11 December 2013

The Students are Revolting (Anarchy in the UK edition)

Senate House, inspiration for the Ministry of Truth, looms upwards into fog as the crowds gather below.
Russell Square, London, 11th December, 2013
So, this back and forth thing between London and Dublin has not been as fun as I imagined. Apart from the frustrations of reaching for that thing you need right now and realising that it's actually 350 miles away and up one flight of stairs, there is the maddening sense that nothing cool ever happens until you've already queued up for ninety minutes to get onboard a plane while defeated-looking Ryanair staff try and sell you sexist calendars of their nudey co-workers, by which time it's too late to get back for it without causing what the nice men at the airport with the uniforms and guns like to call "an incident".

Last week, there was something of a curfuffle at Senate House, a rather imposing looking building that dominates the Bloomsbury skyline in London and sits about 500 meters away from my bedroom as the crow flies (though admittedly less people would recognise it from that latter description). Senate House houses a library and a lot of administrative offices of the University of London, the body that nominally oversees a good few of the main London universities, like UCL, Kings College, SOAS, Birkbeck and a host of others (UOL its basically the NUI of collegiate London, but less Catholic). Senate House is also the inspiration for George Orwell's Ministry of Truth in 1984, as his wife worked there during the Second World War when the Ministry of Information ran all its wartime propaganda efforts from deep inside its bowels.

But I digress.

I think it's the stench of Capitalism they can't stand. It may also have been me.
Malet Street, London, 11th December, 2013
Last week a small group of students protesting against an unnecessary police presence on campus and the poor working conditions of low paid contract staff attempted to occupy part of Senate House. The response of the police was swift and surprisingly (yet sadly completely unsurprisingly) heavy-handed. This led to a tense stand-off and more than a few scuffles, resulting in a series of arrests. I followed this all on Twitter, as anthropologist and author (and occasional rabble-rousing Black Bloc enthusiast) David Graeber was on the scene.

"Hooray", I shouted, and grabbed my camera, ready and eager to run down from our flat and join my companeros y companeras at the barricades once more, pausing mere moments later as I remembered that I was actually sitting in my home in Dublin.


Knowledge shall be their shield. Also, a homemade shield shall be their shield.
Montague Place, London, 11th December, 2013
I will admit that as frustrations go, this is definitely in the "First World Problems" category, and then some, but bear with me here.

This week a follow-on protest was called, once again centred on the University of London campuses, and as luck would have it, today I was actually in London. I snuck away from my office at lunchtime, grabbed my camera, ready and eager to capture the moment it all kicked off (for as regular readers know, I loves me a good protest).

Now, this was not my first protest in the UK, but the last one I joined (calling for the introduction of PR in the wake of the LibDem electoral victory - sorry, just writing that down makes me giggle) was altogether less Black Bloc-ey, and so although at home I have a high comfort level weaving in and out of marchers with my camera, I will admit that the stares I drew as a forty-year old cunningly disguised as a business person did make me a little nervous.

"What?" I snapped back at them, "Have ye never seen an anarchist in a Ted Baker shirt before?"

("No", would be the quite definitive answer there, in case you were wondering).

Ah, the Black Bloc. Hiding again behind the words of David Graeber.
Russell Square, London, 11th December, 2013
In any event, someone in the authorities must have realised that, just like me, hundreds of other folks would also converge on the scene with their cameras, all waiting to document the exact moment of off-kickage, and so rather sensibly the police decided instead to take an extended lunch-break and catch up on some quality Bejewelled-time.

And so, in an Alanis Morissette moment of irony, the #copsoffcampus protest wandered around campus for an hour or so trying to find some cops to protest at, and when that failed, they left campus and headed off elsewhere in search of them.

At that stage I exited, stage left, and headed back to the office for a nice cup of tea. The protest shrunk and moved on, first to the Courts of Justice where the inquest in to the death of Mark Duggan was being heard, and then on to Whitehall and off in search of something that I'm not quite sure even they knew what it was.

The moral of this story is, well, I guess, um, First World Problems?

So, here's my preachy two cents on the whole thing...

The #copsoffcampus protest stems from the same base as the London riots of summer 2012, youth marginalised by the politics of authoritarian austerity, but is expressed in an altogether safer, more comfortable middle-class way.

Student protests have long been tolerated in the UK and Ireland as a release valve for youth anger, and because we both have a relatively high proportion of young people in education, this well-practised pantomime occurs where everybody knows their role and plays it oh so well. The kids roll up, buzzing on adrenaline and all a little nervous in case their parents see them on the telly. The professionals roll in with their placards to hand out to the kids - the kids get to shake something in the air and the Leninist Vanguard Party du jour gets to look like it actually has members. The police roll up and glare at the kids, and slap around one or two who get too mouthy, and then everyone goes off for a pint and pats themselves on the back for sticking it to The Man/Those Dirty Hippies (delete as applicable). Life continues on as normal with the protest having exactly, as the old Junta card says, "No Effect".

Sadly, nobody told those kids on the margins of society that those were the rules of the game, and so after years of police intimidation and indiscriminate searches, a government continually telling them they were worthless scroungers, and a wider society that wrote them off as an underclass of feral chavs, they finally said no more and took their anger out on the streets. Without the middle-class luxury of a cotton-swathed release valve they exploded in wrath, anger, fire and, yes, looting.

Now, I'm certainly not going to try and argue that looting and random acts of destruction are acceptable or justified, but I do think that they are an understandable outcome of the pressure-cooker that passes for daily life for most of the kids involved. In all the time since, while those involved have been punished to an excessive extent of the law, very little seems to have been done to question the root causes of inequality exacerbated by a deliberate policy of social exclusion. One only has to read the recent comments of the Chief Buffoon of this august city to understand that one year on the marginalised underclass are held in even lower regard by the Powers That Be, the only lessons learned from 2012 seem to involve the swifter application of the iron heel to the necks of the down-trodden.

The privilege of the middle classes here is thus that they have the ability to stand up and demand that the police vacate their sphere, however ineffectually. For those perched on the rung below, no such avenue exists and it becomes of matter of when, and not if, the streets of London will erupt again in violence.

The writing is on the wall for the Cops on Campus. And that writing is very pink.
Malet Street, London, 11th December, 2013

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At 8:21 am, Blogger Felicity Ford said...

Superb piece, Dave, I agree with your observations on class, protest culture, and with what you say about the rioting and looting that went on in the summer of 2012. The entitlement to protest, and knowledge of "the correct rulez" of this panto do smack of class privilege and even in the 1990s the road protest culture was full of maverick graduates and scholars-gone-wrong, including me. I absolutely love this phrase, too, and shall try to use it naturally in a sentence before the end of 2013: "Leninist Vanguard Party du jour"... Love your writing.


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