Changing the conversation vs confronting the problem

A few weeks ago I was a part of an community-led place intervention that has left me contemplating the nature of protest. In a place context, to what extent can peaceful protest be an act of performative place branding? And does that take away from the “real” action of holistic place making – creating change?

I woke up on a Friday morning and checked Facebook (as you do). In our local Facebook group I saw that someone had posted pictures of swastikas and a National Front logo, which had been spray painted on pavements in a couple of locations nearby. It was shocking and disturbing to discover that amongst us live people who felt motivated to do something like that. I am lucky enough to live in an extremely diverse area – a super-diverse neighbourhood, as defined by Vertovec (2007) – and I had recently written an academic assignment that touched on the implications of a loss of social infrastructure for a neighbourhood like ours. The remit of the assignment didn’t allow me to go into too much depth on the outcomes and I was wary of going “full Godwin” in an assignment so early in my postgraduate studies. I quoted hate crime statistics which did show an alarming rise in recent years but, if I’m honest, I doubted myselfI guess the power of the bubbles we all live in is that they are so hard to escape, even when you’re attempting to view things through a dispassionate, academic lens. But there it was – inescapable – someone living alongside my young family had values so different to my own. And, what is more, they felt them so keenly that they wanted everyone to know.

The graffiti had already been reported to the Council and it was due to be cleaned within 24 hours. I – along with several others – reported it as a hate crime. I knew it was being dealt with and it would soon be gone. Good. But it left a sick feeling in my stomach and an aching awareness that “dealt with” wasn’t enough. 

I wanted the people who did this to know they were not speaking for me. I wanted the people they were trying to frighten to know that these fascists were not tolerated in our community. Mostly though, I wanted to understand what had gone so horribly wrong that someone amongst us felt the need to do this.  

My partner and I had as much as a conversation about it as was possible whilst getting two small children dressed and fed. We discussed the fact that Levenshulme’s annual Pride was set up by residents as a response to a homophobic hate crime committed on our high street. Would anything comparable be possible, appropriate or valuable in this situation? I was in the middle of a conversation with a friend along the same lines when I got another message letting me know that the Manchester Evening News were planning to publish a story. I have enough experience of dealing with media to know that the story that would be published would not paint Levenshulme in a favourable light. I knew that what would be published would not help to allay the fears of the intended victims or allow for any introspection about the causes of this crime. It would be the truth, though, and I wonder now whether my approach  would have been different if I’d known how things would turn out. Hindsight is just as perplexing as it is wonderful.

I went back to social media where a conversation was unfolding about covering up the graffiti. One person suggested we spray paint over the offending messages and at that point I saw an opportunity. It was a sunny half term day and I wondered how many parents would be looking for something creative to do with their kids. Could this be an opportunity for them to discuss concepts of difference and tolerance with their children? Is that something people would want to do? I knew I would and I assumed a few of my friends would do the same. And if there were enough people doing it, could it become a form of peaceful protest? Would that be a way of changing this story from being about a place which harbors fascists to one that unites to send a message of hope, not hate? 

A friend and I decided on a hashtag and we were away. I sent my partner down there after he’d dropped the kids off at their childminder (I was at work) in case the photographer from the original MEN story showed up before anyone had done anything (it turned out I was too late on that score). 

Pretty soon photos started trickling in of pavements covered with flowers, rainbows and messages of solidarity. Soon the pavements were covered and the families of Levenshulme started on adjoining walls. Not long after that the BBC contacted me. Then the Press Association. The Manchester Evening News got in touch to say they were writing a new story about how the community had united in a peaceful protest against the people who had done this, showing the world that this was not what Levenshulme stood for. 

By the end of the day my social media posts had collectively reached nearly 10,000 people and there were plenty of others that went even further. The press the project received had reached still more. The stories that were printed about a hopeful and brave community went so much further than the message of hate that one amongst us had tried to share. And in chats and interviews I kept hearing the same thing: “Isn’t this great?! We changed the conversation!”

And we did change the conversation. Because of what we did plenty more people will have a perception of Levenshulme as a place that unites to send a message of love than as a place that allows fascism to go unremarked upon. That’s valuable to the perceptions of our stakeholders – internal and external. But in that respect, what took place was simply an exercise in agile place branding.  

Is that enough? No. We cannot possibly imagine that the person who would purposely scrawl these hateful messages on our street would be dissuaded from their views by some chalk drawings. Their beliefs are still in place. Whatever caused them to reach a place of such hatred for their neighbours is still there. And the people who they were targeting know that too.  

Increasingly I find myself asking questions about who benefits from actions of protest. A few days after all the above took place a friend shared this article from Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan which explores the performative nature of being “woke”. It’s a hard article to read but it’s important.  

The disturbing thing I find when I examine myself is the extent to which that performative wokeness is so intertwined with my personal morality that I don’t always know where one starts and the other ends. Am I writing this blog post because I want other people to think about these ideas or because I want other people to know that I am a person who thinks about these ideas? Some people would probably say the question is moot, since the end result is the same. But with actions of protest problems arise when a performative act of little long-term value becomes a panacea for actions to create meaningful change. 

At this point we are tempted to throw our hands up in despair. The huge, complex societal issues that feed into the growth of the far right are not in our gift! How can we hope to change the factors that create things like this? Can it not be enough to change what little we can? 

I wish I had a satisfactory response to that. Or at least one that sounds a lot less smug than “not for me”. I think the only thing any of us can do – and the extent to which each of us is able to do this depends so much on our relative capacities and experiences – is ask ourselves hard questions. 

I’m still wrestling with what I can do that could create meaningful change in Levenshulme. I have learned about myself in the last few months that I am too quick to fall into my comfort zone when it comes to socialising and working alongside people from other cultures. I need to change that so over the next few months I will be going to any open event hosted by our local mosques. At the same time I have also enrolled on this MOOC from Cardiff University exploring Islam in contemporary Britain. 

I am keen to do more and I’d love to hear your experiences of “living outside the bubble”- what works for you? Is there anything you wish you could pluck up the courage to do more of? Comment below. 

1 thought on “Changing the conversation vs confronting the problem

  1. Beautifully written blog piece Helen. I’ve often had similar internal debates about the nature and effectiveness of protest versus actual systemic and local change. The short version of my perspective is that displays of support and protest are hugely important in a time when people feel politically powerless, but that we have to do more to effect real change. In Levenshulme we are lucky to have opportunities to mix outside of our comfort zones but I’m not convinced that genuinely mixing with our wider community takes place often enough to shake us out of our comfortable routines. I’m not downplaying the brilliance of various recent local responses to hate crimes and terrorist attacks. They are life affirming things, to me. But what real change comes from them? Working with Heart & Parcel has partly been about this for me. Anyway, it’s pre 9am on a Saturday and I’m not my most coherent. Have a read.

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