Today in shopping history: naked demo in Selfridges demands release of naked protestor Steve Gough, 2003.

An account of a naked protest in Selfridges store, Central London, 2003.

“Steve Gough has been walking naked from land’s end to john o groats to highlight the issue that clothing should be optional in life. he has been arrested several times, with most charges subsequently dropped, he has been beaten up, and he is currently naked in inverness prison segregation awaiting a new trial, without exercise or access to a phone.

of the neglible mainstream reports of saturday’s selfridges naked protest, most confuse the fact that previous charges acquired by Steve Gough on his journey have been dropped, without mentioning that he is currently remanded unclothed in prison segregation. Thus giving the impression he is free as a bird with no worries, rather than incarcerated in isolation without access to even a phone. 

But worse is the obligatory, almost obsessive, need in the media to make the headline into a pun….. “naked protest over in a flash” being the most common. Flashing is an aggresive and sexual form of public nudity. A criminal act that predominantly targets and victimises women and children. It is exceptionally unhelpful and lazy, almost spiteful, of any journalist to add this association. Especially when there is zero balancing argument included in the reportage to underline our actual intent. 

my personal motives are as follows: There is nothing inherently bad or criminal in the appearance of the unclothed human body. I’m not some bloody hippy who wants to tell the world how ‘beautiful’ we all are, or how ‘natural’ and free it is to be naked. Naked protest is an extremely simple and direct political and philosophical action, that highlights the absurdity and extent of our corrupted social programming and the uniformed state that enforces it. 

Public nudity is a simple human statement that simultaneously invokes numerous important complexities. As Foucault pointed out: a culture’s power structures depend largely on how we look and are looked at. 

the initial premise for saturday’s selfridges naked protest in support of steve, was that an unknown number of people who had been notified of the event, would independently arrive and disperse themselves throughout selfidges department store, and at 2.30 we would remove our clothing and make our way to the exit. from there we would walk naked as an assembled group along oxford street and as far as we could without unnescessary police interference. 

the inside of selfridges was chosen as our starting point primarily because it had been the location earlier in the year for one of spencer tunick’s mass naked photo art events, in which around 500 people participated. and after selfridges became aware during the course of this week that todays naked protest was to begin there, it seemed as though they were generally cool about it. the police reaction however was another tired old matter. 

a group of 6 of us, who we knew would definitely participate, met earlier in the day. but it was hoped that by putting out the word to people, especially people who had previously been among the hundreds of naked participants in tunick’s highly publicised past art events, that the eventual numbers would be much higher. but it wasn’t really. 

i first got involved with naked protests and issues relating to the unclothed human appearance in public, on july 15 2000. it was a naked protest outside new scotland yard police hq. to date i have been arrested naked a total of 7 times without a single prosecution. this includes spending a month continuously unclothed remanded in prison segregation, until the charges (section 5 public order act) were dropped, jan 2001. (ref: guardian prison letter) 

last week, when i was first notified of the protest i was genuinely caught off guard having to contemplate going through the whole media and police circus-act yet again. it is obvious that having to endlessly repeat the justification and defence for public nudity, to the media (who mostly don’t really give a fuck about the issues, they just want a novelty story and a tiresome “the laws an ass” bum-shot photo caption) aswell as to the crown prosecution, it becomes an incredibly mind numbing mantra, and you need a break from it. 

vincent bethell, (who was tried naked in court for his january 2001 crown trial, and who was unanimously acquitted by the jury of men and women of the charge of ‘public nuisance’), was present today. but he was determined not to take his clothes off. he was present to give support and information, but he is still experiencing the stressful consequences of having been remanded continously unclothed for 5 months in prison segregation UNTIL he was acquitted by the jury. plus he is exhausted from years of organising protests that mostly end up as yet another futile “the laws an ass” bum-shot photo caption in the press, if it even appears at all. 

there was a general consensus among the handful of protestors saturday to comply if and when the police demand we get dressed. they don’t arrest you if you put your clothes on again. i’ve never complied before, and i found it difficult to imagine complying. the choice to wear clothes or not should be mine alone. so in the lead up to saturday i had decided it would be best if i therefore just remained clothed the whole time, if getting dressed on demand was going to be an issue for me. but as there were only 5 other definite participants, i felt it necessary to get undressed and go along with the consensus. 

at the allotted time i stripped somewhere on the first floor of the store. two store security people immediately approached me and asked me to get dressed. their request certainly wasn’t part of the deal, so i remained naked as they escorted me down the escalator to the main exit where a throng of police awaited. then the police demanded i get dressed or else i’d be arrested. (with of course officers trotting out that ridiculous old knee jerk reason that “there are children present among the public.” as if the sight of naked people could in any possible way matter.) 

now i have to tell you, i feel kind of soiled and empty after going along with the police demands on this occasion. this is no criticism of other people’s compliance, we’ve all got different limits, responsibilities in the rest of our lives, priorities and of course different fears, but i’ve never got dressed on demand before and i will never ever fucking do it again. 

so the whole event was brief. some photos were taken. some printed facts and thoughts were distributed. some questions were answered and written down in shorthand. blah blah blah, and mainstream reportage is bollocks as usual. 

back in the summer/autumn 2001, in the lead up to vincent’s and my last protest/arrest/trial, we had both decided and had begun publicly stating that if we were prosecuted (following our past acquittals in both crown and magistrate trials) we were prepared to commit to hunger striking to the death if necessary. but as it was we were subsequently acquitted AGAIN in our last bow street magistrate’s trial, october 2001. 

still hunger strike was and remains an obvious next level of commitment, among others, when media events and court acquittals are not enough to prevent unclothed people from being intimidated and arrested by the police and, as in the current situation with steve gough, remanded in prison segregation cells, then a more intense form of body protest is probably required in order to underline the seriousness of the issues and intent. 

Personally I have no great need to be naked in public, but at the same time MY ONLY NEED TO BE CLOTHED IS A POINTLESSLY IMPOSED ONE. I am neither a naturist, a nudist, a streaker, an exhibitionist, nor an attention seeker. Labels belong to clothing. Concealment of the human appearance is entirely unnecessary and should only ever be optional as an individual choice. 

In reply to the often heard return that “people should also have a choice not to look at the unclothed body”, that is something similar to the bigotry that doesn’t want to see 2 men kissing. GET OVER IT. Visual prejudice and embarrassment is not an equally valid freedom. Similarly I often hear people stating that there are certain body shapes and sizes that they wouldn’t want to see. shame on you!. As for that other well worn cliche, “the need to protect children in public space”, THERE IS NO EVIDENCE AVAILABLE ANYWHERE TO SUGGEST THAT NON-SEXUAL NUDITY CAN IN ANYWAY HARM CHILDREN. For those of you who can only giggle and express dog-eared innuendos at the thought of visible genitalia. GROW UP. While to those who believe this whole thing to be a trivial matter, I can only reply that FREEDOM IS A PRECIOUS THING IN ALL ITS FORMS AND MUST BE VIGOROUSLY AND CONSTANTLY DEFENDED. In these present times we should especially appreciate that fact. 

I can not comment on the level of support that steve gough receives from his family, but when i was continuously unclothed in prison segregation awaiting trial, my mum wrote to tell me how proud she was of me for standing up for my beliefs. i was raised to believe that in life it is vital to always QUESTION EVERYTHING. 

meanwhile what is definitely certain right now is that some kind of new strategy is required. exactly what form it will take…….. we shall wait and think and see. but the use of naked protest within other protest campaigns, as a powerful expression of simple humanity is one option. 

Finally I’d include a mention of the issues related to contemporary clothing. Aside from the obvious insidious voluntary act of paying to turn ourselves into walking adverts, like so many corporately branded cattle, theres the issue of the exploitative labour involved in producing fashionable garments. 

Women make up 90 percent of sweatshop labourers. In some cases, women are allowed only two drinks of water 
and one bathroom break per shift. Sexual harassment, corporal punishment, and verbal abuse are all means used by supervisors to instill fear and keep employees in line. 

Isolation means that sweatshop workers are often unaware of their rights, and have little or no contact with unions. they are denied fundamental rights such as Respect. Safe working conditions. Affordable health insurance. Fair treatment. Paychecks that meet basic needs. The simple fact is that for big corporations, profit comes first. Sometimes clothing, shoes or other products can be produced most cheaply in a sweatshop in a Third World country, where there are lower (or no) health and safety standards, low minimum wages and restrictions on the workers’ rights to free speech and association. 

Corporations choose carefully which Third World country they will “invest” in next. Repressive governments can be more profitable than democratic ones, because repressive governments and their militaries keep unions and radical workers in line. 

all of which adds to the fact that there is something fundamentally disturbing and all too passive in the notion that we must conceal the human body at all costs.”

russell higgs

Nicked from Indymedia London. (Mistookenly in the hard copy of the 2017 calendar as 8th Sept)

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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