Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Today saw the third wave in as many weeks of student action in protest at the coalition government's education cuts. Once more, universities are going into (or are continuing with) occupations, and marchers have taken to the streets across the country, despite the snow. This has obviously got someone rattled, as the police have been kettling before the fact: i.e. forcibly surrounding and detaining people as a method of intimidation, rather than as a 'defensive' measure to protect property. The tactic is, in effect, a temporary mass arrest, a temporary forced detention as a means of punishment and intimidation for daring to protest. (And if the word 'temporary' suggests a certain softness, bear in mind that being kettled at this time of year means being forced to stand in the middle of the street for as long as six hours, forced to stand in freezing winter weather and to piss on the road because there is nowhere else to go.) Of course, this is no different to what the cops were doing before, but last week in London, the sacrificial police van was strategically placed so as to give an excuse for the kettle: blur the chronology, ensure lots of photos get taken of the poor innocent van, and you've got the licence to scare, bully and physically tangle with schoolkids. This week, though, the cops (or their superiors) don't seem to have been as bothered about how they were perceived: or, perhaps, the protestors out-witted them, denying them the propaganda upper hand by running away when they saw the vast police presence and spreading throughout the city in a kind of psychogeographic protest dérive. After all, it's hard to present people as violent protestors when they're running away from hordes of uniformed policemen in riot gear...
Beyond the specifics of what happened today, what's crucial at this stage is that the momentum is kept up - and so far, there are still thousands of people turning up to vent their frustation and outrage, which the police intimidation and the almost universal equivocation and condemnation of the protests from the mainstream media seems only to have fuelled. A related danger is the hijacking of the movement by bureaucracy and by parties who will negotiate only token compromises, sucking the real life and energy of the movement (i.e. down on the streets with the slogans and placards); because, in fact, seeing so many people who just will not take the shit they are being forced to swallow really has got the government intimidated, caused sweat patches to emerge on 'Dave' Cameron's fashionably tie-less shirt. There's thus no reason that we have to assume they have the 'upper hand'. Finally, some sort of connection with broader concerns about the government's policies must be established - otherwise, it will easy to dismiss the protestors as just a load of selfish/ priviliged/ naive students moaning away, unlike 'real people' who have to hold down jobs and take care of families, etc etc. There's a wave of public outrage just waiting to be tapped into - from those forced onto the dole and made to feel like shit for not beeing able to find a job in a climate which makes that task harder than ever day by day; from those at risk from cuts to public services; from those who don't actually belive in the neo-liberal agenda and still have some sense of social justice. That wave is what the student protest movement can and must recognise, stir up and engage with. After the initial surge of excitement about what happened at Millbank and elsewhere, the next few weeks will be crucial.