Hardcore direct action – an anecdote

Quite a few years ago I belonged to a small Earth First-style ecological direct action group. Our aim was to prevent ecological destruction by directly targeting the companies using non-violent direct action. A typical action would be to prevent an office or factory from opening by locking ourselves to the gates.

At the same time I had some friends who ran an anti-capitalist queer cafe every so often, with discussions, films, poetry readings, and bands. I really enjoyed the queer cafe but at the same time I kind of looked down on it; I thought that my group was doing real, hardcore direct action, while the queer cafe was really just entertainment. It was fun, but it wasn’t “real” activism.

Since then I’ve had a rethink of my attitudes: why did I think my group’s Earth First-style actions were “hardcore”, and why did I think the queer cafe wasn’t real activism?

I saw the EF-style actions as being hardcore because we directly confronted power – instead of just asking these companies to stop, we blockaded them, putting ourselves at risk of being arrested. Compared to that, the queer cafe looked like a walk in the park.

What I didn’t realize back then was that running the queer cafe in central Manchester was in fact an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Being heterosexual and cisgendered, I didn’t realize that in the city where I lived it’s common for people to be verbally harassed and even attacked and badly beaten just for being gay or trans, or for looking like they are. Thus I had no idea how brave and confrontational it was to open an overtly queer space right in the city centre (but outside of Canal Street, the corporate pink ghetto that Manchester’s queers were expected to confine themselves to). I and the others in my group were putting ourselves at risk of being arrested, having to spend a night in a police holding cell, having to go to court and pay a fine, all of which was extremely unpleasant, but it wasn’t as bad as being at risk of taking a beating.

If I’m honest, I don’t think my little group’s actions really had much effect – at least none that I could see. By contrast during the time the queer cafe was running I saw a succession of people I knew come out as being gay, bi, trans, or just not very gender-conforming. At the time it didn’t occur to me to wonder why so many people would come out in the space of just a few months, but looking back I think it was probably because for the first time they had a safe and supportive social space in which to come out. So while I was in a group that loved to parrot the slogan “Create the world you want to see”, the queer cafe people were actually doing it.

Needless to say I feel very ashamed to the “more hardcore than thou” attitude that I had at the time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that people who like to boast about how they are the most hardcore direct activists around, probably aren’t.

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