[CN: This relates to our previous post on Julian Assange, sexual violence and rape apologism]
Following our recent statement about the Festival of Debate (FoD) event with Julian Assange, we contacted the Sheffield Anarchist Bookfair (SAB) collective, who are hosting their annual Bookfair on Saturday in collaboration with the FoD. We asked SAB to take a look at our statement and consider showing their public support and solidarity. They responded to say that they appreciated us bringing this issue to their attention, and that they had decided to put out a statement of their own. This is their statement (as yet unpublished):
‘Sheffield Anarchist Bookfair Collective have been made aware of a statement put out by Sheffield LaDIYfest in relation to a separate event organised by the Festival of Debate. That statement is available here [link]. The Bookfair Collective share many of the concerns expressed in the statement. Our involvement in the Festival of Debate does not entail endorsement, or indeed prior knowledge, of any other individual event taking place under the umbrella of the Festival of Debate (our only involvement is in the actual bookfair taking place this saturday and the fundraiser for that bookfair that took place on 15th April).
The main motivations behind the Sheffield Anarchist Bookfair are to increase radical political debate, to enable people to inform themselves and others, to meet, discuss, organise and take action. We welcome the contributions to wider political debate in Sheffield made by both the Festival of Debate and Sheffield LaDIYfest, whilst not necessarily supporting everything that either group does.
In order to enable wider critical engagement with the decision by Festival of Debate to include the event with Julian Assange, we are offering space and facilitation at the end of the bookfair on Saturday (5pm-6pm) if LaDIYfest would be willing to contribute to an open meeting to discuss why this decision is so problematic and the wider related political issues. We do of course extend this invite to the Festival of Debate if they would like to participate in this discussion’.
We are incredibly disappointed with this statement. Although we appreciate that SAB may not have had prior knowledge of the events taking place at the FoD, we cannot agree that their involvement in the festival is entirely without endorsement. For example, the Anarchist Bookfair is named as a partner of the event on the publicity material, alongside its corporate sponsors, and there was a huge Festival of Debate banner at the fundraiser on April 15th.
Therefore it falls on the SAB collective, like any other group or organisation supporting the event, to make their position on the inclusion of Assange clear. While we did not ask, or expect, that they would pull out of the events altogether, we hoped that the bookfair collective would take this on board by publicly expressing support for the statement we issued, or to condemn Assange’s inclusion themselves. We don’t believe that hosting a meeting with FoD, as the SAB collective have suggested, would be productive, or is anything like a strong enough stance on this issue. In our original statement, we made it clear that in previous discussions with the FoD team we found them unsympathetic and their defense of Assange was inexcusable and quite shocking.
We understand the need for critical engagement around many issues, but we do not believe rape and sexual assault is one of those. As anarchists and, we would hope, feminists, how can we possibly pose the inclusion of a man accused of sexual assault as a point of discussion? To strive for critical engagement with an issue such as this is a privilege very few of us can afford, and a huge insult to anyone who is a survivor of sexual assault or rape.
We’re not convinced that the Bookfair would, for example, continue to support without statement, an event that included a talk by the CEO of a notoriously unethical corporation, or somebody who had been accused of acts of violent racism. We do not see how accusations of rape – one of the most violent and pervasive demonstrations of abuse of power – cannot be enough for the SAB collective to take a stand against the FoD board, who have chosen to press on with the event despite the resultant outcry.
It is vital for activist communities to show that we have a zero tolerance approach to sexual violence and rape apologism. We feel that the SAB’s statement reinforces, rather than challenges, these existing power structures. The Julian Assange case is a high-profile example of something that happens in the everyday of activist cultures. As this is such a persistent problem in our communities, more discussion and action is needed, and, at times like this (and always!), we need to condemn it in the clearest possible way. We had hoped that the SAB collective would stand by us in our opposition to this event and that together, alongside other aligned groups, we could fight for a Festival of Debate that, like so many before it, strives to be as inclusive and safe as possible. We hope we can still do this.
We offered to be on hand to discuss revising the statement but the collective have not taken us up on this offer. As a result, we want to make it clear, prior to the annual bookfair itself tomorrow, that the Bookfair collective is openly refusing to join the call for safer, more accessible spaces.