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.
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.