Thursday, 11 November 2010

Thoughts on Demo 2010

Yesterday, over 50,000 students took part in a national demonstration in London against cuts to education and increases in tuition fees. It ended with students storming Conservative Party headquarters and occupying a rooftop. The reaction to it revealed everything that's wrong - and right - with the student movement.

Firstly, the event itself, reported by BBC News;
This siege of Millbank Tower was a violent break-away from what had been a noisy but good-natured march.

As demonstrators crowded around the building, some masked and hooded, the mood began to turn ugly. Missiles began flying towards the large plate glass windows, with only a thin line of police, with metal truncheons raised, guarding the building's entrance. 

Outnumbered and overwhelmed, they were slowly but relentlessly hemmed against the front of the building.

As protesters surged, a succession of windows were smashed and then demonstrators flooded into the building entrance. Security guards scattered and the handful of police inside were completely overrun. A few yards away, in surreal calm, guests carried on eating in the adjacent Pizza Express.

Inside the building, demonstrators wearing police hats danced on tables. A protester ripped a security camera from the ceiling and danced in triumph, slogans were spray-painted on walls.

The level of anger and the swiftness of the violence seemed to have caught everyone by surprise.
The right-wing reaction to this was entirely on form and predictable. It would be worrying if the likes of Baroness Warsi hadn't patronisingly crowed about how it was "a shame that a small minority of those protesters ruined it for the rest of them." Boris Johnson could do nothing but be "appalled" and threaten to use "the full force of the law."

If the Daily Mail hadn't railed angrily against "anarchist groups and Left-wing agitators intent on creating violent confrontation," we'd have taken it as a sign of the coming apocalypse.

But what are we to make of the condemnations from student "leaders"? The president of the National Union of Students (NUS), Aaron Porter, called the event "despicable." He was echoed by Liverpool Guild of Students president Josh Wright, who called those involved "hooligans." It might be said that they had to, but they didn't appear recalcitrant about it.

The problem is that, for those at the top of such hierarchies, style quickly becomes more important than substance. They have (a small margin of) influence at the top table, and are wary of losing that. Hence genuine militancy or radicalism being out of the question.

For them, it really does boil down to those who want more than a photo-op "ruining it for the rest." As though the right to demonstrate, to oppose the government in anger, is something that should be taken away if you don't behave. Have your little protest, kiddies, but don't get so uppity as to do anything which genuinely challenges the ruling class or the status quo.

Thus, we gloss over the fact that peaceful protest achieves the grand sum of fuck all and label any and all direct action as "counter-productive." Because it threatens the privilege of the careerists.

Regarding what actually went on today, we should see this as merely the beginning.* The occupation of a university campus or building over a lengthy period could inspire the same spirit of solidarity and ignite the broader debate that the Vestas occupation did. Indeed, when such occupations did happen they deserved far broader publicity.

It could be argued that an occupation of Tory HQ was only ever going to be a set piece for battle with the police. Whilst it might deliver a short, sharp shock to the establishment, it simply takes more activists out the picture thanks to legal action and writes the corporate media's PR for them.

But the action's merit lies in what it symbolises rather than in any tactical gain. As it was happening, others were making the case for direct action to the students themselves by giving out leaflets (PDF) and talking to people on the march may have provided a base to build for something more substantial. Simply smashing in the windows and having a fight would have scared many of them off, on the basis of propaganda and spin, but being more than just blind hooliganism it has the weight to draw many more in.

Hence the words of those on the roof of the building;
We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning.
And that has to be the important point at this stage. Successful direct action requires mass support and mass participation, and that doesn't come whilst people are still following Aaron Porter and believing that a march from A to B will do the trick. It won't. All it does is serve as a pressure release for anger which we should be channelling as a weapon. Porter and his co-thinkers have no reason to be smug, unless they are willingly defusing the potential for effective student resistance.

But making that point isn't about succumbing (rightly or wrongly) to the stereotype of violent hooligans seeking carnage. It's about winning the arguments about why people should embrace the tactics of direct action if we want a hope in hell of winning the war.

Update: this post was originally somewhat critical of those who invaded Tory HQ. However, these criticisms were made on the basis that the action occurred with little critical thinking behind it. Having discovered that this was not the case, I have amended the article and the conclusion it reaches accordingly.