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28th November 2023

Reclaim the Night: Politically disruptive, or performative protest?

As important as Reclaim the Night, the march proved to me that we, again, were just giving in to the whims of the city and not reaching the right demographic

Words by Grace Andrews

“Move quickly, the trams are coming” was the last announcement I expected to hear during 2024’s Reclaim the Night march. As the throng passed St Peter’s Square, protesters were asked to pause and allow the tram to pass; a tacit reminder that even when we were reclaiming the streets of Manchester, we were bending to the whims of the city, subject to strict planning, and city-sanctioned routes for our protest. It is for this reason that I question the effectiveness of Reclaim the Night.

This feeling of capitulation to the everyday routines of Manchester seemed to follow throughout the event. While it was, of course, a galvanising display of solidarity for gender-based violence, I can’t help but feel that the disruptive nature of the march has not been fully realised. If the demands are as radical as the phrase “Reclaim the Night” suggests, it’s time for our actions to be equally as radical.

There have certainly been improvements since last year; one being the route change, from marching down the Curry Mile. Its previously problematic optics – those of a majority-white crowd occupying the area of Manchester famous for its predominantly South Asian population – are no longer a problem with the new change in location. The new location is also far more inclusive of other Manchester universities (should they wish to join,) passing Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester Metropolitan University, and ending closer to Salford.

More of Manchester is “reclaimed” by focusing on the city centre, passing corporate buildings inhabited by those in power and passing popular bars, venues, and nightclubs – sites of the night-time economy that we are trying to reclaim.

However, instead of getting to the heart of the city and therefore, the heart of the problem, we were battling to share the streets with trams. Similarly, we could only take up one half of the street, in a council-sanctioned march. In order to Reclaim the Night, we must take up more space, and find more disruptive methods. Yes, the march draws attention to the issue of gendered violence – all it requires is a look at the banners with phrases like “No doesn’t mean convince me” and the chants of “The patriarchy’s got to go” to understand what we are protesting about. But what could we do to move beyond words, and turn sentiment into action?

While disruptive methods have admittedly received mixed public and press opinion over the years, one poll from 2023 found that a majority of academics believed the ‘strategic use of nonviolent disruptive tactics’ were ‘at least quite important.’ With issues such as gender-based violence, that have ‘high awareness’ and ‘high public support,’ disruptive tactics were deemed “at least somewhat effective” by 69% of those polled. 

The success of disruptive protest lies in who or what is the target of disruption; if it is the streets we are trying to reclaim, we must focus on disrupting the barriers that currently exist to stop women and those of marginalised genders from doing so. In this sense, the challenging of patriarchal institutions and chauvinistic public opinion should become our modus operandi. The march is a wonderful display of community-building, consciousness raising and solidarity, but we must follow through, even with smaller-scale everyday disruption.

Next time someone suggests that consent is a grey area, don’t just sit back and silently stew. Stand up to the smallest instances of sexism, even if it feels overblown. It is these smaller every-day disruptions that, over time, change attitudes. As for larger institutions, the most common form of effective protest is by making a dent in their finances, through boycotts and the like.

The importance of protests like 2021’s ‘Girls Night In’ cannot be understated but the spirit of Reclaim is the inverse: instead of receding from nightlife to, we are taking our place within it. The people that the sentiment of ‘convince me not’ is trying to reach will not be swayed by marching, nor by people abstaining from going on nights out. 

I appreciate the complexities of shutting down the entirety of Oxford Road. I also appreciate that entirely diverting one of Manchester’s busiest bus routes at dark may end up making people more vulnerable to the potential dangers of the very streets we are trying to reclaim. We must be intentional and strategic. However I think that, alongside theworkshops, support sessions, and amplifying the voices of various societies, there should be an intention to find a more disruptive element to our protest.

After the 46th year of Reclaim, surely our political practices can evolve beyond a march that Manchester has seen every year. To truly Reclaim the Night, we must find ways to truly subvert the status quo, to take up space in the city that we claim as our own and build upon symbolic gestures of solidarity. The high attendance of Reclaim is something that should be praised. It’s time to harness this collective power and ask ourselves how we can truly disrupt the dominant narratives and practices of gendered violence.

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