The Millbank Protest
Let’s be honest
We’ll start with the fire-extinguisher. It was an act of stupidity by an individual. It could have resulted in someone’s death. Watching the videos of this red chunk of metal hurtling towards the ground still makes me sick with apprehension of what could have happened and sheer relief that a significant tragedy was avoided, albeit by chance.
However, it did not represent the broader direct action of vandalism that took place on Wednesday and it did not represent the wider peaceful march. It has been roundly criticised and condemned by all concerned. In just one example of many sublimely collective actions on Wednesday, the thousands milling below in the forecourt booed the action before chanting as one ‘stop throwing shit’. So for those who choose to reduce the arguments surrounding the events of yesterday down to this one incident, it ought to be understood that the full significance of the wider action taken against the Millbank building will be missed by such side-stepping tactics.
And let’s put another thing to the side too. 200 ‘idiots’ it was not. I stood in front of Millbank. I saw the glass smash. I saw the banner drop from the roof. And I cheered alongside three thousand people (students, lecturers, employed, unemployed, young and old) when I saw it. Sure, a minority still, but a significant minority crossing lines many of them will have never felt needed to be crossed before. Once again, many media commentators and NUS representatives have attempted to reduce the facts of the day into a simple statement which they can condemn, thus securing their selection as the Labour parliamentary candidates of the future.
No other way
Vandalism is not violence – a semantic point which many will disagree with, but one worth consideration. Those who condemn Wednesday’s ‘violence’ saw images of broken glass illuminated by the smoke and red flame of a flare. They saw individuals hammering at windows and tearing down panes with their own hands. At one point, there was a rather feeble attempt to throw a coffee table against the window. It is these images which have burned themselves into minds of onlookers by virtue of their novelty.
I saw individuals push against police lines. I saw protesters throw missiles, some of which made their mark and resulted in injury to others. I saw police lines push back. I saw batons falling upon the heads, necks, and shoulders of protesters seemingly without restraint and out of rage. I saw a line of riot shields storm forward without warning and connect against the skin of those on the front line once, twice, three times until they were knocked to the ground or knocked into submission. Strangely, as protests go these actions seemed par for the course.
My understanding of violence is force against people. My understanding of vandalism is destruction or damage to property. And it is the latter that has led to mutterings of troublemakers and anarchists. It is a sad but neat and fitting demonstration of how obsessed we are with the material, the capital, the market at the expense of the individual.
So I don’t see the actions of many against the bricks and mortar and glass and metal of Millbank on Wednesday as violent. I see them as actions of anger, frustration and desperation. And thus I see them as justified.
Many mass protests have taken place over the past twenty years. Almost uniformly they have achieved little or nothing. And today we hear David Cameron say ‘We won’t go back’ despite Wednesday’s events whilst explaining ‘there have been protests – both peaceful and sometimes protests that have turned quite nasty – under all government’ as if the public expression of our nation’s citizenry were a merely administrative formality to be endured. It is this deafness to our cries that has created the culture of desperation that is taking hold of the country. What must we do to be heard?
And let us be clear of the context in which this desperation is manifesting. For better or for worse we have a coalition government which almost no-one expected when they voted last May. One party to that government campaigned explicitly on the issue of tuition fees. They signed a pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees. They made a promise to the electorate and they are now reneging on that promise. They have defaulted on their half of the democratic obligation. Having paid with the currency of our votes we find we’ve been short-changed. The representation and democratic process which we believed we had bought have not been honoured. We were plied with false promises and played for fools. Our voices were ignored. There is no other way now.