The Yiddish Tote Rankling Glasgow Police

A co-founder of the queer, anarchist café Pink Peacock discusses recent run-ins with law enforcement and Jewish leftism in the UK.

Arielle Angel
July 9, 2021
Pink Peacock
Photo courtesy of Pink Peacock

I’ve been following di rozeve pave (Yiddish for Pink Peacock), a queer, Yiddish, anarchist space in the Govanhill neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland, with fascination and delight since they opened their social media accounts in the summer of 2019. As they’ve been preparing to open their pay-what-you-can café, they’ve also built a vibrant online community where they host weekly havdalah events, as well as carnivalesque queer variety shows featuring music, burlesque, and other performances. They also seem to have a preternatural talent for Jewish lefty merch, selling posters and pins, mini-golems, and a bright pink, bilingual “daloy politsey/fuck the police” tote.

That tote became the center of controversy a few weeks ago, as police—responding to a complaint about its display in the window of the as-yet-unopened café—showed up at the home of Pink Peacock board members and co-founders Morgan Holleb and Joe Isaac, eventually charging Holleb with breach of the peace. The incident followed coverage of Pink Peacock in the right-wing tabloid The Scottish Sun, looking to drum up outrage about the space’s “no cops, no terfs” policy, which prompted vandalism of the storefront.

Recently, I spoke to Holleb about how this confrontation with the police relates to broader dynamics around law enforcement in Govanhill and across the United Kingdom, and about Pink Peacock’s aspirations as a queer, Jewish, anti-Zionist space. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. It originally appeared in yesterday’s email newsletter, to which you can subscribe here.

Arielle Angel: What prompted you to start Pink Peacock?

Morgan Holleb: I was working at an LGBT charity, and I really hated it. As a trans and Jewish anarchist, it felt frustrating at best, and at worst, like the organization I was part of was causing active harm and was grossly negligent of the needs of queer people. It was mostly focused on sustaining itself, which is the case with all nonprofits. At the same time, a queer independent bookshop opened just down the road from me in Glasgow, and it was so inspiring to see them create a real, flourishing community space. It showed what a desperate need there is in this city for queer community spaces.

Scotland has a really small Jewish population, like the rest of the UK outside of London. I’m from Chicago and I’ve been in the UK for 14 years, since uni. In other words, I came from a city with a big Jewish population. My relationship to Jewish community has been largely cultural, so I’ve mostly found Jews through queer community and leftist politics. I often feel very jealous of the left Jewish community that I see online in the United States—in the UK, you have Jewdas and you’ve got a Jewish LGBT nonprofit, both based out of London. Overall it’s a very sparse cultural landscape for any kind of Jewish life that isn’t based around shul. It’s very conservative and very Zionist. Because we’re such a small population here, a lot of shuls in the UK don’t even have their own dedicated building, and instead they’re run out of churches. In that regard, there are a lot of parallels between the Jewish and Muslim communities here. So for us to explicitly center Jewishness with anarchism and anti-Zionism is unique in the UK, which has gotten us lots of attention.

AA: How is the small, organized Jewish community within Glasgow relating to what you’re doing?

MH: A lot of the Jewish community in Glasgow has expressed curiosity about us. By and large they are a lot older and more conservative than we are. There’s very little in the way of Jewish public life here. Shuls are closing in Scotland. Here in Glasgow, there’s a Jewish school in the suburbs, one Jewish deli, an old synagogue in the city center that hosts the Jewish Scottish archives, and that’s about it.

We occasionally get people who are part of the few very Zionist Jewish societies saying we’re not really Jews and stuff like that. But we’ve gotten a lot of engagement from people who are not affiliated with any other groups. We always get messages from people telling us “I’m queer and Jewish and have nowhere to go” or “I didn’t know there were other people like me,” and that’s really affirming.

AA: Let’s talk about what’s been happening recently, with the story about you in The Sun.

MH: The Sun is a right-wing tabloid, part of the outrage machine, with a seedy reputation because it publishes soft porn—people hate it for that, which is the wrong reason. They did a piece on us, for which we declined to comment, and that got us a lot of attention. Most of the reaction was positive, because a lot of people really hate The Sun, especially people in the more left-leaning northern parts of Britain, where it’s seen as a truly detestable, Islamophobic rag. Being hated by them is a badge of honor. But we also got the attention of people who read The Sun, like the guy who painted over one of our windows. That incident turned out to be really funny; he did no real damage and got caught because people filmed him without a mask, not very late at night. We didn’t find out until the next morning, and by then other people had already cleaned off the paint. So that really made us feel like we’ve got community support.

But after that, the police got complaints about the [“fuck the police”] tote bag in the window, possibly from people who don’t live in Glasgow, or don’t live in our neighborhood. And then . . .  Well, you’ve seen the video.

AA: The police basically showed up at your house to intimidate you, right?

MH: I live with my partner, who is one of the other board members for the space, and the cops showed up at our house to charge me with a breach of peace. I know now that they charged me because they’ve made media statements saying so, but they didn’t tell me that at the time. I have a video camera above our flat door, so I recorded the whole incident, and they never said that they were charging me.

Police treat me in a particular way; because I’m white, I look bookish, and I’m trans, I can get away with being really obnoxious to them to a point. Every time I’ve had to deal with the police, they ask me about my gender very aggressively, like they want me to tell them they’re not transphobic or homophobic. And I’ll say, “I’m not going to tell you that because I hate you and I don’t want you to be here. I’m not going to make this easier for you.”

So after an awkward exchange, the cops left, and then they came back and said they needed the tote for evidence. My partner filmed as the police escorted me to the café, which is a couple blocks from our house. I went inside and took the bag down for them. Then they needed me to sign the evidence bag, and I made them wait while I put up a new tote in the window. They didn’t have a warrant, so they couldn’t come in or have me arrested over it. But they said I would have to take this one down too. So I turned it around so it displayed the Yiddish phrase “daloy politsey” [“down with the police”], which they seemed fine with. By now a crowd had gathered and everyone was mocking them. I grabbed one of our window markers and wrote “fuck the police” on the door backwards so that they could read it. They didn’t like that but they didn’t do anything about it because what could they do?

AA: The charges can’t possibly stand up in court, right?

MH: Nope, we’ve been assured by our solicitor that this is nonsense, obviously an intimidation tactic. They probably felt like they needed to do something to appease whoever complained. Free speech isn’t exactly the same here, but political speech is protected, including obscenity. So we’re not concerned about the legal issue.

AA: I’m curious about how people in the UK have been experiencing the George Floyd uprising and the American movement around police abolition. How much is that already percolating there? What is the relationship to the police in the neighborhood that you’re in?

MH: People are not as radicalized here as they are in America. By and large, the UK population loves the police. I know this is true of America as well, but you would never get a UK politician, for example, saying “defund the police.” People here see police brutality as American problem.

AA: Your police don’t have guns, right?

MH: Sometimes they do, but if they’re just walking around on the beat, they don’t. Only for crowd control or protecting embassies or things like that, and when they do they carry huge assault weapons like in other European countries. In general, their reputation is cleaner here than it is in America, but they don’t deserve that, and it’s been shifting. In 2011, there were riots in London after the police shot and murdered a Black man named Mark Duggan who they were arresting on drug charges. They said he had a gun, but he didn’t, and the community turned up outside the police department demanding answers. The statement that the cops gave was so poor that a week of riots ensued. That was the closest thing the UK has had to the Black Lives Matter movement. It wasn’t nearly as large in scope, but it helped radicalize people.

Since then, most of the organizing has been in London, which has a really large Black and nonwhite population and particularly heinous police. But Glasgow is a major destination for refugees and asylum-seekers compared to other cities. Most of them settle in Govanhill; there are hundreds of languages spoken here, which is very unusual for Scotland. Recently there was a dawn raid on Indian nationals here; they were taken from their apartments by the Border Patrol early in the morning and put in a van. The community spontaneously showed up; one of my friends actually placed himself under the immigration vans so they couldn’t move, and he stayed there for eight hours until they were released. That was the first protest I’ve been to in a decade of protesting where we just got what we wanted right away. I think that that helped radicalize a lot of people in our neighborhood. There were people who’d never been to a protest before. The atmosphere was lovely; there were food and water stations and legal advice clinics set up. People were really looking after each other and feeling empowered.

In Scotland, the police are separate from the Border Patrol, but in this case they were working together, and their crowd control was very heavy-handed, which turned the whole public against them. And now after this recent embarrassment, we’ve got this tote bag in our window that taunts the police, so they tried to shut us down. Unfortunately for them, that also backfired: Since the incident went viral, we’ve received overwhelming emotional and financial support.

AA: Last thing: You talked about Govanhill being a place of many languages. Can you talk a little about the decision to make your space a Yiddish one?

MH: There are so few Yiddish-language spaces in Europe besides the big academic institutes, of which there are none in the UK. There are some small private groups that will do Yiddish singing or reading, but the conversations are English. So we thought our café could be bilingual. Why not? It feels inherently antifascist to focus on our ancestral language, which the Nazis tried to get rid of.

There are lots of minority languages in our neighborhood, and we’re really keen to publish stuff in those languages as well. Besides the languages of recent migrants, there’s also Scots and Scots Gaelic, the ancestral languages of the region that have been actively minoritized by English colonialism. Most businesses don’t engage with other languages; English is standard. But that’s boring. We’re really eager to use our platform in any way that we can for all of the things that we care about. That’s why our tagline is very, very long; it’s hard to describe what we are because we’re lots of things.

Arielle Angel is the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents.