“Until we remove these structures that create harm, harm and hate are not going anywhere.”
So said artist and activist Liv Wynter last Wednesday at a vigil for Brianna Ghey outside London’s Department of Education. The 16-year-old trans girl, murdered in Cheshire on 11th February, was the most recent victim of an increasingly transphobic society.
While many have been quietly mourning the loss in our community, a great number have taken to the streets. And Wynter is one of those leading from the front.
Wynter is a member of feminist action group Sisters Uncut, an organisation known for their vivid responses – for example, setting off thousands of rape alarms outside New Scotland Yard – to domestic violence and police abuse. As such, Wynter is no stranger to direct action. In a series of webinars they hosted last week with DJ collective Queer House Party, Wynter sought to train trans people and allies alike in the direct action they can use to try and instigate real change in a society seemingly immune to negotiation.
I attended one of these tutorials, in which Wynter offered pointers on everything from small personal actions to large-scale protests. Afterwards, we spoke about the ways in which we can turn our rage and mourning into material change for a better world.
Hi Liv. Firstly, basic but important question: what is direct action, and how does it differ from protests?
Direct action means that something’s happened and you’re choosing to respond to it with an action. You’re not negotiating or having a conversation, you’re planning to do something that will directly change or influence the situation.
We understand protests as marches, placards and banners. While those things also happen at a direct action, a direct action might also include a stunt or something scandalous or targeted. The direct action element of it is perhaps more disruptive, or disruptive in a way the state is less used to.
Why is now the time for direct action?
There’s an unfair territory around trans rights in the UK: the people who are talking against them have so much airtime and so much influence that to play them at their own rules is not going to work. The time for direct action is now, because the time for negotiation is very [much] past.
The fascists are organising, bringing people together. They’re having hundreds turn up at drag queen story times and outside hotels for migrants that are seeking refuge. So we need to [one-]up them.
Why is direct action so necessary for trans people right now?
What’s so tragic about Brianna’s murder [for which two 15-year olds have been charged with murder] is that [it] is a symptom of this wider issue. It’s an everyday, all-the-time threat. It’s always feeling alone, unsupported, not knowing when you’re out in public whether someone’s going to even step in or support you if something awful happens.
Trans politics has become this stepping stone for the UK government and the media… a means to furthering fascist ideologies. We’re scapegoats for these ideologies, tools to have these ethical battles around. That means constant hostility.
What needs to change in the way that we approach queer activism? Prides clearly aren’t enough.
Cis people need to be organising around transness. When fascists and TERFs are gathering, it’s often the most marginalised of our community that show up to counter-demonstrate. People who are trans and homeless are turning up and making themselves even more vulnerable because they care so much. But I’m not seeing the gay guys from the club. We need to get braver and more ambitious.
[Historically,] Act Up were phenomenal organisers within the queer community because they were doing huge scale, really ambitious work, and supporting the community behind the scenes: fundraising, housing people and helping people access medication.
My fear is, unless serious, dedicated activists are ready to dedicate their time to this issue, nothing will change. We can’t hold hope on great voices like Munroe Bergdorf to convert the entire fucking UK.
How can people stay safe when doing direct action?
Don’t go or leave on your own. Plan your route clearly. Don’t take your phone if there’s anything incriminating in it. Wear a mask for health and safety, but also so that you’re not identifiable in photographs. It’s important to understand, though, that these are risky things. No one can promise that there won’t be violence in any situation. We can make steps towards safety. But at the end of the day, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
People anticipated there being fascists and a big cop presence at Brianna’s vigil [in London], but there was neither. We expected complete hands-offness at the Sarah Everard vigil and there was police brutality. You can’t predict these things.
What would you say to people who want to get involved in direct action but are unsure of where to go? Or they don’t know what roles in the action are right for them?
A good action might have 20 people at the front of it. But I can guarantee you that there was a whole group and wave of people, that maybe aren’t even there, that played a huge part in it. So if you’re anxious, there are roles in the revolution that are logistical or media.
That said: we need people at the front line as well. If there’s a group you really respect, reach out to them and ask if they know someone local to you. Go to a youth group, or community centre, or service that other people access. All those spaces are space for solidarity.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to get 100,000 people out overnight. Celebrate the things you can do with five. It takes one person to do a successful ad-hack. There’s so much that can happen with small numbers.
It’s scary times right now, what would you say to trans people that might be reading this?
That the feelings of fear and sadness are totally valid and legitimate. But [also that] it’s so important to know that there are so many people that just don’t have the same platforms that really fucking care and want all of us alive and well.
I don’t want any more trans or queer people in my life dying young, having their life taken from them, from violence or from the state, or from just the difficulty of being alive. We want everyone to have not just survived, but live rich and gorgeous, beautiful lives with lovers and dreams and ambitions. Although the media tries to hide it, there’s lots of people that give a shit.
How do you stay committed to the cause?
In my experience, it’s really easy to get disillusioned. To feel like you want to give up on the movement – or like it would just be easier if you passed or sold out or didn’t leave the house anymore. But remaining true to yourself is the most revolutionary thing you can ever do.
If you can find ways to do that, do it – even if you have to ask for help along the way.
Liv Wynter is on Twitter at @livwynter, and you can find Sisters Uncut at https://www.sistersuncut.org and @SistersUncut on Twitter and Instagram