“Middle-class kids and mad militants”: the battle against media stereotypes

Protestors and strikers always have two opponents: those they are against and the way the media represents them. Today in London, can different kinds of opposition come together and overcome the media?
Niki Seth-Smith
30 November 2010

Yesterday, London witnessed two acts of defiance. A fourth one-day tube strike called by the RMT and the Transport Salaried Staff Association dominated the headlines. But in addition a group of about 60 students staged a flashmob in the middle of the early Christmas shoppers in Oxford Street. Both actions are part of very different struggles.

The strike was called by transport unions in London over plans to cut 800 ticket office jobs, potentially leaving stations unmanned. It has been a longstanding dispute. In contrast, students at the prestigious University College London (UCL) began their occupation of the Jeremy Bentham Room last Wednesday. It is part of the growing student movement against the Coalition government's education cuts and rising tuition fees which started with the march of 50,000 and the spontaneous demonstration at Millbank outside the Tory party headquarters on 10 November.

One of the big differences between the British student movement of the 60s and today is that students now feel part of a wider opposition to government cuts and economic policy.  The UCL students are protesting not only over direct education issues but also on other perceived injustices at the hands of their university, such as the pitifully low wages paid to UCL’s contract cleaners. The sit-down protest outside Oxford Street’s Top Shop organised from inside the occupation gave their message, as the video shows, that if the government was going to take the marketplace into education, they would take learning into the marketplace. (Top Shop is controlled by Philip Green, a government advisor who has avoided paying tax on £1.2 billion.)

Student protesters and picketing trade unionists are two groups who are routinely stereotyped and kept apart in separate boxes. Which is why I found it refreshing to hear an RMT union member expressing solidarity yesterday afternoon with the protesters occupying UCL.

Addressing the students that had returned to ‘base camp’ yesterday after the flashmob, he said: “They think it’s all middle-class kids and mad militants. But they might get more than they bargained for.”

Introducing himself simply as an RMT member who had been on the picket lines since four that morning, the man explained that he had come to address the occupation at UCL after attending the Oxford Street protest.  He is one of several RMT representatives that have expressed their support of the student protests both before and after the union’s early official statement of solidarity with student protesters nation-wide.

The media can be relied upon to draw on the usual assortment of 'types', staples of which are the Throw-back, the Fanatic, the Opportunist or - if they're really short on ideas - the Good-for-nothing Hippy. Crowds of UCL students wearing orange rags on their heads and singing Clegg-bashing ditties are thus easily derided. But what I saw in the Jeremy Bentham Room was evidence of the meticulous planning, boundless energy and capacity for subtle debate that continue to be demonstrated by the occupation.

Trade union members routinely confront the argument, wielded with especial vigour by the right-wing press, that they are obeying orders from institutional dinosaurs that are out of touch with the times. Dismissing movements of people and neutralising their power relies to a great extent on being able to put them into safely defined boxes. When different groups come together, however, the well-worn clichés cease to fit so snuggly – or shall we say, smuggly.  

Yesterday, several UCL student protesters stood on the picket lines to express solidarity. Today, the RMT will send a delegation to the London protest, part of a nation-wide day of student action over the rising tuition fees and cuts to teaching grants as well as support allowances. By expressing forms of mutual solidarity, these two groups can not only support each other to achieve their demands, but also challenge those who seek to disarm them via the increasingly tired weapon of cliche.    

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