Student protests revisited


Lewis Camley defends his fellow students

Central London. Protestors march against a standardised fee based not on ability to pay but a need for funds. Erupting in to violence, pitched battles between demonstrators and police officers ensue around Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. The rioting, vandalism and destruction draw widespread condemnation, even from leaders of the movement. Sounds familiar right?

Of course, this occurred in 1990, not 2010. Around two hundred thousand people – civilians and workers, leftists and anarchists – marched in the capital, against Margaret Thatcher’s Poll tax. Over 300 arrests were made, while police and public injuries surpassed 100. A day incomparable in scale to anything we’ve seen this month, or Western Europe since Paris revolted in 1968. But perhaps the most crucial difference: the message was heard, the anger was felt. Thatcher fell, and with her, the Poll Tax.

Now, this is not a call to arms. I don’t condone violence, nor would I personally perpetrate it (perhaps more cowardice than conviction). And, to get the obvious example out of the way early: the idiot who threw a fire extinguisher from Millbank Tower is just that. But let us put in to perspective the violence which has so offended the nation and our fellow students (a friend at another University labelled protesters “Fucking scum students.”) On November 10th, 35 arrests were made, and 14 people were harmed. Vandalism from both marches (as of 29/11/10) has amounted to “a few windows of the Tory Party headquarters”, some bus shelters, and a well documented police van. Hardly a Class War, then.

The result of the biggest student demonstration for a generation? Nick Clegg has “grown a thick skin”, and Universities Minister David Willetts, on Question Time, before an audience of students – many of whom had marched the same day – suggested that the government would not rethink its plans. Tuition Fees will rise in England (Scotland has to care – “Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up…”), in the face of massive student and public opposition.

Perhaps we should be less apologetic for (un)civil disobedience then. Peaceful protest did not stop the Iraq war. A largely non-violent demonstration at the London G20 Summit resulted in the death of Ian Tomlinson, a protester, whilst bankers’ bonuses are returning. What can we do? We could rely on speeches and saviours, like Blair, or Clegg, renowned for the honesty of their promises. And certainly we can invoke our right to protest peacefully again, and be kettled by police– effectively detained – outside Whitehall for hours without access to toilets, food or water. We can march calmly, and maybe mounted officers in riot gear won’t charge through our ranks as they did on the 24th (footage on Youtube).

We can of course apologise for the violent actions of the few, and let perhaps the first cause to really affect our generation dissolve before political disinterest and misplaced media anger. Maybe your friends or relatives won’t be able to afford a University education, but at least you won’t have ruined the good image of students (Raisin weekend was good, wholesome fun) for the immediate future. But if the cuts are making you question the relevance of your degree, or worry about your parents ability to keep you here, maybe it’s time to face facts.

We have undeniable evidence of the value to society of a University education. If we remain so disparaging of those who genuinely fear for their future, those students – not anarchists – who occupied Millbank to show how unfair they find fee rises, we might never get this message across.

So don’t take up arms, and don’t destroy. But don’t be so quick to condemn one of your own, screaming from a rooftop to make their voice heard. It might just be for your future that they offend.


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