Photos taken during the Anti-Racism rally at London's Trafalgar Square on Saturday 19th March 2016.

Are political activists being demonised?

The metro station was busy, it was rush hour. As we turned the corner, heading towards the barriers, a swarm of riot gear and muscles caught our gaze. Covered in black uniform and speaking sternly in French, it was intimidating to say the least. Locking on to our environmental activism signs and stickers, they surrounded us and backed us up against the wall. Afraid and unable to communicate, I had to silently submit and allow the gang of police to shout at me, pat me down and search through my belongings. As a dirty hippy, I should expect this, should I not? I did not feel protected, I felt demonised.

The NUS President Malia Bouattia, who is no stranger to controversy, has offended quite a few right wingers with her ‘preposterous’ claims that hippies are getting a hard time. In an interview with The Guardian she claimed that political activists are being demonised as a result of the government’s ‘Prevent Agenda’, and students are being targeted for joining activist groups. Basically, if we’re not careful we’re all going to be stalked on Facebook for liking the Amnesty International page and going along to the Free Palestine pub crawl.

It’s not news that activists are targeted. The idea of equality and human rights is just too much for stiff upper lip politicians to handle, and we all know how angsty they got over the student protests. Edinburgh University struggled to swallow divestment protests, protecting the security firm that tackled one student by his throat and cracked sexist and threatening jokes at the others. However, this spans further than the cobbled streets of George Square.

Across the pond, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand up for the American national anthem before an N.F.L game in August. Since then, all his friends have jumped on board, and are refusing to sing before games. Ironically, the Black Lives Matter activist has been labelled as racist on Twitter for condemning police brutality. Twitter has also been the medium by which the athletes have received death threats and harassment. Once again, attention has been diverted from the cause to the individual – negatively.

The sextremist group ‘FEMEN’, who are best known for making men uncomfortable by protesting topless, have also suffered a backlash of abuse in response to their protests. The media has relentlessly labeled the movement as violent and aggressive, ignoring the manifesto completely, meanwhile members have been allegedly kidnapped and tortured by the KGB in Belarus – apparently a perfectly acceptable retaliation against nipples.

The perception of activists as ‘trouble-makers’ has submerged itself in our subconscious as a result of a much smaller number of violent riots. The line between aggressive and peaceful protests is apparently too thin for us to distinguish. I’m sure we have all heard excuses about why political activists are seen as dangerous, or why it is easy to get confused between a mob and a march. If we have the ability to report on contemporary issues and activism, then we have the ability to tell the difference between a peaceful protest and a violent one. In short, if we can report, then we can report accurately.

Liberal activists have historically been treated as suspicious and targeted by governments. With an apparently thin line between peaceful protests and violent ones, it seems that everyone is targeted. With society fed fears of radicalisation, you wonder if carrying your anti-animal testing Lush tote bag is suddenly ‘too’ political. We must fight to break down the barriers and preconceived notions of activism, and continue our liberal movements. I know it’s annoying when you have 6 heavy Lidl shopping bags and a stranger dressed in hemp is trying to talk to you about trees, but if we didn’t have brave people marching up and down the royal mile in the rain, we’d still be earning less than men and fighting for LGBTQ equality – oh wait.

Image: Garry Knight

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The Student Newspaper 2016