Let’s hear it for ‘Boycott Gardies’

‘Boycott Gardies’ should be celebrated for achieving what years of inaction could not


Cambridge is a pretty small place.

Small enough that a blog post can spark the boycott of a cherished local business. Small enough that the boycott leads to the business committing to changing its practices to meet the demands of the campaign.

I’m talking, of course, about the ‘Boycott Gardies’ campaign, made in response to a blog post on the FLY blog which alleged that a Gardies employee had sexually harassed her. The campaign moved at lightning speed. A Facebook page was set up around midday on the 22nd, and by the evening it had over 800 likes.

A familiar sight (at 3am)

A familiar sight (at 3am)

Their demands were: to launch an internal investigation into the allegations and to install/review CCTV to ensure that the perpetrator was brought to justice.

Vas Anastasiou, the owner of Gardies, had responded by 3pm on the 22nd, denying prior knowledge of any of the allegations and suggesting that this may be a plot to delegitimise the business. The website ‘Spiked-online’ – forever protecting middle class white guy freedom of speech – published an editorial calling for Gardies to be saved from the ‘Stepford Students.’

But by then the ‘Boycott Gardies’ campaign had been called off. At 2.53pm on the 23rd Anastasiou released a statement on the Facebook page conceding to the demands of the campaign. CCTV footage will be studied, employees may be dismissed, and a new code of conduct will be drawn up.

The response from the campaign was final: ‘we are satisfied and wholly encouraged by the response from Gardies and from its owner, and as pledged, this boycott is thus over.’

There are parts of the campaign which make me uneasy – for example, it singled out one Gardies employee when testimonies show that several may be involved. But, crucially, the campaign showed us that there are real and pressing threats to the safety of women in Cambridge – especially vulnerable, drunk, female students. The campaign gathered 30 anonymous testimonies, and brought to light an ongoing police investigation about sexual harassment on the Gardies premises.

And it showed that boycotts work. One commenter on the Facebook page claimed that the campaign was a ‘kangaroo court’. This was echoed in the Spiked article: ‘It’s a nasty, vindictive attempt to ruin a man’s life on the basis of spurious allegations.’ Both writers ignored the fact that an employee was already under investigation and that other avenues to justice had been attempted. The boycott was itself an expression of free speech – if a business’ practices are dodgy, you can spend your money elsewhere.

People who like 'Spiked' on Facebook also like these things. Very interesting.

People who like ‘Spiked’ on Facebook also like these things. Very interesting.

 

Awareness-raising campaigns about sexual harassment can create a snowball effect. Take Operation Yewtree: a few allegations became tens, then hundreds, as victims realised they weren’t alone. I have known, privately, about allegations made by my friends against the employees of Gardies. The ‘Boycott Gardies’ campaign made even more allegations visible.

One friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me she was approached by an employee after using the toilet. He tried, unsuccessfully, to kiss her. She went to the police but was told nothing could be done because the employee didn’t actually kiss her. No obvious wrongdoing, no evidence.

Which begs the question: why hadn’t anything been done sooner? Anastasiou claimed in two separate statements that he knew nothing about the allegations. But in a statement to TCS he acknowledged that one of his employees was under police investigation over sexual harassment. The police have said the same.

Though the campaign has been apologetic about the pressure put on Anastasiou, he’s no angel. In cases of sexual harassment, people fear being called liars, or sluts. And for good reason. Anastasiou’s first response doubted the sincerity of the campaign, saying that students who stole a Christmas tip jar may be behind it.

Black and red: a colour palette for revolution

Black and red: a colour palette for revolution

 

Understandably, the campaign didn’t want to seem like it was vilifying or singling out an individual. But if we are to take these allegations seriously, there can be no doubt who must take responsibility for the alleged offences – the owners of Gardies and the police, who have been spared by the campaign but should be held to account for their ineffectual response.

Cambridge students do really care about Gardies. A petition, signed by over 3000 people and gathering national attention, kept Gardies open in 2003 when Gonville and Caius college didn’t want to renew the lease. Now students want to make sure that the business they know (and love) is upholding high standards and ensuring the safety of its customers.

To do that, a lot needs to change – and hopefully it will. And ‘Boycott Gardies’ helped make that change possible.