An eruption of student anger

November 29, 2010

Tens of thousands of students demonstrated across Britain on November 24 in a further show of resistance against the government's plans to drastically increase the cost of attending college. The Day X protests, as they were called, proved that the huge student demonstration in London several weeks earlier--which culminated in an impromptu occupation of the Conservative Party headquarters--was no fluke.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, which came to power only six months ago, is facing unexpected resistance to its austerity program. The government wants to triple student fees (the equivalent of tuition) to $14,500 a year, while slashing university teaching budgets by 40 percent. But the student protests have galvanized opposition to all the aspects of the Conservatives' anti-working class assault.

Once again, the media tried to ignore the real issues at stake in the demonstrations and focus on the alleged violence of demonstrators. Richard Seymour, author of The Liberal Defence of Murder, was at the demonstration in London. In this article published at his Lenin's Tomb blog, he sets the record straight about Day X.

THIS IS the striking thing. Yesterday's protest had almost no significant institutional backing whatsoever.

It's been said, not quite accurately, that there was no left-wing organization involved. I did see socialists, trade unionists and trade union banners present. To wit, I saw a Unison banner, I saw Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union (looking a bit worried), I saw Right to Work and SWSS placards and stickers, and a few Socialist Worker paper sellers. I saw Socialist Students (that'll be the Socialist Party), and a few "Revolution" flags. I saw people with loudspeakers who I'd seen at protests before, leading chants and so on. However, the majority of these protesters weren't actually mobilized by any union or party.

Most of the basic work of making people aware and getting them there happened through social media sites, and across the country, it is estimated that 130,000 people turned out. I also heard a statistic which suggested that one in 10 students were actually participating in the protests, but I can't vouch for its accuracy, and I don't know what its implications would be. In addition, 18 universities went into occupation yesterday.

British students on the march against drastic cuts in education and hikes in fees
British students on the march against drastic cuts in education and hikes in fees (Victoria Solovyova)

The point is that it was an almost spontaneous eruption of anger against the government. Watch this video to get a sense of the vibrancy, the joyful energy, the sense of purpose--all those qualities that normally seem redundant or perhaps overstated when ascribed to a protest, but which capture yesterday perfectly.

"BUT SURELY," you're saying, "the NUS supported this?" No, it didn't. I regret to say that the National Union of Students (NUS) played no part in yesterday's action. Indeed, I understand that they had "distanced" themselves from it.

NUS President Aaron Porter's response when asked for his view was apparently to reflexively denounce "violence," blaming a handful of "professional troublemakers," while saying absolutely nothing about the police's violence. This latter included, for example, kicking a 15-year-old girl--that was Officer UC2128's contribution to state-sponsored child abuse, if you want to complain--and kneeing a boy in the groin before dragging him along by his hair. The police repeatedly baton-charged the young people, showing little concern for their age and vulnerability. This sort of thing happened all over the country.

And the "kettling," clearly planned by the Metropolitan Police in order to make nice to the Tory bosses after their little embarrassment last time, involved keeping thousands of people, mainly young people, in the freezing cold for hours and hours without food, without toilets and largely without water. In fairness to the Met's PR department, they did give out a few bottles of water at the perimeter toward Parliament Square, but most people didn't see a drop.

Finally, in the late evening (I was released at close to 10 p.m.), people were filtered out in ones and twos, very slowly, and with prolonged pauses in between. Every now and again, as the pauses built up, the temperature dropped another degree, and the music got just a little bit shitter, the chant went up again: "Let us out! Let us out! Let us out!"

People tried to debate the rows of jutting jawlines holding back the crowd, tried to engage them, make them see how irrational and cruel they were being. No dice. The cops have their schtick worked out for situations like this. They calmly explain that you're being held to prevent a breach of the peace, and then they go back to sniggering with the other filth. There's really nothing to debate with such people. The police also arbitrarily switched the exit point several times, adding to the frustration.

Two teenage blokes were talking next to me as this was going on. One said, "There'll be a lot of fucking hatred of the police after this." The other, "I've never had a reason to hate the police until now." Similar sentiments were expressed over and over. And there was a particular passion when people sang along with NWA's "Fuck the Police" and Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name." The chorus building up to "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" was vented with real gusto and vim.

So if people want to talk about "violence," by which they mean vandalism, it's worth saying that most such small-scale acts took place inside a kettle, which the police controlled like an experiment with fucking lab rats. We expect the media to be hostile, but the NUS is supposed to represent students, present and future. Porter's crawlingly servile attitude doesn't reflect this mandate. It just shows that he's another careerist creep, probably the next Phil Woolas.

But given the scale of what happened yesterday without the NUS's organization, the latter now have to make themselves relevant to the fightback against the cuts. It's obvious that hacks like Aaron Porter have nothing sensible to say or do on this front.

SPEAKING OF "violence," the Daily Mail is leading the chorus of execration (I think they'll know the phrase and like it) regarding young girls being the new face of "violent" protest.

Now, of course, there were loads and loads of young girls out there yesterday. They make up at least half the population of school students after all--the smarter half, according to those tests the Mail is so fond of. But they weren't remotely "violent," and the majority were too clued up to attack the "bait van"--the police van left unattended in the middle of the crowd, apparently to get people to attack it and provide a pretext for the police's kettling operation.

Most people knew perfectly well why the van was left there. And among these secondary school and higher education students, there was a serious, open-air debate about how to handle situations like this. There were arguments about strategy, and most people concluded that the police had deliberately created a situation designed to provoke petty vandalism, and then cite that as justification for kettling. The impromptu speeches, the small debating circles, the gathered crowds, all more or less repeated this verbatim.

I mention this because the news has focused on one young student who they say "fearlessly" faced down the "angry mob" and protected police property from vandalism. I suppose this sort of thing feeds their fantasy of good breeding facing down the oiks, and in fairness, I don't suppose the student in question will be happy to have been used that way. What they don't say is that the vast majority of students were making similar arguments.

The majority of people therefore deliberately neglected to break glass or even spray paint buildings. They sat down and strummed out songs by The Libertines, or danced to Rage Against the Machine, or argued politics, or rationed out rolling tobacco and bottles of water. Some couples engaged in longing embraces and snogged. Some kids had apparently heated arguments, shoved one another. Some were a bit silly.

And since the media is depicting these kids as mindless hooligans, it's worth saying that the political arguments were wide-ranging and sophisticated. It wasn't just about fees, it was about the future--war, global warming, everything that concerns us as a species. It's not that everyone sounded off like a right-on socialist. No such thing. Some of the arguments were baffling, some naïve, some perverse, but most of it was thoughtful, sensible and streets ahead of what is offered as serious discussion in the news.

And that's what yesterday was mostly about--thoughtful, intelligent people, pushed to the brink, forced to take some sort of militant action, and by doing so providing an example to the rest of us. It's obviously time to make haste with the student-worker coalition that was vaunted at the last protest. The energy behind this will be squandered if the protesters are left alone to the tender mercies of the police.

First published at Lenin's Tomb.

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