Invisible Bodies: Can Mourning Be Intersectional?

by Charlotte Dick

 
The death of Sarah Everard in March triggered a wave of vigils and protests across the UK. They became spaces of mourning, not just of Everard, but of the thousands of others lost in similar circumstances. But can mourning ever be truly intersectional?

The term intersectionality has become politically ‘en vogue’, yet sometimes it appears as evasive as Johnson’s pandemic plan. It is the buzzword to end all buzzwords - causing even its left proponents to roll their eyes and squirm at its tenth use round the dinner table. I want to explore where the boundaries of intersectionality lie, what are its tools and who are its wielders?


Sarah Everard’s vigil and the ensuing protests motivated us to reflect on the events as sites of intersectional mourning. We created a public intervention and personal memorial, Say her name, to explore this concept and confront the murder of women, transwomen and non-gender conforming persons by police violence. Say her name was stationed outside Scotland Yard to increase visibility and force bystanders/police to connect the killings to state oppression. The video’s audio is taken from an interview with a fellow protestor Violetta (renamed for anonymity purposes). Her words complicate the mourning of the names seen, providing a more nuanced, critical perspective on the issue.

"Bibaa Henry. Nicole Smallmen. Blessing Olusegun. Joanne Latham Jenny Swift. Ungrievable bodies could break into a realm of recognition".

Violetta and Angela Davis galvanized Say her name and this article. Davis’ concept of the ‘intersectionality of struggles’ is a lens to think through and organise different social justice struggles together across borders. This is echoed in our interview with Violetta who problematised the protests with her discussion on racialised violence, white feminist exclusion and privilege. Combined, the women provoked the question of whether the intersectionality of struggles could be extended into mourning, and what role race and white privilege play in this new geopolitical space.


Protestors’ collective mourning of grievable and ungrievable lives resists the state’s strategy to make certain deaths invisible. Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallmen, Blessing Olusegun and transwomen including Joanne Latham and Jenny Swift, were all publicly grieved – defying the state. Women who suffer not just gendered oppression, but racism and transphobia were openly recognised. Shouting, displaying and mourning them unapologetically on signs, digital accounts and through speeches birthed a space where intersecting oppression and struggles could be addressed, and previously ungrievable bodies could break into a realm of recognition. Mourning became an embodied political resistance.


Observing Sisters Uncut online and physical protests revealed a similar process for the living. Mourning established an intersectional space of appearance and solidarity. The online protests contained speeches from Black Lives Matter, sex workers, disabled persons and the traveller community, effectively countering the pervasive whiteness of mainstream activist spaces. Likewise, the Zoom comments contained manic interactions between bodies who expressed solidarity, formed new connections and lamented intersecting oppression. This was a radical mode of political organisation that created a new kind of digital political imaginary, which highlighted a roadmap for intersectional struggle and resistance.



But what tools enable these intersectional spaces of appearance to manifest? How are they created and sustained? In Palestine the concept of ‘protective accompaniment’ is used; a tactic where first-world bodies monitor and therefore mitigate the violence of Israeli forces. Western human rights activists record and observe oppression, to protect precarious Palestinian bodies and use their own political value and white supremacy as a human shield.


The same tactic can be seen at the protests / vigil. The privilege of white bodies is used to protect and reduce violence in this space of mourning, becoming a point of dependency for the peaceful mourning of all protestors. Their presence serves to shield “bodies that (don’t) count” and to monitor potential human rights violations, like the Israeli activists in Palestine. Whilst the use of racial privilege could arguably be reproducing the same systemic violence, it remains an important short-term tool to create an accessible and safe space where intersectional mourning and counter-visibility can be expressed.


Still, there remains a significant psychic block amongst the mass protest movement, particularly obvious at the Clapham Common memorial, that limits the possibility of intersectional mourning. We lack full awareness of how the continuum of violence interlinks Sarah’s death with other deaths, female sexual harassment with other struggles. And as long as we limit the reproduction of these connections on a mass scale, the possibility of intersectional mourning will always be limited - only practiced by a few. We must break from our psychic attachments before intersectional mourning’s full potentiality can be realised.



Say her name was our attempt to break free from our own ideological incarceration, something that is a life-long process, and challenge our own view of intersectionality. We understand our white privilege allowed us to conduct the public intervention undisturbed and wanted to use it to help force the names listed to be recognised. It is our message about the potential of intersectional mourning and our appearance to other protestors and victims of police violence in solidarity.


Acknowledgments:


To my three wonderful friends and creative partners Elif Lootens, Sigrid Corry and Holly Hudson, who created this public intervention with me and inspired much of this article.


Thank you to Violetta for her time and words, we are all very grateful.

 

Charlotte Dick is a writer and MA student of Migration and Diaspora Studies at SOAS