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Students are still in the front line – but it’s time that changed

Kit Withnail calls for the rest of us to join the students' resistance

March 10, 2012
4 min read

This is a response to Michael Chessum’s article on the state of the student movement.

Photo: Andrew Moss

I wrote last year of the wind being punched out of the student movement. The fees vote, deliberately brought forward to stall a powerful and rapidly growing movement, left many with a sense of despair. What’s the point in protesting, was the thought, when it’s too late.

But since then, students have still been the front line of the resistance to the Tories’ cuts. As the NHS reforms go through Parliament, it is students who have been out fighting it. Demonstrations in London and groups like NHS Direct Action were, in the vast majority, students.

I asked in that last article where everybody else is. I feel I must ask again. March 26 2011 saw half a million take to London’s streets, but it felt pretty weak when the TUC could be agitating towards a general strike. Two one-day strikes have happened since, and both have gone brilliantly with massive involvement – yet I can’t escape the feeling that Thatcher faced a sight more than one-day actions, the power of which is more symbolic than disruptive.

Indeed the only people who seemed to understand were the thousands who rioted in August. Riots in 2011 were in fact much more difficult than in the past. The press may be excited by the prospect of BBM, but the fact is that technology, on the contrary, has vastly increased the state’s power.

Students arrested in the weeks following demonstrations have now learnt what the NEETs have always known: that the UK, the country with the most CCTV in the world, will find you.

Sentencing for the protests has been almost farcically harsh. Protesters have been convicted for throwing fifty gram broken placard sticks and toys, and ended up facing more than a year in jail. This might help explain why the November 9 student demonstration numbered fewer than ten thousand, despite the months-long buildup.

Bernard Hogan-Howe’s quasi-fascist ‘Total Policing’ meant undercover officers were quite literally everywhere, arrests were violent and there were several horse charges. The press, of course, reported it as peaceful.

But students were still furious, and the turnout still significant. The NUS, having lost its entire credibility by disowning last year’s protests, was nowhere to be seen, but it was also forgotten. Nobody even thought to ask its help, because what was more likely was hindrance.

Instead the protest was called by NCAFC, a small organisation but with what turned out to be good connections countrywide and a reasonable amount of planning.

I say reasonable, because the march was held inside a rolling kettle. Gone was the ebullient spirit of ‘Day X’, where students charged all over London, while frantic police, encumbered by armour, were forced into Benny Hill-like attempts at chases. But if any organisation publicises a demonstration it is forced into the situation of negotiating a route with the police, so the blame does not lie in most part with NCAFC.

I think students remain the most militant group in the UK. There are certainly big problems in the movement, too big to discuss here, but they, more than any other group, have been behind the most protests. It’s time that changed.

Riots have only increased state oppression, although I could never condemn the desperation that bears them. The unions need more than one-day strikes, however successful these have been. The people of this country need to stop demonising the unemployed and the disabled, despite the poision that drips from the press. And the Labour Party needs to wake up to the fact that supporting austerity isn’t just killing people and killing the economy, it’s also causing people to abandon them in droves.

There’s plenty to get angry about. And it’s time people woke up.

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