A strike is an event that by its nature calls on us to consider the question: who are ‘they’? The ‘they’ we disagree with and want to oppose, the ‘they’ who serve us, the ‘they’ who govern us, the ‘they’ who we pass in the course of our daily routine and all the ‘theys’ who we are suddenly jammed in next to, who we don’t usually pass, or wish to. Both the strikers and those to whom their demands are directed, as well as the general public who become both collateral and democratic voice in the midst of everything, get caught in a tangled web of ‘us’s’ and ‘thems’. To decipher this web often seems impossible but to question the logic of each strand and reconsider the true nature of each disconnected “them” is an essential step towards clarity for ourselves, if not equality for everyone.
Tubes are places in which, as the space gets smaller, the concept of ‘they’ starts to balloon and surround us like a protective gauze, until everyone seems alien except ourselves. Nobody remembers what it’s like to cough uncontrollably on a tube, or laugh loudly with your friends as they regale you with a story – at a volume – which they can’t suppress. No one remembers what it’s like to be tired, or thirsty, or need a tissue, or be sick in a plastic bag, because they are too busy ‘them-ing’ everyone to put themselves in ‘their’ shoes. Ironically, this distance between people seems to be exacerbated the more packed in we are. A few years ago my mum told me a story about being on a very busy commuter tube when a young woman fainted; as my mum (in predictably kind, maternal mode) looked around to ask if anyone had some water for the woman, she actually saw people slip full bottles into their bags and look away. We all want an easy life, but at what point did another person’s thirst become so separable that we feel no compulsion to lend them a drink?
I’m obviously obsessed with this de-facing process we enact on strangers in public places because I’ve written about it before, but what about when minor experiences like feeling irritated by excessive noise or ignoring the discomfiting sight of suffering become more politicised, more active. The politics of space are sent into primal overdrive in a the most extreme rush hour scenarios, like this viral video taken in Japan:
And the Chelsea supporters responsible for the Paris Metro racism incident are an infamous example of ‘politics’ turning nasty on busy public transport:
These videos are a reminder that every time we “they” the people around us, we create a more permissible space for dehumanisation and prejudice. But what about the people who run the tubes we ride on? A division is automatically set up between the individual who is saying “Please do not obstruct the doors” or “Stand behind the yellow line” and the individual contravening those rules in order to get on a train. At exits and entrances the barriers and external metal gates set up a literal wall between those running the station and those running in and out. The media seems eager to uphold this division when a tube strike like the recent one by London Underground workers goes ahead. Headlines like ‘’Absolute Carnage’ As Tube Drivers Go On Strike’ and ‘How Londoners Refused To Let Striking Drivers Ruin Their Journeys’ set up a clear “us and them” distinction between the unions and the drivers versus everyone else. But this conveniently puts the media and the outraged politicians – who ‘hit out at the ‘shameful’’ strikers – on the same side as the public. The narrative of “us and them” is cleverly arranged, in this case, to create a schism between different members of the public. Because aren’t tube drivers members of the public too? Yes they provide a service, but they do not govern the way that service works.
In an open letter from one of the strikers, Mick Davey points out that ‘I don’t usually comment on my work life as nobody really cares about other people’s jobs’, acknowledging that he is not trying to be ‘one of us’ or align himself with everybody reading. He is just one member of the public reaching out to other members in order to explain his unique position. He points out that while the media can conveniently portray the strike as motivated by greed for a wage increase, it’s really a question of fairness. The offer put forward by TfL on a time-limited basis did not allow unions to circulate it among their members and consult them before making a response. And it is not simply money which is at stake but also the conditions and compensation for working a 24 hour weekend night tube—factors which will affect us all. Suddenly the ‘us and them’ distinction begins to blur. How would we feel if asked to work new, antisocial hours outside our original contract? How would we feel if employees in an unfit state were forced to be on duty when we took the tube, or if we got caught up in an incident on a late night tube without sufficient measures in place to protect us? And what would we need in all of these situations? I suggest one of the first things we’d ask for is solidarity. Not to be ‘them-ed’, dismissed, ignored or made invisible to the people around us, even if they were not directly accountable or actively involved.
Of course, this is true of the faceless ‘media’ or the generalised ‘government’ too. We can ‘them’ anyone into being the enemy, but if we really want to effect change, we need to break down these ‘theys’ and figure out why they exist. Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a film of ‘theys’ and ‘thems’. ‘They’ refers to a criminal underworld of drug dealers and thieves; the disadvantaged underbelly of society, prostitutes and heroin addicts among them; vigilantes; women in hijab; the secret deeds or secret self which a lover hides from us, or the ones we cannot admit to in ourselves. In this film the ‘them’ that lurks as a girl walks home alone at night is turned inside out, so that the girl is the shady watcher and a threat to solitary men. This tells us something our assumptions – as women walking down a dark street, keys at the ready between the knuckles, frequent backwards glances taken – about the men that surround us, and what they amount to. When stripped of their power, they are helpless, regardless of the brutality their swagger allows. But more interestingly, it tells us something about the veiled woman we presume to judge. Never has a veil looked more empowering, especially when contrasted to the ‘sexy’ Halloween costume of a teenage girl or the sad glamour of a sheer-shirted prostitute. But then, this veil is worn by a vampire.
We are reminded that power can come at many times and in many forms, often quietly or from unexpected places. It also reminds us that power isn’t just of one type. Under her veil this vampire wears jeans and a Breton top; she applies make up and has posters reminiscent of Madonna and Michael Jackson in her room; she likes the White Lies; she taunts a schoolboy; she falls in love. Power need not be tyrannical, or arbitrary, or brutish, or consistent, or perfectly meted out, or fair, or brave, or wrong. There are times when power can put on a new outfit and become something altogether softer and more ambiguous.
Not everyone wearing a long black garment is a vampire, but Amirpour’s film asks us to reconsider our presumptions about who the person wearing that garment might be. And the girl’s unexpected power, as well as her struggle to communicate it to the man she falls in love with, reminds us that power begins with being heard and being seen. Being active. So whatever we think about the London tube strikers’ specific demands (once we’ve read about them, and not simply dismissed them), it is worth acknowledging that, while they may not be woefully underpaid or violently abused, their idea of power is much like our own. They have a right to be heard and they take what measures they see fit. Those measures and their impacts on our lives do not exist in a vacuum, but belong to the hearts and minds of a ‘they’ we must consider and acknowledge as more than just a word.