Occupy vs. Reclaim: what’s in a name?
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
This summer Sisters Uncut has been reclaiming public spaces across the country. We’ve taken over corporate buildings, taken back empty council flats and marched from Newcastle to Bristol. Sisters are everywhere, taking up space, rooted in communities, fighting state and domestic violence.
And while doing all this it has been so easy to slip into the oppressive language of the system we want to dismantle. When Sisters Uncut took over an empty, soon-to-be-demolished council flat in Hackney, we called it an ‘occupation’. We occupied the flat to force the local council to provide safe and secure housing for survivors. But why choose the word ‘occupy’? A word that recalls an imperialist and violent past, and a word still tainted by racist occupations today that continue to terrorise brown and black people daily.
But the term ‘occupy’ became fashionable, catapulted to fame by the disruption and protests against financial systems and corrupt governments across the world in 2011. However, for many, particularly anyone part of global struggles against colonialism and military occupations, the term ‘occupy’ is inextricably linked with forcibly taking what is not yours at the expense of others. And with this comes imposing notions of supremacy and inferiority, racism, domination, and human rights violations.
This is so very far from what our space in Hackney represents. The flat isn’t an occupation; we haven’t stolen space that isn’t ours. It is just the opposite; we are the community and we’re taking back space that belongs to us. Social housing was created using the collective money of the people to support everyone that needed a home. These homes were decent, secure and built around existing communities. And when women faced violence at home, they campaigned, fought and won the right to safe and secure housing.
Today all of these homes are threatened by private interests and austerity policies. The Tory government is destroying all social housing and it is survivors of domestic violence who will die as a result. A woman is most vulnerable when she tries to leave, so it is imperative that there is somewhere safe and secure to go.
That is why Sisters Uncut has taken up space, taken back space. To force councils, government and private companies to realise that these spaces are ours and we will fight to keep them. Through our direct action of an empty council home, we have reclaimed what rightly belongs to the people and should be used to serve people in need, to provide homes for survivors fleeing violence. How can she leave if she has nowhere to go? The space is not one dominated by outsiders but owned and run by the community and in solidarity with non-hierarchical women and non-binary people who share in the struggle for justice against sexist austerity.
To stay true to these principles and disentangle ourselves from the systems we fight against, we will work to stop using the term ‘occupy’ in relation to our actions and instead focus on the positive term ‘reclaim’. A term that is truer to what we are actually doing and a step closer to ensuring our spaces are safe for all sisters, particularly those facing multiple oppressions.