Welcome to ‘Bitter Britain’: repression of student demo is a sign of the times

The London student demonstration on 9 Nov showed how the movement has transformed since the tuition fees protests last winter, and how the British state is hardening in its efforts to maintain control.

The videos in this piece have been made private on legal advice. They will be made public again once the process has concluded

Still here, still fighting. That was the message from as many as ten thousand students on the streets of London yesterday. Exactly one year after the fateful Millbank protests against the massive fees hike and the abolition of EMA, our resistance is very far from over.

But this wasn’t the same movement that erupted in the winter of last year. Back then there was a palpable sense that the government could suffer a speedy and decisive defeat.

Since then Britain too, not just the movement, has changed.

The protests have matured as the enormous challenge has become clearer, as hope that the government would soon fall gave way to the consolidation of Coalition rule.

A summer of riots exposed the deep fractures in England. Hundreds of thousands marched in the spring and now millions are set to strike late this month.

Yesterday, there was no imminent piece of legislation to dislodge. This time it was all about conviction and a growing awareness that a broad, generalised resistance was emerging. 

Now education was but one part of a broader resistance – on the march a spirit of generalisation and revolutionary passion was pervasive.

Placards, banners, chants up and down the demonstration, all reflected these new times.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts were right to resist sentimental urges to ‘march on Millbank again’ and recognise we were in a new situation.

This time we marched on the City. It was the Bankers, the Rich, the 1% that we named as the enemy, not the Liberal Democrats who rightly took so much of the ‘heat’ this time last year. 

There were new allies too. 

Ending in the City struck unity with Occupy LSX and in the process the global movement that has arisen to retake public space in the name of the 99 per cent.

All this inspires confidence and belief.

But as the fractures through our society which are driving our protest movement become deeper, the reaction of the state to mass dissent is becoming more aggressive. 

Heavy-handed policing is the sharpest expression of Bitter Britain.

And there was no shortage of it on yesterday’s demonstration.

The demonstration started at the University of London Union, on Malet Street. I joined it as it was marching down Charing Cross Road, before heading up the Strand and into the City.

Lines of police and horses flanked the front and sides of the march – pushing protestors from the off. There was a planned and calculated, ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’, combination of characters. The former smiling as they leafleted the demonstration with ‘warning notes’; the latter adrenalin fuelled and ready for ‘action’.

Protestors had been prepared in the days preceding the demonstration by a series of announcements and rulings. The government had sanctioned the use of rubber bullets in the event of ‘disorder’. A year after Millbank, last week saw a series of prison sentences handed down to student protestors. 

As the demo moved up the Strand, police snatch squads came in and out of the crowd, trying to pick out anyone daring to wear a VforVendetta mask.   

I believe that police snatch squads operating on the demonstration were racially motivated too. Activist Ashok Kumar videoed one arrest that appears to be racially motivated.

When he protested he was then arrested himself – again he caught it on camera:

Neither was it ‘just the students’ who suffered from political policing.

Some 2,000 electricians, fighting against a massive pay cut, had been demonstrating in the City all morning, and many had planned to join forces with the students. But, by the afternoon, over 200 had been kettled by police, unable to join the student march.

Needless to say, police lines may have physically disrupted unity, but it at least served to clarify further in all our minds who are friends were; the living unity of workers, the unemployed, and students, in the face of an offensive on jobs, education, pay, and services. 

After the demo came to an almost abrupt end at Moorgate – three police vans simply blocked any further advance – I walked down to the more serene air of the St Paul’s occupation where folk music was playing in the long shadow of the cathedral.

Again it was easy to be struck by the conviction of those camping out, who have now placed a series of further demands on the City authorities.

But as well as the determination there is also a sense of real seriousness at St Paul’s – that a debate is being had here about not only how we win, but also what we want.

Bitter Britain has deep fractures running all the way through it. 

These will be made clearer still when millions strike at the end of this month. Today there were encouraging signs that our side of the fracture is getting organised to win. 

About the author

Luke Cooper is a postgraduate student and associate tutor in International Relations at the University of Sussex, a supporter of the Anticapitalist Initiative, and co-author of Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics (Zero 2013).