If you’ve been out in Glasgow much through November, you’ve probably seen them. There’s one at the end of Ashton Lane, and a few more throughout the west end: Distinctive posters with stylised black poppies and, in bold capital letters, a URL and a twitter hashtag. Www.resistmilitarism.org. #Black Poppy.
It’s a striking image.
Though many have now been taken down, on the morning of the 7th of November there were over 500 of these posters around the city, the result of a midnight effort by anti-militarist activists. Each poster is meant to represent around thirty poppies, adding up to 16,000 black poppies in total – one for each of the conscientious objectors who refused their draft in the First World War.
The campaign is organized by a group called the White Feather Collective, an activist network who take their name from the white feathers handed to British men who refused to enlist from 1914.
Intended then as a symbol of cowardice that would shame men into signing up, a representative of the group told Vice Magazine that they want to reclaim the white feather “as a symbol of defiance and resistance,” while an article posted on the Resist Militarism website explains that the black poppies are there “to provide an alternative message to the remembrance industry which is choked on red glorifying poppies [sic], nationalism and militarism… a symbol which commemorates all those who have died, and are still dying, due to imperialist war and its legacy.”
The White Feather Collective previously made news on the 28th of June – the UK’s 6th annual Armed Forces Day – when four of its activists occupied Finnieston Crane and unfurled a banner that read “resist militarism #white feather”. The group makes a distinction between their symbol and the more traditional white poppies, which have been used to represent a pacifist remembrance since the 1930s. Unlike the white poppies, the black poppies are not a pacifist icon, the group arguing that their symbol “respects people’s right to resist”.
Being the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, 2014 was always going to have an emotionally charged Remembrance Day. Government events both throughout the UK, such as the art installation at the Tower of London, and locally, such as the service in George Square attended by Nicola Sturgeon, seem bigger than ever.
But there is also a growing sense of resistance to the red poppy as a symbol, and to the way remembrance services are carried out at large. Two years ago, David Cameron said that he hoped this year’s planned £50m of ceremonies would be “a commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations [in 2012], says something about who we are as a people.”
With comments like that, it’s not hard to see why groups like the White Feather Collective see the mainstream remembrance project that the red poppies symbolise as uncomfortably nationalistic. Earlier this year the Royal British Legion, who organize much of the British remembrance services and sell the red poppies, attracted criticism when one of its major charity events was sponsored by weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Guardian columnist George Monbiot tweeted “It turns out that @PoppyLegion strongly linked to arms trade. Until now I’ve bought a poppy every year. No longer.”
If nothing else, the White Feather Collective’s campaign will hopefully open up for discussion an element of our culture that has often been difficult to talk about. The red poppy has become almost mandatory in certain parts of society, particularly among public figures. Newsreaders like Jon Snow and Charlene White who choose not to wear the poppy for personal reasons are subject to criticism, and, in White’s case, racist and sexist abuse over Twitter.
As David Mitchell points out in his Guardian column, the red poppy becomes meaningless as a symbol if people only wear them to avoid criticism, and it seems similarly meaningless if there’s no real alternative. We have to remember and respect those who died so horrifically in the First World War, and all wars since, but it’s important to think about how we go about remembering them, and how we take their memories into the future.