All photos by Christopher Bethell
This is the inside story of how Sisters Uncut, Britain's most radical direct action group, turned a glitzy film event into a passionate cry for equal rights.
Somewhere in central London, around 50 women and non-binary activists are packed into a room. The meeting they're all here for is coming to an end. To round it off, they rush to their feet, chanting the words of exiled Black Panther Assata Shakur. "It is our duty to fight for freedom! It is our duty to win! We must love and support one another! We have nothing to lose but our chains!" As the windows rattle, people outside walking past are looking up at the building in confusion.
This is an organizing meeting of Sisters Uncut, the British feminist direct action group that occupied the red carpet at the premiere of Suffragette on Wednesday. They formed in late 2014 to protest cuts to domestic violence services. Since then, they have shut down the road outside the offices of notoriously right wing newspaper the Daily Mail, burning copies of it in Kensington High Street, and occupied the roof of the London Councils Building.
25-year-old George joined Sisters Uncut after stumbling across one of their actions on Valentine's Day. "I was actually on another march, [Eve Ensler's] One Billion Rising. I walked away from it feeling as though the fire in my stomach wasn't burning," she tells me. Something about Sisters Uncut's style drew her in. "As I walked down Oxford Circus, I heard this racket in front of me, there was a crowd six people deep. Sisters Uncut had shut down the whole of Oxford Circus. There was a woman in the middle holding a banner that read [that] two women a week are killed by domestic violence. I was like, 'Yes! This is my feminism.'"
Channelling righteous anger rage into a direct action is the signature move of Sisters Uncut. Many of its members have been affected by domestic violence at some point in their lives—either experiencing it firsthand, or becoming familiar with it in their families and communities. The Office of National Statistics estimates that two women a week in England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner—that's one woman every three days. The Home Office says that domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat victimization than any other crime. 24-year-old Jade came from a background of working in the violence against women sector when she joined Sisters. "I was getting so frustrated reading these statistics over and over again, just being behind a computer and having no outlet for that rage. Drafting things to policy makers in the most polite way, saying, 'We're really grateful for this thing that you've done,' when inside, you're like, Fuck! This is shit!"
Central government cuts have left women's charities with very little to work with. According to Women's Aid, 48 percent of the 167 domestic violence services in England have said that they were running services without funding, with six using their emergency charity reserves for everyday functions. The number of specialist domestic violence services hasdrastically reduced from 187 to 155 in just four years. On one day in 2013, a frighteningly large number of women and children—155 and 103 respectively—were turned away from refuges because they couldn't be accommodated. They had nowhere to go.
Fans and protesters outside the red carpet of 'Suffragette'.
Before she joined Sisters, Janelle worked for a charity and found herself constantly fundraising. "Local government are saying we have to make difficult decisions based on what central government gave us. And central government are saying we gave them the money and they have to make a choice. No one is accountable."
Despite this, 30-year-old Zoe, another women's charity worker, is optimistic about the group's capacity to change the current dire situation. "When I heard about Sisters," she says, "I thought, What an amazing place to put that anger, and turn it into something beautiful."
When two women a week are dying at the hands of male violence, with nowhere to turn to—that's not progress.
Back at the meeting, the sisters are introducing themselves to each other with their names, preferred pronouns, and a quick summation of how their day has gone. There are new and old members present. "My day was alright, but I got street harassed on the way here which put a downer on it," says one woman. "I've just done a ten-hour day at work standing in new Doc Martens, which was tough." "I didn't think I could come today because of work, but two people offered to cover my shift!" smiles another.
The whole group cheers for her, genuinely pleased. There's an intense feeling of community in the room. Within ten minutes of arrival, I'm offered a snack from the woman sitting next to me, and after introductions, I'm sympathising with her on the trials and tribulations of breaking in tough shoes. This is a space where bonds are formed. "We've got a proper family going on," new member Mischa tells me after the organizing meeting. "I look forward to coming every Thursday. Thursday is the best day of my week!"
Carey Mulligan signs autographs on the red carpet.
The Sisters know what they believe in. The phrase "two women a week" is repeated several times over the course of the evening. Most importantly, they're a group that gets shit done. There's no remnants of old left wing way of organizing here—no speeches disguised as questions, no endless pontificating, and no struggles for speaking time. This may be something to do with the fact that Sisters Uncut have made it clear from the outset that they do not organize with men.
"Why would we want them there?" says Jade. "We don't need them there. We can lead ourselves. Without them, we're forming an amazing community." Zoe spent years unsuccessfully trying to get involved in activism. She says of the anti-austerity groups and spaces she used to frequent, "I found them really dominated by men, mostly white men.... Loads of mansplaining, all the time. So patronizing."
With no men allowed, the difference in atmosphere is clear. Black and working class women are front and centre of Sisters Uncut. They are not the usual suspects often found in activist spaces. "We're not perfect and we've got a long way to go, but compared to other groups I've been involved in, a lot of marginalized people have an influential role in Sisters. We're always working hard to make the space more diverse," adds Sarah. Decisions are made by consensus; they are cautious, considered and pragmatic.
Security scrambles to respond as members of Sisters Uncut leap the barricades to blockade the red carpet.
Today's meeting is significant. After the housekeeping is taken care of, some of the group's key organizers announce what the next action will be: To crash the red carpet at the premiere of newly released film Suffragette. In an interview with Time Out London, actress and star of the film Romola Garai seemed to indirectly agree with the methods and beliefs of Sisters Uncut—endorsing direct action and saying that she'd happily smash the windows of George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer.
"I'm so angry about austerity," Garai said. "I don't buy it that there's not enough money. It's bollocks. There's loads of money in the City, there's so much fucking money. I don't believe we can't afford the NHS." After the meeting, Sisters Uncut activist Emily spoke of Garai's comments, telling me, "We feel the same."
It is our duty to fight for freedom! It is our duty to win! We must love and support one another! We have nothing to lose but our chains!
But why would feminist activists crash the red carpet at a feminist film? Sarah assures me that it's not about protesting the film—instead, it's about the continuing the feminist fight. "There are lot of these nostalgic films about struggle, like Made in Dagenham," she says, referring to the feel-good British film about the 1968 all-female strike at the Ford Dagenham factory. "It's like these rose tinted glasses so we can look at the past and see how we've achieved so much. When two women a week are dying at the hands of male violence, with nowhere to turn to—that's not progress."
"The film isn't beyond criticism," says Jade. "It doesn't acknowledge the involvement of women of color in the suffrage movement, such as Sophia Duleep Singh. This erasure falls against the backdrop of a revisionist history that erases women of color from mainstream narratives of the feminist movement."
Members of Sisters Uncut link hands and lie down to block the red carpet.
On the evening of the premiere, the trailer for the film plays on a silent loop above the Odeon cinema. There's a scene depicting the lead characters smashing windows and running away from exploding buildings. Red carpet host Lauren Laverne smiles sweetly into the camera, introducing Romola Garai and Helena Bonham Carter to the enthralled audience. The actresses sign autographs and pose for pictures.
Then, chaos. A signal horn is blown, and purple and green smoke bombs are let off in the historic Suffragette colors of purple and green. The Sisters begin leaping over the barriers, onto the red carpet. In true feminist solidarity style, they're supporting one another in order to jump effectively. On the red carpet, there's a scuffle, and some Sisters are yanked and dragged, but security are mostly bemused. The message being shouted from the red carpet is clear: "David Cameron, take note! Dead women can't vote!" Once they're over the barrier, the activists lie down and link arms. Away from the red carpet there's screaming crowd of supportive Sisters waving placards, yelling in solidarity.
Unsurprisingly, given the amount of press, there's barely any manhandling of the protestors on the red carpet. Across the Leicester Square green, though, some Sisters are jumping over the barrier and running across the grass to join the red carpet protesters. One woman is quickly set upon by security. Two burly men grab hold of her, lift her up and shove her back over the barrier she jumped over. There's outrage as out of shot of the cameras, security guards form a circle around the women behind the green to cordon them off. The red carpet chants continue. "We are the suffragettes!"
By now, Sisters Uncut have been crashing the premiere for a good ten minutes, and despite some half-hearted attempts at trying to drag the women away, security can't budge them. Afterwards, Janelle tells me what happened on the floor: "They were crouching down, leaning over us, saying, 'Alright girls, you've had your protest. It's time to go.'"
Sisters Uncut on the red carpet.
There's a familiar chant disrupting the worldwide news coverage. "It is our duty to fight for freedom! It is our duty to win! We must love and support one another! We have nothing to lose but our chains!" Booming from the sound system is premiere host Lauren Laverne, politely interviewing the great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst. Audible in the background, Sisters Uncut are screaming, "They say cut back, we say FIGHT BACK!" It is completely surreal.
There's no way the film's actresses can ignore the protest. "This is the perfect response to our film. This is exactly what our characters would do," Helena Bonham Carter tells Sky News. After the protest, a Sisters activist assures me that Romola Garai gave them a peace sign. They were disappointed she didn't properly join in with them, though. "She was with us a few months ago, protesting [notorious female immigration detention center] Yarl's Wood!"
Behind the barriers, some fans are irritated. "I'm just here to see the actresses," one woman grumbles to me. "This isn't the time or the place." But another fan disagrees: "This is why we're all here. This is what it's all about."
Security guards stop another Sister from jumping the barricades.
There is a very light police presence, and no arrests are made. Fists up and standing defiant, Sisters Uncut leave the red carpet voluntarily, and the news coverage starts rolling in. A glance at social media shows overwhelming support. It's hard to disagree with their cause when women are dying.
A few days earlier, there was concern from some Sisters that their action wouldn't be received well. "These days there's a rhetoric around good protesting and bad protesting," says Emily. "But there's a really powerful history of protest in this country. People who had nothing else put their bodies in the way and made a change. That's what we're trying to do."
Sarah brings the message home. "I want a world without violence against women. It's really sad that it seems like a utopia to even say that. You have to believe in something that's almost impossible to achieve it. All the work we're putting in now is building the foundations of a movement where women will have liberation from control and violence. I really do believe that."
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