After weeks of student protests, tomorrow is decision day

After weeks of nation-wide student protests, tomorrow is decision day for Higher Education. A national demonstration expected to attract more than 20,000 students will converge on Parliament tomorrow afternoon, when MPs will be voting on the raising of tuition fees.

Niki Seth-Smith
8 December 2010

After weeks of nation-wide student protests, tomorrow is decision day for Higher Education. A national demonstration expected to attract more than 20,000 students will converge on Parliament tomorrow afternoon, when MPs will be voting on the raising of tuition fees. They plan to assemble at University London Union on Malet Street at 12pm, from where they will march to Parliament Square. At this potential turning-point in the short but momentous history of this winter's student protests, I took a moment to re-read some of the articles in OurKingdom's ongoing debate on students and higher education.

It is just under a month since the events at Millbank revealed the levels of student anger against the education cuts and proposed reforms to Higher Education, raising questions as to the character and limitations of protest. As Guy Aitchison noted, it became crucial to define the boundaries between 'violence' and direct action in relation to the protests. Since those now-infamous pictures of bonfires and smashed windows, the student movement has had to confront the distortion of their tactics and intentions by the mainstream media. Yet there is enormous support for the student protestors outside their ranks. The decision not to focus solely on directly educational issues has connected the students to a wider movement against the Coalition's brutal economic strategy, and to a sense of betrayal felt by supporters of the Liberal Democrats. As Anthony Barnett has noted in his comparison with the protests of 1968, where student protesters in the 60s were marginalised and pilloried, today they can be seen as making a credible claim to represent the wider public. The results of tomorrow's vote on tuition fees will go some way to reveal the impact of this winter's student protests. OurKingdom will continue its coverage after the vote, with debate on the nature of the protest movement, and its relation to the future of British education and of the Coalition.

In a bid to ensure the right to safe and peaceful protest, the student occupation at University College London have composed the following statement. They are asking supporters to sign the pledge, which they intend to send to police and politicians in advance of the demonstration tomorrow.

Today, tens of thousands of students and school pupils will march on Parliament to express our sincere and strongly held opposition to the coming public sector cuts, and in particular to the the higher education bill upon which the Commons is set to vote. We will be marching in the best traditions of British representative democracy.  What we ask is that our voices be heard, and that we not be victimised by the police.

 After being comprehensively let down by the Parliamentary process we have resorted to the last resort of citizens in a democracy: direct action. We intend to march on Parliament square, as any other destination would be inadequate to our purposes. We are asking ACPO, the Metropolitan police and the executive to respect our right to do this, as outlined in  the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). We believe that the techniques employed by officers of the law at recent student protests have been disproportionate and may have been a deliberate attempt to deter us from excercising our legitimate right to freedom of expression (Article 10 of the ECHR) and assembly (Article 11 of the  ECHR), as well as freedom from arbitrary detention (Article 5 of the ECHR). 
The police response to recent anti-cuts protests and to non-violent direct actions such as flashmobs has been inconsistent and brutal, employing what many consider excessive force, from holding teenagers against their will for hours in sub-zero temperatures to unprovoked physical attacks on young protesters, one of whom has already been hospitalised following these tactics on the part of the police.  Such violent tactics are not adequate responses to public disorder - rather, they actively provoke public disorder. We are asking the Metropolitan police to protect the children and young people of Great Britain as we gather to make our voices heard. 

The current Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister were elected, if barely, on a platform of protecting civil liberties. Less than six months into this government, however, we have already seen police horses charging at children at the symbolic heart of the mother of democratic parliaments. If they do not want to be complicit, as our elected representatives, in fatally undermining the right to protest, a right which is part of the constitutional foundation of any democracy, they must ensure that we can reach our Parliament safely today.

Moreover, following the emergence of compromising video footage of police protest tactics in recent weeks, the relationship between officers of the law and the public, a large proportion of whom support the students and school pupils in their cause, is already imperilled. If excessive force is perceived to be employed by the police against minors today, it may disintegrate entirely. As law-abiding citizens, we would not wish to see this happen, and so we implore you to help us reach our Parliament safely today.

We are peaceful, and we are determined to be heard. Having observed the 'Whitehall Kettle', many of us are frightened of how the police may react to our non-violent action today, and fearful for our safety and the safety of our friends, but there is something that frightens us more: the prospect of a future where public education and welfare provision are distant memories, where secure jobs and places to live are the sole preserve of the rich. Yesterday's 'concessions' in the tuition fees bill are as much use as offering a flannel to a drowning person. We fear the destruction of educational opportunities, social security, jobs and public services more than we fear the police, so we will march today in spite of prior intimidation, and we will not be cowed.

We are peaceful, and we implore the police to respond to our action in a peaceful manner. For the sake of democracy in Britain, we urge the police and the executive to refrain from any and all punitive tactics and to respect the provisions for our safety and free expression guaranteed us in the European Convention on Human Rights by not detaining young people against their will in the open air,  assaulting protesters with batons, or by employing police horses or dogs intimidate us.  An outrage may happen inside Parliment today: we ask you to ensure that another does not occur on the streets outside. We ask you to help us reach our Parliament safely today, as we gather to take a stand against the violence being done to our future.

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