Aviah Sarah Day is a Black community organiser with Sisters Uncut and Hackney Cop Watch. She recently published a book called ‘Abolition Revolution’, which is a historical, theoretical and practical guide to revolutionary abolitionist politics in Britain. The rest of her time is spent lecturing in Criminology at Birkbeck, University of London, organising in her trade union branch, and reflecting on how to build workers’ power through anarcho-syndicalism.

EDEditors of Notes From Below

ASDAviah Sarah Day

EDCan you tell us about your experience of organising?

ASDI have been organising for 15 years. For the first five years, I was trying to organise everywhere. The spaces I was in were full of white middle-class men who went to Oxford, and I felt that wouldn’t help me get the skills I needed to organise. So I spent a long time hanging around and going through a process of learning. That meant making some good decisions and some mistakes. Looking over those years now and reflecting on them, I feel quite differently. I don’t want to say, “Oh, now I’m wise”, but I was thinking about things very differently. When I was approaching organising in my early twenties, I had a lot of energy to throw myself into things without necessarily thinking about things like capacity or what works and what doesn’t. I had a lot of energy for firefighting in my twenties. Now I feel like not only do I want to be strategic, not only just reacting to the next thing that the government or whoever is doing, but getting smarter and thinking ahead. I want to think about where we want to be in five years. What is it going to be like? What are the levers that we can exploit? What is actually going to help us achieve our aims? I really lacked a lot of that kind of long-range strategic thinking when I was younger. But I think that’s as much to do with age as where the movement was. I thought I could go on and on forever, but that isn’t working.

I got radicalised when I was fifteen at school. Things didn’t really kick off when I was trying to organise things. I just missed the movement around the Iraq War. Then 2010 was a big turning point. I think for a lot of people, this was the first time they had taken any kind of radical action. This was after a long period of nothing really happening. No one was talking about race or about class. At the time, there was some discussion of imperialism with the Iraq war, but that wasn’t so common. So we were left to reinvent the wheel. There had been so little organising for so long. So we were back to the drawing board, starting from the beginning.

EDHow did you get into the feminist organising like Sisters Uncut?

ASDIt was through the experience of growing up around gendered violence, with domestic violence having been normal. This is what started my interest in organising. By the time I had got to university, I’d spent time in a refuge, my best friend’s mom was murdered by her dad on my estate, and all of these sorts of things had happened. As I got radicalised and was getting more interested in politics I thought I would work in a refuge. I thought it would be consciousness-raising and that I could do something. I did that for several years, and it was just very professional. I don’t know why I thought it would be different because I had actually lived in a refuge, and it was shit. Anyway, while I was working in the domestic violence sector, that’s when these cuts were coming in. At that point, I was initially organising with UK Uncut in 2011. They had been doing actions at Starbucks, and that’s the point where they invited me in. I wasn’t in UK Uncut from the beginning, but they knew I worked in the domestic violence sector and wanted me involved. It was all very clandestine, like a closed organisation. It was good in a way because that was when I got trained. They were like, “Okay, well, now you’ve been invited in, we’re going to give you the media training, social media training, facilitation training” and so on. Personally, it was good, but politically I didn’t really agree that it had to be closed in order to do that.

That was the beginning for me. There were a few of us inviting more people who were working on domestic violence or had experience of it. It got to the point where there were a whole bunch of women, and we decided that we wanted to focus on domestic violence. We didn’t want to go from issue to issue. Instead, we started a different organisation, focusing on cuts to domestic violence services, called Sisters Uncut. We wanted to invest in that particular thing, based on the experiences we were having in the sector.

EDWhat is the role of communists within movements like this?

ASDYou could tell a lot about the organising from the language we used. If someone did a discourse analysis of the kinds of things that we started off saying, like talking about ring-fenced funding and protecting services. It was very much of its time. This was anti-austerity politics, trying to return to the welfare state. There were elements of radical politics coming through, with some people seeing the state as ideologically driven in how it decides not to give money to people who are trying to get out of situations like domestic violence. There were other people who were much more invested in the state, others less so.

For me personally, I went through a journey. Sisters Uncut has been around for ten years next year. I definitely saw myself as an anti-capitalist, sort of anarcho-communist. I didn’t always have the language or analysis to explain that, particularly in relation to the state, but I had to learn through organising. Pretty much everyone went through a similar process. It started with an action, like trying to keep a refuge open. Sometimes we did keep them open. Then a year later, we’d be back again, or the money would have gone to the police. And why has the money gone from the refuge to the police? What is going on there? So it was an iterative process of learning through struggle. This means developing our ideas by asking those questions. Then I looked for other people who were asking those questions and organising on these issues.

EDDo you think others went on a similar journey?

ASDDefinitely. There were points when it was really difficult, in 2015-16. There were people in Sisters Uncut who were pushing for a different kind of much more radical politics, particularly around policing and prisons. That came out of the experiences where we were finding that it wasn’t just that our services weren’t being funded, but that funding was going to the criminal justice system. Or trying to get the refuge to do police work. This was alongside what happened to Sarah Reed. She was a black woman who was sexually assaulted by another patient while she was in a psychiatric hospital. Although she was the one assaulted, she got arrested and was taken to Holloway prison, where she died.

So this idea that we just need the state to invest more money becomes a lot more complicated when the state is perpetrating violence, or it depends on whether they see you as the perpetrator or if they see you as the survivor. Race comes into that too. We didn’t always understand that. It took questioning, reading, and critical analysis to start understanding that. We needed to understand why survivors are being arrested. Why is this happening more? We were told that more investment in police would be the answer to domestic violence. Instead, we found survivors being arrested and the money spent on the criminal justice system. They weren’t only arresting the perpetrators.

This became a difficulty in Sisters Uncut when some sections wanted to divest completely from policing and prisons while others didn’t, but almost everyone is a survivor of gendered violence. Some people were really invested in the idea of policing and wished their perpetrator was rotting in jail. The conversations were really difficult, and it was a big reckoning going through those arguments.

EDI can imagine that’s incredibly difficult. But it does bring to the front issues around abolitionist politics. What role do you think that played?

ASDI think a lot of it was trying to actually understand the role of the state. At first, there were elements of thinking of the state as a vehicle for positive change in our lives. To a certain extent, for some of us, it had been. To put it simply, it was a social democratic way of thinking about the state: it taxes people, and invests in things that help, like education, housing, and all of those sorts of things that are broadly a social good. That was our starting point, not a communist starting point, but an idea that a lot of people held on to. But it was being confronted by the violence of the state, not just seeing it as a benevolent thing. That changed things. The state had control of this money and was deciding to give it to prisons, deciding to punish us. So those of us turning to anarchism or communism, our analysis was shifting as we were seeing what was happening.
This meant new answers to the problems we were facing. We want survivors to have the resources to survive, we want our lives to include housing, enough money, childcare, and so on. To get those things, we started to look away from the state being the answer - and instead thinking about how the state was actually the ultimate perpetrator. That’s the kind of radical analysis that started to help us answer why this was happening and understand the role of the state at the individual level.

EDHow did that growing anti-state politics change the way you organised?

ASDThe way that Sisters Uncut organised was broadly non-hierarchical. There was no centralised committee, but obviously, I’m saying that with many caveats. But the choice was to try and be non-hierarchical. As a sort of anarcho-communist, for me, what’s important is not that there is no leadership whatsoever. It’s about asking what the levels of power are like, and how fluid are the structures. If the people in the leadership are stuck there, and there is no space for other people to be involved, then that’s something that I’m very averse to. It’s not that there shouldn’t be any structure, what we need are democratic structures that work. I would love for there to be proper membership structures, an idea a lot of other people have been opposed to. I think you need to know who’s in the room, who’s trained for what, who wants to do something, and so on. If there are people leading an action, how fluid is that? How can other people get involved? What happens if people disagree? How does that get resolved?

EDLooking back over the last fifteen years, are there examples of things that have worked? Or mistakes we can learn from?

ASDThere are so many things, but if I had to pick one, it would be a campaign that I’ve kept coming back to. About ten years ago, I was organising with Focus E15, a group of mothers facing eviction. We occupied an empty council flat on the Carpenters Estate. This was very formative for me. Similarly, Sisters Uncut were involved in a campaign to occupy a council flat in Hackney a couple of years later. These two experiences really shifted my understanding of the need for movement infrastructure. It’s amazing how much you can do when you have a place in the community to organise out of. Each of these was just for a summer, but they did so much. Because they were squats, it was a lot of graft just to hold the space, so it wasn’t sustainable to hold them long-term. It taught me that even just having people come in to say “hello” could make a difference because it was in their community. People could bring their kids and have them looked after while they were doing negotiation training or being in a meeting. This really changes the makeup of who can be there. It means you can put on training and get people organising. There are so many people who have nowhere to organise out of, nowhere to connect, and no one to look after their kids. This is something I have been obsessing about for years, thinking about what it would take to replicate that in a sustainable way, like a community or social centre on an estate. I have been picking it up and putting it down, talking to people, having meetings about it, on and off since then.

Recently, I went to a union fundraiser put on by the coalition of black trade unionists. I got chatting to someone afterwards about the Grunwick dispute. He said, “Yeah, I remember Grunwick, I was running a youth centre around the corner, and I used to take all the kids to the picket line.” We had a conversation, and it changed my mind on a lot of things. I asked him what he thought about the popularity of organising guidance like Jane McAlevey and Ian Allinson. He replied, “that it’s great to see people getting involved in organising. But what you need to remember is that back in the day, the thing that made the union strong was that it was where you did your birthdays, parties, football, cricket, and all that.” I thought that was what a proper trade union structure looks like, built into the communities.

For years and years, I would turn up to meetings with a revolutionary mindset. I wanted to go to a meeting and thrash out politics and strategy. But that isn’t what most people want to do with their time off work, is it? I used to get pissed off at the amount of people who would just turn up and want to hang out. What I didn’t understand was that most people relate to each other by hanging out, having a community, eating together, or going for a drink afterwards. I was just happy with the meeting being a meeting.

After that conversation, I’ve looked back over the years and really started to think, how and why is culture important? I believe we need a revolutionary strategy, but people don’t like going to meetings, they like football, dancing, eating, and hanging out. Reflecting back over those years, what people wanted was belonging and connection. This was important to me too. You have to provide that, then you can get into the politics. These are the things that give people the fuel. You can do both, the meetings and strategy, as well as the football and birthdays.

EDWhat kind of political organisation do you think you could build from that?

ASDThe first thing is that I don’t think it is a political party in itself. The trade union movement is absolutely crucial to building power, as well as renters’ movements. These are the struggles where you can directly interrupt capital and have the potential to make very serious gains for our movement. But there is a question of whether that is the endpoint. Part of me thinks there needs to be something outside of the trade union movement, not necessarily a political party, but some kind of organisation. It needs to be more nimble and combative. This is also linked to abolitionist politics. We live in very different times. When we look back at the trade union movements of the past, things are very different. The state operates very differently from how it did in the past. The state is much bigger and stronger. You cannot organise on any issue, whether from housing to immigration, without being confronted by the violence of the state. This means at some point, trade unions are going to have to be more confrontational and prepared to break the law. I think that will be helped by having some kind of formation that sits alongside the trade union movement with a strong connection to it.

EDWhat can we learn from abolitionist politics for a project like this?

ASDThe main learning I have came from the post-Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. We were involved in the Kill the Bill movement, and people were making these connections to abolitionist politics organically. We worked to articulate the connections for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, and how it would target black communities, Gypsy Roma Traveller communities, and protestors. This was being debated just after a policeman had murdered Sarah Everard and violently cracked down on a vigil held in her name. So these connections were being made. We argued that we need to think of what happened to Sarah Everard in connection with deaths in police custody and that this violence is not happening in isolation or as some kind of anomaly. This was the beginning of a political articulation of that politics if not one that was able to make any gains on it.

I think the complicated part of this is that the big explosions of organising and radicalism, like in 2010, organically cropped up without the structures to hold it, or the things needed to prop it up and help us build on it. We’re in the same situation today. We might be articulating those connections and convincing more people, but we don’t have the structures to turn that into victories. I also think that the radicalism of this politics scared away a lot of the big trade unions from the movement. We came out as abolitionists and anti-police from the get go, but was there another way of negotiating that moment, working up to it so it wasn’t only in name?

We are all used to doing our politics through statements. This doesn’t necessarily come with the organising needed to win those positions. I think that, personally, I have learned a lot from that moment and reflecting on it. We were trying to do more coalitional organisation, but we don’t actually know how to do that and haven’t been in a coalition before. That was really hard, particularly when everyone was having a go at each other. We didn’t know how to talk to this union or that one, and it was completely overwhelming. Lots of radical people just wanted their politics and to keep pushing ahead like a runaway train. But if you’re trying to keep up, to bring people with you, responding to these huge political moments, how do we do it? We need to sharpen our politics but, at the same time, build structures to hold us together.

EDWhat do you see on the horizon?

ASDUnlike a lot of people, I am eternally optimistic. A lot of things are pretty shit, and this country is in terminal decline. Every time I interact with the NHS, it is terrifying, you can feel how it is just falling apart. It is quite scary to be living through this movement. However, at the same time, I also see how radicalising this moment can be for other people. When I was fifteen, when I first started thinking politically, there was literally no one I could find to have those conversations with. Everyone was in the “class is over’‘ mindset. Now, talking about class and capitalism is back. There are so many more opportunities for people to get involved in organising. There are picket lines all over the country. There has been a political moment and a shift that has happened over the last few years. This makes me feel really hopeful and excited about what’s on the horizon too. The gears are shifting, and the contradictions are bubbling to the top. No one can pretend any more. Conflicts keep happening over and over again. This forces people to think about which side they are on.

EDWhat do you think revolutionaries can be doing to prepare for this?

ASDWe need to stop being so fucking sectarian. This was one of the things that was really difficult with coalition building, that “our” people didn’t like XR (Extinction Rebellion). I understand why, they have a terrible position on the police. This is really shit, and it does cause security issues. But we’ve got to find a way to connect to one of the biggest social movements with huge numbers of young people. We need to stop just denouncing each other on the internet. I went to a squat party a couple of months ago put on by all these young people in their twenties who used to be in XR. There were hundreds of them there, hosting this amazing party. They had an exhibition of movements over the last ten years and this huge soundsystem. It was all to raise money for a strike fundraiser. All those years, everyone didn’t want to talk to XR and missed out on speaking to all these young people. I think the problem is that we’re just not very good at conflict. We’re not very good at disagreeing. I think some of the older activists are better at this. We need to figure out how to do that again.

I also think there is an important lesson from the organising that came about after Sarah Everard’s murder. After she was murdered, I think there is a good example of strategic thinking about how the movement could respond. There was a vigil called, and this was something that people could say: “Oh, it’s a middle-class white woman, people are only going to attend this one because it happened to someone like them.” One of the reasons, out of many, Sisters Uncut decided to go to the vigil was because it was during a lockdown. The police were interpreting this to mean no assembly, no protest. This was very quickly becoming a high-profile ideological confrontation. We thought we could push this confrontation, not only around the murder of Sarah Everard but opposing the government’s insistence that protest was illegal. If we turn up, we can push back against this. But not only that, we can deliberately pull the state into a particular kind of confrontation. The conversations we were having at this point were, “If we all turn up, they are going to be forced to test their idea of policing by consent, or they will do nothing and look weak, making their laws look meaningless.” Of course it was important to turn out for the vigil and support it, but it also provided the opportunity to draw the state into a confrontation.

This was an important struggle to expose the state in a strategic way. Those of us who are communists or anarchists were thinking about it in those terms, thinking about how the moment could be used as leverage. You don’t get moments like that every day. I think this was the first time that we started to think on that strategic level. Going forward, we’ve tried to think about not just reacting but actually doing the work beforehand. Otherwise, we can squander these moments when they come up. It means we need to do more of that kind of organising. If a woman is murdered, it is important to turn out and protest, but it is also about winning an argument about pushing back the government and fighting for freedom of assembly.

So, we need to be looking at more ways to provoke conflict. By that, I mean not just waiting for the conflict to come to us. This feels like a lot of the trade union struggles this year, which have been very reactive. We need to go on the offensive. We have to identify the things we think are winnable. That means taking the time to have those conversations and do the strategic thinking, then you can go out and be combative and get on the offensive.

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Aviah Sarah Day

Aviah Sarah Day is a Black community organiser with Sisters Uncut and Hackney Cop Watch. She recently published a book called ‘Abolition Revolution’, which is a historical, theoretical and practical guide to revolutionary abolitionist politics in Britain. The rest of her time is spent lecturing in Criminology at Birkbeck, University of London, organising in her trade union branch, and reflecting on how to build workers’ power through anarcho-syndicalism.