notes on protest & breath

Two people holding hands at a Pride parade

By Claire Tunnacliffe (she/they)

Over a year has passed, as we have collectively held ourselves in. Locked down and away from friends, family – blood or chosen, the places, streets, bars, clubs, community spaces, and routines many of us structure our lives around – often times our identities – in order to keep us and our communities safe. Though inside is not always where we are safe – attacked by both violent hands and violent thoughts. Loneliness has been endemic, not least when you are queer, as we are left turning, in the words of Sara Ahmed, this way and that in order for things to appear, in order to situate ourselves. If orientation depends on the bodily inhabitance of space, as Ahmed notes, what happens when the space we inhabit is reduced – to a single room, to a single body, towards screens.[1] 

As I have written from my desk, I found myself travelling through the transcripts of interviewees. Those I had walked with the year before, turning this way and that as I remembered these places, these walks while the recordings played. I intertwined my own memories too, of bodies pressed together during protest marches in Central London, to bodies pressed together in queer venues dancing. A soft dull ache has settled, for queer spaces and for their queer bodies. Instead, the world is witnessed through a screen which becomes a window: orientated towards it in order to situate our queer selves.

Breathe; once carried out subconsciously is now all we talk about. In March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and across the world we were introduced to this respiratory disease. What sustains all of us, as a collective experience, now puts us all in danger. Inhale: oxygen enters the lungs and diffuses into the blood. Exhale: carbon dioxide is expelled as we breathe out. Travelling down the respiratory tract, through your mouth, nose, throat and lungs, COVID-19 follows the breath, going deeper, inflaming and infecting. In the time you will have read these two paragraphs, you will have taken approximately seventeen breaths. 

So why breath, here at the tail end of a thesis on placemaking, queerness, activism and public spaces. It would first seem a gaping omission, to not address the pandemic as part of the process of writing up. It curtailed the final stages of fieldwork and finding myself unable to meet and walk with activists in person ultimately limited the number of interviews conducted. To live through a pandemic and to continue to try and produce work, has meant that it has trickled into the writing itself. The everyday anxiety of the virus, of life outside the thesis, is weaved between the lines, between the pages and in the margins. You may not be able to see it, but it is close to the writing, it is here.  

But most integrally it would be an omission to not include here a note on what the pandemic has meant for LGBTQI activism specifically, and for organising and protest more generally. In May 2020, George Floyd died when a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. His final words: ‘I can’t breathe’, repeated 20 times. His death ignited a global response, these words becoming the rallying cry echoed across the world: against systemic racism, white supremacy and police brutality. From Minneapolis and across the US, to London, Pretoria, Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney, people defied state-imposed COVID-19 regulations to take to the streets. Masks themselves becoming sites of protest scrawled with Floyd’s last words. Thin walls of polymeric material made of fibres and filter: laying a boundary, between breath within and breath without. It seemed that there was a wave of energy, a political awakening for the reality of black, brown and Indigenous experiences. Arriving far too late, but finally here. 

Franz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “we revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”. During that summer, I picked up the activists Dan Glass’s book, United Queerdom, which recounts the history and stories of the Gay Liberation Front to queer activism today. Here Glass spoke about how taking to the streets or being in queer spaces is part of how queer people inhabit community. Stepping out onto the streets, is to step out of line, is to ask important questions on the queer experience, these histories of persecution and resistance, ‘To be able to expose our vulnerabilities, desires and passions within and beyond four walls as queer is absolutely necessary, essential in fact’ Dan writes ‘It allows us to breathe’.[2] Breath. Perhaps protest is how we breathe.

On the 27th of June 2020, with backpacks of water, hand sanitiser and face masks, my partner and I took our bikes, ready to cycle across London to Wellington Arch. A tug of fear, at the potential of catching the virus or spreading it to others, amplifying peoples vulnerabilities. An acknowledgement of privilege to be able to protest, to not have underlying health issues, to not be front line workers. But this fear also sat opposite another: the insatiable need to take to the streets – to be counted. 

This year was to be different, Pride 2020 was ‘cancelled’, the pandemic having put off the floats. Instead, what came together felt like the essence of what pride as a protest was meant to be. Speaking to people throughout the day, it became clear that for many this was something different, a turn, away from systemic racism and white supremacy as the status quo. It was stripped of corporate floats, police and armed forces, gone was the paywall to access a space which is ours for the taking – the street. No wristband, no hours of waiting, no merch, no corporates to the front and community groups to the back. No one was here to make money. This was for many, exactly how it should be. Instead, it was DIY, diverse, beautiful and queer: black trans lives to the front. Spotting friends we hadn’t seen for months, we longed to hug each other, and instead, eyes crinkled above masks, hidden smiles beaming. Bike bells tinkled, fingers snapped, we walked, peaceful, some brandishing flowers, others banging drums, responding to the call and repeat:       

‘When Black Trans Lives are under attack, what do we do?’                                                         

‘Stand up, fight back!’

Approaching Parliament Square, a voguing circle opened up and 100 meters further posters and flowers were laid against railing, an impromptu vigil for the black trans lives lost. Listening to speeches, our faces turned towards a speaker from the Black Lives Matter UK group proclaiming, ‘these protests are preparing us for the revolution’. The crowd responds, clapping, snapping, tinkling: we breathe.

As I think back to this moment, as I think back to the countless protests in these last few years, I recall two things. The first, is the images of crowds turning themselves around streets, aerial footage from helicopters swooping in and away trying to capture the volume of this mass moving in a single direction. This mass, the embodiment of protest, both to disorientating and reorientating effect. To protest is to step out of line – stepping out into the streets, off pavement onto road – to take up another direction. The BLM protests were an awakening for some, and a continuation of a life-long fight for others. Protest is direction. Direction also speaks to breathe. The way we turn, directing the way we breathe. Breathing life into something, naming something through protest. The intake of breath, as you echo: STAND UP, FIGHT BACK.

The second recollection is the pull of motion. ‘We might be used to thinking of direction as simply which way we turn, or which way we are facing, at this or that moment in time. Direction then would be a rather casual matter’ writes Ahmed, ‘But what if direction, as the way we face as well as move, is organised rather than casual?’[3] Direction is movement, of bodies moving in protest. Protests are movements, they brim with emotion, ‘the movement in “social movements” gestures toward the realm of affect; bodily intensities; emotions, feelings, and passions; and toward uprising’ writes the Sociologist Deborah B. Gould.[4] 

The pull onwards, as bodies move forward, create pockets, compact, stop, push along, catch up. The emotional pull of a protest, as the crowds wind around those same aerial shot streets, feet moving forward. Its porous boundaries seeping rage, anger, fear, shame, hope, solidarity. What is this pull, what is this mass of embodiment and movement if not direction in motion, in emotion. Is this not a way of inhabiting space. ‘Space acquires “direction” through how bodies inhabit it’ Ahmed writes, ‘just as bodies acquire direction in this inhabitance’.[5] By stepping out of the lines, of lockdown, of status quo, of white supremacy, of police brutality, we see ourselves directed in another way. We see, ‘how bodies are directed in some ways and not others, as a way of inhabiting or dwelling in the world’.[6] To step out of line, is to step out of a current and into another. To see the potentiality for something different, and to get pulled along by it.  

But direction is not destination. In Central London, a march may end here or there, Parliament Square at the doormat of Westminster or further down the road at the doors of the Home Office, but we have not yet arrived at the direction of the protest. For a protest to end, is not to have reached a destination. We know from José Esteban Muñoz that ‘queerness is a rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world’.[7] Protest too, is that same rejection, instead leaning towards the not yet here, the horizon of possibility that emerges from stepping out of line. A Trans Black Lives Matter protest is a way of inhabiting space, a way of inhabiting a queer practice, ‘a mode of being in the world that is also inventing the world’.[8] A protest for black queer trans lives, is about re-inventing the world to centre different voices, it is to pour breathe in the direction of re-invention. 

Later in 2021, more protests take place. Sarah Everard is murdered, following her abduction by an off-duty police officer on her way home from visiting a friend in South London. She is a Marketing Executive. She is 33. She is white. But she is not only these things. As the news of her death circulates, many see themselves in the young woman walking home. Many recognise the fearful walk home they themselves have taken; some will breathe a sigh of relief when the door is closed behind them, some who will cross the threshold of home will not be unscathed. All recognising the horror of what we all fear happening, has happened. It is a fear all women recognise, it is a fear that all minority groups recognise, though some feel it most: be they queer, trans, black, brown, Asian, sex worker, refugee. 

A vigil is held for Sarah in Clapham Common on March 13 2021, hundreds attend. That evening, the police enter the vigil, arrests are made for breaching the Coronavirus Act 2020. To watch the events of that night, is to see violence. To see police officers use violence to break up a vigil, to throw mourning women to the ground and arrest them. To be surprised by this violence, by the policing of predominantly white female bodies however is to have not been listening. To be surprised is to have not heard the black, brown, Asian, queer, trans, women, sex workers, refugees who have been saying it for decades: police brutality exists, racial oppression exists. To be surprised is to find ourselves across our window-screens a week later watching Atlanta, witnessing the rise of Anti-Asian Hate and for officials not to condemn the murder of eight people, where six were Asian women, as racially motivated.  To be surprised, is to come up against white supremacy. To not be listening is to imprint Sarah Everard’s name onto our tongues, but not know how to wrap our mouth around Blessing Olusegun. 

Sarah’s death is now one of several layers. It is deeply personal. It is centrally about grief and loss, for Sarah and for others, her death set off a national outcry on violence against women. It has moved beyond the perimeters of who Sarah was, far beyond the personal loss her friends and family have experienced, to encompass millions of women around the country, asking us to look closer at the contexts for which women are killed. It also has raised important conversations on the lives which are deemed grievable, by the media, by the police and by white supremacy. The outpouring of rage after Sarah’s death is of course warranted, but where was this same rage when sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, two women of Black heritage, were killed last summer in this same city. So we must hold ourselves accountable: the violence against Black, Brown and Asian women, trans, queer, sex workers, and refugee lives receive less outrage because they are not deemed grievable.

We are perhaps then at a turn, ‘life, after all, is full of turning points’ notes Ahmed.[9] We have been at these turns before, a potential for us to direct ourselves towards another way of being in the world. ‘The lines we follow also function as forms of “alignment,” or as ways of being in line with others. We might say that we are orientated when we are in line. We are “in line” when we face the direction that is already faced by others. Being “in line” allows bodies to extend into spaces that, as it were, have already taken their shape’.[10] The outpouring of anger and grief around Sarah’s death reveals which bodies extend into space, which bodies become grievable, which spaces have taken their shape. In a white supremacist society, we will grieve loudly the loss of a murdered white woman, but not question the ambivalence toward the deaths of black, brown, Asian women and men, trans and gender non-conforming. In a patriarchal society, all will suffer at its hands. 

So, we find ourselves at an intersection; to continue treading the lines within which we are already aligned, or to take up a new direction, to take a breath and step out of line, regardless of consequence. To exhale into the unknown. Sarah’s death has been deeply politicised, with her vigil in Clapham Common ultimately exposing a fraught line within feminist organising. At the centre of this are two groups: Sisters Uncut and Reclaim These Streets – the former calling for the abolishment of the police, the other seeking dialogue with and representation in an oppressive institution. In the wake of Sarah’s death, Reclaim These Streets wanted to channel the collective grief, outrage and sadness in the community towards a vigil. Following attempts to negotiate a safe way to do so with the London Metropolitan Police, the group cancelled the vigil the day of, citing the threat of each organiser incurring £10,000 a fine. To step out of line, is to run the risk of being fined. Sisters Uncut, a nationwide feminist direct action group, instead stepped in and stepped out releasing a statement that they would be attending the vigil, publicly defying the London Metropolitan Police’s ban stating, ‘we will not be silenced, we will not ask for permission, we will not be told what to do by violent men. We have a right to protest this violence’.[11] This fraught line, is how we step out of line, even within our own feminist movements. It is to not be silenced. 

That night, and the ensuing week of protests that have followed, brought to the fore a piece of legislation quietly making its way through Parliament. With our right to protest already radically curtailed by the Coronavirus Act, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill was to be voted on, allowing greater powers to police to control protests. This almost 300-page draft legislation has been brought forward by Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party,  following the Extinction Rebellion Protests in 2019, where mass occupation of roads and bridges across the country stretched the police limits. The Bill represents a serious threat, empowering the police to decide where, when and how people are allowed to protest and have their voices heard. The police will be able to impose start and end times, set noise limits, and apply these rules to a demonstration of just one person. They are designed to stop people occupying public space, hanging off bridges, glueing themselves to windows, or employing other protest tactics to make themselves seen or heard. To step out of line, and be seen and heard. To dedicate hundreds of pages worth of breath in the direction of legislation that will curtail freedoms, in order to enforce that line.[12] And cruelly, particularly in the light of this moment within which so many are raw with death, the Bill makes no mention of women, failing to protect the pervasive misogyny at the heart of crimes committed against them. This Bill outlines that someone defacing a statue could receive up to 10 years imprisonment, while rape sentences only start at five. Feel the breath catch, at this realisation.

The importance of queer protest cannot be underscored enough, we cannot recognise the gains on visibility, access and rights without recognising that those that came before us, stepped out of line. We owe them our lives, as we owe the generations that follow us to not toe the line of complacency. We must push against the assimilation to heteronormative structures, push against white supremacy, push against a politics of neutrality. To find ourselves at this intersection and to choose the direction which is unknown but brims, is to be turned towards a desire for another way of being in the world. To direct our bodies, our breath, in protest in order to name this desire. As you will reach the end of this essay, approximately 192 breaths will have passed through your lungs. In which direction will you turn to now? 

[1] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2006).

[2] Dan Glass (2020) United Queerdom: From The Legends Of The Gay Liberation Front To The Queer Of Tomorrow,  (London: Zed Books, 2020), 150..

[3] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2006), 15.

[4] Deborah Gould,  Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against Aids (London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 3.

[5] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2006), 12.

[6] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2006), 27.

[7] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009), 1.

[8] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009), 121.

[9] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2006), 15.

[10] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2006), 15.


Featured Image: Two people holding hands at a Pride parade – London, 1983. From: Getty.

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