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Postcard from London: Students fight school fees—and the police

jesse mintz

Protests outside the British parliament in London. Creative Commons photo by Selena Sheridan.

Protests outside the British parliament in London. Creative Commons photo by Selena Sheridan.

Almost five months to the day and I’m just now realizing that I didn’t learn my lesson from the G20.

Sure, I found out first had the power and importance of community organization and activism; and I was forced to come to terms with the tragic ease with which our government could abuse our fundamental democratic rights when it suits them.

But neither of those lessons, important though they are, concerned me last Wednesday evening.  As I stood huddled with several thousand other angry, frustrated but mostly just cold students in between two immovable walls of police officers, I wondered how I hadn’t learnt my lesson about kettling the first time.

After being held for hours in the rain at Spadina and Richmond by riot police this summer, I promised I’d never let that happen again. I never wanted to feel so violated and so helpless—as you stand there and stare into the faceless wall of riot police you can’t help but feel impotent, vulnerable and exposed.  And yet, here I was again, hopping from foot to foot to maintain feeling in my toes standing in front of a feeble fire of placards and protest posters trying to fend off the cold London night.

How did it come to this: thousands of students–a large minority of whom were under the age of 16–held for eight hours without food, water or access to washrooms outside the houses of British government on Whitehall?

I suppose it starts with the cuts: devastating austerity measures that will affect every aspect of British life, but will prove particularly ruinous for higher education in the U.K. Under the scheme, government funding for universities will be cut by 40 percent (around £4.3 billion) and will raise the current cap on tuition. For a country that in recent memory offered free university education (universal free higher education was only ended in 1997) the prospect of tripling the fees from roughly £3,000 to more than £9,000 per year has many concerned that the halls of higher education will soon become the domain of the rich exclusively.

But the anger stems from something more emotional then merely the cuts.  Many of the estimated 50,000 students and protesters who walked out of classes and took to the streets across the country recently voted for Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democratic party in the last election; he promised, in light of the Tories’ proposed fiscal austerity, to oppose any increases to education fees.  And yet, here we are, not six months later, with the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government poised to pass legislation that will gut much of the social service sector and force universities to hike their tuition fees.

It’s understandable, then, why “Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue,” is such a popular chant here, and why central Londoners awoke to find an effigy of Clegg burning Tuesday morning. Students expected this from David Cameron and his Conservatives; from Clegg and the Lib Dems, it feels more like personal betrayal.

This passion, so evident in the November 10th protest that saw “lawless riots”—to quote one sensationalist, though representative, retelling—has traditionally been hard to maintain in British protest movements in recent years.  “Brits just don’t demonstrate,” one protester told me during the march; the only conclusion, he went on, is that “this is something special.”

In a moment of depressing deja vu, I watched as students vented their frustration and anger on a police van left abandoned in the midst of the protest march and recalled how police had similarly left patrol cars on Queen Street this past summer, allegedly for protesters to vandalize.  The three destroyed police cars were used as justification for the authoritarian crackdown the following day in the streets of Toronto; likewise, the vandalized police van became the spurious excuse used for the mass kettling near Parliament Square that I was caught in, along with thousands others.

So there we stood—for hours.

There was something ominous about the entire experience: thousands of people surrounded, towered over by the imposing facades of the buildings of British government and hemmed in by lines of riot-armoured police, yet with plenty of space to move around—the atmosphere ranged from block-party and frenetic to frustrated and lethargic.  As the hours wore on and the cold set in, a few protesters with guitars milled about feebly singing “Give Peace a Chance” but were easily drowned out by the whirl of the helicopters circling overhead, the police sirens’ near constant wailing and, fittingly for London, the reverberating deep bass of the dubstep blaring from the sound system brought for the Carnival of Resistance.  The entire scene was illuminated by sporadic and dying fires of placards, posters and the remnants of a bus-stop lit more for their warmth then their menace (despite what the papers said) and the roving police spotlights.

Eight hours of standing still is a long time—and when your fingers are too cold to play on your smartphone and your mind too numb to do your school readings, you get to talking. The topic du jour was, of course, the cuts and the protests.  Several hours in, the dominant sentiment was frustration bordering on complete exasperation. If the intent of the police kettling had been to intimidate the protesters into silence, it failed; we were given free rein on the street and the non-stop music led to an impromptu dance party. But if they wanted to prove a point about how futile protest can feel in the face of heavy-handed police measures, well, they certainly made an impression.

The question that kept on creeping into the conversation: where was the space for autonomous dissent?

When we were finally let out at 9 pm, eight hours after the kettling began, most were too cold and angry to be anything but amenable.  When the Clash’s “I fought the Law” came on over the speakers, everyone joined in for the chorus, “…and the law won.”  Whether it was intended to be ironic or not, it was fitting.

It was, in short, a low-point.

Many who had been passionate and energetic at the start of the day felt their spirit sapped by the process, and, even more discouraging, many felt despondent about the prospect of an effective protest movement in Britain, myself included.

No matter how special this mass movement is—and you can’t help but marvel at  the sheer size of the country-wide protests—we have to acknowledge the limitations of peaceful protest when the police reaction to the first sign of trouble (graffiti, for instance) is mass kettling. But violent protest doesn’t strike me as being the answer either. For one, it merely galvanizes people away from the cause and serves to justify more repressive police tactics (many see the election of Rob Ford as Toronto mayor, complete with his promise for 100 new police officers, as a knee-jerk reaction to the “mayhem” during the G20).

But if you’ll excuse my use of a tired adage: the night is darkest right before the dawn.

The following day, still numbed and disheartened from the kettling, I joined the student occupation already in progress on my campus at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I admit, I initially opposed the occupation and voted against it in the emergency general meeting on the cuts; I felt like it would channel student anger at the wrong target: our school administration as opposed to the government. But sitting with students and staff members in the reclaimed space–open to anyone who wanted to join and used as a lecture space, music venue, forum for discussion, or simply a place to hang out—showed the dynamism of the student movement and wiped away the ennui I’d felt the day before.

The students’ demands are straightforward: financial transparency in the school’s decision-making; a commitment not to raise tuition fees; and a statement opposing the proposed cuts. If these demands seem overambitious (the school is, after all, at the mercy of the government if they do decide to go through with the cuts) their protest techniques are equally enterprising.  They propose more creative responses: instead of one protest of 5,000 people, which will inevitably be kettled, violent or not, they organize 500 people in 10 separate marches—”flash mob” protests that garner positive media attention. And they’eve built international solidarity networks with students facing similar cuts in other countries such as France, Spain and Italy.

Most of all, British students talk of retaking the means of their own presentation outside of the parameters of the police/media stranglehold on their image.

The school administration served the occupying students with an injunction last Thursday, making their presence in the building illegal as of 7 pm.  I was there as the clock ticked down and more students, staff and supporters kept pouring into the room in solidarity.  As the clock neared 7 and the threat of arrest became ever more real, we voted on defying the High Court Injunction and maintaining the occupation.

Every protest movement has its song: the anti-war movement of the 1960s had countless anthems from Bob Dylan, Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” became an anthem for the women’s liberation movement and the G20 in Toronto this past summer had “O Canada.”  In a poetic turn of events, as the clock struck 7 and the occupation became illegal, students in occupation echoed those kettled the day before and began singing The Clash’s song once more, with fittingly altered lyrics: “I fought the law AND I WON” resounded through the hall.

It may seem merely symbolic; but the student movement is alive and well in London.

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