This post originally appeared in VICE UK
When I was growing up, wearing remembrance poppies seemed like another immutable ritual for this time of year. Halloween passed, it started getting dark about 4 PM, and dashes of red and green suddenly appeared on everyone's lapels. Just as predictable, it now seems, is the shitstorm that ensues every November around the wearing of them. Should they be compulsory? Which professional soccer player or TV news anchor will refuse to wear one to public outrage this year? And for what reason? In the debates about "poppy etiquette," it can sometimes feel like the poppy's meaning gets glossed over.
In Glasgow, a group of provocative anti-war activists are so convinced that the real message of remembrance has been lost that they spent last week pasting the city in posters of black poppies. In all, 16,000 of them went up, each representing a "conscientious objector" who refused to fight in the First World War. While their output hasn't been quite as prolific as the 888,246 red ceramic poppies on show outside the Tower of London, their aims were slightly different. By appropriating the poppy symbol and changing its color, they were hoping to invoke a discussion on the real meaning of remembrance, and the role of the poppy emblem itself. There's particular resonance this year, with 2014 marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict that was—the saying went—meant to end all wars. Instead, it just led to another century of them.
Behind the black poppy stunt were the White Feather Collective, a network of activists committed to carrying out direct action against a "culture of militarism and imperialism." I caught up with Zara Murphy from the group to find out more.
VICE: Can you tell me a bit about the posters you put up last week? Why black poppies?
Zara Murphy: We basically think that the red poppy has, for want of a better word, been fetishized. We've seen things like dancing poppies in the streets and supermarket pizzas made up like a poppy, with the pepperoni as the petals and an olive as the center. The symbol of the poppy is so far removed from what it's meant to be about. Our action wasn't against the people who gave their lives in war and it's not against taking care of veterans, which we absolutely support. It was an action to provide an alternative message of remembrance to the way the red poppy is used, which now symbolizes a permanent war industry. It shows up how one moment our leaders are teary eyed at the Cenotaph and selling weapons in the global arms economy the next.
So how does this differ to the white poppy that some people wear?
The white poppy is a symbol of peace and no more wars. The black poppy isn't pacifist, as we believe that people have the right to resist against an imperial power. But we hope to repoliticize the poppy to what it was actually meant to stand for: to remember the futility and horror of war, and all the people who have lost their lives to war, and who continue to suffer today due to war.
What kind of reaction have you got? I could see some people being upset about this.
Well we did notice that people had attempted to tear some down the very next day. We think people must not understand or something. It's not that we ever want to stop people from being able to mourn or remember in ways that they want to, but the problem with the red poppy is that we're being told how to remember, and it's a very narrow frame.
Some people will see the black poppies as a slight against those who've fought in wars. What would you say to people who do find it disrespectful?
I would say it's absolutely the opposite. Soldiers are conditioned to think in particular ways—it's illegal for them to collectively organize, and veterans are silenced and spoken for in all sorts of ways. I just want to emphasize that we support veterans and think that the hero narrative which the state push at these remembrance events only serve to silence veterans from speaking out against war. This false heroism works to boost nationalism and glorify war, not help veterans.
Surely raising money for injured soldiers, which the Royal British Legion does, is a good thing.
Absolutely, but we need to stop sending people to unjust and illegal wars. That's gonna help veterans and soldiers more than anything.
Poppies have started to be sold earlier and earlier every year, especially since the UK entered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the length of time that they're being sold on our streets is longer. There is a direct correlation between the unpopularity of the wars, and the increase in the fetishization of the symbol of the poppy.
During which time we've also seen the emergence of Armed Forces Day each June.
That's only been around for five years. Four members of our collective are up in court in a couple of weeks for dropping a banner saying "Resist Militarism" off the Finnieston Crane on Armed Forces Day this year. We'll see how that trial goes, as they're pleading not guilty.
This year's Remembrance Day has been tied into the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. David Cameron initially said it would be like the Queen's Jubilee celebrations in 2012, something which "captures our national spirit." Do you think the commemorations have done that?
From the outset, for him to say such a thing is absolutely preposterous. This year we're meant to be commemorating the declaration of war, and to pose that as a celebration is an insult to the living and the dead. We've got four more years of this. I think it's also relevant that this is at a time when British nationalism is on the rise, which is dangerous.
Could you tell me where the name White Feather comes from?
The white feather was given out to men who didn't enlist in the First World War, as a symbol of cowardice and shame. We want to reclaim it as a symbol of defiance and resistance. I think it's important to emphasize though that the white feather was a military campaign invented by a general, rather than women taking it upon themselves to go and shame men into enlisting.
OK, so how do you think we should go about remembering past conflicts?
It's something I've thought about a lot. We need to rethink memorialization, and about how we can remember in a way which is relevant to the present and our future. Britain is a dwindling imperial power, and we want to encourage a critical reading of the past and the present, to make a better future.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I just think if the dead could speak, what would they say? Right now, the way the symbol of the poppy is being used is that the dead are being exploited. They're being used as tools—just the way they were when they were soldiers—to bolster this idea of "the nation" and excuse more destructive violence in the future. That's exactly the opposite of what the remembrance poppy should be about.
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