Motivated and mobilised: on the protest trail with Sisters Uncut

Sisters Uncut: Protesting cuts in domestic violence services. Photograph: Rachel Parris

Taking a stand: demonstrators from Sisters Uncut sit down on Waterloo Bridge. Photograph: Rachel Parris

Southbound on the Bakerloo, two stops to Charing Cross, I noticed the women before they noticed me. They stood at the other end of the almost empty carriage and although they didn’t speak and they didn’t move, I couldn’t help but stare. Three faces, six arms, one oversized umbrella, they were alike in nothing but their attitude, which vibrated and buzzed along with the wheels on the track and which made me stop and stand and stare. These women were no Sunday shoppers. Southbound on the Bakerloo, two stops to Charing Cross, they noticed me as we stepped from the train, but they didn’t stare back. These women had somewhere to be, something important to do. These women knew it.

When we emerged at Trafalgar Square, I lost them in the crowd that was already gathering; a crowd of all shapes and styles and colour and expression, with a confident, shared purpose. It was Sunday 20 November, a day of national protest for the feminist group Sisters Uncut, which takes direct action to campaign against what it argues are sexist and racist cuts to domestic violence services.

Over the next three hours, central London, along with Glasgow, Newcastle and Bristol, became the site of the group’s latest protest. Although the group campaigns on behalf of all victims of domestic abuse, Sunday’s demonstration represented their demand to secure funding for specialist services for black, minority ethnic and migrant women. These are the services whose future is left most insecure by the government’s cuts to welfare provision, meaning that, according to a report from black feminist campaign group Imkaan, four out of five BME women who approach refuges for help are turned away.

But for Rachel Green, a survivor of domestic abuse who lived in one such specialist service and marched with Sisters Uncut to ensure others would have the same opportunity, the protest was about more than statistics. “Refuges are not just safe places to sleep, but somewhere you can call home where you heal and recover,” she says.

It is messages like these which motivate and mobilise the Sisters to direct action. But although there was a quiet energy in the faces and the bodies and the waving placards of those collected at the foot of Nelson’s Column, the demonstration began solemn and sedate. Heads in the crowd bowed or rested against neighbours’ shoulders as a list of the victims of domestic homicide this year was read aloud; a drizzly, public sort of vigil, respectful and silent except for the names spoken slowly into the microphone and the jostling of journalists’ cameras, my own alongside them.
Everything altered when the first flare was lit, an ignition of something more than the purple and green smoke that fogged the skyline, than the sparks that flashed hot red against the grey. No more silence, no more bowed heads, the mourning was over and the marching began. The protest remained peaceful – there were no arrests, no altercations and the police were there to protect – but those who chanted were there to be heard.

According to the group, migrant women fleeing domestic violence have their “bridges to safety” blocked by their lack of access to public funds and resources, meaning that they cannot access refuges or benefits and so often face the impossible decision of choosing to exchange a violent domestic space for homelessness or to remain trapped in life-threatening abuse. As the march reached its final destination, the rallying cry repeated by the crowd and painted on posters – “You block our bridges, we’ll block yours back” – took on a new significance. Halfway across Waterloo bridge the group sat unapologetically on the wet tarmac and brought traffic to a standstill.

And if there was anger on the bridge, it was matched by an equal amount of celebration. When I spoke later to Janelle Brown, a member of the campaign group, it was this combination of “rage, power and joy”, this “beautiful energy”, that defined the demonstration for her; a celebration of “unity and support”, a means of “taking up a public space to talk about what is too often ignored as a private issue”.

And there was joy. As the demonstration drew to a close, somebody turned the speakers up. Music played. Some people danced, lots laughed. And there was unity too. A passenger in a bus brought to a stop by the protest, themselves a survivor of domestic violence, stepped down, thanked the group and joined them. Anjali Sharma, another survivor, told of how the protest reminded her that she is not, and will not be, alone.

And that vibration, that buzzing from the Bakerloo line, ran through us all then and as I walked away I felt it fizzing in me. But something else nagged there too, something that cut through the adrenaline and the music and the coloured smoke. Because the bridge was opening up again, will always open up, and the traffic had started to flow, as it always will. Refuges will still close, victims will still be turned away and two women a week will still be killed by a partner or ex-partner. And these women won’t catch my eye, or yours, southbound on the Bakerloo, two stops to Charing Cross. They won’t buzz like the wheels on the track. They won’t fill the almost empty carriage like the smoke flares filled the sky. They will be forgotten, again, as the bridge opens up and the traffic starts to flow. Sisters Uncut, with all their rage and power and joy, are a reminder not to forget.

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