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Last Wednesday, on the evening of September 13, women congregated at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to attend a meeting entitled “What is Gender?”
The actual meeting venue was not advertised because the first venue booked by the organisers had been withdrawn after threats from people who said they intended to “shut down” the “transphobic” event.
A century ago Speakers’ Corner was the site where Suffragettes would meet to debate the laws and rights of the day that concerned women.
This was the same intention last week. Like the Suffragettes’ rallies at Speakers’ Corner, we too would be subject to violence from men. Women assembling unmediated by men has always been a threat to male dominance.
The meeting was a discussion of the impact of the proposed Gender Identity Act, such as whether making “gender” a matter of pure self-definition could undermine services currently designated for women only.
Two Stonewall speakers, who support the changes, had been due to debate transsexual speaker Miranda Yardley and feminist academic Julia Long, who oppose them. Unfortunately the two Stonewall speakers withdrew from the event due to a holiday, but wished the participants well.
There had been threats of violence on Facebook and Twitter during the day. Once it was known the meeting point for the event was Speakers’ Corner, transgender activists began telephoning all venues within a mile of Hyde Park attempting to have the event cancelled.
I felt sick at work all day as I had a sinking feeling that something terrible would happen to one of the attendees that evening.
If people openly promote and rationalise violence against you, their confidence for committing it is clear. Who would have ever predicted violence against women would be acceptable if said woman has a structural, systemic account of gender? Such a notion sounds surreal, but I was about to observe first-hand how credible that threat of violence is.
When I first arrived at Speakers’ Corner it was hard to discern the different camps of protesters from attendees. Everyone was stood around talking. Only when one of the speakers for the event began singing did trans activists present start to chant: “When Terfs attack, we fight back!”
To be fair, Long’s singing was imperfect, but it could hardly be considered an act of aggression. Regardless, a blond man dressed all in black, who we would later learn had earlier snatched Yardley’s phone off him, immediately walked over to begin harassing Long for the outlandish crime of singing Que Sera Sera.
At this point I was stood in direct view of what happened next. As the various footage on YouTube shows, a woman later named as Maria was milling around the middle of everyone.
I saw a first man, in grey leggings, run at her, attempting to snatch her camera. This was a trial run. He had missed, so he looped back around. The chanting continued: “When Terfs attack, we fight back!” revving up several men this time for a second camera-snatching attempt. The man in grey leggings came in again, but this time others joined in.
From this point, it’s better to watch what takes place on YouTube than me repeat it here: mstar.link/hydepark13-9.
I must make clear I didn’t see everything that went on. For example, I could not see from my vantage point that when the men attacked, women in Sisters Uncut (an organisation originally set up to challenge cuts to domestic violence services) apparently tried to pull the attackers off Maria. This was indicated in the video footage shared online.
We also didn’t notice that one of the men, after hitting Maria to the floor, turned around to shove and threaten two women in Sisters Uncut on his own “side” for trying to pull him off her.
The aftermath of the attack saw Maria’s face bruised, strangle marks on her neck and cuts on her hands. The attackers fled the scene. Several women called the police at this point.
Three police cars arrived after around 10 minutes. The police were totally uninterested in what had happened. I showed footage of the attack to one cop who said: “Well, your group were singing, and you’re not allowed a megaphone, that’s breaking park rules. So you lot committed the first offence.” For the Metropolitan Police a 60-year-old woman being beaten up by a group of twenty-something men is akin to an illicit barbeque or walking on the grass when a park sign forbids it.
At this point we walked to the venue. As we walked members of Sisters Uncut, in a fashion that can only be described as the least subtle attempt to pursue women down dark, quiet streets ever, followed us.
One woman stated she felt intimated by this, but I felt like asking them to come inside — it was, of course, originally meant to be a debate. The worst had already happened, why not welcome them to join us?
I swiftly found out why that might have been a bad idea.
Once we got to the Women’s University Club building, where the debate was to be held, those Sisters Uncut members who followed us tried to force their way in.
The venue’s reception and bar staff had to form human chains to keep them out and allow attendees in. Organiser of the event, Venice Allan, a Labour Party member in south London, has since sent them flowers as a thank you. A worker not having to face physical force at work is surely a common political principle we can all agree on.
Sisters Uncut stayed outside the entire time chanting. Police were called by local residents and arrived. But, to the surprise of everyone who has ever been on a protest, they took the side of the protesters.
In my experience of student demonstrations, the police are very quick to tell you to disperse if they deem you to be intimidating people or causing a “public disturbance.”
Some parents rang the venue to say their kids couldn’t sleep due to the chanting. The police, however, said we needed to cut short our question-and-answer session, as we were “the cause of the protest.”
Retrospectively it does all make sense politically: of course the police were not going to defend an event organised by a transsexual and lesbian feminist about how gender is a system of power.
So we left earlier than planned, skipping the Q&A, but not before there was worried talk about how we could get out of the building unscathed.
It was suggested we get cabs from the street immediately away so that we could not be followed again and again face physical attack.
Obviously, this is expensive, so many objected. In the end it was decided that we would have to share cabs to the local Tube station, collectively footing the bill.
Both Yardley’s and Long’s presentations were excellent, but the events were overshadowed by the spectre of male violence.
Violence against women is always wrong and cannot be minimised or justified. Women have a right to free association and assembly.
This was politically motivated violence aimed at silencing women and shutting us out of political discussion and public space. We cannot let it succeed.
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