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.
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.