Recently, the British working-class anarchist group, Class War, organised its third ‘Fuck Parade’, a roving protest against gentrification through the east London area of Shoreditch. This is a traditionally working-class area, but in recent years has become gentrified with many expensive boutique stores and cafes opening and skyrocketing rents that have squeezed out working-class people. Class War has been active in protesting against gentrification and the social cleansing that has been occurring in London. Working-class people are being forced out of London due to high rents and reductions in public housing. Local councils have been selling off public housing to private developers and evicting tenants. Councils have moved public housing tenants to areas far from their original homes, destroying community networks in the process. Grassroots activist groups have formed to fight these evictions and private for-profit redevelopments. The activist groups are made up of people who are directly affected (the tenants) and allies (some of whom are professionals, such as lawyers and academics).
Class War’s particular mode of protesting is carnivalesque and mocks the rich and powerful. They use props such as banners, flares, flaming torches, masks, and loud music, and their parades and protests are noisy and colourful. Their intention is to take back the streets, at least for a short time, and make working-class voices heard. According to one member, they are part of a long tradition of the London mob – groups of protestors who have challenged authority and targeted symbols of power (including private property) for centuries.
Unlike other Class War actions (such as their long-term presence outside a private development to protest the existence of ‘poor doors’), the recent event in London’s East End attracted quite a lot of media interest, mainly due to the paint bombing of a café called Cereal Killer. This café, situated in historic Brick Lane, has been dubbed a ‘hipster’ business and has become a symbol of gentrification in the area. The café sells sugary cereals at high prices and has been criticised for its lack of community relevance and its promotion of conspicuous consumption. At £3 for a small bowl, the cereal servings are far too expensive for most of the working-class locals. British right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail published a number of articles condemning the protestors and sympathising with the café owners. The café owners even claimed (via Twitter) that they had been the victims of a ‘hate crime’ (which is arguably very offensive to those who are the target of real hate crimes). A fair amount of debate ensued, with some arguing for Class War’s right to be out on the streets and praising the group for taking a stand, and others criticising their tactics and aligning themselves with the café (and other local businesses who felt threatened).
Regardless of whether it’s right or wrong to graffiti on windows and throw paint bombs, the café undoubtedly operates as a symbol for gentrification, and its presence in Brick Lane could be upsetting for working-class locals who are reminded of their poverty every time they walk past people queuing for over-priced cereal ‘cocktails’. What is particularly galling, I think, is the nature of the cereals being sold. The café ‘menu’ mainly consists of processed, sugary cereals — the kinds of unhealthy cereals that working-class people are often criticised and judged for eating. The café appears to be engaging in an ironic celebration of unhealthy foods that can sometimes be staples for working-class people. While they might not be able to afford the name-brand versions, high energy, cheap foods can replace more nutritious foods in some working-class households). The café owners seem to be oblivious of the politics and class-based nature of food consumption.
Amid the general condemnation of the protest and descriptions of the protestors as a ‘hate mob’, the Daily Mail has also attacked one of the members of Class War, Dr. Lisa Mckenzie. In an effort to undermine her credibility, the Daily Mail labelled McKenzie as ‘middle class’ and as someone who travels overseas, drinks champagne, and generally lives a ‘lavish’ lifestyle. The reporters have trawled Mckenzie’s Facebook page to find ‘evidence’ of her suggested middle-class status and posted photographs, including one of her at a celebration, holding a bottle of sparkling wine (presumably the ‘Champagne’ referred to in the article). The articles have sparked abusive and often sexist online comments, emails, and tweets. Despite Mckenzie’s efforts to explain that her position as a research fellow at the London School of Economics does not make her middle class and that she identifies as working class, it seems that the mainstream media cannot comprehend that it is possible to be a working-class academic.
The attempts by the mainstream media to belittle Mckenzie suggest that the idea of an educated working-class woman is very threatening, and the descriptions of her tattoos, working-class accent or (contradictorily) evidence of her ‘lavish’ lifestyle, are used in an attempt to diminish her arguments about gentrification, inequality, social cleansing, and so on. No attempt has been made to read her work, much less to understand her concerns and those of Class War more broadly.
Class War does not apologise for its actions or approaches. Its members are steadfastly anti-establishment, proudly working-class, and deliberately ‘in your face’. They are noisy, they swear, they are disruptive, and they have no problem with offending and upsetting the rich and powerful (and anyone who defends them). Not every social justice activist will approve of their actions, and they do not represent all of the diverse British working class, but they are helping to get issues affecting working-class people discussed in the public sphere, and for that, I (as a working-class academic) am grateful.