Two days on from Wednesday’s student demo and debate over the storming of Millbank, the police’s response, the legitimacy of confrontational forms of direct action and protest, and what this means for the Coalition’s programme of cuts, is still raging among many young people in Britain (see my Storify report if you are outside the UK and want to know what happened). It’s perhaps too early to predict with any certainty what the significance of the protest will be, but a number of points are worth making to those on all sides of the debate.
In discussing the events at Millbank, it is important to distinguish between “violence” and direct action. Conflating the invasion and occupation of Millbank, with the idiotic throwing of a fire extinguisher off the roof, confuses a legitimate tool of direct action and protest, with a mindless act of aggression, and is especially unhelpful coming from those, like Will Straw, who are sympathetic to the protesters. It is possible for a protest to be both unlawful and non-violent – traditionally, the police have deliberately confused this point, allowing them to respond in the same manner to acts of civil disobedience as to acts of violence.
Now, clearly there were acts of vandalism that accompanied the occupation of Millbank, but the instinct of the crowd was decisively against violence. The throwing of the fire extinguisher was greeted by a chorus of booes and a chant of “stop throwing shit”, as this video shows (Update: this video appears to show that the extinguisher was indeed deliberately thrown rather than accidentally dropped).
The occupation of 30 Millbank, on the other hand, certainly did have the support of the crowd. This wasn’t just a minority of hotheads, a rogue gang of “anarchists” and “Trots”, as Caroline Flint put it on Question Time yesterday. These were young, fresh-faced kids of the kind you’d find in any student bar. Disillusioned and enraged by a political elite that has chosen to make their generation pay for a crisis they didn't cause, they saw an opportunity passing Millbank to get involved in a spontaneous direct action against the poorly guarded Tory HQ. And they took it. The hundreds who occupied the building had the support of the thousands who cheered them on outside, and many more no doubt on TV. Many I spoke to, who got involved in the occupation, were 16 and 17 and had taken the day off school, risking the wrath of their teachers, to protest. As John Harris put it:
What happened on Wednesday afternoon was not some meaningless rent-a-mob flare-up, nor an easily-ignored howl of indignation from some of society's more privileged citizens. It was an early sign of people growing anxious and restless, and what a government pledged to such drastic plans should increasingly expect.
The other important point to recognise is that this wasn’t a purely self-interested protest about fees by a privileged few. The majority of those protesting won’t be affected by the hike in fees, and in any case students were keen to show solidarity with other victims of the coalition’s austerity agenda. The slogans and statement by those on the roof of Millbank make this clear. As Richard Seymour points out, it is patronising and untrue, to imply, as Polly Toynbee does, that only the middle class care about defending university education – many students come from working class families, live in poor quality accommodation and struggle to get by on low paid jobs. The benefit of accessible higher education to the individual and society is recognised across all social classes.
Encouragingly, a number of solidarity campaigns have been set up to provide advice and support to those who took part in the Millbank occupation. David Cameron has called for the “full weight of the law” to be brought to bear on those involved, raising the possibility of draconian punishments of the kind handed down to Gaza protesters who received up to two and a half year sentences, explicitly referred to by the judge as a deterrent. A Statement of Unity to “stand with the protesters, and anyone who is victimised as a result of the protest” has gathered over 3,000 signatures, including Naomi Klein, Billy Bragg and several dissident members of the NUS executive committee. A legal support group has also been setup with helpful advice for those who fear they may be scooped up by police – FIT Watch too have some useful tips. The shrill and distasteful witch hunt being ran by the Telegraph and the Sun, encouraging their readers to inform on the protesters depicted in their photos, has provoked an online campaign to thwart and frustrate them with members of the “Stop the hunt of the Millbank protesters” Facebook group encouraged to email creative responses and alternatives to the newspapers.
After months of rumbling discontent in anticipation of the pain that was about to be inflicted, the potential for determined and organised resistance to the cuts is clear. Emboldened by the scale and energy of Wednesday’s protest, trade unionists and other anti-cuts campaigners are already stepping up their activities. Campaigners behind the Vodafone block outs last month have announced they are planning "a day of mass civil disobedience against tax avoidance" on 4 December targeting other high street names, pointing out that Wednesday’s events showed a “real anger among a huge section of the population and this is not just the old faces and usual suspects”
No doubt, the line that the Millbank occupation was a “distraction” and a “failure” which has alienated public sympathy for the students’ cause will persist. It is, of course, the only acceptable line to take amongst those who wish to be taken seriously within the confines of official debate - and it is the line Aaron Porter has stuck to. The NUS president did a fantastic job of mobilising so many people, where his predecessors had been timid and ineffectual in opposing fees. But he should be careful not to sacrifice the unity of the student movement with blanket condemnation of those who took part in the Millbank occupation. He was right to have endorsed, as Jess Worth reports, direct action against the cuts at the People and Planet conference last week , so it would be disappointing if, having been cowed by a right-wing attack campaign, the NUS chose to distance itself from the coming wave of occupations and sit ins planned by students on campuses across the UK. What is at stake is huge. They should put aside their fears of not being able to control the movement, and instead seek to maintain unity by encouraging the energy and anger out there, channelling it into creative ways.
It is a simplistic reading that sees Demolition 2010 as a failure, one which takes the media coverage at face value – activists concerned with galvanizing popular resistance to the cuts should recognise this. As Jess Worth puts it on the New Internationalist blog:
What would have been a 30-second news clip of just another march through London has become the top story in all major UK news outlets and has picked up by the international press. Media commentators, whilst disapproving of the protest, are calling it a “wake-up call” for the government and a serious blow to the unity of the ruling coalition, while the bookies have slashed the odds of a dramatic political U-turn on student fees. A whole new generation has tasted the power and energy that comes with effective rebellion and we can expect to see resistance snowball.
And if you remain unconvinced, perhaps I can point you to a striking article by the Evening Standard’s City Editor – a weather-vain of establishment opinion if ever there was one. Echoing a prescient column by the Daily Telegraph’s political editor, Peter Oborne, he predicts that we can “Expect more rage if the rich and poor divide gets bigger”
The temperature is rising all the time. Already, we've had strikes from the Tube drivers and firefighters, and now students are taking to the streets. More groups are likely to follow suit.
“We have”, he says, “been warned”.