Hundreds gathered on Thursday to oppose abuse, neglect and oppression of psychiatric patients, celebrate Mad culture, and call for the abolition of the psychiatric system, Charlotte Powell reports.
On Thursday 14 July 2022, hundreds of people gathered in Parliament Square for a Mad Pride demonstration called by the Campaign for Psych Abolition. It was a hot day cooling off into evening, and for the first hour the crowd slowly swelled. People helped themselves to food cooked by the Mutual Aid Cafe, and sat on the steps among the statues.
It was the first Mad Pride in Britain in over ten years. The last one was in 2011, and before that they had happened semi-regularly since Britain’s first in 1999. In the words of the original Mad Pride Britain organisers:
‘Mad pride is committed to ending discrimination against psychiatric patients, promoting survivor equality and celebrating Mad culture. Mad Pride is an idea which came out of the 1997 Gay Pride Festival in London. A few survivors of the mental health system said ‘We could do with a festival like this.’’
It was also the first high-profile action called by the Campaign for Psych Abolition, which formed in March 2021. For a lot of people I spoke to, it was the first Mad Pride they had ever been on and the campaign’s social media presence was the first place they’d ever heard of either Mad Pride or psychiatric abolition.
One photoset on their instagram about the history of Mad Pride says:
‘Mad Pride is a rebellion, born out of the long historical struggles for freedom – such as Black, crip, trans, feminist and class liberation. It is grounded in the experience of lunatics and psych survivors, and is an open display of both our madness and refusal to accept the mainstream psychiatric depiction of us. It is a statement to the sane society that marginalises us: we will not be crazy in the shadows anymore!’
Mad Pride in London was true to that political heritage of rebellion. Laid out on the floor were banners and placards reading ‘abolish forced treatments’, ‘disordered and ready to organise’, ‘no pills for social ills’ and other slogans. In the corner was a gurney like those used in psychiatric hospitals draped in a palestinian flag. Next to the table for the sound system and microphone for speakers was the food stall serving a seemingly-endless supply of free and delicious food for hours to the growing crowd. All these things created a bubble of militant energy and a sense of community in full view of the houses of parliament. After speeches to the crowd, this was then taken into the streets on a march around central London, pushing a hospital bed with someone symbolically chained to it. The march was loud, angry, and joyful at the same time. At the end there was yet more food and protestors sang along to ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley over the sound system.
What is Psych Abolition?
Psychiatric abolition, or Psych Abolition, is a movement against the current psychiatric establishment, including forced treatment, psychiatric incarceration in hospitals or psych wards, legal restrictions on people with certain diagnoses, and police powers to detain people seen as mentally ill.
Psych abolition campaigns highlight the rampant emotional, physical and sexual abuse in many psychiatric institutions, as well as instances of medical neglect and mis-diagnosis that have led to many suicides and deaths. But they also point to the broader idea of incarcerating someone against their will as a medical practice, and the practice of psychiatry as it stands, as being totally oppressive.
‘Mentally ill people deserve respect, autonomy, compassion, and community care. We believe in non-punitive, patient-centered treatment, absent of the current harmful, traumatising psychiatric ‘solutions’ that are forced upon us. Mental illness will always exist but will be greatly reduced by tackling the systemic oppression that causes and exacerbates poor mental health.’ – Campaign for Psych Abolition
After the initial gathering and introduction, speeches were made to the crowd. Many people spoke about their experiences of abuse, negligence, and stigmatisation inside and outside the psychiatric care system. The speeches tied in trans liberation, class struggle, anti-racism, climate justice, disability justice, migrant solidarity, palestine solidarity, and of course prison & police abolition. Many of them included calls to revolution. All of these things were so clearly related in the stories told by the different speakers that it didn’t feel like an abstraction or cliche when several of them said ‘we are not free until everyone is free.’
Medusa from Campaign for Psych Abolition talked about their experience of psychiatric incarceration: ‘They told me I was there for my own good… that one day I would be grateful. I felt so guilty because I was never fucking grateful.’
Their voice was strained with emotion but became clear and strong when they read out a list of names of the dead, of those who have died while incarcerated in psychiatric institutions or due to medical negligence or abuse.
‘We’ll have a minute of silence in case any of them have anything to say to us. If you don’t have psychosis you might not be able to hear very well, but you can ask us.’
Parishma from SOAS Detainee Support talked about the struggle of bringing the politics of psychiatric abolition into other organising. ‘In many organising spaces, psychiatric abolition is still not welcome. Many groups that talk about police abolition still outsource care to psychiatry.’
They talked about the relationship between the border system, immigration detention, and psychiatry: ‘Immigration detention as a mechanism of social control is not a separate institution.’
‘The revolution is not the end of this journey.’
Barbie and Goldie from Stonehenge Heritage Action Group (SHAG) Camp, an occupation of land around Stonehenge protecting it from road building and development, talked about the links between capitalist growth, land enclosure, climate breakdown, and mental health. ‘This country is the most deforested in the world, and the most mentally ill. We require access to the land, to the earth, and to nature.’
A speaker from a London CopWatch group told the story of Ali, a black man who had been incarcerated, and was released on the day of a BLM protest. He was homeless and had nowhere to go, but found community in that protest and joined in. He was caught up in brutal police manoeuvre and violently arrested – something which happens all too often to neurodivergent and disabled people, especially those who are black. Ali had had the police called on him at least two other times because people felt he was a threat, and had been tased. At no point had he been violent to anyone.
‘We turn to the police for care, but all they do is perpetuate violence.’
Ameer, from the Zapatista Solidarity Network talked about his experience of psychiatric incarceration:
‘The truth is that patients like myself are treated like human cattle. We are demeaned, we are belittled, we are laughed at. And this is just the mental health professionals, the mental health workers. Through my time as an inpatient I had been told I was a burden. After many suicide attempts my clothes were taken away as a deterrent. They would not let me have the privacy of my room… none of these practices are standard procedure.’
‘One man, only 24 years old, had an episode. He had no history of violence or even suspected of being violent, but he was restrained by four nurses, tranquilised, and kept in a room without windows that he would not leave for two days. Throughout the night I heard this man scream until he couldn’t scream any more.’
‘We have been forgotten. We have been treated as less than human to the point where we deny it in ourselves. Psychiatric hospital is not used to help people, it is used to contain. To contain what they describe as a danger to society. And when you are contained you must be dehumanised, and if you are not dehumanised by that itself, the staff may just humiliate you for the sake of it, for the fun of it.’
‘And this is not only about the mad, this is a class struggle. This is a class struggle. Some people might say that everybody deserves treatment, that everybody deserves to recover. This is not the case under capitalism. If you are severe, and not able to wait months even years for some sort of NHS treatment. If you get it, if not the choice is to go private. If somebody cannot afford that, well to this country you are as good as dead. And when I say dead I mean that literally. They are left to die by suicide, by homelessness, by abuse, and to capitalism that is simply the way of things. These are not the actions of individual practitioners but this is a climate of abuse that is engineered through austerity, through the lack of spending, through the lack of training, the practices that are swept under the rug.’
‘But those who are dead now… their deaths won’t be in vain. Because like today, we will turn ourselves into a revolutionary force. We will come together, and we will struggle and we will overthrow capitalism and this wretched system that exists to abuse us, to keep us silent, to gaslight us, to belittle us, to physically intimidate us, and then, then we will be free!’
Z’ev, who introduced themself as a psychiatric survivor, shared how they had been denied their hormones while being held in a psych ward. ‘There is no freedom for any of us until there is freedom for all of us!’
‘Psychiatry’s worst nightmare; unmedicated, mad and free!’
Kelsey and Tope from Cradle talked about deaths of mentally ill people in prison not as suicide but as social murder. They talked about Taylor, who died this month, and Sarah Reed, who died in Holloway prison in 2016, and of thousands murdered by psychiatric negligence and violence.
‘Our dream of abolition is of a world without cages… The freedom we fight for cannot be achieved without the abolition of psychiatry.’
Amarachi Rachel, founder of Black Mind UK, talked about the anti-black racism they experienced as a survivor of unlawful arrest. They had been handcuffed to a hospital bed and successfully sued the Met police for damages, as well as making them agree to a transformative justice meeting to talk through the harm they caused her.
Nic, a queer family member of Taylor, told his story. Taylor was a trans man who killed himself in his prison cell on 9 July in HMP Eastwood Park after years of abuse and medical neglect. ‘Taylor should be with us today… Taylor is dead because of HMP. Taylor is dead because of psychiatry.’ He was on an Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence, an indefinite prison sentence introduced by New Labour. It has since been abolished but thousands of IPPs are still inside.
‘I will never forgive the world that has taken him from me and I have to believe we will tear it all down.’
Read more about Taylor’s story and a call to action by his loved ones here.
Sam Weinstein from Payday Men’s Network, who work alongside the Global Women’s Strike, spoke about the relationship between Mad Pride and other political struggles.
‘The truly insane work in that building over there, because they want to define what’s normal, put the laws down. They’re suicidally greedy, they’re quite prepared to destroy this planet for their mates who are getting all the money out of it.’
‘It is critically important that all the voices in our international movement against the establishment and what they consider to be normal, that every one of those voices be heard.’
He talked about solitary confinement in the UK prison system, where many men are held isolated in Close Supervision Centres. Amnesty International has said that they are ‘Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.’ Meanwhile, the Royal College of Psychiatrists have given these centres an award, calling them ‘enabling environments.’
He also talked about how Physicians for Human Rights has reported the Israeli Medical Association for being complicit in the torture of Palestinians by the Israeli government and military, through medical and psychiatric practitioners.
Fátima, a representative of Orgullo Loco Madrid (Mad pride Madrid) spoke, bringing solidarity from the organisers in Spain. ‘[our] rage directed politically is unstoppable. With that rage we fight and come together across countries, fighting together from a perspective of class, feminism, racism, and intersectionality. When we come together we are stronger and together we are stronger, and together we will take down the walls of the asylums and of the pharmaceutical industry. Together we will look at a day with nothing but pride. Long live Mad Pride!’
A transcript of the speeches from CPA is now available here.
The March and Bed Push
After the speeches, the participants took to the street for the march and bed push.
‘The bed push is an event that happens during Mad Pride to symbolise the forced institutionalisation of mad people, as well as our fight to get out. It brings into the open the psychiatric violence that so often happens behind closed doors. The bed push is meant to show us liberating a comrade from the psych ward by pushing them out, down the street, to freedom!’
The organisers successfully fundraised to buy a hospital bed after trying to find one for free, and it led the march all around central London.
We chanted ‘Fags and Dykes, we all hate psychs!’, ‘What do we want? Mad Liberation! When do we want it? Now!’, ‘ACAB, All Cops are Bastards, APAB, All Psychs are Bastards!’
The march took the road and held up traffic all around Westminster bridge and Lambeth bridge. Everyone joined in the chanting, dancing in front of cars, soliciting car horn beeps of solidarity from drivers in the road, and waving placards.
Thankfully the police presence throughout the day was light. There were police cars circling the march but they seemed to struggle to follow the route and didn’t intervene. At the end the march returned to parliament square and several police officers came over from two vans. After a few minutes they left. Organisers had handed out masks to prevent people being photographed or identified, and almost everyone simply said ‘no comment’ if approached by any cop.
Overall Mad Pride felt like a lesson in how to organise a strong, militant and revolutionary pride demonstration. Several of the speakers said that they felt being there as part of it felt healing, or like a part of healing. Almost all of them pointed to the need to overthrow capitalism and the state in order to win liberation. Mad Pride was a space for collective grieving, for sharing and developing politics, and for direct action and protest. But it also drove a stake into the ground for the idea of psychiatric abolition in Britain among a wide layer of people in London and beyond. Hopefully it will be a rallying cry for those ready to hear it, and a wake-up call for everyone else.
This is the ‘set menu’ on the Campaign for Psych Abolition’s resource list:
Book on psychiatry: Cracked: Why Psychiatry Is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies
Psych abolition zine: Hearing Voices: Resistance Among Psychiatric Survivors and Consumers
Book on abolition: Brick by Brick: How we build a world without prisons by Cradle Community
Essential Reads: Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
Spoken Word: And the Psych Ward Says by Anita D