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The undermining of Britain’s student protest against cuts and tuition increases

Tens of thousands of students marched through central London yesterday to protest government cuts of colleges and universities, as well as proposals to triple tuition fees. Organized by the National Union of Students (wow, does the US have one of those?) and the University and College Union, the protest was described by the BBC as “noisy but good natured” and filled with students who were “articulate and animated, ready to tell anyone who would listen that they were enraged by the raising of fees.” That is, until about 200 violent anarchists broke away, started smashing windows, and hurling placard sticks, eggs and bottles at police officers. The destruction culminated in the occupation of the Millbank office complex, where the Conservative Party has offices.

As protesters surged, a succession of windows were smashed and demonstrators flooded into the entrance.

Security guards scattered and the handful of police inside were completely overrun. As the police tried to stop them, protesters clicked a battery of cameras in their faces.

A few yards away, in surreal calm, guests carried on eating in the adjacent Pizza Express.

It was a bizarre sight inside the building.

Demonstrators wearing police hats danced on tables. A protester ripped a security camera from the ceiling and danced in triumph. Slogans were spray-painted on walls. Smoke from the bonfire blew across the crowd.

The protesters smashed everything inside with relentless ferocity. Office chairs were used as weapons to destroy what was left of the glass.

The level of anger and the swiftness of the violence seemed to have caught everyone by surprise. It had lurched without warning from a well-organised, up-beat publicity event to something much more destructive.

Who were the rioters? It wasn’t obvious from close-up.

National Union of Students president Aaron Porter was aghast at what had happened, turning a huge turnout into a huge mess of shattered glass.

He looked appalled as he talked about how the protest had been “hijacked”, taking it away from the planned route.

That’s precisely what such actions do. They hijack attention away from the issue that turned out thousands of people and refocus it on the destructive behavior of a few individuals. It doesn’t matter that the protest violence pales in comparison to the state violence of education cuts or that the protest violence was directed at property and the state violence is directed at people. The average person simply will not see it that way. They will believe the students to be crazy and dismiss their struggle. Furthermore, it will only mean tougher policing of the peaceful activists the next time they stage a march.

NUS president Aaron Porter wrote an intelligent reflection of the day’s events in The Guardian, addressing some of these points:

Our membership rightly wanted and expected an opportunity to peacefully express their grievances and it was our responsibility to help deliver that. We worked closely with the police and authorities to agree the route and logistics to hold the powerful and emphatic but nonviolent protest on a crisp but sunny November lunchtime.

It was not only the weather that was on our side.

We had the economic case on our side for funding our future: all but two other OECD countries are investing in the education and skills they need to recover and flourish – the UK and Romania stand alone in cutting back, and a hike in fees would render our public universities the most expensive in the world for students.

We had the politics on our side: the only way the tripling of fees and irrational cuts to colleges and universities can be implemented is if politicians break the promises they made to voters, many of whom were present in Westminster yesterday.

We have culture on our side: the government’s cuts would remove all public funding for arts, humanities and social sciences in universities and devalue our further- and higher-education system in the process.

And we have public opinion on our side: more than 70% of the public oppose plans to triple student fees according to the latest opinion polls. In unity, we convened the biggest student demonstration this century. We had right on our side and huge support to spur us on. Our case was right and it was overwhelming. It remains so.

Some of the most inspiring conversations I had yesterday were with parents who had only heard about the demonstration on the morning’s news and felt they had to be there to support their sons and daughters on the march. They came, they saw and they marched together with us.

Not on our side were the very small minority of violent protesters – estimated at 200 – who sought to hijack our organised success for their own agendas. The organisers of this splinter action are not known to us but we suspect they are not even students. I make no apology for condemning the mindless violence of a few that tried to undermine the case of a great many. I wish that rather than spend so much of our time talking about that reckless minority that we had more opportunity to talk about the real issues that brought so many people out on the streets.

That violence by a tiny minority sought to detract from our powerful collective message and let students down. We will never defend those who took actions that put innocent people’s lives at risk. Indeed, I notice that none of those who unleashed violence on innocent people have been willing to comment in public. They simply cannot defend the indefensible.

Hopefully, at some point, groups of anarchists engaged in violent and destructive behavior (who by no means represent the ideals of anarchism) will realize their efforts only help the state by marginalizing struggles for justice. It won’t come, however, without some reaching out on the part of peaceful activists. Obviously it is tough to reach out to people who won’t identify themselves. But op-eds such as Porter’s are a start, at least in terms of getting the conversation going.