It was exactly a year since the first march against the government’s plans to cut funding to universities and to triple tuition fees, and, on that occasion, 50,000 people took to the streets, and the government was given its first notification that it might not be possible to force the people of Britain into submission without them putting up a fight.
That initial fight was lost, as Parliament approved the Tories’ bill in December last year. However, not content with endangering the future of university education and transferring the entire financial burden of arts, humanities and social sciences courses onto students, for nakedly ideological reasons, the government has now proposed further fundamental and damaging changes to the university sector in its white paper, which I discussed in an article last week, and which treats students purely as consumers, completely ignores the public value of higher education, and involves plans to introduce private providers into the university sector.
It was disappointing that there were not more people on the march, but, after speaking to friends at various universities, it was clear that many students had been put off by the police’s heavy-handed approach. 4,000 officers were on duty, and, in the last few days, Scotland Yard tried to intimidate protestors by stating that the police would have “firearms officers on standby to use plastic bullets” should the demonstration “turn violent.” The Metropolitan Police also sent letters to “anyone arrested in connection with previous public disorder offences even if they were later cleared or charges were dropped,” as the Guardian described it.
The letters, which arrived on numerous doorsteps Tuesday, stated, “It is in the public and your own interest that you do not involve yourself in any type of criminal or antisocial behaviour. We have a responsibility to deliver a safe protest which protects residents, tourists, commuters, protesters and the wider community. Should you do so we will at the earliest opportunity arrest and place you before the court.”
I think this is a disgraceful development, as it is direct intimidation without any form of due process being involved, and it was not at all reassuring to have the police admitting that the names and addresses came from “a database of those arrested during anti-austerity protests,” and that they included protesters as young as 17. In addition, although officials said on Monday that “letters would only be sent to those who had been convicted of offences,” on Tuesday the Met admitted that “anyone who had been arrested in the past year in relation to an ‘austerity related’ protest had been sent the warning,” which suggests that having been arrested once has now become an official reason for being arrested again.
With such heavy-handed tactics upfront, it was, perhaps, unsurprising that one of the day’s top chants was, “You can shove your rubber bullets up your arse,” which was just one of the many amusing statements from the crowd today — both in terms of what they were singing and shouting, and what was written on their many and varied placards. The march was, in fact, a testament to the ingenuity of these young people, and to their passion in the face of state intimidation, which was obvious to anyone who, like me, joined the march as it made its way down Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square.
The police overkill, in response to these young people marching amicably, ought to have been a source of shame, and the police ought to be careful that they are not identified too closely with the government, which has its own undemocratic reasons for wishing to demonise student protestors; namely, to hide its own chronic mismanagement of the economy, and its disdain for the people it is supposed to represent.
Yesterday’s protesters were prevented from setting up an “Occupy” camp in Trafalgar Square, and were also prevented from passing by St. Paul’s Cathedral to meet up with the existing “Occupy” camp there, which has been in place for a month, but reducing the impact of one event through heavy-handed policing does not constitute any kind of victory for the government or the police, as further protests are already being planned, including, of course, the huge day of action on November 30 that clearly has the government rattled.
One year on from the first big demonstration against the Tories’ programme of savage cuts to the British state, it is worth reflecting on how fundamentally the global landscape has changed, and to recall that, over the last year, the localised reaction to an artificially imposed “age of austerity” in the UK, designed to mask a neo-liberal agenda of privatisation and an all-out assault on the state on purely ideological grounds, has been echoed and amplified around the world.
In particular, the explosion of resistance to tyranny in Tunisia and Egypt — which showed Western audiences how resistance could involve extraordinary bravery and dedication — set the tone for what followed in the US and Europe: 100,000 protestors defending public sector workers in Madison, Wisconsin, explosions of protest in Greece and Spain, and, since September, the “Occupy” movement, which began in New York and has since become global, and which, of course, also shows no sign of going away, because it has fundamentally tapped into a deep unease in the face of a resurgent global economic crisis that threatens us all.
See you on the streets!