As I stand outside the gates of parliament in central London at lunchtime on 9 December 2010, wearing a work suit and holding a briefcase, I am struck by my age. I am one of only a few citizens over 30 (let alone any older) waiting for the arrival of students marching to protest a rise of university fees in England. I am grateful to the colleague who had texted a reminder to come.
Even this early in the day, the tension is striking. The barricaded streets are as yet empty of protestors, but the yellow lines of police who surrounded parliament already seem to stretch as far as the eye can see. The uneasy silence is broken only by the noise of helicopters and sirens.
I cannot visualise teenagers marching into this atmosphere: to me, it is terrifying.
The advocates of the university-fees increases argue that the rise is accompanied by a progressive tax-rate which is fairer than requiring a flat upfront payment. Its opponents argue the introduction of loans is both unfair and will be daunting for many students.
Parliament Square, where the march is to pass, is a grassed area and a natural destination for those engaged in exercising free speech and peaceful protest. Yet even at the best of times it is physically difficult to reach. This small island of democracy in a sea of traffic is not even connected by a pedestrian crossing; and today it is surrounded by high barricades of wire fence.
In the eerie quiet canyon of empty streets and waiting police, knots of media emerge to rehearse their scripts, all black puffer-jackets and enormous camera-lenses. A news reporter steps into the road and takes five takes to say, “And so the stage is set for a political battle inside the house and outside the house”, accompanied by sweeping arm-gestures that greatly amuse watching tourists.
A mother on a mobile rushes past, her placard firmly under her arm, shouting frantically into the mobile phone: “Darling whatever you do don’t get hurt OK”. Some of the police behind me laugh, but not unkindly.
Then suddenly, from nowhere, a roar. The protesters are arriving.
A surge of collective adrenaline. Then, just as suddenly as all that sound and fury, nothing...just a milling group of teens pouring into the square, with nowhere else to go. Some groups chant but the mood is unsettled. A large gathering not sure what to do next.
What strikes me most about this part of the crowd as I join it (still clutching my briefcase) is its youth, diversity and unpredictability - leaderless, but learning fast. There are no megaphones. Some older students dressed in medical scrubs peel off back to their college. They seem far removed from the clusters of very young boys and teenage girls they had been standing beside.
A police loudspeaker repeats several times - “Ladies and gentlemen, please move to Victoria Embankment, keep moving please”. The mode of address seems comically stilted: some of those around me look as young as 12, but the average age is probably 16-18. Why would people protesting a historic vote going on in parliament move on once they’d got to parliament?
A few people head to the nearest café. Someone throws a plastic bottle and a pink smoke-bomb. The effect is startling, like a daring prank.
The first of the fires are lit next to me, when a group of (around) 14-year-old boys wearing balaclavas and scarves scramble onto a green metal storage-case and - after some fooling around and shouting - burn a placard. Young boys, pumped up but not part of the main group. Slightly older students around me, mostly worried girls, say: “Oh I wish they wouldn’t do this, it will look bad and undermine the message“.
The police draw closer together.
The taunts get louder.
In a side street a students' union band hand out leaflets and banners. The student president does a piece to camera, effectively setting out the concerns of students. Three women students give slips of paper informing students about their rights: “if things get nasty, stay calm, be peaceful, read this”. Everywhere there are leaflets, student newspapers, signs and chants declaiming the purpose of the march. But no one knows what will happen next. Many have never been in a protest before. A young student in school uniform, a blazer and tie, looks nervous and serious.
It is striking that the protest is being e-recorded everywhere. In the milieu, students are blogging, texting, twittering, filming. When a skirmish erupts, journalists descend - but students are there first, the physical and the virtual worlds merging.
The e-messages mix with face-to-face ones. A young student suddenly volunteers to me: “It’s all coming out now, all this information, makes you look at the world differently, why did we not realise it before? Shell are all through the Nigerian government and now credit-cards blocking WikiLeaks...I mean its all oil and finance and war, these fees and cuts, it all seems so unfair given everything, sort of...corrupt, we aren’t going to take it!”
I leave the protest as tensions are mounting. As I do so a few horses are riding up Whitehall. Later, I see TV pictures of them charging a young, vibrant, frustrated, angry crowd; and read reports of the police “kettling” (confining) the protestors for hours. Recalling the lines of police surrounding parliament before the protests began, I wonder what kind of democracy might turn on its children or feel the need to protect itself from them?
I am again struck on reflection by the absence of adults, and the vulnerability as well as the anger of the protestors. This is a political movement significant for the numbers of very young, diverse groups of children taking part, many of whom will only vaguely recall (if at all) the anti-war protests of the last decade.
In politics, citizens learn by doing. But if, as the political rhetoric tells us, we are “all in this together”, student political learning needs intergenerational support.
Sure, there were mums and dads and academics and grandparents there, but not many. Where were the adults when Britain's young people are finding their political voice? Yes, each generation has its own political moment: but at such a challenging and difficult time, don't we owe our children and our students something more?