It was two thirty in the morning when I suddenly had an idea for a new flag. ‘It won’t take that long to make,’ I told myself, ‘and I can take it with me in the morning. I can easily design and make it in half an hour! I mean, I’ve never made a flag from scratch in half an hour before, but why should that be an problem? What could possibly go wrong?’
Nearly an hour later, I gave up. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the particular mistakes I made, but they were both idiotic and spectacular. Bits of miscut and mismeasured vinyl covered the floor. All I had made was a mess. Eventually I abandoned the idea and went to bed.
Because of the flag failure, I forgot to check my route on my phone before I fell asleep, and slept late. Because I didn’t check my phone, I didn’t know that my local station was closed for ‘essential engineering works’, or that two bus stops closest to my house were also closed. “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,” as my old gran used to say.
As a result, I didn’t arrive at the Reformers Tree until about 12.20, when everything was already in full flow. A large group of masked men were screaming ‘We’re here, we’re queer, we will not live in fear.’
They sounded very male and not in the least bit scared.
Some mostly female voices echoed the chant. It usually seems to be the men leading the chants. Of course, testosterone lowers the female voice- oestrogen seems less effective at changing the male voice- so it’s always possible… oh, who am I kidding?
It woz the menz.
Let Women Speak is not allowed to use amplifiers or megaphones, nor are those close by at Speakers Corner. This is a rule of the Royal Parks, but hey, the rules don’t apply to the pronoun posse. They were using foghorns and megaphones right in front of the police, who were busy choosing their battles and did nothing to stop them. Do whatever you want, all the time.
I thought the police did a fair job on this occasion. It isn’t easy keeping a lunch mob at bay. No, that’s not a typo. Some of them had come with tupperware lunchboxes to use as makeshift maraccas. They waved them at us and rattled them angrily. Others had painted mis-spelled slogans on pieces of cardboard.
It was all a bit Blue Peter on crack.
I understand, of course, that the police need to balance the right to assembly with the right to protest and are supposed to be impartial. It is not their job to take sides, although Stonewall would have them believe otherwise. What is often overlooked in talk of ‘sides’ is that we are a group of women who meet once a month, in a park, to discuss our sex-based rights. We have done nothing wrong. We are not forcing anybody to listen to what we have to say. We are women of all classes and colours; ages and experiences. We are not courting conflict. We have a right to meet. No, we are not ‘asking for it’.
A larger police presence might have been a good idea under the circumstances. If there hadn’t been over a dozen Let Women Speak stewards present it could have turned really nasty.
And, yes, there are certainly plenty of other things the police should be doing in a city the size of London. However, many of us remember how many cops were sent to remove a lesbian peacefully sitting on a chair eating pizza at a ticketed event a few years ago. Evidently her presence made certain attendees feel ‘unsafe’. Astonishingly, a masked and gloved 6ft tall bloke screaming at you that you’re a murderer has a similar effect.
The TRAs move in. They form a semi-circle around us. The stewards form a vanguard to protect the women trying to speak. For some of the women it is their first time at Reformers Tree. The TRAs shout abuse at us. They shout that these are their streets and we are not welcome. They laugh at those who are estranged from their children. They shout at us that we are fascists, that we are hateful, that we should die, that we cause the deaths of children with our words. They claim that we have blood on our hands. Occasionally, a few of us will shout back.
It is hardly a level playing field.The police seemed less snarky this time. Perhaps they are starting to notice that the women really do just want to talk about their rights and the TRAs are actually completely barking mad, thrill-seeking troublemakers with very little imagination? Perhaps.
I have a friend whose son is in the Mets and he recently rang her up, horrified, saying “Mum, did you know they put a rapist in a women’s prison, and did you know what’s happening to women’s sports and changing rooms?”
So I am holding out a little hope for the Mets: maybe they will see past the rainbow lanyards and ‘progress’ police cars and start taking reality a little more seriously when it comes to transactivists.
I approached a group of women gathered to the left of the TRAs.
“Is anyone speaking yet?” I asked.
“No, it’s so loud, and it all looks a bit volatile. Nothing yet.”
There was a short scuffle as TRAs tried to move closer and the police and a line of Let Women Speak stewards held them at bay.
“Move back!” commanded one of the cops.
“No, you move back!” retorted a young woman petulantly. I half expected her to stamp her foot and stick her tongue out like a stroppy toddler.
It is true that there’s an age disparity between your average TRA and the women who attend the Reformers Tree. They laugh and say we’ll all be dead soon. Sometimes they like to wear T shirts emblazoned with the legend ‘Kill TERFs’, just in case we hadn’t got the message.
We call them the ‘black pampers’ and mock their naivity. It’s easy to joke about them being young- I do it all the time. But they aren’t harmless and most of them aren’t even really that young. The ones doing the yelling, the ones who look at us like they really would like to beat us up; they are adults and they are dangerous. Dismissing or exculpating their behaviour is a mistake.
Most of them are physically stronger than most of us- yes, I know there are exceptions- and they are shouting and holding signs saying we should die. The most aggressive ones, young or not, just want a ruck and ‘Mark my words,’ as my old gran used to say, ‘sooner or later somebody’s going to get hurt’.
They shouted, ‘TERFs kill kids! TERFs kill kids!’ at us. So that’s nice. One of them was even holding a piece of cardboard with ‘LET TRANS KIDS LIVE’ written on it. Madness. A lot of them, it seems, really, genuinely believe that we are evil fascists who want trans kids to die. None of them have ever listened to what we have to say.
Most seem to deem older women especially worthy of contempt. One of their chants was “Why are you all over forty?” another is “You’re only here because your kids won’t call you back”.
Which, I have to say, says as lot more about their family relationships than it does about ours.
It isn’t true, of course, that we are all over forty, although many of us are. More and more younger women are joining the movement to protect sex-based rights. And nestling in their own ranks, chanting with the TRAs this Sunday in fact, is somebody well over forty – Sarah Jane Barker who “spent 30 years in prison for attempting to murder another prisoner, after being imprisoned for kidnapping and torturing her (sic) stepmother’s brother, and has since thrown herself (sic) into local causes” according to the Southwark News.
I was starting to wonder if we would get hemmed in, but we always had free movement. I wanted to move out of the circle and take another photograph from further away, or even stand up on a nearby bin to get a decent overhead shot, but reader, I confess, I was afraid to do either of those things. The bin I considered standing on was on the opposite side to most of the TRAs but a small group of people in black stood close by. I overheard one policeman say “Keep an eye on that lot” to another, and the woman next to me informed me that one of them was the man who’d thrown water over Kellie-Jay two months ago.
I’d heard that he’d been banned from the park: I presume that isn’t true or surely the police would have prevented him from lurking so close by with his masked buddies…
I moved away from the ‘front line’ to see if the speeches had started yet. They had. Julia Long was speaking. When I went back a little later, a woman in a sufragette scarf, sitting in a wheelchair, was talking. I couldn’t get close enough to hear what she was saying over the noise of yelling, drums, whistles and megaphones. Kellie Jay was next to her with the camera. Women and some men stood around in a circle, trying to listen. You can listen to the recording of the livestream here.
It was hard to hear much over the noise and chanting.
“Whose streets? Our streets!”
“TERFS kill kids”
“Posie Parker’s a fascist”
and what has to be my absolute all time favourite, “Whose genitals? Our genitals!”
“Who protects the fascists?” they chanted at the cops. “You protect the fascists!”
“Who protects the rapists?” chanted back a group of women to the TRAs. “You protect the rapists!”
“Trans rights and women’s rights are part of the same fight!” called out a young woman. Others began to echo it.
Some of their crowd, mostly younger ones, looked less certain, hanging back, not joining in with the chanting and name-calling. I’m sure seeing a group of peaceful women surrounded by screaming masked men made many wonder if they really were on the right side of history.
The meeting was nearly over, so I wandered around for a last look at the signs.
In a brief gap in the chanting and general noise making, I found myself face to face with a young lad.
“They aren’t part of the same fight at all,” I said to him. “You know they put a rapist in a women’s prison? Because of his gender identity?”
“No they didn’t,” he scoffed.
“Really. It’s happened more than once.”
He laughed and said, “Yeah, right, in the fascist papers you read.”
“You should read more broadly. Google it,” I told him, “You’ll see.”
But I doubt he will.
We left, mostly in a couple of larger groups. The police made sure we had left the area before allowing most the TRAs to leave. As we walked alongside the park to the pub we saw one of the TRAs on a bike, talking on his phone.
I felt uneasy. I decided to stay with the others a bit longer and not take the underpass back towards the station by myself.