Reflections on the aftermath of a student protest

I didn’t attend the student protests- except in the sense I walked down the South Bank (other side of the river from Parliament) where my walk home was curiously unencumbered by traffic and I heard the  hum of helicopters over the square itself.

As everyone knows by now the protest turned violent.
student protest sky view

Last night, I took a stroll down to then abandoned Parliament square to view the aftermath. There were no students left but the Westminster clean streets crew were in full force.  I wanted to see for myself if the violence was really that evident as often when you read the news things appear ‘worse’ than they in reality are.

This time I don’t think the media was exaggerating – all of the windows in the treasury that face Parliament square were smashed as were windows on the Supreme Court and all of the phone boxes accessible to the square.  Graffiti was spray-painted on the most of the statues in the square (such as ‘Racist Warmonger’ for Churchill) and I felt kind of sad.

But as citizens of a democracy we DO have a right to protest – this is a fundamental right – the right to assemble.  The right to express anger.

Let me say right now, I don’t condone this kind of violence, I don’t think its right to attack the Prince of Wales’ car – what can Chuck do about this?  He is supported by the state himself and uh do you really want him making policy decisions?

What the violence has done is given the student-protest media attention and reflected how angry, perhaps some of them are. Angry at Clegg (and other Lib-Dems) about the pledge, angry that their fees have trebled.

Is this the right way to go about it?  My immediate response is no, because I think violence is never the answer – and look at the effectiveness of non-violence protests.  Non-violence, such as advocated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The Civil Rights movement in the US in the 60s was defined by its relatively peaceful sit-ins – peaceful on the part of the protesters themselves that is, not the police or authorities at the time. An example of a peaceful protest was evident during the student protest yesterday – the Iraq war protesters who have lived in tents on Parliament square for the last 8 or so years were actually cordoned off by the police and seemed to have avoided the fray of students chucking placards and sticks.

On the other end of the spectrum, the poll tax riots in the UK (1990) were in large violent protests – or rather perhaps similar to the current protests in that it was a rally which then turned violent.  Which was reflective of the anger that most of the population I would imagine felt about the blessed Margaret and her silly decision.  But the poll tax, unlike the student fee rise, was a pretty unifying issue, it affected everybody. And this was manifestly unfair and Draconian.

The rise in student fees doesn’t effect much of the population, and many people who don’t go to Uni or don’t send their kids to Uni are perhaps horrified about the violence. I overheard many of these sentiments (which I cannot repeat politely in this post) from others walking around the square last night viewing the wreckage. The principle that students have to contribute to their education was supported by most in the general election in May (both Labour and the Tories who collectively had the vote majority campaigned on this platform) was supported by most of the population.  Its a matter of degree and a matter of perhaps the manner in which it was implemented but it IS a divisive issue.

But what I am struck by thinking about the protests is there is a dilemma.  Trying to gain popular support for stopping student fee increases would go much better by trying to win hearts and minds, but how do you do this?  Non-violent sit-ins on the part of the students go relatively unnoticed by the media (such as the sit-in protest at UCL by students) but violence is hateful and doesn’t win over hearts and minds even from your fellow protesters but does get lots and lots of media attention.

Trying to resolve this dilemma I think is essential now if students want to move forward with protests.  But it is also in part down to the media, it would have been nice if they had covered some of the more good-hearted, funny parts of the student protests, where many of the placards were witty and thoughtful.

funny student protest placard

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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11 Responses to Reflections on the aftermath of a student protest

  1. Pingback: Guest post at Occam’s Typewriter « Girl, Interrupting

  2. Kausik Datta says:

    I understand what you’re saying, but I’m still ambivalent about this. As you mentioned, peaceful protests go largely unnoticed; when they turn violent, as they sometimes do when the anger seethes, they garner the wrong kind of attention. Where is the golden mean? How can it be ensured that voices of protest shall be heard without the need for recourse in violence?

    In Japan – I’ve heard – workers start working furiously without taking a break if they have to express their displeasure with the management. Because this can adversely affect performance and quality, the management takes notice for a redress. In India, strikes (bandh) have become so commonplace that ordinary people are now blasé about them; the authorities still have to take notice because of the prospect of violence and the complete cessation of work. But these methods of protest are very region- and/or culture-specific; there isn’t a guarantee they’d be effective in, say, the UK.

    Where and what is the right recourse then, for those who dissent? Do British politicians engage in any dialog at all with the affected group prior to legislating these changes?

  3. JamesG says:

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if Parliament decided — in honor of the riots — to give tuition an additional increase.

    Nothing too harsh, just an extra 5 or 10 percent.

    The purpose?

    To make it clear that rioting is counterproductive.

  4. Kausik Datta says:

    So… You advocate fee increase as a class action punitive measure for voicing dissent (however unruly), while suggesting no recourse for the hurting students?

    Interesting.

  5. ricardipus says:

    This kind of thing really irritates me. Got to see all manner of yobbos smashing things up in Toronto earlier this year. And remember that there is a whole “class” (and I use that word advisedly) of people who are professional protesters – they just show up no matter what the cause, in order to create havoc and steal stuff.

    A peaceful protest of 10,000 people standing in the middle of a busy intersection in downtown London wouldn’t go un-noticed, I think. Heck, a peaceful protest of 2,000 scientists and supporters a short while ago made the headlines here in Canada!

  6. Jenny says:

    I feel for the students because I imagine most of them are just as horrified as we are. I am so thankful that nobody hijacked the Science Is Vital demo for their own ends – I had sleepless nights about our decision to put Colin Blakemore on the podium as such as well-known target of animal rights activists – thank goodness they didn’t show.

    How can you stop the yobs from taking over when your protest is so large that lots of cops get deployed?

  7. ricardipus says:

    Stunning photos here (HT somebody or other on Twitter, maybe Girl, Interrupted herself, aw heck I can’t remember now).

    Warning – some violence and blood.

  8. Austin says:

    Kausik wrote:

    “Do British politicians engage in any dialog at all with the affected group prior to legislating these changes?”

    This reminded me there is a joke about how major change happens in Universities in the UK, which goes like this is:

    1. “Oh, just flying a kite old chap, simply an ideas session”

    2. ” No no, extensive consultation in progress, [NB: which no-one knows about] decisions a long way off”

    3. “Oh, haven’t you heard? All decided. Yes. Quite impossible to revisit it, no time. Must press on.”

  9. Frank says:

    I’m ambivalent, like Kausik, about this. On TV news this morning there was a student leader talking. He was asked if condemned the violence ut he wouldn’t. He condemned the police violence but he said it was not his place to condemn the violent actions of the protesters.

    It is a sad fact that sometimes violence does effect change; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

    But if the students do not have very wide support across the country these tactics will not get results, imho.

  10. Thanks for all of the comments
    It bothers me too! all of the violence – I see these incredibly touching photos of the civil rights movement where they were being brutalized by the police, while sitting calmly – but that was a different issue.

    This is such a divisive issue that I think its hard to know what to do, and like Jenny says horrifying to most of the students – as it would have been if someone smashed up phone boxes at the science is vital protest. But they didn’t.

    but then think about the Poll Tax riots – this disenfranchised everyone it was unifying and ridiculous – and it got repealed after the violence – but was it repealed BECAUSE of that violence? Hard to say – I would love to see the diarys of the Tories in government from that time to see if violent protests were effective. I think it also signalled perhaps that Margaret had gone mad (and was soon out!)

    It’s a huge dilemma

  11. chall says:

    I’m so late commenting on this that I contemplated not writing. Anyhow, my personal fear is that since so many protests today (last couple of years) have turned violent and seem to have three fractions; the police, the protesters and the media photographers covering it all, most “regular non violent people who would like to show support for the protest in itself – avoid getting involved. This in turn making the protest less valid since you can always disregard it as “those violent maniacs didn’t like it but ‘Regular people’ don’t mind it”. Which means that the issue (not liking the descision about to get enforced) is not debated as much…

    Not that I’m a foil hat carrier normally but somewhere here I find it ironic that the violent protesters who claim to dislike the government(TM) are really playing into their hands quite a bit and with every protest turned violent the grounds to listen to protests are shrinking….

    (disclaimer: I was raised, and still agree, in a house hold where the belief was that non-governmental/people in power need to show support or the lack of the support in order for democracy to function. That said, I haven’t been to a rally/protest in some time since the last time turned violent and by the “guilt by association” I didn’t feel that the police really would have the time/interest to separate me as a non violent protester from the violent protester in the crowd who throw rocks at them….)