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Why I protested at the Suffragette premiere

One activist explains what spurred a group of intersectional feminists to jump the barriers surrounding the red carpet in protest

It’s a fair criticism of feminism to say it’s often bolted down in academia or tossed around and theorised about on Twitter. Not often is it unrestrained and put into action. So it was refreshing to see that last night, at the premiere of Suffragette in Leicester Square, more than a hundred feminist protesters jumped the barriers to storm the red carpet. They set off green and purple smoke bombs, with some lying on the carpet as suffragette Emily Davison lay on the race track before she was trampled by the King’s horse.

The women were Sisters Uncut, a group which campaigns against domestic violence. Suffice to say the stars of the film were pretty surprised to see them. Helena Bonham Carter in particular showed support to the activists, telling Sky News: “I’m glad our film has done something. That’s exactly what it’s there for,” adding that the protest was in fact the “perfect” response to Suffragette, a film has drawn some criticism for ignoring the role women of colour played in the suffrage movement.

If you count bringing feminism in action into the papers as success then the group have certainly succeeded. But with all direct action, it’s important that the message behind it – in this case, an extremely important one – is heard. Services for victims of domestic violence are being cut at a time when nearly half of British women killed by men die at the hands of their partner. We spoke to to 22-year-old activist Shanice Octavia from London about what drives the group.

How did the idea for the protest come about?

Shanice Octavia: We were excited to see the film Suffragette coming out as obviously it’s telling the story of the history of women’s liberation and the right for their rights. However, particularly in the context of austerity, there are cuts to life-saving domestic violence services, basically the struggle is not over. What we wanted to combat is the idea that the struggle for women’s liberation is historical. We want to create the feeling that the time is now and we thought the premiere was the perfect opportunity to voice that message.

It was brave to use such a high profile event for active protest.

Shanice Octavia: I agree! There was a bit of anxiety before it happened and obviously you’ve got burly security walking up and down in suits. But we also knew there would be a lot of media coverage and the worry was we’d be misrepresented which often happens with feminists in the media. There was a lot to be anxious about but a lot to be brave for. But the good thing about us is that we’re a collective so we feed off each other and there’s a strength that comes from organising with other women who are as passionate as you are.

Do you think direct action was necessary in this case? 

Shanice Octavia: If you look at the suffragettes they didn’t just storm film premieres, they threatened to kidnap members of parliament, they smashed glasses, they threatened to bomb places. If you look at the civil rights movement, there were high levels of mass direct action. The gay liberation was exactly the same with direct action and Stonewall. Liberation movements have a tradition of being disruptive and slow the flow of the system to get your voice heard.

I do think that’s lacking and I do think that’s why we’re seeing that many different groups across London are currently turning to direct action as a tactic to build mass awareness of particular issues.

That's true. How many of you are there in Sisters Uncut?

Shanice Octavia: With actions, we’ll tend to get a few hundred people out. When we organise, it’s probably about fifty. We also have different teams that work on different things but I think it’s about to get a lot bigger.

And how diverse is the group?

Shanice Octavia: We’re a very mixed group. We’ve got women of colour in the group, trans women, queer women. We’re organised intersectionally which means that we recognise the fact that issues of racism, gender identity, class exploitation, all these things are very intricately connected to the structure of women’s liberation. That’s why, for example, we were out supporting Movement For Justice who are campaigning to shut down Yarl’s Wood. That’s a detention centre where a lot of women of colour and migrant women are being held, sectioned physically and mentally abused. We’ve been supporting that campaign because it’s not just a question of gender, it’s a question of race, class, sexuality and gender identity.

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