[Editorial note: In five articles (, , , , ), Peace News is documenting the free speech conflict at this year’s (2017) London Anarchist Bookfair.
The origins of the Anarchist Bookfair are briefly recounted here, and the issues concerning free speech are the subject of this issue's editorial here.]
A few days ago, someone sent us the following open letter - https://londonbookfairopenletter.wordpress.com/. Initially we didn’t want to write a point by point response but feel it is necessary to reply to the accusations and the demands made of us.
For the record: the current Bookfair Collective will not be organising a Bookfair in 2018. Organising an annual event attended by over 2000 people is a huge amount of work - finding and negotiating with venue providers, organising the equipment needed, booking stalls and meetings, printing and distributing leaflets and programmes, as well as finding overseas speakers and the money to pay for them. Pretty much every year we receive some accusation of heinous behaviour and demands that we implement a list of externally formulated policies. We could look at this one and dismiss it as more of the same; ignore it, say the groups are not representative, if we leave it people will lose interest, etc. But at the same time we are aware that many groups who have been pressed to sign up for it have not and we do need to set out a response as much to them as to the signatories and others who have read it.
What hurts us most is we know a lot of you. A number of the signatories to the open letter are groups we know and have worked with over the years; sometimes many, many years. Yet not one of you has tried to contact us as individuals or as the Bookfair collective to ask our views before you signed the open letter, even though some people appear not to have read all of it before signing. We thought of many of you as friends. We were obviously wrong. We guess it’s easy to sign a statement. It’s a lot harder to actually talk to people and try to work things out. We are also tired of being told what to do. We are told to ban people. We are told have this or that policy. We are told this or that group can/can’t have stalls. We are told we shouldn’t have a certain venue. We are constantly told we get it wrong. However, no one has offered to join the Collective and help us make the Bookfair better or offered to take it on.
We find it sad that so many individuals and groups jumped in to sign an open letter that accused of us allowing events that “terrorised” trans people and did not grant “the bare minimum conditions for trans and gender-variant comrades to take part in the event”. We wonder if everyone signing the open letter really thinks that trans and gender-variant comrades felt intimidated coming to the Bookfair? From what we saw and have heard, many members of the trans community were quite happy to be there. Indeed some disagree with the open letter and have expressed unhappiness about the behaviour of the group of up to about 30 people who chose to demand their view set the agenda.
We have in the past been called fascists by many individuals, sometimes for as little as asking for a donation towards the event; more often for asking people not to bring in dogs (for the safety of children) or not to use cameras. We also got called fascists on Saturday by a number of people. It seriously concerns us how easy this terminology is thrown about in the anarchist milieu. Survivors of the Spanish Civil war, survivors of the death camps, political activists in Pinochet’s Chile, activists in parts of the world today and many others who have been at the blunt end of actual fascism are done a disservice by this indiscriminate use of the word. We feel that the Bookfair is not the place for tactics used on demos against fascist groups and cops. Some of us are traumatised enough by activism and look forward to enjoying an event where we can see friends and exchange ideas without the pressure of these actions.
We agree 100% with the part of the open letter that says “Calling out harmful behaviour is about holding each other to the commitment that we can do and be better.” However, we find it sits uncomfortably with a large group of people threatening one person and find it difficult to believe some of those who signed this statement don’t either.
Three years ago a group of people came to tell us they were about to kick out an undercover cop. The person accused was visibly shaken and scared as the group was about to physically eject them till someone realised they had “the wrong person”. People are unhappy that the Bookfair collective doesn’t have a safer spaces policy. But we have always questioned who these policies are for? Is it OK for a space to be safe for one group but not for others who have different views? AFem 2014 was an attempt to make an event similar to the Bookfair without cis-men and with a safer spaces policy. Having seen the result, does anyone wonder why the organisers of that event (many more than we are) didn’t feel they had the energy to do another one?
The statement claims “organisers have stepped in to defend and support those who use oppressive, violent and dehumanising language to perpetuate racist, colonial and patriarchal systems of oppression”. Do all of you feel comfortable signing these accusations against us, presented without examples or proof? Many of you have worked with us for years and happily speak to us about stall and meeting bookings year after year. Isn’t it disingenuous to come to an event or book a stall or meeting, and, in many cases, be very friendly with us when you know us to be racist, colonialist and patriarchal? Did you not think of challenging us over the years about this?
This brings us onto the demands. Despite your claim that you have “been progressively alienated over the years by the culture of the Bookfair”, not one of you has ever come and offered to either get involved or to take the event on. In 2013 or 2014 demands were made of us to implement a safer spaces policy and to ban certain individuals. These “demands” were sent to us just over a week before the Bookfair. We refused, as, given the timeframe, we had no time to discuss the lengthy demands and their serious implications. After the Bookfair we contacted the groups who had made these demands to discuss how we could work together and we set up a meeting, but were met with silence.
You ask that the date of the Bookfair doesn’t clash with the UFFC demo. Where possible we have always tried to avoid a clash. There have been years where we can’t get the venue any other weekend (a couple of times when we were at Queen Mary’s). We got kicked out of Queen Mary’s and Central St Martin’s because of the behaviour of some people. Shit happens – we move on. We put tweets out asking for people to help us find a new venue. A few friends suggested places but all were unsuitable for either access or space reasons.
The secondary school in Tottenham was ideal for everything we needed. However, the only Saturday the school could offer us clashed with the UFFC demo. We were not happy about this, but had to weigh it up against access requirements, space requirements, financial requirements and venues actually wanting the event in the first place. We have probably visited over 100 venues over the last 10 years to try to find suitable spaces. Maybe those making demands like this should be prepared to take some responsibility for finding a suitable venue? Otherwise one can only assume their brand of anarchism is getting others to do things so there is always someone else to blame.
By the way, we maintain a dialogue with UFFC. We put their demo on the Bookfair leaflet (of which we produce and distribute 20,000) and programme. We also promote their demo on social media and are happy for people to go to the demo rather than the Bookfair. Ironically on years the Bookfair hasn’t clashed with the UFFC demo, and most of us have gone, the numbers on the demo don’t increase, which says loads to us about “our” movement.
You state we should have “A clear statement outlining the politics the LABF is committed to, what kinds of behaviour and views are unacceptable and unwelcome at the Bookfair”. Have you looked at our website? There is a statement there. We suspect some of you signed the open letter without checking the website. We suspect others mean “we don’t like your statement”. If that’s the case, then be honest and say what you mean. Again, we feel not so much upset as frustrated about this.
Regarding points 4, 5 and 6: It really saddens us that comrades can sign up to these points without talking to us or thinking through and substantiating what they have signed up to. We will take them separately below.
Regarding “a commitment to incorporating anti-racist and decolonial struggle into the Bookfair”. Every year we actively approach groups and individuals to try and make the event more diverse. We pay fares and, when we can, put on nationwide tours for speakers. Have you forgotten Lorenzo and JoNina, the ex-Panthers? Have you forgotten Lindela from Abahlali baseMjondolo? Have you already forgotten Rebel Riot this year? This year we also tried really hard to get comrades from Kurdistan, Turkey, Tunisia, Venezuela (and in the past Gaza), to attend. Many of the non-white speakers at the Bookfair have been invited by the collective. Every year we also try to get local non-white groups to speak. Most don’t want to because the event, in common with the movement as a whole, is so “white”. Do you really think the Bookfair Collective alone is responsible for the current lack of diversity across the whole movement?
You say we should make space for workshops and meetings for people of colour or queer and trans (point 5) and people with disabilities (point 6). How are we not providing space? Anyone can contact us to suggest or book a meeting. Anyone can book a stall. We actively encouraged a trans rights group who had tried to book a stall last year, but contacted us too late, to book early this year, but they opted to do something else on the day. It’s interesting that because there wasn’t a meeting with “trans” or “queer” in the title some of you seem to think there were no trans speakers, implying that the only thing people of trans experience can talk about is their gender.
Regards the demands around accessibility in the open letter, again we ask how you can sign this statement without talking to us or looking at what’s been achieved over the years. We work with DPAC, we have signers on hand (3 this year) at the Bookfair to interpret for people at meetings and round stalls if needed. We have touch typists on hand for those who are hard of hearing. We spend ages finding venues that are accessible and we mean the whole venue. Yes, there are problems. Venues often don’t “get it” so we fight them on this. We had started to get there with the new venue. We had eight keys cut for the lifts, of which two were on the DPAC stall.
We ask people who want to attend meetings or films to let us know in advance so we can get meeting notes and further info in advance to make the meeting as accessible as possible (this is all on our social media and website). This year we offered to pay for cabs to and from the venue for anyone with mobility difficulties. We specifically have a Bookfair access stall, staffed by trained people (some of whom have disabilities themselves) to support this work. Are you claiming that all your venues, offices and events are as accessible?
Several of us were incredulous when we saw point 7. We find it hypocritical that some of those signing the open letter (and we accept it’s only one or two) have not only taken photos at a previous Bookfair but circulated them publicly. There were people in the “melee” on Saturday taking photos of the person being attacked as well as of us trying to defuse the situation and comments shouted at us included “your face will be all over social media by tomorrow”.
We think it’s time for everyone to take a moment to reflect on the event and the state of the anarchist movement in general, to think how we can move forward in a more positive way. However, we have decided not to organise another Bookfair in 2018. This is because we can’t agree to implement the list of demands in the open letter and don’t expect many of the groups and individuals who signed it, or made their own statements, to accept our response. We are sad to disappoint all those who, like us, value the Bookfair and the contribution it has made to the movement. We are sad that incidents that it may have been possible to resolve have been widened out and entrenched. Our decision reflects an increasingly toxic atmosphere, which we do not want to concede to or facilitate. We also have very serious concerns about organising a Bookfair knowing that we, those who wished to attend and the venue would face attempts at harassment and disruption.
To reiterate: We will not be organising the Bookfair in 2018. For all those who think we did such a terrible job, who feel we didn’t get it right for people of colour, trans people, disabled people and probably others as well, show us how to do it properly. The Bookfair in 2018 is yours. We won’t come along and make trouble; we won’t denounce you on social media; we won’t criticise from the sidelines. But we are really interested to see how you solve all the problems you raise in your statement and implement your list of demands.
Last but not least, thank you to all those who have sent messages of support and those of you who have at least called / emailed to question us about the events and our thoughts even if you don’t agree with us.
(Please note: While others may want to continue this discussion online. We won’t be making any further comments.)