Demo2010: policing and the philosophy of protest

Posted by Helen on Thu 11 Nov 2010 at 15:30

After a day of marching against education cuts ended with protestors storming the Millbank Conservative HQ, the last 24 hours has seen more discussion of philosophy of violent protest than of the higher education policies being protested. As the Daily Maybe wrote yesterday, "It seems that the story is now going to be students smash some glass rather than government smash education".

Both issues are worthy of discussion. But it seems to me that we're already operating in a deficit here: the mainstream media has almost universally zoomed in on the destructive elements of #Demo2010, rather than the constructive messages over 52,000 protestors were trying to make heard. Greenwedge shows how the nine biggest papers all ran with exactly the same photo of a protestor kicking through a glass window, "when there was no shortage of striking photographs on news sites as the day progressed. Not least those capturing the many wonderful and original placards on the march (my favourite being 'I Wish My Boyfriend Was As Dirty As Your Policy')."

The protesters who see violence as a means to an end are being naive: for the news media, violence IS the end. Violence becomes the issue, just like it did at the May Day protests last year.

What is the rioting actually for?

Who cares, says the media, let's just look at it. And look for more of it.

In the face of this monovision, it seems that it's up to non-traditional news media to give the other issue of the day - the policy changes and betrayals which have provoked such mass disillusionment - a fair hearing. Technically, the protest itself and the response of the state and media falls more within the remit of this site, but in solely focussing on the method and consequences of the demonstration itself we risk falling into the same trap as the mainstream press; and it is not possible to understand the motivations of political protest without looking at the context in which it arose.

The protest as a whole was extremely important, not just because of the large numbers it attracted, and shouldn't be understood simply in economic terms as a complaint against fees. It also represented the serious anger many feel about cuts to universities as they currently stand, and the ideological devastation of the education system if the coalition gets its way. It was a protest against the narrowing of horizons; a protest against Lib Dem hypocrisy; a protest against the increasingly utilitarian approach to human life that sees degrees as nothing but "investments" by individuals, and denies any link between education and the broader social good. (Source - Guardian)

To understand the full extent to which higher education policy is shifting under this government, this article for the London Review of Books chillingly unpacks the philosophy behind the Browne report and its implications for education in this country. This isn't just about fees, it's the idea that a "free market" approach to education can be fair in a country with as much financial and social inequality as ours; it's about the insidious idea that the only value education provides is economic.

Is the cultural value of learning, the idea that things are worth knowing even if they aren't lucrative, worth fighting for? Is it worth a few smashed windows or getting arrested? Several commentators have noted that there is no reliable means of getting favourable protest coverage. If you're well-behaved, you're posh and pointless; if you're not, you're mindless thugs. When peaceful protests have failed before, when voting for change results in broken promises, what should be the next step for citizens in a healthy democracy to express their discontent?

This was not solely a "student" protest. Writing for the New Statesman, Laurie Penny notes that many of the protestors were school children, graduates and academics; angry not just about tuition fees and education cuts, but a broader sense of betrayal, the feeling that "their futures have been sold in order to pay for the financial failings of the rich, and they are correct in their suspicions."

They spent their childhoods working hard and doing what they were told with the promise that one day, far in the future, if they wished very hard and followed their star, their dreams might come true. They spent their young lives being polite and articulate whilst the government lied and lied and lied to them again. They are not prepared to be polite and articulate any more. They just want to scream until something changes. Perhaps that's what it takes to be heard.

"Look, we all saw what happened at the big anti-war protest back in 2003," says Tom, a postgraduate student from London. "Bugger all, that's what happened. Everyone turned up, listened to some speeches and then went home. It's sad that it's come to this, but..." he gestures behind him to the bonfires burning in front of the shattered windows of Tory HQ. "What else can we do?"

Regardless of whether you think the destructive actions of protestors yesterday were productive or justified, some interesting points arise from a comparison of this demo with the G20 protests in April 2009.

If the state response to yesterday's demonstration is the demonisation of the destructive methods resorted to by activists, and no hint of policy change, what happens next? If angry, betrayed, frightened, vulnerable people take to the streets in peaceful protest with no windows broken, will that be any more successful? (Arguably no; peaceful protest against the cuts have happened across the UK in recent weeks, and they don't seem to be having much impact on the legislature.)

Two campaigns have already sprung up expressing solidarity with the actions of yesterday's protestors, rejecting any attempt to characterise the demonstration as "extremist" and arguing that the real vandals are those waging a war on our education system: the Ten Eleven Ten Unity statement and the November 10th Defence Campaign.

Once the state has retreated from its role in sponsoring higher education, it will be ten times harder to re-institute it. The time to act is now, before the recommendations of the Browne report are put into action. Within the terrifying context of wider welfare 'reform' and tax avoidance crisis, it is hard to argue that those protesting the proposed changes to public services are not acting for the greater good.

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This article is copyright 2010 Helen - please ask for permission to republish or translate.