC, and specially the last two in the “La Esperanza” community, I’ve come to conceive of anarchism as an adult ideology. Idealism is necessary, but not based on fantasies and chimeras, but on the real capacity to apply our ideas to transform the environment. We must find the limits of our myths - ideological, theoretical or any other kind - to discover the fallibility of respected thinkers. We must try to apply the ideas keeping in mind that no matter how many historical precedents they have, and how much you are able to draw from past experiences (history must be seen as a clue not as instructions), the reality is that this current experience has never been tried before, only by you and your comrades. The self-referential talk vanishes and only the hard reality remains. It’s hard, but it’s yours.
This reality is so because it stands on something tangible. In the 19th and 20th century there was an anarchism of the factory, and that was its strength. In this period there also was a cultural anarchism that gave a theoretical and literary underpinning to the street effort. We propose a street anarchism, an anarchism of the neighbourhood, and for the socially excluded. The worker of the 20th century wakes up in the 21st century and discovers that, after surviving the capitalist crisis, they’ve gone from qualified labourer to homeless. They are people destined to marginalization because they’ve suffered a change with almost no transition: workers yesterday, indigent today. For some it hasn’t changed, they’ve been born conditioned to live in the street. They like the anarchist message because of its utility. The hostility towards the police and the rejection of the sanctity of private property is natural to them; they need certain types of mutual aid to survive at points in their life. If this discourse becomes an efficient model to fully satisfy basic necessities in practise then anarchy works; it’s useful for them and, without turning them into anarchists, it’s enough.
We don’t need to be labelled insurrectionists for our radicalism or social anarchists for our work. We are combative anarchism and those kinds of labels are too narrow for us. We’ve been given a reality check and we have discovered that anarchy works in practice, that you can organise a micro-society of 250 people effectively following this model. But we also know that helping somebody doesn’t change their mind, and this I will expose in a future article.
What matters now is to know that neighbourhood anarchism, immersed in social marginalization, working in the ghetto, is vital. An anarchism implicated in the real problems of the people. It’s vital not because on its own it can “convert people”, but because it’s the best, if not the only, way to reach them. To reach the people you have to address their interests and needs.
But if vacuous provocation is not enough, which at least kicks the hornets’ nest, even less so is the talk of reforming institutions. In a moment when people are more detached from politics than ever, our missions is to force a rupture, not to seek conciliation with new ways inside the same structures. The situation is ripe for relaunching popular organisations from below, to mobilise people (and us with them) on the base of their primary necessities and demands, to give structure to the underground, to give body and muscle to those (of us) who have nothing. To entangle them in electoral promises, in local political aspirations, in the creation of institutions, is suicide: first, because they have never felt so distant from them; and second, because finally they are capable of doing other things. When a wounded enemy has to restructure themselves in a hurry, you don’t reinforce them, you finish them off. The institutions have to be seen as the enemy from whom you have to take things by force, through pressure and attrition; the adversary you undermine until you lose all fear and respect for them. Not like the weapon that is good or bad depending on who wields it. Beyond opportunistic hypothesis, something is crystal clear to me: the mice about to be devoured also think they are toying with the cat. That is playing politics: to believe you are giving respite to whom is about to consume you.
I don’t play games where others dictate the rules. And there is an anarchism that doesn’t either. That anarchism knows where its natural place is to enter the social life, it distances itself from infighting and joins in on the aspirations of the people to see if they can be criticised and taken further. This anarchism doesn’t establish itself on parameters of moral superiority (sorry if my rhetoric makes it seem like I want to go around giving lessons), I don’t do it because mine is the “last word” in social revolution; I propose it as a simple matter of survival. Either we limit ourselves to the endogamy of the “anarchy for the anarchists” (when anarchism should be for everyday people) or we let ourselves be killed by entering power structures that will eat and throw us away before we even realise. Until now these seemed like the only alternatives: closing yourself to the outside or surrendering your weapons and ammunition. It can not and should not be like this, our survival and that of our message depends on the battle, on the streets, on the most instinctive necessities of the people. We need to detect what they need, see if our praxis can provide it, adapt our tools to the moment, come up with a program that gives theoretical support to our conquests and, once the path forward becomes clear, share those tools and collectivise them (knowing when to step aside).
I don’t care about caricatures; it’s not the first time I’ve been called “slum anarchist” or “anarcho-lumpen”. I only care about results. Street anarchism has been the best method of introduction to our practices in years. The biggest housing occupation of the Spanish state hasn’t been accomplished by a party, an electoral coalition or an organisation of the system. It was started by an anarchist organisation using anarchist tools and making an anarchist model work without needing everyone involved to be one as well. That neighbourhood anarchism has given 71 homes to 71 families which account for more than 250 people. We don’t need theory to show it, the facts speak for themselves, the obstinate reality speaks for itself. ■
Read Part Two:- "Social Struggle"
“The fact that there are a bunch of people suddenly interested in a #rentstrike who have no experience with orthodox organizing isn’t a mark of spontaneism or ultraleftism or some moral failure to have been previously involved in orthodox organizing. It’s a mark of the fact that shifting material conditions have presented that strategy as one that combines a) survival & b) newly increased leverage. New conditions mean new modes of organization rather than stamping your foot and insisting on the old kind.”
“But I can’t possibly evict all of them at once!”
These are strange times. Spring has arrived, accompanied by a pandemic caused by a virus that has advanced with alarming speed and the totalitarian response from the state that puts us in a new situation. While the police enjoy their new powers, many people have lost their jobs and many more already have no idea how they are going to make it to the end of the month. In this context, disobedient voices are emerging and the idea of a rent strike has gained traction. We at Editorial Segadores and Col·lectiu Bauma have wanted to investigate this kind of strike, reviewing some famous past examples and imagining what a rent strike might look like in the coronavirus era. We hope that these reflections help whoever is interested in strategizing and acting. In response to confinement—critical thought and direct action.
WHAT IS RENT STRIKE AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
A rent strike is when a group of renters decide collectively to stop paying rent. They might have the same landlord or live in the same neighborhood. This might occur within another campaign or as part of a bigger struggle, or it might be the principle axis of a struggle against gentrification, against insufferable living conditions, against poverty in general, against capitalism itself.
To succeed, a rent strike requires three elements:
1. Shared dissatisfaction.
At the beginning, even if neighbors haven’t collectivized their demands, it’s necessary that many of them perceive the situation in more or less the same way: that it is outrageous or intolerable, that they run the risk of losing access to their housing, and that they don’t trust the established channels to provide justice.
As we’ll see below, the vast majority of rent strikes begin with a relatively small group of people and grow from there. Therefore, they need the means to spread their call to action, communicate their complaints, and ask for support and solidarity. In many cases, strikers can win with only a third of the renters of a property participating in a rent strike, but sufficient outreach is necessary to get to these numbers and to make the threat that the strike will spread convincing.
Those who go on strike need support. They need legal support for court procedures, housing support for those who lose their homes, physical support to fight evictions, and strategic support to face repression on a larger scale. In many cases, especially in large strikes, striking renters have found all the support they require within their own ranks, supporting one another and creating the necessary structures to survive. In other cases, strikers have turned to existing organizations for support. But the initiative for the strike always comes from the renters who dare to start it.
HISTORIC STRIKES AND THEIR COMMON CHARACTERISTICS
Now we’ll look at how these three vital elements were achieved in major rent strikes throughout history.
De Freyne Estate, Roscommon, Ireland, 1901
In 1901, a rent strike broke out on the farms belonging to Baron De Freyne, a big-time landlord in Roscommon County, Ireland. Over the preceding decades, renters in the region had consolidated their organizing power against the owners of large estates, in a movement connected to the resistance against English colonialism and the effects of the Great Famine. These movements hadn’t taken root in Roscommon, but surely the inhabitants knew of the practice and had also participated in some of the semi-illegal forms of resistance that have always been a part of rural tenancy (mass meetings, physically resisting eviction, sabotage, arson).
At the beginning of the 20th century, the residents were organized under the United Irish League, a nationalist organization that dealt with agrarian and economic issues. When the inhabitants started their autonomous strike, they quickly connected with the local UIL, while other groups connected with them to support their strike. At the same time, the high-ranking leadership acted ambiguously, sometimes offering support, other times trying to frame the strike as an independent undertaking that did not reject the concepts of rental and property outright, since the leadership of the UIL were still trying to persuade some part of the owning class to join them.
The immediate causes of the strike included a torrential rain that destroyed much of the harvest and drove up the price of feed; De Freyne’s refusal to lower the cost of rent; the accumulation of debt and the evictions of many families; and a long history of injustice with respect to land ownership, aggravated by a recent episode in which some of the inhabitants of a neighboring estate had been allowed to buy land while all of De Freyne’s tenants were forced to keep living like serfs.
The strike got underway in November 1901. At first, many of De Freyne’s tenants organized themselves clandestinely and informally, since the UIL didn’t take the initiative, although it did support the tenants. The strike spread to other estates, lasting over a year. Over 90% of the tenants on De Freyne’s lands participated. They resisted evictions by building barricades, throwing rocks at the police, and illegally constructing new dwellings.
All this caused a national scandal. In 1903, the English Parliament was forced to adopt extensive agrarian reform, putting an end to the system of tenant farming.
The Brooms Strike, Argentina, 1907
In August of 1907, the Municipality of Buenos Aires decreed a tax increase for the next year. Right away, landlords started raising rent. The conditions in poor areas were already miserable. In the prior year, the Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation (FORA) had campaigned for the lowering of rent.
On September 13, the women in 137 apartments on one block initiated a spontaneous strike. They drove out the lawyers, officials, judges, and police who tried to eject the tenants. By the end of the month, more than 100,000 renters were participating in a strike led by women who organized in committees, aided by mobilizations and structures organized by the FORA. They demanded a 30% reduction in rent; when the police came to evict a tenant, they fought with all they had, throwing projectiles and fighting hand to hand.
The strike spread to other cities, including Rosario and Baía Blanca, drawing the support of various labor, anarchist, and socialist organizations, chief of which was the FORA. Police repression was intense; in one case, they murdered a young anarchist. In the end, although the strikers stopped many evictions, they did not succeed in forcing the landlords to reduce the cost of rent. After three months of fierce battles and the deportation of many organizers (like Virginia Bolten) under the Law of Residence, the struggle ran out of steam.
Manhattan Rent Strike, New York, 1907
Between 1905 and 1907, rents in New York City rose 33%. The city grew without stopping, swelling with poor immigrants who came to work in the factories, in construction, and at the port. There was also a surge of anarchist and socialist activity. In the fall, landlords announced another rise in rents. In response, Pauline Newman, a 20-year-old worker, Jewish immigrant, and socialist, took the initiative, convincing 400 other young women workers to support the call for a rent strike. Already, by the end of December, they had convinced thousands of families; in the new year, 10,000 families stopped paying, demanding a 18-20% rent reduction. Within a few weeks, some 2000 families saw their rent reduced. This event was the beginning of a few years of neighborhood struggle and eventual state control over rent.
Mrs. Barbour’s Army, Glasgow, 1915
In the years preceding 1915, the Scottish city of Glasgow grew rapidly with wartime industrialization and the immigration of rural families. The property-owning class speculated on housing, leaving 11% of houses vacant and not financing new construction, while the working class found themselves in ever more crowded and deteriorating homes. Organizations such as the Scottish Housing Council and various labor unions spent years working to execute legal reforms in the housing and renting sector; they won some new laws, but in general, the situation continued to worsen. Furthermore, with the Great War, the prices of food rose without stopping and many of the country’s men were abroad. The property owners took advantage, thinking that it would be easier to exploit poor families with their men gone. From August to September 1913, there were 484 evictions in Glasgow. From January to March 1915, there were 6441.
In the misery, exploitation, and carnage that persecuted the working class, the property owners of Glasgow saw a good opportunity. In February 1915, they announced a 25% price increase for all rentals. Immediately, on February 16, all of the poor women in the southern part of the Govan neighborhood held a mass meeting. In attendance were the organizers of Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, an organization that had formed the previous year but still had little traction. At the meeting, they created the South Govan Women’s Housing Association, affiliated with GWHA. They decided not to pay the increase, but instead to continue paying the original rate. This spread throughout the neighborhood.
GWHA called a rally for May 1, drawing 20,000 participants. In June, the women of Govan won the cancellation of the rent increase. The movement grew from there. In October, more than 30,000 people participated in the rent strike all over the city. They came to be known as Mrs. Barbour’s Army, named after Mary Barbour, a worker of Govan. In the course of spreading and maintaining the strike, they organized rallies and protests and defended tenants against evictions, fighting hand to hand with the police. The unions threatened to go on strike in the armament factories; at the end of the year, they succeeded in winning the suspension of any punitive action against strikers, a rent freeze maintaining pre-war rent prices, and the first rent control laws in the United Kingdom—an important step towards social housing, which was introduced not long after.
From early on, the movement won the support of leftist parties and other existing organizations that focused on housing, like the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, connected with the Socialist Party. But it’s important to highlight that the women created autonomous organizations rather than joining traditional organizations. Some, like Mary Burns Laird, the first president of GWHA, also organized with political parties (the Labor party, in the case of Laird), while others, like Mrs. Barbour, weren’t affiliated with any party, creating their own path for the struggle. In any case, the GWHA’s activity was far from traditional leftist politics: their meetings took place in their kitchens, in washhouses, and in the streets. In large part, the force behind the acronym was the solidarity network that the poor women had already established in their daily caretaking activities.
Comité de Defensa Económica, Barcelona, 1931
In 1931, Barcelona had recently emerged from dictatorship. People eagerly awaited the improvements that democracy would bring… and they kept waiting. Barcelona had become the most expensive city in Europe, with rent amounting to 30%-40% of wages. (Today’s figures are similar, or even worse, but at the time, the average in European cities was 15%.) Conditions were abysmal. Many who could not afford to rent a place for themselves went to the “Casas de Dormir,” rooms where they could rest between factory shifts; often, these rooms didn’t even have beds, just ropes on which workers could rest their arms.
A rent strike erupted in April with the participants demanding a 40% reduction in rent. It lasted until December, involving between 45,000 and 100,000 people throughout the city. The Comité de Defensa Económica (CDE), or Economic Defense Committee, founded by the construction union of the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, National Confederation of Workers), played a crucial role in the coordination and spread of the strike.
Like so many other strikes, this one was characterized by solidarity among striking neighbors who built barricades and resisted evictions together. When they succeeded, they celebrated in the street; when they did not, they broke back into the evicted house and celebrated inside. The very same workers who shut off the water or electricity in the morning came back in the evening to turn it back on. They were, of course, afiliated with the CNT. Sometimes the police ended up throwing furniture out of the windows or otherwise destroying it, fed up with having to return to reoccupied homes. Other tactics included what is known today as escrache, that is, protests in front of a landlord’s house.
Obviously, the strike didn’t come out of nowhere: it was based in community traditions of autonomy and rooted in a multifaceted network of relationships and ties that grew out of neighborhood and kinship. The movement was also closely linked to the radical culture that the CNT had been fostering since World War One.
“Santiago Bilbao, organizer of the CDE, saw the tenants’ strike as an important act of economic mutual aid through which the dispossessed could counteract the power of the market and take control of their daily lives. The CDE’s advice to the workers was: “Eat well and if you don’t have money, don’t pay rent!” The CDE also demanded that the unemployed be exempt from paying rent. However, although the strike spread through mass meetings organized by the CDE, the movement really came from the streets, which were more essential to it than any organization.”
-Barcelona (1931), Huelga de Inquilinos
“The rent strike was born in the neighborhood of Barceloneta where there is a vital social consciousness, both from the hard lives of fishermen and from the laborers who work in the Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima, one of the most important companies in the metal industry. It’s no surprise that these grievances emerged from this historic fishing neighborhood next to the Mediterranean, where fishermen’s houses are still known as matchboxes. These were homes of 15 or 20 square meters where whole families lived, sometimes with lodgers such as relatives recently arrived from the village. […] It is the Sindicato Único de la Construcción of the CNT that will mobilize the discontent of working families, which, little by little, will spread to the margins of the city and in each of those neighborhoods, the strike will have its own characteristics, its own idiosyncrasies and methods of struggle.”
-Aisa Pàmpols, Manel, (2014) “La huelga de alquileres y el comité de defensa económica,” Barcelona, abril-diciembre de 1931. Sindicato de la Construcción de la CNT. Barcelona: El Lokal.
The strike was effectively ended by means of severe repression, headed by governor Oriol Anguera de Sojo and the president of the Property Owners Association, Joan Pich i Son, who also killed the insurrection of October 1934. The new democratic republic did not look much different from the old dictatorship once it brought out its entire arsenal: police, Guardia Civil (Civil Guard), and the Guardia de Asalto, the new paramilitary police. The Law of the Defense of the Republic was applied, a gag law that offered carte blanche for repression. Some were imprisoned as “governmental prisoners” and the CDE was declared a criminal organization.
Despite all this, the continued protests continued to stoke the embers for the revolution that was to come.
Much of the original documentation of the strike was destroyed in the war, perhaps as a result of the fear inspired by this example of proletarian resistance. Consequently, we are missing a large portion of the voices of the women who played a central role in the strike. Formal organizations are always given more weight in historiography than informal organizational spaces, although there is no doubt that the central role of the CNT was an important feature of the strike. However, the fact that strike tactics were different in each neighborhood tells us that the strike was not centralized, but depended above all on the initiative of those who carried it out.
St. Pancras, London, 1959-1960
St. Pancras, in London, was a mostly working-class area, with some 8000 people living in social housing.
In 1958, the district voted to raise the rent in social housing. At the end of the following July, after the Conservative Party won the district elections, they raised rents again, this time more dramatically (between 100% and 200%), and kicked out the unions (whereas previously, workers in the district had to be members). Up to that point, there had been little neighborhood organization, but as August began, tenants in one district neighborhood formed an association. By the end of August, 25 such tenant associations had been formed and these had representatives in the central committee of a new organization, the United Tenants Association. The secretary, Don Cook, had already been secretary of one of the few (and small) tenant associations that existed before 1959.
From the beginning, most of the base favored direct action and a rent strike, but the Labor Party, which wanted to use the tenants’ demands to beat the Conservative Party and regain control in the district, held them back.
On September 1, 1959, a march and meeting took place involving 4000 people. The participants adopted positions including a refusal to fill out the required paperwork to evaluate each family’s new rent, a call for unity, a promise to defend any family facing eviction, and a demand for solidarity from the unions. Over the following months, the tenants continued to hold demonstrations and, with support from the unions, established committees on every block, which held weekly delegate assemblies often attended by 200 or more participants. They published three weekly newsletters to disseminate information from the leadership to the base. By the end of the year, the UTA included 35 tenant associations.
Women protested by night at the homes of district counselors. Each counselor was targeted twice a week or more. They lost plenty of sleep. One of the few stories of the strike written by a participant (one Dave Burn) recognizes that women “formed the backbone of the movement, remaining active every day and supporting each other.” Still, most of Burn’s story focuses on formal, predominantly male delegate organizations.
The rent hike was set to take effect on January 4, 1960. At first, fully 80% of social housing tenants didn’t pay the increase, only the previous rent. After many threats and with the district’s eviction process beginning, participation in the strike dropped to a quarter of all tenants, or about 2000. In February, the Labor Party advised the UTA to call off the strike so they could negotiate with the Conservatives. The UTA refused: without the strike, they would be totally defenseless and several families were already in the midst of eviction processes.
To concentrate their forces, the UTA organized a collective payment of most of the back rent so they didn’t have to fight so many evictions at once. The first judgments were issued and three evictions were scheduled for late August. Tenants began to organize their defense, determined not to allow a single eviction from social housing. In the middle of that campaign, in July, UTA leaders met with district counselors—but the negotiations failed, since the Conservatives didn’t want to hear anything about tenants’ problems. From that moment, the UTA began a total rent strike, and in mid-August, 250 more eviction notices arrived.
By August 28, massive barricades had been erected; tenants had prepared a system of pickets and alarms to alert the entire neighborhood, so that workers could walk out and come to defend people’s homes. As of August 14, the number of eviction notices had risen to 514. The Labor Party and the Communist Party feared the rising tension and called for the strike to end, but it was too late.
On the morning of September 22, 800 cops attacked. A two-hour battle followed in which one policeman was seriously injured. Police managed to evict two homes, but on one block, the clashes continued until noon. Some 300 local workers came to help defend the strike—but the labor unions did not offer support. In the afternoon, a thousand cops attacked a march of 14,000 tenants. Confrontations continued.
The leader of the district counsel signaled that he was prepared to meet with UTA representatives. The next day, the Minister of the Interior declared the prohibition of all demonstrations and gatherings.
Due to the political scandal the riots had caused, the Labor Party abandoned the tenants and began to denounce “agitators” and “radicals.” They alleged the involvement of outside provocateurs and insisted that the conflict had to be resolved through dialogue—despite the fact that throughout the year, the district’s Conservatives had nearly always refused dialogue. Meanwhile, after negotiations, the Conservatives approved a small rent reduction.
Under attack as much from the left as from the right and facing daily threats of new evictions, the UTA decided to change strategies to avoid more evictions. They paid the back rent due from neighbors who faced the highest risk of eviction and decided to aid the Labor Party to oust the Conservatives in the coming elections. In May 1961, the Labor Party won control of the district counsel, 51 counselors to 19. Several UTA delegates had joined their ranks and the main plank of their electoral platform was rent reform.
Tenants awaited the reform of the rental plan in social housing… and waited… and waited. The two tenants who had been evicted found new homes, but after a few months, Labor counselors announced that rent reform would not be possible. The strike had failed.
Autoriduzione, Italy, 1970s
The 1960s and ’70s in Italy were a time of increasing precarity in labor and housing, and also a moment in which people dreamed of a world without exploitation and dared to pursue it. In 1974, counting on the neutrality of the Communist Party, the most forward-thinking technocrats of the industrial and financial sectors introduced Plan Carli. This Plan aimed to increase labor exploitation and reduce public spending.
During the 1960s, a strong autonomous workers movement in Italy had influenced the rise of an autonomous movement in the neighborhoods based in self-organized neighborhood committees in which women played a crucial role. Focused on practical and immediate survival, these committees organized “auto-reductions” in which tenants and neighbors themselves decided to reduce the price of services—for example, only paying 50% for water or electricity.
In Torino, the movement gained considerable momentum in summer 1974. When public transit companies decided to raise fares, the response was immediate. Participants spontaneously blocked buses at various points, distributed pamphlets, and sent delegates into town. From there, the most militant unions began to organize a popular response: they would print transit tickets themselves and volunteers would hand them out on buses, charging the previous price. Through collective strength, they forced the companies to accept the situation.
The auto-reductions in electricity payments spread quickly, organized in two phases: first, collecting signatures committing to participation in the auto-reduction, in both factories and neighborhoods; second, picket lines outside the post office, taking advantage of leaked information from the public utility unions about when and where bills were mailed. Picketers handed out information about how to participate in the auto-reduction. After a few weeks, 150,000 families in Torino and the Piedmont region were participating.
Auto-reductions were stronger in Torino because the regional unions were autonomous from the national committees controlled by the Communist Party, which blocked every direct action initiative against rising prices. Thus, in Torino, the labor unions could lend their power and support to spontaneous initiatives and those by neighborhood committees, while in cities such as Milan, the unions did not support those initiatives or else, as in Napoli, there were no strong unions in the first place. In some cities, like Palermo, students and young people made auto-reductions possible through illegal actions.
The movement extended to auto-reductions in rent, aiming to keep rent from exceeding 10% of a family’s salary. Various tactics were employed from small group efforts to neighborhood committee initiatives backed by the more radical unions. In the first half of the 1970s, participants squatted 20,000 homes, temporarily liberating them from the commercial logic of rent. There were also rent strikes in Rome, Milan, and Torino.
The feminist movement was a major part of these efforts. In this context, women developed the theories of triple exploitation (by bosses, husbands, and the state) and reproductive labor, which remain crucial in present-day struggles.
Soweto Township, South Africa, 1980s
Soweto is an urban area of Johannesburg with a high population density. In the 1980s, it had 2.5 million inhabitants. Throughout the last decades of Apartheid, the residents of Soweto experienced extreme poverty and social exclusion. In 1976, this erupted in the Soweto Uprising, a series of powerful protests and strikes and a police crackdown that ended in dozens of deaths. The material conditions of the area began to improve, but only thanks to the continued struggle of the residents.
The housing situation was appalling. Houses were of poor quality, unhygienic, and disordered. Rent and services amounted to a third of the typical salary of the residents, not counting the skyrocketing unemployment rates. On June 1, 1986, when word spread of a plan to raise rents, thousands of Soweto residents stopped paying rent and services to the Soweto Council. The Council tried to break the strike with evictions, but the neighbors resisted with force. In late August, police shot at a crowd that was resisting an eviction, killing more than 20 people. Rage intensified and the authorities halted the evictions.
In early 1988, the authorities declared a state of emergency to try to suppress the rise of black resistance across the country. The sole focal point that they did not manage to extinguish was the Soweto rent strike. In the middle of the year, the strikes continued and the authorities cut off the electricity to nearly the entire area as a means of pressure. The press claimed that the strike was not realistic, that it was only sustained by the violence of young militants. The reality turned out to be different: despite 30 months of a state of emergency that stopped much of the activity of the anti-apartheid movement, the vast majority of the residents continued to support the strike. In the end, the authorities recognized that they had completely lost control. In December 1989, they canceled all overdue rents—a loss of more than $ 100 million—definitively stopped evictions, suspended all rents pending negotiation with neighbors, and, in at least 50,000 cases, ceded ownership of the houses directly to the tenants.
Before these strikes, the anti-apartheid movement had used rent strikes as a tactic in its protests against the white government, so the entire population was familiar with them; the mobilizations and organizations of this movement had extended the practices of solidarity. But the first major rent strike started in September 1984 in Lekoa as an immediate response from the neighbors themselves to a rent increase; the most involved organization was the Vaal Civic Association, Vaal being the local region. This was probably the source of the rent strike tactic that the African National Congress (ANC) and other organizations subsequently began to use.
Similarly, the Soweto rent strike emerged from the neighborhood itself in response to its immediate conditions and survival imperatives. It is a classic example of informal neighborhood networks being key to the organization of strikes, with formal structures being created as needed once the strike had already begun. And while they were excluded from some of the formal organizations, women maintained a key role in organizing and maintaining those vital neighborhood networks.
Boyle Heights Mariachis, Los Angeles, 2017
In an attempt at racist gentrification, a homeowner raised rental costs by 60-80% on a small number of apartments in a building next to Mariachi Plaza in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Half of the tenants formed a coalition immediately—including tenants not directly affected by the rent increase—and demanded dialogue with the landlord. When the landlord tried to engage with each of them separately, the coalition launched the rent strike. Subsequently, the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) began supporting the strike, helping to mobilize and secure legal resources.
After nine months, they received a rent hike of only 14%, a three-year contract (very rare in the US), the cancellation of any penalty for non-payment, and the right to negotiate the next contract as a collective after three years.
Burlington United, Los Angeles, 2018
A strike began in three buildings on the same property on Burlington Avenue, a Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles affected by rapid gentrification, at a moment when the number of homeless Latinx people had been skyrocketing. When the landlord raised tenants’ rent between 25% and 50%, 36 of the 192 apartments declared a rent strike; the poor conditions in the buildings were also one of the complaints shared by the tenants. By the second week, a total of 85 apartments were on strike, almost half. The residents organized themselves starting with the strike declaration. Subsequently, the local LATU and a nearby neighborhood legal defense activist organization opposing evictions provided assistance to the strikers.
The legal system divided resistance through separate court processes for each apartment. Half of the apartments won their judgments; the others were forced to leave.
Parkdale, Toronto, 2017-2018
In 2017, the tenants occupying 300 apartments in multiple buildings with the same owner carried out a successful strike in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto. The neighborhood was undergoing rapid gentrification and the real estate company in question had already earned a bad reputation among its tenants for poor apartment conditions and trying to force them out via price increases.
When the company tried to raise prices, some neighbors decided to declare a strike; others quickly joined, organizing as an assembly. Another important element in the context was the activity of Parkdale Organize, a tenants’ organization from the same neighborhood that had emerged out of another neighborhood struggle in 2015. Parkdale Organize helped mobilize the strike, knocking on doors in the affected buildings, offering resources, and sharing models of resistance. After three months, they managed to block the rent increase.
Inspired by this example, tenants in another large, 189-apartment Parkdale building began a strike the following year. When the real estate company decreed a sharp rise in rents, the tenants in 55 apartments organized in an assembly and went on strike. After two months on strike, the tenants won their demands and the owner canceled the rent increase.
Most of these strikes were started by women; women played an important role in all of them. The strikes always occur in a context in which many tenants suffer similar conditions: rent that takes up a large proportion of salaries; the danger of losing housing; and some additional cause for outrage, such as very unhealthy conditions, a contextual issue like English colonialism (as in the Roscommon strike), or an unjust reform that favors some and harms others. And there is almost always a spark: most commonly, a price increase or a decrease in the economic opportunities of the tenants.
Often, strikes began spontaneously, which does not mean they appeared out of nowhere, but that they arose—in a favorable context—from the specific initiative of neighbors, implemented through an assembly or through affective and neighborhood networks. From there, they either create their own organizations or draw the support of existing organizations. In other cases, a formal organization exists from the beginning of the strike, but it is a rather small organization created by and for tenants, not one of the big union organizations or parties. We have only found one case in which a rent strike was called for by a large organization—1931 in Barcelona.
Regarding the chances of victory, it is important for the strike to spread as widely as possible, but it isn’t necessary that it involve a majority. Strikes have been won with the participation of only a quarter or a third of the tenants under the same owner; in the case of strikes in a given territory, that are not directed against a particular owner, it may be a much smaller proportion of the total inhabitants of a city, as long as there are enough to interrupt normalcy, provoke a crisis in the government, and saturate the legal system. The determination to maintain high spirits and solidarity rather than seeking individual solutions is more important than the number of strikers.
Another factor, perhaps the most important, depends on context. What are the state’s capacities to inflict repression? Is it better for them to crush disobedience, or to appease conflict and restore their image?
Current Conditions: More than Adequate
As we have seen, certain conditions are necessary for a rent strike to spread throughout the population: precarity that makes it impossible for more and more people to access housing and a shared sense that things are going very badly. Do these conditions currently exist?
Increasingly, large international investment funds are buying up property around the world and setting rent at record highs. As they devour the housing market, the price that people have to pay for access skyrockets.
For example, in the Spanish state, the price of rental housing reached its historical apex in February 2020 (the last month for which the data was available at the time of writing this text) at €11.1 per square meter, an increase of 5.6% over February 2019. The communities with the highest prices are Madrid (€ 15.0) and Catalonia (€14.5). In Madrid City, the price is €16.3 per square meter, a growth of 3.5%; and in the city of Barcelona, €16.8 per square meter, a growth of 3.7%. But all the tourist cities have experienced a similar increase. Between 2014 and 2019, the average rental prices in the Spanish state have risen 50%, far exceeding the highest point before the 2008 crisis.
Over the same time period, the average salary in the Spanish state has not even risen 3%. That’s right: a 50% increase in housing costs and a 3% increase in salaries. But the mean salary includes both working people and millionaires, and the latter do not have to pay rent. If we refer to the median salary or the salary earned by the greatest number of people (i.e., the most common salary among the masses), we see that it has risen much less and has even decreased in some years. In short: now there are more people than ever who cannot access housing. We have seen this situation coming for the past five years, long before the coronavirus.
This lack of housing access shows in the statistics, as well. In 2018, there were more than 59,000 evictions in the Spanish state, with an increasing proportion of evictions for non-payment of rent. In 2019, there were more than 54,000, 70% via the Urban Rental Law. Both years, the communities of Catalonia and Andalusia led in the number of evictions. The decline between 2018 and 2019 is largely explained by the resistance to evictions that has emerged everywhere and by the trend towards fewer foreclosures each year, as fewer people can get mortgages now and banks are more willing to negotiate after the explosion of resistance over the last twelve years. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of homeless people in Madrid grew by 25%, officially reaching 2583 people, although other experts say that there must actually be around 3000. There are an estimated 40,000+ homeless people throughout the Spanish state. [In the United States, the number of homeless people in Los Angeles alone exceeds this.]
The coronavirus pandemic only exacerbates this situation. Many people have lost their jobs; it is no surprise that the government’s emergency measures have been more concerned with increasing police and martial powers, protecting financial institutions, businessmen, and people with mortgages, and therefore have left the most precarious people unprotected—tenants, people without papers, and the homeless. On the other hand, it is a time when solidarity initiatives have spread at the speed of light, with cacerolazos (noise demonstrations with pots and pans) on the balconies and a rapid expansion of social demands, all despite the state of siege imposed by the government.
In short, it is not just the right time for a rent strike, but there is more need than ever to organize such initiatives right now. If this is not the time—all-time highs for housing precarity, a pandemic, and the rapid spread of social initiatives—perhaps there will never be a suitable time to launch a rent strike?
It is understandable that renters who might be in favor of going on strike will have a number of doubts.
Practical and Legal Concerns
Initial doubts stem, simply, from a total lack of familiarity with rent strikes: to our knowledge, there has been no rent strike in Spanish territory since 1931. How does it work? What are my rights and what are the possible penalties if I stop paying the rent?
In short, you only have to do two things to join the rent strike: stop paying and communicate it to others. You can communicate your non-payment to the owner or not do so. Communicating it may make the strike stronger, but if several tenants of the same owner join the strike, that will also convey the message. The Union of Tenants of Gran Canaria has an example of a form that you can send to the owner.
The second step is very important: informing others that you have joined the rent strike. The more people join, the less danger there is for each person. Talking to your neighbors is the best way to encourage them to join the strike. It is also very important to communicate about the strike to networks that can provide solidarity in your neighborhood. These could be neighborhood associations, housing or tenant unions, or even solidarity-based labor unions such as the CNT. If they know more or less how many people are on strike, they will be able to distribute information and resources and help organize a collective defense in the event of an eviction process. Remember: together, we are much stronger.
As for the legal consequences, if you stop paying the rent, the landlord may start an eviction process to kick you out of your apartment. But in many cases, when multiple tenants of the same landlord stop paying the rent, the landlord is compelled to reach an agreement that can include a rent reduction. In a situation of generalized crisis like the current one, it is very possible that the state will intervene with a moratorium on evictions if many people go on strike.
The emotional aspect is essential in a rent strike. Precarious housing exists everywhere, every day. The fundamental element to spark a rent strike is the courage of those who say enough is enough, who decide to take risks, to take the initiative. It is a bit of a paradox: if everyone dares, victory is almost guaranteed and there is very little risk. But if everyone hesitates, without the safety of the group, the few who dare may lose their homes.
Yet right now, we obviously have the advantage. Millions of people from humble neighborhoods are in the same situation—and we all already know that we are in this situation. There will not be “a few” who take risks, because there are already tens of thousands who have lost their jobs and will not be able to pay their rent, and this number will only increase. If we suffer in silence, we may not risk anything, but all the same we may lose our homes. But if we raise our voices and collectivize our struggle, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
The slightly more privileged people—those who can survive a month, two months, three months without pay, or who have retained their jobs—also have a lot to gain if they join the thousands of people who have no other way out, because none of us know how long the quarantine will last or how long the consequent economic crisis will continue. Regardless of the pandemic, in most of the cities in the Spanish state, we were already losing access to housing. If normality returns… then tourism will return along with Airbnb, gentrification, and the unbearable pressure of ever-rising rent.
We have another advantage on our side: during the state of emergency, the courts are also paralyzed. Some cities have already postponed all evictions and other municipalities will not be able to manage them at all, or only extremely slowly.
There could not be a better time to start a rent strike. The only thing that is needed is to raise our voices and collectivize the situation that we are all experiencing.
ORGANIZATIONS SPECIALIZING IN THE HOUSING STRUGGLE
Social organizations play a very important role in a rent strike. They can convene it, they can support it—or they can damage it. What are the characteristics of a strong and effective relationship between the housing movement and organizations?
First, we must recognize the reality of movements for housing. The movement consists of everyone who suffers from poor housing conditions or who is in danger of losing access to housing. They, the precarious, are the ones who have everything to lose and everything to gain; they are the ones who have to take the initiative to declare a rent strike or other acts of resistance.
Organization is a matter of the utmost strategic importance within a rent strike, but there is no specific organization that is essential. An organization that is already very strong can call the strike, as in Barcelona in 1931. But if the neighbors themselves need to go on strike, they will call the strike themselves and then create the organizations they need to build support and coordinate their actions. Even when organizations specializing in housing already exist, if they do not respond to the residents’ immediate needs, the residents will ignore them and create their own organizations. And in the very unfortunate case that an organization considers itself the proprietor of the movement and tries to lead it according to its own political needs rather than the needs of the residents, as occurred in the strike in St. Pancras, London, in 1960, it will end up sabotaging the strike and harming the tenants.
The fact that the vast majority of rent strikes have been organized by women reflects this dynamic: the formal organizations of the Left have emerged largely according to a patriarchal logic that puts “party interests” ahead of the human needs of the most affected people. For this reason, women often organize their own structures, among other things, within their own networks and with their own methods, rather than joining the large organizations that already exist.
A strong and effective relationship between the housing movement and social organizations could be based on these principles:
1. Social organizations respond to the needs of the residents. They can help to formulate strategies, but they should not turn a blind eye to the realities and inclinations of the residents.
2. Organizations exist to support residents, not to lead them. If the organizations assume that their leadership is essential, residents will likely have to create their own initiatives when action is urgent.
3. The most important support structures that organizations can provide are psychosocial and defensive. In regards to the first, the organization helps residents to see that they are not alone—that together they are strong, they can win. In this sense, the essential thing is to feed people’s spirits, not to discourage them or sow fear or false prudence. As for their defensive role, this is the activity of coordinating physical resistance to evictions and gathering legal resources for legal processes. Without this activity, the strikers will fall house by house.
By contrast, what are the characteristics of a counterproductive relationship between social organizations and the housing movement?
It is admirable when people dedicate their lives to solidarity struggles for dignity and freedom. But problematic dynamics arise when a specialization is derived from this approach that generates distance between the experts and “normal people.” In the case of the fight for housing, activists may end up being more aware of the perspectives of other “organized” activists and militants than they are of what is happening to other residents and precarious people. Consequently, they prioritize the interests of the organization (affiliating more members, looking good in the press, gaining status through negotiations with the authorities), when the interests of the residents should always take precedence (gaining access to decent and stable housing).
This alienation between activists and neighbors can manifest itself as false prudence. It is true that a rent strike is a very hard fight; it is not something to propose lightly. But taking a conservative position in the current situation seems to us to deny the reality that many people are already experiencing. A rent strike is dangerous—but it is undeniable that within the current crisis, the danger is already here. This month, tens of thousands of people will not be able to pay the rent, not to mention the tens of thousands who already live on the street in a situation of absolute vulnerability.
The danger of specialist activism is especially great in the case of economically privileged people. It is admirable when people from well-to-do families decide to fight side by side with precarious people. But it is totally unacceptable for such people to try to determine the priorities or set the pace of the struggles of the precarious.. As in all cases of privilege, they should be transparent with their companions and honest with themselves and support the struggles of precarious people instead of trying to lead them.
Limited scale or fragmented vision.
It is entirely understandable that people who have spent a lot of time fighting for housing would feel a little overwhelmed or doubtful about a general call for a rent strike. Indeed, it would be troubling if they didn’t feel that way. It has been more or less a century since we saw rent strikes on this scale. But we must also acknowledge that it has been nearly a century since capitalism has experienced a crisis as intense as the one developing today—and the rent strike continues to be an effective tool. It should give us some peace of mind to know that tenants and organizations that have been involved in rent strikes for the past three years in Toronto and Los Angeles are supporting the current international call.
As for the danger of dividing up the struggles, we consider totally unacceptable any call-out that does not take into account the needs of the homeless and those without documents. Although it is understandable that many organizations seeking short-term changes focus on a more specialized field or topic, they should not contribute to the fragmentation of struggles, undermining the possibility of solidarity. It is a tactic of the state to offer solutions for people with mortgages but nothing for tenants. We should not reproduce this approach even if we have good intentions. Therefore, all calls should support a moratorium on evictions and also legitimize the practice of occupying empty houses, or at least connect with calls that do.
The Reform/Revolution dichotomy.
To speak plainly, it’s an illusion to believe that it’s possible to win a revolution and abolish all oppressive structures from one day to the next: revolutions consist of a long path of struggle after struggle. It’s also an error to believe that it is possible to gain real reforms without creating a force that threatens the power of the state: states maintain social control and the well-being of the economy and they don’t protect those who are dispensable to those causes. Almost all really beneficial reforms have been won by revolutionary movements, not by reformist movements.
There is a lot of important debate about the appropriate relationship between the state and political movements, about tactics and strategy. But we are stronger when we work together—when those who are dedicated to small but urgent gains are connected to those who work against the fundamental sources of exploitation and fix their gaze on a horizon where exploitation no longer exists. At the end of the day, our struggles comprise an ecosystem. We’ll never convince the whole world to think like we do, nor will we dominate all social movements; whoever tries to do so only weakens their movement. We should cultivate healthy relationships based in solidarity between different parts of the same struggle, sharing whenever possible—and when that’s not possible, permitting each other to continue on a more or less parallel path. In order that this solidarity can function, it is necessary to respect the immediate work some people focus on and at the same time not to denounce any group’s “radicalism” to the press or to the police.
It’s easy for someone who spends half of her earnings on rent to appreciate a law that caps rent; for someone who can’t afford private insurance to appreciate public health services; for someone who lives in a squatted apartment to appreciate a moratorium on evictions; for a migrant to appreciate legal protections against deportation. Those who don’t personally experience any of these situations should empathize with those who do before solidifying their political ideas.
At the same time, many of us who experience precariousness choose not to create an identity out of it. We have to get to the root of the problem. Public health and rent control are great, but legal reforms and “public” good are not under our control, they are under the control of the state, and they will do us no good when the state decides it’s inconvenient to maintain what they once gave us. Why has this pandemic resulted in such a grave crisis? Because the state has continually reduced the quality of public health services. Why has rent increased so much? Because the state passed the Urban Rental Law, stripping away protections won by previous generations.
Short-term measures are necessary, but we also need a revolutionary perspective, at least for whoever doesn’t want to spend their whole life fighting for crumbs, for mere survival.
Capitalism is global. States support one another at the global level. A revolution in one single place isn’t possible, at least not for the long term. An internationalist vision is essential in this time of pandemic, xenophobia, borders, and transnational corporations. In the Spanish state, internationalism has been pretty weak of late. In Latin America, there have been strikes and revolts for free public transportation, there have been right-wing coups, there have been months and months of struggle, and many deaths. Yet in the Spanish state, not a peep. In Hong Kong, there was almost an entire year of protests against new authoritarian measures. In the Spanish state, silence. For all of 2019, just on the other side of the Pyrenees, the yellow vests gave it their all fighting against austerity. How many rallies showing solidarity have there been in the Spanish state?
Movements for freedom and dignity and against exploitation must be global. Right now we’re suffering a global pandemic—and the strongest states, from the US to China, are responding with apathy and deadly incompetence or with a level of totalitarian surveillance (drones, real-time location surveillance of individuals, cameras in every public space that use facial recognition). In the Spanish state, we see a combination of incompetence and police authoritarianism.
The rent strike is already spreading through various neoliberal countries, where vast numbers of people are in danger of losing their homes. There is no doubt that this is also the situation here in the Spanish state. If we’re not capable of internationalizing our struggles now, will we ever be? ■
For solidarity and dignity,
Written by the Segadores and Bauma collectives of Catalunya
English translation by CrimethInc.
Featured Image Station 40, a housing collective in San Francisco, is already on rent strike.
The history of eco-fascism is somewhat cloudy, but its origin draws from the previously existent eugenics movement and combines it with a form of hideous ecological disguise that aims to justify its murderous elements. The eco-fascists, more or less, are the same people Murray Bookchin described as ‘self-professed deep ecologists who believe that Third World peoples should be permitted to starve to death and that desperate Indian immigrants from Latin America should be excluded by the border cops from the United States lest they burden "our" ecological resources.’ While there has been a great deal of trying to dress the movement up, often with deepening appeals to the sanctity of nature, the beauty of the natural world, and the ugliness of industrial pollution, the roots of the movement are inescapable; the essence of eco-fascism is the idea that the World is sick, and the illness is humanity. Therefore the eco-fascist claims that we should do our best to eliminate as many people as necessary – or at least accept their deaths – to allow the World to ‘heal’.
It would be remiss to mention this without giving a brief mention to Thomas Malthus, the 19th Century English thinker who argued that the ‘power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.’ That is, he argued that there were too many people (or at least, would be too many people) in relation to available resources, causing an inevitable issue for humanity. Malthus’ argument was, when boiled down to the most fundamental ingredients, that the Earth could only support so many individuals and that there needed to be some boundary put on how many individuals could be allowed to exist. Culminating in the idea that we should not seek to cure disease, should not seek to curb famine, and should encourage the poor to live in overcrowded and unsanitary environments, and that we should even ‘court the return of the plague’, Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population is not the first piece of eugenical writing, but is certainly one of those most responsible for popularising these perspectives. Malthus’ nonsense drew a response from early English proto-anarchist William Godwin, whose lengthy Of Population opens with the claim that Malthus’ theory is ‘evidently founded upon nothing’.
Why write about this? At least, why write about this now; isn’t there a pandemic going on? Should I not be writing about that? The answer is a simple one, although malignant in its purity; with the world thrown into yet another new flavour of turmoil due to the outbreak and subsequent global spread of COVID-19, there has been an equal rise in opportunism designed primarily to take advantage of the fact that people are scared and worried. Ever the opportunists, and ever the predators of the fearful, one of the most prominent factions in this has been the far right wing, and even more specifically, the eco-fascist movement. Social media has made this even more prevalent, since messages can be distributed widely very quickly and all it takes is a single share for a piece of carefully designed propaganda to leak out from amongst one group into a much wider pool of people who will keep the message going without really being engaged with the original sentiment. It’s easy for somebody to stumble into spreading fascist adjacent ideas without ever really meaning it – but more on that later.
One of the most pernicious roots of eco-fascism is in the eugenics movement that preceded it. While there are clear differences, they are largely differences in tactics rather than sentiment; the eugenicist seeks to sacrifice given groups of individuals to the altar of genetic superiority that they have in their heads, arguing that the existence of whichever group being discussed is a flaw in the species. The eco-fascist seeks to sacrifice groups of individuals to the altar of the environment, arguing that the existence of whichever group is being discussed is a core ingredient in ecological disaster. To return to Bookchin, it can’t be ignored that the groups under discussion are almost always the same in either case; the poorer people, the people of colour, the people who are differently abled.
COVID-19 has drawn much of this discussion into the public sphere. Whereas it’s generally seen as poor taste to refer to groups of people as infections, diseases, and plagues – for good reason – this seems to be forgiven when the group being referred to is non-specific. Hand waving at humanity in general, as if being vague is ethical bulletproofing, gets a pass. It is relatively common today to find another viral tweet with tens of thousands of likes gesturing towards the clearing waters of Venetian canals, or the wandering deer of Japan navigating neon-lit city centres and declaring that the Earth is healing itself; the smog-cleared skies of California receive a probing enquiry – perhaps we were the real virus all along?
Strange as though it may seem, musings of this kind have become more and more common as the weeks have gone by and the evidence of nature ‘reclaiming’ previously populated areas has begun to accumulate. Suffice it to say, there is more than a little of the eco-fascist ideology floating around in the assumptions of that question; when somebody asks if humanity is the ‘real virus’, they set up a system in which the Earth is a being and humanity a problem that needs to be solved. The solution being proposed is rarely stated outright, but it doesn’t have to be because it’s implicit in the question; you cure a virus by getting rid of it. Beneath the surface level wonder at seeing a wild boar shuffle across Italian cobblestones, there is a lurking belief that maybe the world would be better off without us. Or, more commonly, the world would be better off without some of us, with who that some is being left as a blank to be filled in by the subconscious of the questioner. Unquestionably, whoever that somebody is, will be someone else.
It doesn’t take long to see the correlation between the eco-fascist ideal and the underlying logic of this line of reasoning.
Something that is vital to note is this; despite the fact that many of the assumptions of the ‘humans are the real virus’ rhetoric are shared with eco-fascists, not everyone who has spread it or internalised it is necessarily a fascist. Reality is sometimes difficult to parse, especially when so much is happening with such frequency. The difficulty is compounded by modern media, which bombards everybody with a deluge of barely intelligible nonsense composed of equal parts guesswork, blatant lies, misrepresentations, and government stenography. The baseline intuitiveness of the eco-fascist assumptions at work are easy to understand. For an individual lacking a systematic critique but searching for answers, it can be easy to adopt elements of this thought – this means that even people who would ostensibly baulk at the idea of outright genocide being discussed openly, such as liberals or social democrats, are able to buy into and spread the auto-virality meme without ever truly realising the dangerousness that underwrites the entire concept. So what’s the trick? How can this horrible concept become so natural that even relatively pleasant individuals can spread it and accept the logic at its base?
Simply put, there has been a piece of rhetorical trickery here; a bait and switch. We are constantly being told that these apparent ecological recoveries are the result of human beings receding from the world; the more of us that are quarantined or in self-isolation, the fewer of us that there are out and about causing environmental issues. On the surface, this appears to make some kind of sense; the fact that this formulation isn’t immediately and obviously nonsense is the hook that eco-fascists use to draw in even the well-meaning liberal. The trick is to realise that what has primarily changed is not humanity at all – the death toll of COVID-19 is growing, and it is both tragic and politically infuriating, but it hasn’t yet killed the millions, or potentially even billions, that would be required for the change to be attributed to fewer humans. The fact is that there are almost as many human beings today as there were months ago: what has changed is the behaviour of those human beings. That is to say, what has changed, to some degree, has been our modes of social organisation.
The language of the eco-fascist claims that human beings are the problem, and that with their self-isolation – that is, their removal from the system – has come ecological recovery. Such individualised and atomised analysis prevents the ever-important systematic approach; the real problem is capitalism, and it is with the interruptions and staggerings of capitalism that recovery has come along. Deeply embedded in the language of the right wing, the misattribution of the worst elements of capitalism to the mere existence of human beings exists as a dual weapon.
Firstly, it allows them to turn their vitriol upon individuals. Which individuals are chosen as targets is obvious beyond discussion; in this case, the virus has been racialised by members of the right as the ‘Chinese Virus’, a horrible formulation that has come with a rise in anti-Chinese racism and (as a simple visit to the front page of various popular newspapers will reveal) a desire to punish. This has leaked out even into supposedly left-wing and liberal discussions of the subject: a recent collection of essays published by the editorial iniative ASPO bears the name Sopa de Wuhan, (Wuhan Soup), and features essays by the usual list of left and liberal thinkers: Slavoj Žižek makes an appearance, alongside Georgio Agamben, Judith Butler, David Harvey, and Franco Berardi. Secondly, it allows them to imply a connection between the two; to link the existence of capitalism to the existence of individuals and bind them together ideologically; to present capitalism as human and therefore inevitable and inescapable.
It has long been argued that one of the worst impulses of capitalism, and really the one which puts a firm cap on how long it can last, is the requirement for continual growth and expansion. Capitalism, to put it lightly, is greedy and constantly demands more; more production, larger markets, more factories, more profit, and therefore more extraction, more waste-product, more fuel burned, et cetera. When left in the hands of governments and corporations, this tendency is indulged as often and as wantonly as possible. COVID-19 is a virus, and it is not beholden to capitalism, and therefore it doesn’t care that its proliferation puts a spanner in the works. People self isolate, the amount of work that’s being done slows; ‘it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to […] vanish’, David Graeber writes in his book Bullshit Jobs, and mass quarantine and self-isolation has answered the unasked question: humanity would not suffer. These jobs are entirely superfluous and could be done away with; so much of the work humanity does is done purely to keep people occupied, and it has become abundantly clear that this occupation is no good for most people.
Further, with self isolation and the closing of so many workplaces, the number of cars on roads drops, the amount of fuel being burned drops, and the result is some measure of ecological bounce-back. But we all know, and anarchists have argued for a very long time, that nobody needs to die for this kind of thing to happen. Observations that the world has begun ‘recovering’ since the introduction of mass quarantine would be premature – you don’t ‘fix’ the environment in a few weeks – but it’s hard to argue that visibly clearer air isn’t good on at least some level. It would be entirely within the bounds of imagination to do away with millions of cars on the road in any given day and to replace them with better forms of public transport, which serve more people and vastly reduce environmental damage. The abolition of nonsense work and the re-structuring of transport are just two examples of improvements to our lives that are realistic and easy; we simply need to re-organise our society.
Slightly more than a decade ago now, British writer, theorist, and music critic Mark Fisher published his now classic book Capitalist Realism, an attempt to diagnose and decipher the cultural environment of modern capitalism and begin thinking about how we might escape its grasp. To cut a relatively short story – Capitalist Realism is a very brief work – even shorter, Fisher argues that capitalism has been perceptually fused with ‘reality’ in such a way that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; that capitalism is the ‘only game in town’. He also argues that one of the best ways to point out how artificial and potentially changeable this kind of social organisation is, is to look towards the un-ignorable crises that appear to rip into the fabric of capitalist realism. Fisher chose, in 2009, to use mental health issues, bureaucracy, and incoming climate catastrophe as his examples. Today, these examples loom ever larger, with mental health having been largely ignored and the horrors of apocalyptic climate change bearing down on us with an increasing rage. It is now commonplace to hear statistics claiming that vast swathes of the population have serious issues with depression, anxiety, and a host of other conditions. Similarly, it’s not unusual to turn on the news or (more commonly) open up Twitter and see how yet another wildfire has ravaged yet another country, leaving smoking forests and smouldering corpses behind.
However, we can now add another example to the list of things which lift the veil and expose the levers and pulleys working behind the scenes; COVID-19 has, if nothing else, shown that a pandemic can do much the same as any wildfire. Suddenly a way of life that we were told was inescapable is swept to the side; jobs that we were told were vital become meaningless as offices and executive suites get abandoned and huge portions of the workforce either become unemployed or begin to work from home – workers that have previously been treated as scapegoats or ignored and dismissed as menial and unskilled become ‘essential workers’ without whom no country could stand. This is, of course, the message anarchists and the left in general have been pushing for well over a century; so much of the work we do is unnecessary, and so much of the work that is necessary is demeaned and under-compensated.
Given this perspective, it becomes obvious that the eco-fascist framework in which any given human is part of a planet-wide disease is flawed at the core. Similarly, the diluted and diffused version of their discourse that gets spread around by largely well-meaning people is based on a misconception that confuses a social system with those individuals who take part in it. The outbreak of COVID-19 has, to return to Mark Fisher, thrown aside many of the claims that there is no alternative to our current system, revealing a variety of ‘fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality’ that make its contingency and fragility all the more obvious. Whatever the government and popular consensus might like us to think, it’s impossible to look at a world where workplace populations can drop so drastically without damaging any vital services and then fail to imagine that things could be different.
The right wing and the state has already taken advantage of this, of course; opportunists, as mentioned earlier, are on top of this kind of thing. Governments across the world have taken this opportunity to hand out enhanced police powers, to enforce lockdowns and punishments for people who might be out of their home too often; Hungary has already managed to skip straight into out-and-out dictatorship, using the pandemic as an accelerant to Orbán’s bigoted fire. As the surface of political discourse shifts, forced into motion by the earthquake that has caused decades of neo-liberal consensus to show the cracks in the foundations, the right wing has taken every chance it can get to push towards its own goals; the left should do the same. Undeniably, there has already been a start; rent strikes have broken out in various countries; General Electric workers have demanded their factories be converted to build ventilators, and mutual aid networks have emerged in their hundreds. Those who consider themselves to be unconcerned with ideology have found that ideology is extremely concerned with them, and the already shaky grip that the centre has had on mainstream discourse for some time has become even more tenuous.
We cannot, however, allow ourselves to be fooled that a crisis will, with some minor coaching from a rent strike, end capitalism or the state. If any credit can be given to apparatuses such as these, it’s that they have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity and the ability to worm their way into surviving nearly any disaster. Anarchists can’t rely on the state to crumble under its own inadequacies; it must be pushed. Mutual aid networks are a fantastic start, despite how many of them have faced internal disruption from party political actors seeking to subvert them into hierarchical structures. The rumblings of worker solidarity found in factory walk-outs, and the backlash against landlords, too, are brilliant beginnings. But true change doesn’t come with a few good signs; there must be increasing pushback against the state, and it must be continuous. COVID-19 has torn a hole in the veil of capitalist realism; what we knew for a long time – that things can be different – is now becoming common knowledge to those who have had their world rocked by this pandemic. Anarchists and other leftists cannot allow any avenue to remain unexplored, or to be reclaimed by the right; the ecological aspect is included in this.
For years, ecological catastrophe has been one of the few continually inescapable tears in capitalist hegemony. For years, it has been looming as a threat, with each news story growing increasingly alarming; scientists have been issuing dire proclamations of end-days deadlines for a long time, and there has been little reason to doubt the legitimacy of these claims. Damage caused by industrial capitalism is there for anyone to see. Visiting a beach, seeing the endless stretches of logged forest, watching species after species vanish into extinction; all of this is undeniable to anybody willing to engage legitimately with the evidence. Capitalism is at extreme contradiction with ecological sustainability. For the eco-fascist, it has been trivial to marry these obvious observations with COVID-19 to introduce a form of self-destructive hippydom; at the core of fascism lies a desire for the end – as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote, it is a ‘war machine that no longer had anything but war as its object’. Usurping the language of the environmentalist, the eco-fascist sees an opportunity to mask the violence and overt misanthropy of their ideology, but is only that; a mask. Fascism is, at its core, ‘a line of pure destruction’, to return to Deleuze, and any attempt to claim that the true motive is environmental sustainability is transparently absurd. The only true environmentalism is liberatory.
What needs to be enforced by the anarchist movement, at every turn, is the reality of the situation: COVID-19 and the subsequent shuffling of society has not proven that humanity is a curse with which to be done away; it has proven that capitalism is nothing but a series of choices and structures that we make and reinforce everyday, and those choices can be made differently; those structures can be torn down. Claim this moment and these apparent ecological recoveries as ideological, but claim them correctly; if there is something that needs to be sacrificed for the ongoing health of the planet and its inhabitants, it’s capitalism. ■
Jay Fraser is an anarchist, poet, amateur philosopher, and basketball fan. He can be found on Twitter or anywhere that has good coffee.
This article featured in the Organise! Pandemic Special
Polish translation: Federacja Anarchistyczna
Discussion with the author: Anarchist Bookfair In London
On social media, I have recently come across an 'anti-capitalist love note', reassuring its readers that they are much more than their productivity. This criticism of economic output as a measure of human worth will strike a chord with many people. Material production influences the kind of person you are, but it does not justify or invalidate your existence. No capitalist accounting can do justice to being human. You need no reason or apology for living life in freedom, and productivity is not your friend.
The cult of productivity has led to extensive damage and misery, as those who enthusiastically embrace wrong ends – placing profits before people – wreak havoc upon the world, and subject fellow humans to oppression and abuse. Their hard work brings bitter fruit.
In his essay 'Productivity is dangerous', Vincent Bevins suggests that the obsession with productivity contributed to Germany's imperial aggression and state violence in the 20th century. In his lecture 'Judenplatz 1010', Timothy Snyder reminds us that the concept of productivity was used by the Nazis to dehumanise Jews who 'were sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to be murdered when it was judged that the calories they consumed were worth more than the work they produced'. Productivity is wielded as a bludgeon against humanity: 'This is an artefact of the industrial world: humans who are denied humanity are judged as objects who carry out physical work.'
Under capitalism, most of us are not our productivity because it is appropriated by the capitalist class. Our actions, which are human at heart, serve the capitalist purpose of fuelling economic growth that perpetuates subjugation and precipitates ecological ruin.
Productivity is hypocritically worshipped and weaponised by the rich because they reap the benefits of mass exploitation. In this unfair and unsustainable system, people are alienated from the results of their labour, and their own worth is lost in the process.
Productivity is monetised and domesticated in the capitalist economy. Creative endeavours are harnessed by capitalism and serve its nefarious goals when the worker plays by its rules, which promote fierce competition and protect those in power – the rich subjugate and discipline the poor. Authoritarianism and other social distortions lead to a warped view of humanity with regard to its productive potential and actual output.
Equating productivity with humanity and self-worth is a kind of vulgar behaviourism that benefits the privileged. Actions do shape human nature, and behaviourism is not evil or misguided per se. The problem arises when we define people only through those aspects of their life that can be quantified and integrated into a broken economic mechanism that is destroying not only the environment, but also social relationships. Human behaviour that does not bring profit loses recognition and visibility, whereas toxic productivity comes to the fore.
According to behaviourists, humanity predominantly depends on what people do or do not do. In this view, productivity defines humanity. While it does matter what people do, it should not detract from or augment their humanity. Behaviour might be what makes us human in some complex and multifaceted sense, but it is crucial to acknowledge humanity without relying only on productivity. Humanity should be an all-encompassing option that includes all humans in a society.
All living beings have meaning and significance that cannot be reduced to their service to economy. Once humans overcome this exploitative vision of society and environment, being human will cease to be an exclusive privilege. People need to learn how to live in harmony with each other and nature. Human rights should not entail the devastation of life on Earth to indulge the superiority fantasies of the few affluent individuals who reserve justice and freedom for themselves.
Planting trees and cutting them down can both be seen as productivity. The modern economy introduces a perverse asymmetry to this equation as deforestation is deemed much more profitable than reforestation. There is a way to judge the consequences of productivity as positive in one value system (profit), and negative in another (the environment).
When it comes to the environmental crisis, both conservation and innovation require a different kind of productivity. Growing forests and building green power plants are not neutral options. In the current model, they are not valued for their environmental impact.
A proper judgement should be made of those who extract and burn fossil fuels, and run the economy based on unsustainable growth. Economic productivity measures not only affluence, but also responsibility for the extent of global destruction, from carbon footprint to nuclear waste.
Productivity can be the reverse side of consumption. Being productive could foster consumption. Some business models rely on generating demand for their products. Whether production and consumption are enriching or destructive activities depends on the relationship between human beings and the environment. In an exploitative and extractive economy, productivity and consumption mean both exploitation of other humans and the decimation of nature.
What is rewarded is not always what benefits us and the environment the most. From cultural heritage to investment bankers, our culture and economy erase humanity and nature in favour of wealth and tyranny.
In his book Bullshit Jobs (2018), David Graeber argues there are many jobs that make no sense. Instead of decrying their existence, we could question the economic system that created them by demonstrating that it disrupts the natural relationship between humanity and productivity. If people notice the profound gulf between human and economic worth, they will see that every job is bullshit.
The relentless focus on productivity inevitably motivates the wrong kind of action. When people are free to do what they please, they will not inflict self-defeating damage. Forced to produce the right amount of stuff in an exploitative economy, many people actively undermine the good work of others because of their ineptitude or perverse motivation. If everyone is compelled to work regardless of their preferences, those who want to do something else or wish to sit idly by might cause chaos and devastation. Their forced contribution will not only cancel out the efforts of others, but far exceed them since disruption can be easier to achieve than constructive change. This involuntary destruction is not an aberration, but the very essence of capitalist production.
The understanding that human worth does not equal productivity and that the latter can have catastrophic ramifications should not lead us to believe that we are always better off doing nothing. On the contrary, these insights should motivate people to organise in order to topple the current system of ruthless exploitation and to establish a more harmonious relationship among human beings, and between humanity and the environment.■
Pavlo Shopin is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in the English Department at the University of Freiburg. He comes from Luhansk, Ukraine.