Claire Sosienski Smith: why we march

Thank you all for gathering here today. I will say a few short words about why we march, mentioning the background of Reclaim the Night which involves some short non-specific mention of murder and sexual violence. After I speak, we will hear from Laura, the president of ARU students’ union, and Kate, the women’s-officer-elect.

We march to reclaim our space, our bodies and to put an end to sexual violence. We have been marching for a long time. Reclaim the Night in the UK started in earnest as a rejection to the impositions that the state put on women’s bodies. This happened in Leeds in 1977, when the Yorkshire Ripper’s attacks and murders of more than thirteen women received hardly any attention from the police or the press, only taking more notice when a young woman student was murdered in 1977, and the police told women to not go out at night. They did not extend the same attention when other women were attacked by the Yorkshire Ripper, many of whom were sex workers. Telling women to change their behaviour in response to violence comes as no surprise. Women took to the streets to protest the restrictions placed on their bodies and their freedom to walk freely in the city in 1977, and we take to the streets tonight to continue this resistance. Imposing a curfew to protect women and those who are more vulnerable on the streets at night ignores that there are women who must work at night: the shift-workers, the sex workers, and those who do not have any other place to go. We march together to show our solidarity with those who have not been able to walk freely at night.

We march to show our solidarity with our trans siblings, who face untold discrimination, hatred and violence, including from those who have the audacity to call themselves feminists. We march because we recognise that the ability to walk freely in any space is a racialized issue, and that we must stand with our sisters of colour. We must do better for Muslim women and non-binary people facing rising rates of harassment, day and night, and bear the burden of the rise of the far right. We know what hostile environments look and feel like and we reject the state’s attempt to silence us or divide us from each other. We march for every woman and non-binary person because we know that a better world is possible. We glimpse it in the acts of solidarity we do every day, we create it tonight and every night we come together to claim space. Reclaim the Night is a call to arms. Reclaim the Night reminds us that our freedoms will never be handed to us, but that we must fight for them.

Our movements are built on the legacies of the women and non-binary people who came before us. We recognise the important of our legacy, especially when our histories remain unappreciated and often unrecorded. We realise the importance of using the archive as a tool of liberation. But we reject the co-option of our history as a method of subduing our anger. We are not impressed with how many women are in positions of power, when those positions are used to entrench further inequalities and enact violence on women of colour, working class women, queer women, non-binary people, trans women, disabled women. Legacy is important insofar as it makes us imagine a future: we are part of the future that the first women marching in the streets imagined. We march because we know the importance of holding our ground and fighting for the existence of our community. We have a long way to go.

This year, we have pushed for an increased awareness of Cambridge University’s relationship with the town and its relationship with Anglia Ruskin University. We hope that we have reinvigorated the connections we must form to organise any resistance that has a chance of remaining. We march to create collective resistance. We march as a community. We march to show that a university is its students and we cannot allow it to destroy the lives of its locals, to turn away when the women of Whitworth House are faced with the closure of their home and destruction of their community, or to continue to ignore the rough sleepers across our city while countless rooms sit empty behind the locked doors of the institution. We come together to show our strength, and our commitment to a movement that claims space for those who have been routinely excluded from any form of autonomy and freedom for themselves.

Tonight is important because our collective strength is important. Take this energy forward with you and take care of every women and non-binary person around you.

The march tonight will take us around the city, and the pace is set by our disabled students’ bloc which will be at the front of our march, so please come to the front when we assemble to march at 6.30. Please stay on the pavements and take care when we cross roads. We have many stewards who are here to help, and our vigil will take place at 7.30pm at Great St Mary’s if you need to meet us there at any point.