A statement in solidarity with the London Anarchist Bookfair Collective. From some friends of the Bookfair

On Saturday 28th October the 2017 London Anarchist Bookfair took place in North London. As usual several thousand anarchists and fellow travellers from diverse tendencies attended, ran stalls, held meetings and other activities.

The Bookfair is organised by a small voluntary collective of five, with a wider group of supporters who help out with setting up, facilitating areas or aspects of the events on the day, collecting donations to cover costs of this free event, tidying up at the end, and so on. It is a monumental amount of work, that generally falls on this small group of people (with families and lives, like the rest of us), who come together to spend much of the year running up to October facilitating the staging of an event and a space for several thousand others in the movement. The Bookfair Collective have always shown willing to take on board suggestions, follow up ideas, and include people and organisations with a view to broadening the range of ideas encompassed and the diversity of the program. They have always been open to more involvement in running the Bookfair.

Saturday’s events and the Open Letter

There were a series of incidents at the Bookfair this year which included distribution of leaflets about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act being consulted on and an ensuing stand-off. Several people intervened to stop what looked like a developing potentially physically violent incident against a lone woman activist by a group of people. We would hope that most people reading this would do the same.

Some of the people who intervened to do this were members of the Bookfair Collective but they were not doing so as a group in ‘authority’ on the situation, but as individuals and friends supporting a comrade; just as other bookfair-goers in the past have stepped up to stop others being chucked out. We would suggest it is a misinterpretation of events, and the role of the collective, to see this as a ‘Bookfair Collective intervention’ in order to stop the self-organisation of the group involved.

In the wake of the events on Saturday, an Open Letter has been written and circulated online, calling for changes to, and a potential boycott and/or picket of, next year’s Bookfair. Other public statements are also being discussed around withdrawal/disaffiliation with the Bookfair, here for instance.

The open letter claims

“a pattern of response from Bookfair organisers where incidents of transphobia, anti-semitism, islamophobia, racism and misogyny are ignored” and “organisers have stepped in to defend and support those who use oppressive, violent and dehumanising language to perpetuate racist, colonial and patriarchal systems of oppression.” and the collective “allows racist imperialism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny and ableism to ingratiate themselves as part of the culture of the Bookfair”

We would dispute this and would call for specific examples for any of the above, and evidence that we can reasonably judge from, enough to prove a pattern that the Bookfair Collective have refused to deal with them when raised.

What is the Anarchist Bookfair?

More fundamentally, we would ask to whom are the demands in the open letter really directed?

The Bookfair is not set up to be the representative body for anarchists, nor can it be. It is neither a membership organisation, nor are members of the collective Mediation Practitioners, there to settle the sometimes seismic differences and different perspectives that attendees bring to the event.

Come the day of the Bookfair that space the organisers have facilitated is filled with the politics brought into it by the anarchist movement itself, in all its initiatives, vivid colours and traditions. If a chasm of difference exists over issues that flare up, such as last weekend, the Bookfair Collective are not in a position, nor have the physical resources to arbitrate. So we ask: whose responsibility is this and how do disagreements (sometimes leading to threats of violence or actual violence) get dealt with? The existing statement on these issues can be found on the Bookfair’s website

We are left to wonder whether anarchist practice has become so inculcated by ‘customer service’ culture that even the Bookfair is attended by consumers forgetting the fundamental essence of DIY, self-organisation and self-regulation of events.

The Bookfair Collective operates on the principle that it is not for the small collective that organises it to take on defining and enforcing a rigid policy on safety and behaviour; it is for the wider movement that takes part in the Bookfair to do so, along anarchist principles of opposing centralized authority with dispersed and grassroots responsibility.

Points raised in the open letter call for a radically different event, with a much more centralized program, organized or tightly overseen by the collective. If we as a movement, decide that this is what we want, many more of us will need to commit time and energy to organising and supporting this annual event.

Where next?

We reject transphobia and have all actively supported struggles against oppression. We support the right of trans people to live their lives free from harassment and abuse, to organise, campaign and engage in debate with whoever they choose; and to be addressed by the gender pronouns of their choice. We support the rights of all women to be heard. We recognise that both trans activists and gender critical feminists are currently feeling attacked, at times to the level of their very existence and identities. We would hope that everyone participating in London Anarchist Bookfair would treat each other respectfully and continue to believe that dialogue is possible so that we can strengthen our struggle against oppression and build a better world. We reject bullying and intimidation – in physical or written form.

The Bookfair can never be the ‘dreamed of Utopia’ the open letter imagines, despite all our desires and dedication. We agree with the open letter on one thing, that we should all always be challenging ourselves and each other to widen liberation and ensure the Bookfair is a safe and respectful event, drawing in communities, and reflecting them. But we also believe it needs to allow for discussion and dissent, while excluding hatred and oppression.

We are not members of the Bookfair Collective but some of us have been in the past, and some of us have been involved in wider support work for Bookfairs. All of us are long-time attendees of the Bookfair. As such we hope that it continues, we offer our solidarity and practical support to the Bookfair Collective. We urge the Collective to look beyond the signatories of the open letter to the many wider groups and individuals who attend and take part in the event every year, and to realise that they do have a groundswell of support out there.

Rather than calling for a boycott of the Bookfair, we would challenge the writers of the open letter to engage meaningfully with the Collective and others to help create the change they want. In the light of the statement’s refusal to engage with the Collective until their minimum demands are met, the Bookfair Collective would be reasonably entitled to ignore the open letter.

So we stand by the Bookfair Collective, and salute how the Bookfair is organised; recognising the immense work done in making it happen every year. But it remains up to all of us who attend and take part in it to ensure that it measures up to the standards of love, solidarity and empowerment that we all desire. It is not possible for the small collective that currently facilitates the space to police them. Nor is it fundamentally anarchism.

————————————————————————————-

NB: The above statement has been edited to take out the word ‘identifying’ from the following sentence: “We support the right of trans identifying people to live their lives free from harassment and abuse, to organise, campaign and engage in debate with whoever they choose; and to be addressed by the gender pronouns of their choice.”
We’ve done this on feedback of some comrades who suggested that the phrase could be seen as offensive. Although we suggest that anyone reading the whole sentence should be able to tell that this was clearly not our intention.

SEE ALSO:

Statement from the London Anarchist Bookfair Collective on the events

London Anarchist Bookfair Collective reply to the ‘Open Letter’

 

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20 thoughts on “A statement in solidarity with the London Anarchist Bookfair Collective. From some friends of the Bookfair

  1. I attended the book fair for the first time. Though no longer engaged in much I recognise the immense efforts it must take to get such an amazing event going.

    Sure I don’t appreciate banners like “Religion is stupid” and I wonder if more or something else can be done either with everyone behind its own stall or with some participants. Something maybe more symbolic event of understanding or even unity.

    Coming up with a formula that might or not work needs time and deliberation. This Open Letter, published days after the book fair, shows that the present group and its supporters are very well able to respond quickly. That is heartening.

    Everyone in a position to support should not refrain from doing so. It might be both the best opportunity to get team experience and build further upon a constructive tradition of addressing authority in a libertarian perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Sent a PM to Dave Dave D. on FB who seems to be involved in the organisation of the ABF.
        That was before I saw your request for constructive solutions here. Can repost here though the essence is (with some examples) to come forwards with some communal event, next to the workshops and the stalls. Something or some events people can actively participate in (e.g. “roll and glue posters”). Something set up by the facilitators that is apart from what others, invited or tolerated do during the event. Maybe even something that is to draw for one moment all the attention (e.g. a release of biodegradable helium filled balloons with messages attached”). Something that really brings people together not just in a building but otherwise, practically, emotionally, educationally, … Maybe even something that can be sustained after the ABF is over for another year like a collective that e.g. scans books and distributes via P2P and of the re-created original printed material via ‘gaming’ sites as https://www.bookcrossing.com/

        Dutch proverb: Between Dream And Act Stand Laws and Practical Objections.
        We should figure out how to deal with those and help each others doing so.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Unfortunately anyone can call themselves an Anarchist as, as far as I understand there is no criteria for joining the federation. Consequently this in my opinion leads to the fundamentally different attitudes and behaviours displayed at this and various other events. I was at the fair albeit with comrades on a stall outside the venue as usual. I wholeheartedly agree with this response to the open letter and very much hope this episode will pass and the book fair will continue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Carla,

      Appreciate you’re support for the collective, even when you’re still excluded from having a stall… Will need more than just letting things die down though, there is some hard discussion and proper work to be done.

      The bookfair is a broad church, which in contrast to what you assert, has in fact been its strength. Anarchism is not a federation (there is an Anarchist Federation but it represents a tiny group, only part of the anarchist scene). There are widely diverse views and ideas on the anarchist scene, and it is true that does allow and enable conflict some times. However, a bookfair of only the anarchist the organisers agreed with or we agreed with would be a dull affair, and that is how ideas are forged, changed, challenged. Debate and discussion, disagreement and dissent, are vital in developing our critical faculties.

      Violent bullying and intimidation are different, and we stand against the kind of vicious attacks that happened on Saturday. Thanks for agreeing.

      Like

  3. Thanks for putting this out there. I’m not going to comment on the incident itself, as despite almost a week of trying to understand the issues involved I still feel under qualified to do so, but despite my instincts that the book fair didn’t handle this as well as they should have done, the backlash against them and the attempts to radically change/stop future events are just unbelievable. I’m part of a group that has a regular stall at the event & personally was really saddened that we received an email asking us to sign the open letter & it’s series of bizarre impractical demands shortly after what happened. I hope the collective know that despite how it might appear on social media at the minute, the majority of attendees/stallholders are grateful for all the hard work they put in for what I imagine at least right now, feels like more effort than it’s worth. I’m so glad you & other’s have written this. Solidarity x

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I thank the collective for putting out the statement, and those who commented as well. A big event being run by a small group is a recipe for overwork, and sometimes things happen. We live and learn. Each year is different. Best wishes to all of you ( from New York ) .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi mcaz,

      Thanks for your comment. Just to clarify, the statement above is from some supporters of the Bookfair, not the organising collective. A statement from the London Anarchist Bookfair collective is expected over the next day or two.

      Thanks again,

      mudlark121

      Like

  5. I agree that we shouldn’t look to bookfair organisers to solve all our conflicts.

    However, as people who put so much work into making the event happen, they inevitably also have some power and visibility in that space – and they have a responsibility to use that power to make a clear statement against oppressive behaviours.

    It is then up to all of us to put that into practice by actually helping to challenge and confront oppressive behaviours when they happen.

    Actively organising to deny trans people their rights and scapegoat them is not something that should be tolerated within anarchist circles, any more than we would tolerate any other form of oppressive scapegoating (eg racism).

    That ‘gender critical feminists’, as you so politely term them, have a real emotional basis for their views does not change the fact that their politics are oppressive scapegoating and should be challenged.

    According to Empty Cages, some bookfair organisers were made aware of the transphobic leaflets at an early stage and failed to do anything about it, NOT on the basis that they didn’t have the capacity (others were offering to help), but because they thought these ideas should be free to circulate at the bookfair.

    I find it very hard to believe they would have taken the same attitude to (eg) racist leaflets scapegoating PoC and calling on people to organise against the rights of PoC.

    So the issue at stake isn’t whether the organisers are being expected to solve our disputes for us, but that several of the organisers believe that the bookfair should be a space in which transphobic ‘free speech’ is tolerated.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “But we also believe it needs to allow for discussion and dissent, while excluding hatred and oppression.”

    This seems to me like the crux of the matter. If you see the leaflet that was handed out as oppressive, then it’s not something that *should* be up for discussion. If you don’t see the leaflet that was handed out as oppressive, then I’m not sure you can really claim that you “reject transphobia”.

    FWIW, from what I could tell on the day, as someone who was mostly across the room from a large part of the fracas, hearing rumours about what was going on, and overhearing some of it, but not really involved, it seemed like the community self-protection system envisioned by the ‘Respect’ page linked above was working as intended: some people came in handing out oppressive leaflets, and other attendees shouted at them until they left.

    Like

    1. Dear Mhuzzell,

      As a group we have to discuss a longer response to your comment; however I did want to respond to the last paragraph, where you state that “some people came in handing out oppressive leaflets, and other attendees shouted at them until they left”. This does not sum up what happened at all.

      Yes, after the initial altercation, the women who had been leafletting left. The group that had shouted at them, plus others, some 30-45 minutes later, then surrounded one other woman, Helen Steel, who hadn’t been handing out leaflets, but had argued with that group earlier on. They demanded she leave the bookfair because she had disagreed with them and became violent. I saw her threatened with physical violence; they shouted abuse including ‘terf cunt, ugly terf, fascist’. A group just as large gathered to defend Helen from the threats and abuse, and a standoff ensued which lasted an hour and a half. There was continued abuse and pushing and shoving.
      You do state that this is the ‘community self-policing’ that we advocate. There is however not one view in this ‘community’ – as many people present, if not more, felt that the attack by a group of 30 plus people against one person was bullying and intimidation and stood in front of the attack.
      We do think that the issues that have sparked this have to be talked about, as violent silencing is only driving people into polarised positions that will contribute nothing but division and demoralisation. In that sense we support people working things out among ourselves, not asking for the bookfair organisers to rule on it as if they are some authorities. The process of attempting to resolve such splits will not be easy, but we suggest debate and discussion are likely to be more productive than crowd violence against one person.

      mudlark121

      Like

      1. Yes, I gathered that it was more complicated than my summary; I was just sharing what it looked like to me at the time.

        I mention it partly because I want to underscore how hectic and confusing the incident actually was – and even having witnessed only part of it, from a distance, I’m not at all sure that what was happening was that much clearer to people closer-by. There’s a general tendency amongst humans to retroactively narrate and justify our actions, to say “I did X because Y” when pressed for a reason for doing X, when really what happened was that they just did X more-or-less instictively, and came up with reason Y for it after the fact. (Not making a moral judgment about this. It’s just a thing that happens.) So *whether or not* it was the right thing for some folks to protect Helen from ejection in the moment, I think they’re now deciding that they need to find specific reasons for their actions, because I expect what actually happened is that folks saw their long-time comrade being shouted at and moved instinctively to her defense, without stopping to consider that she might in fact be the one in the wrong.

        As far as the strength of that justification (post-hoc or otherwise), I’m a little divided, myself – and I think it all speaks to a broader question within our community self-defense processes: namely, to what extent, if at all, misdeeds are considered transitive. See also, for instance, the various cases by which anyone coming to the defense of an accused sexual predator end up being shunned, shamed, or otherwise collectively punished *to the same extent as the actual sexual predator*. I mean, they’re definitely in the wrong in those cases, but I feel uncomfortable with the failure to make a distinction between a person causing harm, and a person who visibly contributes to an atmosphere of allowing harm. Both are wrong, yes, but one is *considerably* more grievous than the other.

        So with the incident at the bookfair, while as far as I can see it was obviously correct to eject the leafletters, it’s not clear to me that it was correct for the same crowd to try to eject Helen on the basis of having defended the leafletters. It would probably come down to exactly what she said, which I didn’t actually hear. That is, a defense of the leafletters based on the expressed opinion that the leaflets were correct (which she certainly appears to believe, from her internet statements, but may or may not have actually said on the day), would probably be sufficiently egregious for that person to be swept up in the ejection. On the other hand, a content-neutral defense of handing out leaflets on principle, *while absolutely stupid and wrong*, does not seem to me like a sufficient reason to tar the defender with the same brush of bigotry (even if, as is now evident, they do in fact hold the same bigoted opinions).

        Like

      2. Worth noting that although H was not handing out the leaflets she does have some similar opinions and we just don’t know whether she was perhaps involved in drafting it, arranging the printing of it, or simply had prior knowledge that people were planning to leaflet.

        Like

      3. “We do think that the issues that have sparked this have to be talked about, as violent silencing is only driving people into polarised positions that will contribute nothing but division and demoralisation.”

        Well, if people more tolerant of transphobic opinions want to have discussions with transphobes around these issues, that could well be a useful and constructive thing to do.

        However, trans people should not be expected to show any tolerance for those opinions – and so a public anarchist event is not an appropriate place for those issues to be debated; in that context a ‘no platform’ approach is entirely appropriate.

        “In that sense we support people working things out among ourselves, not asking for the bookfair organisers to rule on it as if they are some authorities.”

        Asking them to define some very minimal basic ground rules is not the same as asking them to enforce them. Note that the bookfair respect statement already says “…authoritarian ‘communist’ groups are not included and equally, ‘libertarian’ capitalists are not welcome.”

        Even if you don’t think organisers should define any ground rules, the fact that some of them seem to think transphobic ideas should be ‘up for debate’ is a worrying indicator of their politics.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting that you haven’t yet approved my last 2 comments.

    Perhaps you simply haven’t had time to do any moderation for a while, or an overzealous spam filter has put them on hold.

    Or perhaps you’ve decided to delete them because they raise too many awkward points for you, in which case so much for your stated belief in dialogue!

    Like

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