London, March 8th: International Women’s Day
An estimated 2000 people gathered to reclaim the heart of the city of London as part of the Women’s Strike, collectively assembling to refuse work and join in international solidarity against the current conditions of womanhood. Gender dysphoria raging, I limped out into the lashing rain to head to Cavendish Square to join them dressed as a boy with a secret – a flowery dress hidden underneath my macho blacks. Arriving late, I caught the tail end of the manifestation as it began its march into the consumer trap that is Oxford Circus.
Together in the streets, hundreds of people danced and sang to samba rhythms of resistance and mobile sound systems blasting MIA. Blocs of marchers moved in seamless, joyous unison beneath the flags of the YPJ, the Chilean anarchist flag, beneath banners that read ‘Power to the Sluts’, ‘Women Defend Rojava’, ‘Trans Women Are Women’. Flanked by people holding red material to contain the bloc, the demo was headed by a huge banner stating: ‘When We Stop, The World Stops With Us’.
This is how demonstrations must be: women, nonbinary and trans-lead, carnivalesque, celebratory, fearlessly organised embodiments of militant joy.
With minimal police presence, the march seized Oxford Street and set up marquees to hold workshops in women’s self-defence and infoshops on international feminist struggles. A mass clothes swap took place as a living demonstration of the anticapitalist ethos, highlighting the work of production and consumption that women across the world take on by modelling how it might be transformed. Fliers were distributed by volunteers tasked with communicating the march to the Sunday masses:
“Shopping is usually a task taken on by women, whether it’s for food, clothes or washing up liquid. The underpaid work of producing cheap clothes and selling them is overwhelmingly also done by women. This cycle is destroying our lives and our planet.”
There was a significant number of people from Latin America, who filled the sterile boulevardes of West London with choruses of Spanish resistance songs. A unit of Kurdish women received cheers of support beneath red-green-yellow pennants whisking in the now stammering rain.
As 5pm neared, quickly as they appeared, the marquees were dismantled, the blocs reassembling to march on.
We were only just getting started.
As if they knew, a growing police presence stalked us as we moved en masse to Soho Square to join the Sex/Work Strike.
Here, the energies grew only more rowdy, more defiant, more enraged. Masked figures grew in number amongst the crowds, and flares filled the air with purple smoke as a new set of banners appeared decrying the oppression of sex workers. A fresh militant edge sharpened the crowds spirit. Lead by a voice that grew ragged with relentless chanting through a megaphone, the crowd roared off with renewed vigour into the West End:
“Sex work is work and real work sucks!”
As the streets darkened, hundreds of demonstrators marched into the theatre district, seizing the junction at Cambridge Circus to hear speeches beneath the banners of SWARM and the English Collective of Prostitutes.
“Today we refuse to do sex/work for money and we will not carry out the domestic, sex and care work that we are expected to do for free: the jobs that keep our communities, families and the system we live in ticking over!We strike to demand decriminalisation so we can work collectively, keep each other safe and organise for better working conditions!”
Leading the demo through a zoo of photojournalists, a cadre of masked individuals took point, their brooding hostility in comparison to the victorious chants of the bloc. I struggled with the urge to gender the different activities. The numbers of police steadily grew as we headed east, hovering awkwardly by a number of TSG vans. They knew their only job was to prevent irate drivers from making grave errors of judgement and to help the traffic flow redirect elsewhere – for now. This was not under their control – the streets tonight belonged to many who had once walked them facing oppression because of their sex, gender or job.
“No bad whores just bad laws!”
Gathering outside the Royal Courts of Justice, we were greeted by a giant fairy-light sign reading ‘DECRIM NOW’. Speakers paid tribute to the ongoing efforts of countless activists to organise:
“In the last two years, strippers across the country have begun unionising their workplaces and taking on bosses and unfair exploitative conditions – and winning. Now other sex workers are joining in and unionising. We must fight with our own voices, under the red umbrella of labour and human rights. We strike against the idea that sex for money has to be policed and banned by the state in order to protect women. We come together to protest laws that punish us for trying to earn a living, against bosses that want us quiet and well-behaved, against the stigma that makes our lives more difficult.”
As a grand finale, a posse of dancers wound and ground to Dolly Parton’s ‘Working 9 to 5’ as the crowds whooped and pumped umbrellas skyward.
It was all too perfect. And then, inevitably, representatives of the patriarchy had to weigh in.
At first, a spiky confrontation between a heavy-bearded pedestrian who took issue with one of the masked defenders. Then, a brief game of cop-and-mouse as an over eager plod fruitlessly tried to chase after a person with a smoke bomb who danced away through a crowd happy to help hide them. A mobile sound system and attendant crew arrived to play some closing tunes as the main rig was whisked seamlessly away. The cops got increasingly irate, cranking up the oppression and calling one reveller a ‘tool’. Uncowed but disciplined, people began to escape into the sheltering night. Several attendees reported being followed by cops back through the streets, with one being forced to self-isolate in a Wetherspoons with a beer to avoid coponitvirus.
It was time. The day had been an education in organisation, and with mad respect and kudos to the dedication, passion and talent of all the persons and organisations involved. Sidling off around a corner, I whipped off my blacks and unleashed the pink-and-black floral print dress and leggings beneath, skipping off into the gathering rain, whispering a refrain I had been too shy to share outloud, but felt in the spirit of all of those who had made that day manifest:
“We will not be quiet, Stonewall was a riot.”
I had arrived there a boy, but I left as a woman.
Sex worker run and organised collective Radio Ava will be covering the strike on their show on March 19th.
Photo by Fields of Light Photography