Last Thursday, the government passed one of the most reactionary and ill-conceived pieces of legislation in this country’s history. At a stroke, the increase in tuition fees promises to destroy publicly funded further and higher education in England, and to consolidate one of the most far-reaching shifts of power and opportunity that has ever been engineered in a so-called democracy. Camouflaged by vacuous reference to “student choice” and a few token concessions to the less affluent, the new law will rig the entire system in favour of the privileged few. It will accelerate the conversion of genuine education into market-driven job training, and it will do irreversible damage to arts, humanities and social science subjects in particular.
Students and staff have mobilised in unprecedented numbers and unprecedented ways to oppose these disastrous education cuts. Unable to sustain let alone win the argument in public debate, unwilling to devote even minimal time for general consultation and discussion, the government has instead opted to quash our demonstrations with naked force, intimidation and collective punishment. Up and down the country, secondary school students have been threatened with expulsion for joining local protest marches. Scores of protesters have been injured by riot police, hundreds have been arrested and many thousands have repeatedly been corralled and detained (and then photographed) against their will.
Attempts to portray the protests as “riots” provoked by a frenzied few are a clichéd evasion of the real issues at stake here. Anyone who has participated in these demonstrations knows that each one has been a massive and powerful expression of revulsion for the government’s plans, an uncompromising rejection of the cuts and the neoliberal priorities they represent. It takes some nerve for a government that is destroying our education system (while waging war in Afghanistan, investing in new nuclear weapons and using “anti-terror” laws to persecute large swathes of its own population) to treat the tens of thousands of students and lecturers defending it as if they were guilty of collusion in violence.
In reality, the great majority of the violence has been suffered rather than inflicted by the protesters. In reality, given the calamity that confronts us, protesters have acted with remarkable discipline and restraint. In reality, although police justify the use of “containment” as a means of preventing violence, most of what violence there was during Thursday’s rally began well after the vast kettling operation was set up.
I imagine that the experience of my own students (studying philosophy at Kingston University, or at Middlesex University where I taught until this past summer) is typical of many others. Most of them have already committed huge amounts of time and energy to the anti-cuts campaign, and many have attended all of the major London rallies over the past month.
Shortly after Thursday’s vote, a policeman hit one of my current MA students on the head with his truncheon. He said it felt like he was struck by a solid metal bar. After being bandaged by other students and released from the kettle on account of his obvious injuries, police medics took a quick look at him, and checked that his eyes were still responding to light. According to my student, they recommended that he make his own way to his local hospital in North London, where he received stitches.
At least a dozen of the students I work with didn’t escape the kettle so quickly, and were among the thousand or so people who were eventually forced back on to Westminster Bridge shortly after 9pm, without water or toilets, without information or explanation, in the freezing cold and wind, long after the media had gone home. They were then crowded together for a couple of hours between solid lines of baton-wielding riot police. Many students say they were beaten with truncheons as they held their open hands high in the air, in the hope of calming their attackers.
“I was standing at the front of the group with nowhere to go,” Johann Hoiby, a Middlesex philosophy student, told me. “My hands were open and visible, when a riot police officer, without provocation, hit me in the face with his shield, screaming ‘get back’ when I clearly couldn’t move. The most terrifying thing was the fact that everyone was screaming that people were getting crushed, yet the police kept pushing us backwards when we had nowhere to go.”
Around the same time, one of Johann’s classmates, Zain Ahsan, was “hit in the abdominal area with a baton; I shouted back at the officer that my hands were in the air and I was being pushed by the people behind me.”
My Kingston students say they saw people having panic attacks, people seized up with asthma, people who fell under the feet of the crowd.
“The fact that there were no deaths on that bridge”, one says, “is a true miracle.”
Some students claim that they were then kicked by police as they were slowly released, single file, through a narrow police corridor. Everyone was forcibly photographed, and many of the people detained on the bridge were then taken away for questioning.
The story of one Middlesex undergraduate who used to sit in on my MA classes, Alfie Meadows, is already notorious. He received a full-on blow to the side of his skull. My partner and I found him wandering in Parliament Square a little after 6pm, pale and distraught, looking for a way to go home. He had a large lump on the right side of his head. He said he’d been hit by the police and didn’t feel well. We took one look at him and walked him towards the nearest barricaded exit as quickly as possible. It took a few minutes to reach and then convince the taciturn wall of police blocking Great George Street to let him through their shields, but they refused to let me, my partner or anyone else accompany him in search of medical help. We assumed that he would receive immediate and appropriate treatment on the other side of the police wall as a matter of course, but in fact he was left to wander off on his own, towards Victoria.
As it turns out, Alfie’s subsequent survival depended on three chance events. If his mother (a lecturer at Roehampton, who was also “contained” in Parliament Square) hadn’t received his phone call and caught up with him shortly afterwards, the odds are that he’d have passed out on the street. If they hadn’t then stumbled upon an ambulance waiting nearby, his diagnosis could have been fatally delayed. And if the driver of this ambulance hadn’t overruled an initial refusal of the A&E department of the Chelsea and Westminster hospital to look at Alfie, his transfer to the Charing Cross neurological unit for emergency brain surgery might well have come too late.
Over the last couple of days the stories of other victims (including the writer Shiv Malik, whose head needed five stitches after another encounter with a police baton) have begun to circulate, but it will take a few more days before the full extent of the injuries suffered on 9 December becomes clear.
With each new protest, we learn a little more about what we are up against.
For decades, the corporate interests that promoted and then implemented their neoliberal “reforms” sought to present them as a form of modernising improvement, one carried by the inexorable progress of history towards the untrammelled pursuit of profit “for the benefit of all”. For decades, this grotesque distortion of reality has helped to mask a relentless assault on the remnants of our not-yet-for-profit services and resources, and to persuade many of those sheltering in the more privileged parts of the world to tolerate such “development” as a necessary price to be paid for their comfort and security. Not any more. The days of “there is no alternative” are rapidly becoming a distant memory, and all over Europe the bankers’ masks have begun hiding behind police visors.
On Thursday, the government converted its assault on further and higher education into law, but only additional reliance on police truncheons will allow them to enforce it. To judge from the government’s response so far, it is now only a matter of time before truncheons are reinforced by water cannon and rubber bullets, and before near-fatal injuries become fatalities. As Michel Foucault understood, however, the successful exercise of power is “proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms”. If the neoliberal programme has never yet pushed so deep into the British public sphere, rarely have the means to impose it looked so exposed. No amount of police brutality can enforce an unpopular measure in the face of massive non-compliance. If threats to expel students may intimidate an isolated few, they soon become risible if ignored en masse.
The government has no mandate to treble fees and eliminate the Education Maintenance Allowance, and Parliament offers no credible alternative. The only way to block implementation of the Tory cuts is to mobilise schools and campuses over the coming months in ways that will oblige the government to back down. The Tories have called the question; as Howard Zinn reminds us, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.