It was exactly a year since the first march against the government’s plans to cut funding to universities and to triple tuition fees, and, on that occasion, 50,000 people took to the streets, and the government was given its first notification that it might not be possible to force the people of Britain into submission without them putting up a fight.
That initial fight was lost, as Parliament approved the Tories’ bill in December last year. However, not content with endangering the future of university education and transferring the entire financial burden of arts, humanities and social sciences courses onto students, for nakedly ideological reasons, the government has now proposed further fundamental and damaging changes to the university sector in its white paper, which I discussed in an article last week, and which treats students purely as consumers, completely ignores the public value of higher education, and involves plans to introduce private providers into the university sector.
It was disappointing that there were not more people on the march today, but, after speaking to friends at various universities, it was clear that many students had been put off by the police’s heavy-handed approach. 4,000 officers were on duty, and, in the last few days, Scotland Yard tried to intimidate protestors by stating that the police would have “firearms officers on standby to use plastic bullets” should the demonstration “turn violent.” The Metropolitan Police also sent letters to “anyone arrested in connection with previous public disorder offences even if they were later cleared or charges were dropped,” as the Guardian described it.
The letters, which arrived on numerous doorsteps yesterday, stated, “It is in the public and your own interest that you do not involve yourself in any type of criminal or antisocial behaviour. We have a responsibility to deliver a safe protest which protects residents, tourists, commuters, protesters and the wider community. Should you do so we will at the earliest opportunity arrest and place you before the court.”
I think this is a disgraceful development, as it is direct intimidation without any form of due process being involved, and it was not at all reassuring to have the police admitting that the names and addresses came from “a database of those arrested during anti-austerity protests,” and that they included protesters as young as 17. In addition, although officials said on Monday that “letters would only be sent to those who had been convicted of offences,” on Tuesday the Met admitted that “anyone who had been arrested in the past year in relation to an ‘austerity related’ protest had been sent the warning,” which suggests that having been arrested once has now become an official reason for being arrested again.
With such heavy-handed tactics upfront, it was, perhaps, unsurprising that one of the day’s top chants was, “You can shove your rubber bullets up your arse,” which was just one of the many amusing statements from the crowd today — both in terms of what they were singing and shouting, and what was written on their many and varied placards. The march was, in fact, a testament to the ingenuity of these young people, and to their passion in the face of state intimidation, which was obvious to anyone who, like me, joined the march as it made its way down Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square.
The police overkill, in response to these young people marching amicably, ought to have been a source of shame, and the police ought to be careful that they are not identified too closely with the government, which has its own undemocratic reasons for wishing to demonise student protestors; namely, to hide its own chronic mismanagement of the economy, and its disdain for the people it is supposed to represent.
Today’s protesters were prevented from setting up an “Occupy” camp in Trafalgar Square, and were also prevented from passing by St. Paul’s Cathedral to meet up with the existing “Occupy” camp there, which has been in place for a month, but reducing the impact of one event through heavy-handed policing does not constitute any kind of victory for the government or the police, as further protests are already being planned, including, of course, the huge day of action on November 30 that clearly has the government rattled.
One year on from the first big demonstration against the Tories’ programme of savage cuts to the British state, it is worth reflecting on how fundamentally the global landscape has changed, and to recall that, over the last year, the localised reaction to an artificially imposed “age of austerity” in the UK, designed to mask a neo-liberal agenda of privatisation and an all-out assault on the state on purely ideological grounds, has been echoed and amplified around the world.
In particular, the explosion of resistance to tyranny in Tunisia and Egypt — which showed Western audiences how resistance could involve extraordinary bravery and dedication — set the tone for what followed in the US and Europe: 100,000 protestors defending public sector workers in Madison, Wisconsin, explosions of protest in Greece and Spain, and, since September, the “Occupy” movement, which began in New York and has since become global, and which, of course, also shows no sign of going away, because it has fundamentally tapped into a deep unease in the face of a resurgent global economic crisis that threatens us all.
See you on the streets!
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Dominik Spitzer wrote:
What’s your guess at the number of protesters? The Police say 2,000, the organisers say 15,000 and the BBC Education correspondant is using a figure of 4,000, just to make the picture clearer.
Hi, Dom. I find it hard to estimate. I found the march on Shaftesbury Avenue sometime after 1 pm, and stood outside Forbidden Planet and watched it all go past, which took perhaps 20 minutes, or half an hour. I then cycled round the back, and joined up with the protestors opposite Leicester Square, and marched with them to Charing Cross. There were thousands of people, so perhaps the Guardian was right in a recent article: “[The] National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, which organised the protests, said 10,000 had attended; police put the number at about 2,500. Evidence from helicopter pictures suggested the figure was somewhere between the two.”
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
I am digging and sharing this, Andy.
[On his page, George wrote, “One should note three things. 1. The UK government is increasing the already high student fees. This will either deter youngsters from attending university, or will put them in debt for years, to pay back loans. 2. The government is cutting education in the arts and humanities. 3. The precise words of the police, in the letter Mr Worthington discusses, are highly intimidating, They are stated so as to give the police maximal discretionary power while not stating its extent. Hence, nobody can predict what acts would be considered as criminal or antisocial.”]
Thanks, George. I saw your comments on your page, and I’m very glad you picked up on and publicised the extremely dubious new police policy of intimidating people and trying to prevent them from protesting by sending them letters if they’ve been arrested in the last year (even if they were never charged). I hear that some lawyers have been challenging this, and will try to find out more, as it’s definitely a sign of attempting to criminalise protest.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
I think that’s right, Andy. I was especially annoyed by my point 3 and just posted a comment about it. The basic idea is, that if a law about, say, “non-compliance,” is broadly formulated but has no stated extent, and if the law (or statement of intent, like yesterday’s) is made known by the authorities, then one can easily intimidate an entire population. For the people cannot predict what acts can get them arrested. American Federal non-compliance laws are stated this way too.
Yes, thanks, George. I think you have expressed very well how this is used widely in a number of countries, and is so broad that it can only possibly be construed as a form of blanket intimidation. The contrast between this and the perfectly acceptable but generally well-behaved indignation of the young people today was particularly marked. The police need to be careful that they don’t stray too far from recognising that the enemy may be in Downing Street, and the people need to be allowed to protest freely.
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