My experience with activist culture in the UK vs the US

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One of the major factors that drew me to enroll in the UK institution I currently attend, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, was its reputation for student activism. As someone who is passionate about activism and has identified as a student activist for several years now, I was so excited to see the UK’s approach to activism in contrast to Wellesley and the US. I’m here in the UK at a fraught time—the constant rollout of new prime ministers, inflation, and the cost of living crisis. So, I’ve witnessed plenty of activism already.

First, I’ve noticed the UK has a prominent strike culture that I feel isn’t as big or socially accepted in the US. In response to the current economic crisis, there have been planned rail strikes all throughout October and November. Major train lines aren’t running on certain days (often weekends) and people will have to find an alternative option then. Back in the States, there are many strikes that happen but never any that completely shut down an industry on a particular day, at least not in recent years. The most “disruptive” moment I remember when I was younger was the giant inflatable rat outside my local grocery store (although that was more off-putting than actually disruptive).

Historically, the US has been quick to shut down strikes and unionizing, which is why witnessing the strikes here has been so surprising. The activism here is much more public, such as sit-ins, marches, and rallies. While these forms of activism also occur in the US, it is much more common at the university level for students to take to petitions, email campaigns, and social media first. SOAS alone has had an average of one strike a week for various causes while I’ve been here, with the school typically sending out an email about it in advance to the entire community. I could never imagine the administration at Wellesley sending out an email about a planned sit-in or strike, as the public acknowledgment would imply an endorsement that the admin wouldn’t want to give. Here, it seems these forms of activism are more socially accepted and participants don’t have to keep it under wraps out of fear of harsh retaliation by the authorities.

When I discuss my observations with local students here, they remind me that America is known for its anti-unionization culture. It seems our reputation as a capitalist, pro-business nation precedes us, and the differences I observe don’t surprise anyone here. I hadn’t expected capitalism to be what people from around the world took away from American culture, mainly because I feel like that isn’t really unique to America nowadays. I’m eager to keep exploring how the rest of the world perceives America, both inside and outside of the classroom, and gain a deeper understanding of UK politics and activism in the process.

My (unrelated) pictures: pizza with friends, my visit to Brighton Dome for a concert!