IWD Walking Vigil Against Violence Against Women & Girls, 12th March 2022

International Women’s Day Walking Vigil Against Violence Against Women & Girls, Manchester 2022

On Saturday, March 12th 2022, in honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, feminist groups from across the North of England gathered to raise loud, visible objections to male violence against women and girls worldwide. We met to hold a vigil, and to march through Manchester city centre to raise awareness of the brutal and ongoing war being waged against women. The event was organised by Manchester Feminist Network and was joined in solidarity by Northern Radfem Network, Women’s Rights Network and Yes Matters, who were present fundraising for their free services supporting victims of male violence.

Our action was marred by male incursion right from the outset with a man being physically removed from our starting point – the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst – by police for menacing a group of women before the rally had even gotten underway. This incident was shortly followed by another man interrupting our chants against male violence, this time shouting pro transgender slogans – which was somewhat baffling and irrelevant as our assembled contingent were present to neither discuss nor draw attention to transgender politics. Ours was a peaceful, woman centred action that had numerous mothers and their children in attendance. This point cannot be overstated in relation to the events that transpired as we finished our assemblage and set off marching.

The chants were largely led by well known and respected feminist activist Belstaffie. We chanted about rape, the harms of pornography and gave a mention to honour the memory of a relation of one of the women present who tragically lost her life to suicide following an act of male sexual violence. We stood in solidarity with every victim and survivor, and raised our voices to draw attention to the scourge of violence that women are subjected to every single day.

Not expecting any further interruptions, the march began at 4.15 when we experienced our first assault. Belstaffie was ambushed by a man with pink hair and a rockabilly dress on, who ran past and forcibly broke a bottle of milkshake onto her neck. This man was identifiable to us as Erin Dawson, a student at Salford University. We had previously encountered him when he protested an anti rape demonstration organised by Sofia Luna in conjunction with feminist group Make More Noise in February 2020. What his motivations for protesting a group of women, many of them rape survivors themselves, protesting against rape remains unclear, but a few guesses could be made. He is also known to local police for previous arrests at other demos.

Dawson

At this point the mothers in our group began to fear for the safety of their daughters. One woman told me that “I saw liquid flying through the air and glass smashed on the floor and I panicked and got us out of there as quickly as I could. I was in fight or flight mode.” A testimony in words that will resonate instantly and horribly with any woman that has feared for her or her child’s safety when faced with the very thing we were marching to protest. This alone would have been bad enough optics but Dawson and his friends weren’t done with us. Our group of female protestors was bracketed and stalked to St Ann’s Square where Belstaffie and Gemma Aitchison, founder of Yes Matters were assaulted a second time. Gemma’s statement can be found here.

Of the two separate incidents the second was more fierce in severity and resulted in Belstaffie later being treated at a hospital for whiplash. She said of the initial attack “I was hit on the left side of the neck from behind. I remember feeling something wet and cold slamming into me with so much force that it made me become disoriented. When I felt this fluid being slammed into me I remember looking down at my stomach and I could see that my coat had white dripping down it and I could feel the liquid was soaking into my bra and going down my body into my lower underwear. It wasn’t until a few minutes later I realised I was being attacked. I was in so much shock.”

Feminist Activist, Belstaffie, 12th March 2022

Warrior that she is, she regained her composure and continued to lead the march onwards. When the second hit occurred she describes it as “suddenly, from behind, I felt an overwhelming slamming force into my head and could feel more cold liquid going down my face and neck and into my underwear. I turned around and immediately recognised him (Dawson) and asked people to photograph him to provide evidence to the police.” This and the subsequent call to Greater Manchester Police took place at 4.45 – 4.50pm, as evidenced by timestamped videos and corroborated by records of the walking routes.

The police arrived on the scene at 5pm. In the interim some of us, myself included, approached Dawson and his cohorts in an attempt to document our assailants and to question their motivation to repeatedly attack a peaceful protest. It was also our intention to de-escalate any further violence using open communication. Unfortunately this was not successful, as numerous photos and videos show a physical altercation between Dawson and a woman unknown to Northern Radfem Network or any of the other groups present. We would like to state that as a group we do not condone the use of force, as our principles of protest are that of non violent resistance. We know now, however , that the first point of physical contact had come from the male aggressor.

Dawson was arrested at the scene and later charged, following statements to police from Belstaffie and Gemma. He has since stated he is disinterested in working with the police to resolve this.

We are of course shocked and appalled that a vigil in solidarity with women affected by male violence was graphically and unapologetically beset by the very thing we were there to protest. This very obvious point appeared to be entirely lost on the people – both male and female – that were there in support of Dawson’s aggressive actions towards us. We are confident that the gravity of this situation will not be lost on the wider public as the bottom line is obvious. No matter the lens this incident is viewed through it comes down once again to men attacking women for asserting their boundaries. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that we will never, ever stop challenging.

Addendum: In the interests of balance and transparency I personally contacted Dawson himself to ask for a statement regarding his intentions and what made him feel that this particular march was a worthy target for antagonistic activism. I also contacted Salford University to ask if they were happy to have this sort of behaviour publicly representing their student body. I have been subsequently blocked by Dawson and at time of writing, Salford University have remained silent on the issue. I shall of course give Dawson right of reply should he feel like he has been unfairly represented.

Written by Rebekah Wershbale