This weekend has had a series of events arranged by Faslane Peace Camp designed to highlight the case for disarmament of nuclear weaponry. It will cumulate this Monday in a blockade of the base itself. Earlier in the week myself and a few other Glasgow-based anarchists received a message asking us to consider taking on the role of a steward for the Saturday march and rally.
The overt reasoning was that this march would be the first of its type in Glasgow to specifically address the concerns about safety for women in this type of activity and to properly look at accessibility for different levels of physical and cognitive ability. It was pitched to us that the role of a steward was simply to ensure that the march was as safe and accessible as we would be able to make it and was made to sound to me something similar to a legal observer or a street medic, both of which are duties I’m keen to promote or be part of. Covertly I got the feeling that the organisers hoped to break the stewarding monopoly held by some groups, or at least the behaviours they undertake while in the role.
With this reasoning being given, and assurances that things were genuinely going to be structured differently, my friend fleabite took up the offer while I was sceptical and refused. After chatting with them after the march I feel my concerns were justified and my decision correct.
Bulls on Parade
My experience of stewards leads me to the following expectations:
- The majority of stewards are Leninist and Trotskist types from the SWP (and locally the ISG) or the (S)TUC that take on the role in order to show that they have control of the event and/or to mark their place within their hierarchies. Those who are there to provide genuine assistance are kept away from the front and are given minor duties.
- They start chants, march people on obscure routes, and tire folks out through the most pointless activities. The main aim is to get people to listen to their team’s talking heads at the end of it all.
- They make sure their groups are at the fore of any media opportunities, sometimes going to ridiculous lengths to do so.
- They undertake the instructions of the police no matter how dangerous for participants or outside of the interest of those involved they are.
- They actively prevent real direct action from taking place, funnelling marches into police kettles and pre-prepared dead-ends. At the same time they actively stop people from self-organising and will marginalise or even violently remove any part of an event that is outwith the control of their group.
- They ignore their duty to those involved and to ensuring the safety and autonomy of those involved in order to be in charge of things or to be “impartial” (read: do what the cops/council tell them should be happening).
Highway to Hell
So, did having anarchos who were there who had more of a focus on providing a safer and more accessible environment help? From where I was stood unfortunately not.
First up I heard the stewards talk at the start was led by the same old cis-gendered man from the SWP that it always is, even though there were women with adequate experience to have done so. Pro-tip: if you are serious about giving woman more of a role in our spaces then all you dudes need to STEP THE FUCK BACK. I know it is sometimes hard. Those of us socialised as males are expected to step forward while there are hundreds of arguments to excuse that behaviour, but we should be aware of this and pass on these duties. The idea that there is nobody else that can do these roles is laughable. Also, given the recent actions and problems of rape apologism within the SWP the idea of having their remaining members acting to upkeep a policy intended to make space more inclusive to women is shocking.
The idea of making the event accessible was opportunistic tokenism of the highest order, shaping the crowd to make sure the right oppressed groups were seen with the right party blocks and had nothing to do with a serious commitment to facilitating the means of engagement selected by those involved.
The bulk of the stewards were all the same faces that had been stewarding in the past. This includes a member of the ISG that I had seen verbally harass and physically intimidate women activists on past demonstrations and seems free to steward in spite of repeated complaints due to their aggressive and misogynistic behaviour. I also seen several people who had prevented direct action on past demonstrations, and one person who I have seen actively leading people into a police kettle. There has been no indication that any of these issues had been examined (or even were seen as being negative), or that any structures or processes had been put in place to try and help prevent them being repeated.
The bulk of stewards around key groups seems to be leading chants and ensuring media coverage for their chosen groups. This makes a mockery of their impartiality, makes approaching them difficult, and it is impossible for them to be fulfilling their care of duty to the march as a whole.
Finally, the way in which the police interacted with stewards was still in the usual fashion of telling them how the march has to be handled and expecting it to be followed to the letter. Most of the stewards are happy with this situation as it is a good way to demonstrate that their group has the power to control groups and so should be given respect at the table when it comes to negotiation.
Road to Nowhere
If organisers of events truly want an inclusive and accessible event then this could be achieved with very little effort. Methods of ensuring oppressed and marginalised groups are facilitated and made to feel welcomed and safe should be taken by those groups, not for them. Those taking on the role of steward need to put aside their want to be involved as protesters and instead act to ensure an openly published set of standards and processes are upheld. They should stand on the side of the people marching and follow their lead rather than try to demonstrate their control of the situation to police and the state.
A structure forged in a similar vein to the Green & Black Cross or ScALP would probably be best to help promote these outcomes, and turn the useless funeral marches we currently (dont?) see trailing through our cities into situations that could raise confidence of people involved and *gasp* they might even be really fun!
Unfortunately I have little hope of this being realised as it stands in complete opposition to the political practice and goals of those who hold a grip on the stewarding of events while at the same time event organisers would be unlikely to take action to break the strangle-hold of power in this field held by the SWP, ISG or STUC for fear of them taking their ball (and their members and their money) home in a huff.
It’s always interesting to see how the manner with which we interact with space and place effects those very spaces and places, and others in them. Enjoyed the read!
Thanks! I do think the means by which we approach even our most public of spaces and events will, to a large degree, shape the outcomes they can achieve.
In terms of marching through an urban centre I feel that having authoritarian oversight will lead to stagnation and frustration, glazed over with authoritarian pomp and ceremony. Conversely having no expected behaviour or idea of what to do when things go wrong leads to an environment that marginalises or excludes some while allowing unsocial behaviour to go unchecked.
If legal observers took the same tact as stewards currently do they would simply spend their time writing up detailed reports painting protesters in a bad light before submitting them to the police. Conversely if stewarding become more like other branches of “activist facilitation” then protests would be free to roam and take direct action as the whim took them, marches might actually engage with the public, and intervention would only occur to ensure those with ability issues were not left out and predatory or abusive individuals were seen off; the police would have to actively attempt their own enforcement rather than relying on the authoritarian left to be the foreman’s dogs.
Certainly, and I like your point about how these almost militaristic formations very much segregate and compartmentalise the osmotic potential of public expression by creating a roman-styled turtle formation lined by growling pit-bull like figures, as supposed to longer-term and freer forms of interaction such as squats and Solidarity Networks.