Sunday, 28 November 2010

Reflections on Day X.

A Day of Action.

A series of walkouts followed by occupations and demonstrations rushed across the nation on Wednesday. The participants were ordinary students, including the pupils of secondary schools and colleges as well as from universities. It has been estimated that around 130,000 people took to streets across the country that day. 18 universities have gone into occupation. There were trade unions, leftist parties, activist networks and student unions involved but the vast majority had not been mobilised by any union or political party. It was down to the social networks through which activist networks have sprung up in recent months and word of the cuts agenda spread. But most of all it was the way that thousands of people acted to defend a basic tenet of social democracy - universal education. The unifying cause of the demonstrators was to stop the cuts to education and the raising of tuition fees. In other words, to prevent the Coalition from taking us towards an educational system that is much more unequal than it is today.

There was a heavy police presence at many of the demonstrations, it was a show of strength that the police were prepared and would not be embarrassed by a few rowdy students. The march, that I was involved in personally, from ULU on Malet Street to Trafalgar Square was guided by police escort - two vans led the way until a portion of the demonstrators broke-off and made a run for it and the police were soon in pursuit. The rest were led through an alternate route to Trafalgar but then down towards Parliament where the “kettling” commenced. It would last for many hours without much food or water and freezing weather. The mood of police ranged from hostile to sarcastic at best. There were many teenagers there who were still doing their A-levels and even GCSEs, one girl asked me why we - university students who would not be affected by the trebling of tuition fees - cared enough to stand alongside them. It's a good question. Here's the answer: this is our society and it would be immoral to reap the rewards without defending it for others to reap also.

Nearby bus-stops and a police van soon became the subject of the rage of some “kettled” students. Students climbed on top of the van as red smoke bombs were hurled about, firecrackers were set-off and music blasted out throughout the crowd. At risk of reverting to the good student-bad student dichotomy, it has to be said that the majority of demonstrators there understood why the police had left the van behind. The back doors had been left unlocked and the contents, including blankets and riot-gear, were soon utilised by activists. It was bitter cold, food and water were scarce as the pub weren’t letting anyone in without an ID - not a student ID but a passport, a press pass or drivers' license. It was clearly bait to give the right-wing press just what it wants, lots of shots of young people desecrating public property. Just like the demonstration on November 10th, the violence” condemned by the media and the NUS was vandalism, there was violence at the march and it was the police on horseback who were charging on civilians.

As bus-stop was set ablaze in one part of the street, protesters sang songs, danced to music or simply huddled around the fires for warmth in other parts. The firecrackers were set-off before sunset because no one really thought we would be there for as long as 8 or 9 hours. The police eventually provided two toilets, which were kept behind the line of police so many relieved themselves against the local architecture. It became apparent that only the press were allowed to come and go, no protesters were allowed out unless they were 12 or younger or had a medical condition. The word ‘Revolution’ was sprayed in red onto a wall as a few students ascended it to escape the “kettling”. Veteran activists climbed onto walls and gave speeches, seeking to inspire the next generation not to be deterred by the unpleasant side of protest and to continue to actively resist these cuts.

The demonstrations of ‘Day X’ have roused talk of a return to the radicalism of ’68 and the kind of grass-roots action that toppled Ted Heath and later helped shunt Thatcher out of government. Those administrations collapsed under the pressure of industrial action and the transition of demonstrations to riots. But it is sad to note that the student movement is becoming factional. The way in which Aaron Porter and the NUS have distanced themselves from student activism, particularly demonstrations and occupations, is divisive and destructive. For the sake of unity Porter should at least be in solidarity with the students who demonstrated on ‘Day X’ and occupied buildings across the country. The next two days of walkouts, occupations and marches will take place on Tuesday and Sunday this week. Aaron Porter should be behind the student activism in full-swing to further the cause. Hopefully he’ll act in the best interests of students this week.

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