Friday, November 12, 2010

The Battle of Millbank: A Watershed in UK Fightback

The student demonstration quickly ascended into anarchy
The protest, rioting and occupation at the ruling Conservative Party's Millbank headquarters marks a watershed in the fightback against "austerity Britain". It was a 'demonstration' in the truest sense of the word; a sense that had been watered down to near meaninglessness over the past two decades of shuffling A to B marches and empty speechifying. It demonstrated - perhaps for the first time in many of the participants' short lives - that 'ordinary' people in the UK don't have to take a lifetime of debt and misery lying down.

Participant reports describe in thrilling detail the moments when these young people took their first, uncertain steps across the imposing physical and mental barriers they had been presented with. The Commune’s Mark Harrison tells how National Union of Students (NUS) stewards made the crucial mistake of instructing members of the unexpectedly huge fifty thousand-strong crowd: “Don’t go off the right, that’s Tory HQ, carry on forward for the NUS route”. Once at Millbank, New Statesman blogger Laurie Penny poetically describes how:
“Not all of those smashing through the foyer are in any way kitted out like your standard anarchist black-mask gang. These are kids making it up as they go along. A shy looking girl in a nice tweed coat and bobble hat ducks out of the way of some flying glass, squeaks in fright, but sets her lips determinedly and walks forward, not back, towards the line of riot cops. I see her pull up the neck of her pink polo-neck to hide her face, aping those who have improvised bandanas. She gives the glass under her feet a tentative stomp, and then a firmer one. Crunch, it goes. Crunch.”
Smashing; the state
The NUS had called the demonstration in response to the coalition’s proposed tripling of student fees, combined with a 40% cut in teaching budgets. By all accounts, NUS organisers and police alike had expected ten thousand students would show up, but were overwhelmed by the massive crowd, hundreds of whom took the opportunity to occupy the Millbank offices, and thousands of whom cheered them on.

The response of the NUS bureaucracy was as appalling as it was predictable. Labour-supporting NUS president Aaron Porter was all over the mainstream media, denouncing the breakaway demonstration as "shameful", and absurdly claiming that a small handful of "troublemakers" had been able to hijack his rally. Porter’s line fed into mainstream media condemnation of the "brainless" students, who were derided as "middle class", and "thugs" – words which are not often seen together.

The truth is that with 36% of young people now going to university, more students from working class backgrounds are making it than ever before, though already significant class divisions will inevitably be further skewed by fee increases. The demonstrators are part of a rapidly radicalising generation, who face mountains of debt before they even find full time work. Graduate unemployment is currently at a seventeen year high, and will undoubtedly spiral higher still once the government’s cutbacks kick in.

A law student poses with a looted Tory cricket bat
In a situation like this, it is not surprising that the traditional mechanisms for voicing dissent are increasingly not seen as anything like sufficient.

The Daily Telegraph gleefully pressed ruling class panic buttons by quoting a Liverpudlian student as saying: "Normal protests are just Socialist Workers marching and doing nothing. We smash up buildings because it will get us into the news and we're not going to stop until the Government listens."

However as Phil Dickens notes, smashing things up is no substitute for a thought-out long term strategy for defeating capitalism as a whole:
"Regarding what actually went on today, we should see this as merely the beginning. The occupation of a university campus or building over a lengthy period could inspire the same spirit of solidarity and ignite the broader debate that the Vestas occupation did. Indeed, when such occupations did happen they deserved far broader publicity."
The red and black flag of anarchism over Tory HQ
But the press release from the rooftop occupiers hints that class consciousness is developing:
“We oppose all cuts and we stand in solidarity with public sector workers, and all poor, disabled, elderly and working people. We are occupying the roof in opposition to the marketisation of education pushed through by the coalition government, and the system they are pushing through of helping the rich and attacking the poor. We call for direct action to oppose these cuts. This is only the beginning of the resistance to the destruction of our education system and public services.”
Wednesday may only be the beginning, but living in Britain feels very different now that it has so dramatically begun. Thursday occupations at Manchester and London Goldsmiths universities illustrate precisely why.
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