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After the flash bulb

Student article competition winner Kit Withnail calls for others to stand with the movement

May 22, 2011
5 min read

Photo: Tom Swain

Millbank. 10.11.10. A baptism of fire for the Tories, for the students, for the NUS, and for me. Experts call it ‘flash-bulb memory’: the scenes of that day forever painted perfectly, vividly, in my mind, triggered by the extremes of emotion. We’d marched dutifully through the streets, marvelled at our size, met the more esoteric elements – like the pensioners’ group and the off-duty policeman – and listened to enthusiastic speeches. But it wasn’t enough.

It could never have been enough. More than a decade of frustration under Labour, seeing fees introduced, and tripled, while a cronyist NUS that had previously starred half the cabinet did nothing. Lacking a decent left opposition, so did the students. In came the Tories, with their Orange Book free-market Lib Dem allies, and swiftly announced the harshest austerity measures this country had ever seen.

But still nobody did anything. The TUC delayed calling a national demonstration until March the following year. The disabled, poor and vulnerably housed, with nobody to speak up for them, still hadn’t had their voices heard. Until at last, the government went too far, forgetting they were attacking a group notorious for activism – the students.

We were furious. Furious not just for ourselves but for everybody cut down by the Tory-led government. We knew they were attacking those with no voice. Well, we had a voice, and we were going to make it heard. Come November, we ran along the streets enraged. We smashed into the Tory HQ, we ripped out their pot-plants and burnt their sofas. Reporters asked me ‘Do you think the violence is justified?’ Who cares, I answered, if it’s justified – it’s inevitable.

Students didn’t ask me that. They screamed as they were batoned, and they bled freely from their heads. And they pushed back wave after wave of heavily armed police trying to reinforce those trapped between us and Millbank.

The atmosphere was incredible – fury, but most of all the possibility of fury, the meeting of so many who found that they hadn’t been the only ones shouting at the TV. I remember paraphrasing Dylan to a friend. Today, I said, you could light a cigarette on a parking meter.

The NUS panicked, and condemned it as the work of ‘anarchists’, forgetting that anarchists can be students too. Later, pictures showed how few of us were masked or carried black flags. But they didn’t support a student demonstration again.

Ministers appeared on the television, saying they would not listen to us. We didn’t care. They had to listen to us, and they knew it. And so they did the most damaging thing they could possibly do: they brought the vote forward.

Although we marched again several times, although on the day of the vote our fury at Millbank was even greater, when the vote passed through by that tiny margin, the margin that the abstaining Lib-Dems could have destroyed – that looked like the end of our movement, in truth.

I had my head bashed in that day by police who charged us when I had my back to them. I spent the evening in hospital, bleeding from the head and vomiting. The next day, I wrote my account of what happened. It ended:

‘I hear Bob Brecher has suggested the police were ordered to scare protesters into not coming back. I’m coming back. They have no idea how strong they’ve entrenched hatred in me, hatred for their actions, their facelessness, their carelessness, their inhumanity … We’re all coming back.’

But I was wrong. After that day, the energy in the protests subsided. The hate was there, true enough. But as the government so cynically calculated, they’d taken the hope out of our movement. They’d make us question the worth of protest.

The anti-EMA protests were a brief flicker of hope, but no 10.11.10. And I write this on 30 January, the day after the large anti-education cuts demos in London and Manchester.

It was dispiriting. A friend of mine remarked on the wide age range there. It’s only wide, I explained to him, because all the young people aren’t here, so they no longer make up the majority. The chants were half-hearted, the dancing to the dubstep sound systems self-conscious. I could swear the police were laughing at us. There weren’t speakers there to keep up our energy. Perhaps they felt there’s nothing to say.

The weakness in our movement last year was that although the students were militant, they had no support except verbally from a few MPs (I’m thinking mainly the human dynamo that is John McDonnell), individual trade union leaders, and of course the organised far left activists such as the SWP.

This doesn’t seem fair. When protesters broke into Millbank, they released a statement that said: ‘We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning.’

So who’s standing with us students? As the wind of hope goes out of our movement, where are the unions picking it up? Where are the strikes and blockades, where is the Labour leadership?

This article was supposed to be about the strengths and weaknesses of the student movement. But the student movement could not have been more brilliant. The weakness is that of others, not falling in step to mobilise.

We students can’t carry this movement by ourselves.

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