Student Protest Woes

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By: Peter Herron

Lucy Keen laments the missed opportunity for constructive discourse

“Fuck this, I’m moving to Scotland,” one student’s placard read during last week’s protests.

Frankly, I do not blame them. I have never had £9,000 in the bank to spend and neither have my parents, never mind having it every year for four years. I cannot begin to describe how glad I am that I will not be that person. The person whose university experience, which should be filled with the carefree pursuit of interesting things, will either not happen, or will financially haunt them for the rest of their lives.

So how do we deal with this depressing prospect? The imminent introduction of extortionist fees, imposed by a government we probably didn’t vote for anyway.     And what do we do? We – the educated, passionate students of 2010? We burn an effigy of the Prime Minister’s face. We smash in windows and the roof and scream for joy while doing it (watch the videos). At least, 2000 of us did, anyway.

With protests, it is important to look at two things; the message it carries and the legacy it leaves. For these protests, we started with all the right ingredients. The message was wonderful: education is for learning, not for profit. The mass of 50,000 was encouraging. The country backed us – nobody wants to be paying more money for anything. All parents want their kids to become degree-holding beacons of hope.

Unfortunately, the protests did not adequately promote this image. All it did was reiterate the stereotype of students being rash, careless people. A stereotype that we try so hard to avoid, and which does not truly reflect the message of the majority of the demonstrators.

“The violence took away from the message, which was peaceful,” commented Siena Parker, Director of Representation for the Student’s Association. “Yes, it got press attention, but for all the wrong reasons. It was a small minority that were violent, but a significant one.”

That small minority pushed the other 48,000 peaceful demonstrators into the margins – into the inferior clause of the newspaper article that briefly mentions the number of people that took to the streets of London that day. This minority became the majority. The old guy holding a placard reading “I will fight for my Grandson” got one sad photograph at the end of an online newspaper slideshow, as if to say, “it wasn’t all bad”. That was its legacy, it is sad to say; one Granddad, a few thousand cami-clad lefties and a shaken, but not shocked cabinet.

I suppose it’s easy for me to criticise as I cannot truly feel the anger and frustration that drove such acts of violence, while I sit here in St Andrews fairly safe from harm. But what is clear is that those 2000 people participating in the violence at Milibank shot down the public view of it instantly, even though they had all the right components to make a difference.

It’s straight forward: violence is unjustifiable when we live in a democracy which gives us the right to peaceful protest. There is just no point. I accept that violent action was used as a tool to tackle the social obstacles faced in the past and so helped create the liberated society that we live in today. But the point is that we do live in that free society now.

Call me a dreaming optimist, call me whatever you’d like, but I would rather that social change was brought about by powerful words, and the one voice of the masses, than a few people vandalizing buildings, which won’t achieve anything.

We have moved past the days of requiring violence to bring about true change in our society. It is time to move on. All we can do now is start again. Take a step back from the legacy of the protests and make the case that paying more is fundamentally damaging for education, and for coming generations of students (which of course it is).

Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll achieve our goal.

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