Student Protests ; No violence, so what?

Student protest 10 November 2010

12 months after the 2010 protests which, notoriously, resulted in levels of violence to police and property, the students took to the streets again this week. The subject of the tuition fees has been out of the news for most of the year and whilst it is undoubtedly a big issue for those having to pay it, it is not something that ranks highly in the general consciousness.

Back in October 2010, the subject of the tuition fees was well understood by the student population but was not necessarily a big issue for the majority of the country. It simply was not a problem that would affect everybody. Until the 10th November 2010, of course, when everyone was caught unawares.

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered around the Whitehall area with much good humour and autumnal spirit. Banners , outfits and chanting, describing in alternative ways the rejection of the government and its policies. There was high expectation that as it moved past Downing Street there may be some scuffling, or perhaps as it made its way past the Houses of Parliament. Any activity was good-natured and peaceful. The victim waiting to be pounced on was the Conservative Party headquarters further up Millbank – and so the violence started. The News channels became more interested, live feeds from the forecourt, and the droning, shuddering TVcopters loitered in the air. So what was this all about?

Whilst the media presented faux-shock at the horror of the violence – there was great footage, and a simple news story – and in the midst of all of that was the message about the tuition fees. A further 3 events took place, the last one on the day of the vote. On all 3 occasions the violence made them newsworthy, and the issue was reinforced in the public consciousness. The protest had some legitimacy.

Effectiveness of protest is often about timing; spontaneity is also influential, as well as novelty and context. When a follow-up demonstration took place in January 2011, the wind had gone out of the issue, it was becoming tired and the organisation lacked any novelty – it was ineffective, and pointless. Also when the success of the police operation is the story, then that is very telling – the substance of the protest has failed.

Since the beginning of the year, there has been the “Arab Spring” which has shown the world how real revolution works, the continuing collapse of the Eurozone, the tightening of UK public expenditure, the week of extreme rioting in the summer, and the expectation of worse things to come, economically. The recent “Occupy” protests in the UK, which have deliberately attempted to be non-violent, community conscious, and be as compliant as possible with the authorities, seem to have “de-energised” the notion of a political protest. We seem to have moved from the student as “protestor provocateur” to the student as “good citizen at scout camp”. Additionally the purpose of the protest has become very diffuse, and almost semi-religious, with highfalutin and nebulous ideals, with little basis in the real world – the real world, that the people they are appealing to, have to occupy.

The student protest on 9 November 2011, was much smaller than the ones from last year and, although there were occasional scuffles, the police contained the situation. As the march gathered at Moorgate, the police prescence seemed to suggest that there may be problems with closing the event, but the majority of the students dispersed peacefully, and somewhat anti-climatically. There was very little media coverage once the likelihood of violence had receded, and consequently an affirmation of the indifference to the issue.

On 31 March 1990, a demonstration took place in London against the poll tax, which attracted ~200,000 people and which ended in rioting. Eight months later Margaret Thatcher was no longer the Prime Minister. A thesis could be written on all of the various connections and causal links, between the protest and Thatcher’s fall, but it was clearly a contributor. It worked because the timing was right, it had relevance to the whole population, was a simply described issue “No Poll Tax” , the change required was straightforward – “change a law”, and it made the news in a very visual and exciting way – with violence.

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