By Madeleine Mankey
As lockdown eases over the coming weeks, the streets of Edinburgh will return to a sense of normality that has been lost for nearly three months. Whilst the gradual return of residents to the lanes, parks and high streets has been met with scepticism by some – and rightly so – it is hard to be displeased with the resumption of businesses for one vital reason: safety.
The lockdown did not only strain mental health, financial security, and social relations, it also made cities feel like graveyards. Across the UK, a marked hush descended onto once-hustling thoroughfares. The issue lay not with a drop in atmosphere however, but a drop in witnesses. Areas that used to thrive with pedestrians found themselves turned into semi-lawless territories with a felt absence of social regulation. Three times I have witnessed men screaming in the street at everyone and no one in particular. Countless times my heart has broken for the homeless, their only hope for income being the passers-by that number little since lockdown began. Once, I have felt in direct danger of sexual assault.
As I waited on a street corner not far from the Meadows, two men who had been walking across the street from me circled round to approach me. They had noticed I was alone; they had noticed my heatwave clothes. They changed the direction of their walk to stand between me and the relatively busy park. What was most unsettling was not their approach itself, but rather the way they looked at each other, then back at me – at each other, then around the deserted street, then back to me. Enough times to make me stand up and walk past them towards the Meadows full of bystanders, ignoring their catcalls. Enough times to create anxiety in me where it never lived before just from walking through some empty streets in one of the safest cities in the world.
I will not be the only girl with a story like this from lockdown, and I will not even be one of hundreds. This is because the great pause button that hit the world did not hit women’s rights along the way. It did not hit gay rights, it did not hit trans rights and, as we have seen through extensive police brutality in the USA and UK, it certainly did not hit PoC rights. For these campaigns there was no pause, only a gradual and dangerous slide backwards. Angela McRobbie famously argued that “feminism taken into account is feminism undone”. As the rights of some of the most vulnerable minorities remain threatened in addition to women, it is easy to see what she meant.
These incidents, during and after lockdown was imposed, sends a clear message: we must never allow activism to slide backwards. It is dangerous to assume that the course of human history is a slow and continual march towards universal equality: it isn’t. 2020 has shown us we can take one step forward and five steps back. It is the job of those committed to fighting inequality to take these injustices to task properly. As Twitter squabbled over the views of an author of children’s books, America rolled back laws protecting gay and transgender people from medical discrimination.
And while it is our job to hold politicians accountable for the laws they pass, it is the job of those very politicians to campaign for that change. The sight of Democrats ‘taking the knee’ in support of Black Lives Matter is a less than poignant sign considering the murder that kickstarted the protests. It also sends a dangerous message, like Clapping for our Carers, or teachers, or any other meaningless symbol that detracts from the fact that these people should not be kneeling or clapping. Instead, they should be defending the liberties and professions that are under threat from creeping authoritarian control.
The global pause has affected many of our ideas about society and government, but it has also reminded us that our streets are a physical extension of our rights – we need to be safe in them. If lockdown has taught us anything, it is that the fight is far from over, and has only just begun.