Student Fees Protests: The Real Vandals
The decimation of our public services will cause far more bloody mayhem than the student protests
This week, tens of thousands of students and teachers demonstrated their commitment to the vanishing idea that the interests of the ordinary majority should prevail over the will of the powerful few. Most adhered to the prescribed rituals of peaceful and legitimate protest. But, as we should expect in times of great injustice, some departed from the script. They lit bonfires, smashed windows, occupied the roof of an unlovely building and ill-advisedly hurled the odd inanimate object.
As the same few pictures of broken windows and bonfires were flashed across television screens, out scuttled the politicians to deplore "bloody" mob violence and those who "ruined it for everyone else". Union officials vied with them to see who could use the strongest language ("despicable", "disgraceful", "contemptible"). In most of the media the protesters became "thugs", "rioters" and "criminals".
Meanwhile, a coalition government with no mandate for what they are doing demonstrated that their declared commitment to legitimate protest is no more than symbolic, with politicians such as Nick Gibb, the education minister, insisting that a largely peaceful protest by tens of thousands of students will not change the government's planned course of action in the slightest.
Focusing on damage to buildings usefully distracts attention from the much more far-reaching and systematic violence now being visited upon our education system and society more widely. It is as if we are being asked to believe that reparable damage to windows matters more than the lasting decimation of the nation's public property – schools, universities, public transport and hospitals; or that young people in search of social justice will undermine the fabric of Britain more viciously than those who would systematically degrade this country's welfare system, employment prospects, wages and pensions.
The wilful infliction of injury on human beings is violent and must not be condoned. Hurling a fire extinguisher into a crowd is clearly wrong, but the broken glass and bonfires of Wednesday were more visually spectacular than actually harmful. It is the coalition's policies that are going to generate bloody mayhem. Cancer patients endure violence as they wait longer for fewer tests. Those sleeping rough in the winter cold suffer violence. As for real destruction and vandalism, let us begin with our libraries, recreation services, public transport and school buildings. As some lecturers at Goldsmiths college in London have pointed out, the "real violence in this situation relates to the destructive impact of the cuts".
Those who inflict such violence through laws, budgets and the hypocritical language of shared pain feel entitled to demand non-violence. As the basis of protest, non-violence has been perverted from its once effective use as a weapon of the people – with actions such as sit-ins, boycotts, bonfires of goods and picketing – into a subterfuge for rulers, a pious excuse to protect them from the consequences of their actions. When that fails, out come the arrests and intimidation, as with the police hunt for those who occupied the Millbank building. We must not tolerate this demonisation of those who attempted to symbolically reclaim their country.
As resistance to the destruction of our social and economic landscape gathers momentum, we need effective strategies of protest. Civil disobedience – a principled breaking of the law – can be a powerful tool. Genteel rallies do not put sufficient pressure on the political class. Tarnishing justifiably angry young people as thugs will not make the real problem – the violence of the entitled few against the disenfranchised many – magically disappear.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010