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From the Banlieue to the Citadel: A Reflection on the Student Protests

Something new is emerging. What we’ve witnessed in the months of November and December is the biggest wave of student protest in British history. Culminating in the demonstration on December 9th where university and FE students joined by large numbers of school students demanded their right to protest and stormed Parliament square. In a defiant display of unity they hammered home their message yards from the gates of Parliament itself where inside the bill that will triple tuition fees and condemn students to tens of thousands of pounds of debt was narrowly passed with the Coalition’s majority slashed by three quarters.

The wave of occupations, demonstrations and walkouts has been unprecedented but equally unprecedented has been the radicalisation of a whole layer of young people from outside the university system, many of whom were tasting political struggle for the first time. If the initial demonstration of 10th November called by the NUS was largely made up of university students, the three subsequent London demonstrations have seen an increasing number of young people from FE colleges and schools from around the country walking out of their classes to protest. This is a generation of young people who not only have to look forward to a lifetime of debt if they get to university, but are now facing the prospect of losing their Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which gives up to £30 per week to school students from the poorest backgrounds. The government is axing EMA completely from the end of this academic year. If anymore proof were needed this double attack shows the ConDem’s claims to fairness and support for the poorest in society to be nothing but a sham.

A group of FE students interviewed on December 9th by the BBC(1) put this prospect in unambiguous terms. They described themselves as being from the ‘slums of London’ that without EMA and with the prospect of a life paying off debt, selling drugs on the street seemed a more attractive option. The BBC’s Paul Mason went so far as to author an article(2) describing with enthusiasm the “Dubstep crews from the banlieues of London”. While the term may suggest a stereotypical image of black youth and urban music the reference to banlieues is prescient. These are areas on the edges of major French cities (most prominently Paris) suffering from severe deprivation and youth unemployment, and which in Paris are home to a large North African immigrant community. In October and November 2005 these Paris suburbs exploded in a series of violent demonstrations that shook mainstream France to its core. At stake were not just the issues of unemployment and deprivation but the way the Muslim community in France had been systematically marginalized and alienated from the rest of society over a period of decades. The trigger for the riots were the deaths of two teenage boys electrocuted in a railway substation while being chased by police, but in reality the young people of suburbs like Clichy-sous-Bois had endured years of stigmatisation and police brutality. Two days before the unrest began the then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the youth of the banlieues as scum. These disenfranchised communities were only silenced after emergency powers were granted to the authorities to impose everything from curfews to house-to-house searches, and after weeks of violence by the legions of CRS (French riot police) sent to restore the status quo.

Have we not seen a similar pattern of events occur here in recent weeks? Against the common-place accusation that the FE college and school students are ‘Thatcher’s Children’ brought up on a diet on consumerism and apathy, what we are really dealing with here is the children of New Labour. This is the disenfranchised generation that have seen their horizons narrow during a period when only the rich got richer. It was Tony Blair that introduced tuition fees in 1998, and who launched the ASBO in the same year. This period also saw an unprecedented degree of demonisation of young people who have been blamed for everything from ‘gang culture’ to increases in the rate of sexually transmitted infections. How often have we seen the media frothing over stories of feral youths from nameless suburbs who ‘lack any respect for authority’? How many hours of footage featuring bored kids running round badly lit housing estates has the public been subjected to? Supposedly revealing ‘Broken Britain’ such hysterical reaction merely serves to increase the feeling of alienation felt by a generation of young people whose experiences of life are of being that part of society that has no part.

Social exclusion breeds anger, and what the Coalition cuts have done is to give this anger a focus that it never had before. The seeds of this discontent were laid by Thatcher and then cultivated by Blair, but against this latest attack we have seen the broadest movement of young people in UK history send a potent message that they will take no more.

Both bloggers and more established news commentators have highlighted the use of social media as a organising tool for the movement. Freed from the more orthodox agitational outlets the demonstrations, particularly since the 10th of November, have grown off the back of Facebook groups and Twitter hash tags. But we should not allow the success of social media, the becoming-idol of those worshippers of spontaneity, to diminish the role that organised and experienced activists have played over the last two months. Despite their subsequent weakness it was after all the NUS who called the first demonstration in November which saw the cathartic scenes outside Millbank. Since then, as the NUS has withdrawn, the work of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts alongside the activists at ULU, the Education Activist Network and, lest we forget, those same old ‘unreconstructed’ left organisations that Laurie Penny mocks (3) have played a vital role in disseminating information and building the movement from the ground up.

Beyond cyberspace the London Student Assembly has drawn hundreds to their weekly meetings and displayed a model of direct democratic decision making as far removed from the discredited parliamentary democratic model as could be imagined. It is at these meetings that the details of where and when actions occur are hammered out and a plan of action debated. These direct democratic representatives are now looking to move forward with a National Assembly for Education scheduled for the end of January 2011 and to unite with their European counterparts to form a truly international student movement. It is just this sort of direct democracy that the spontaneous social networks bypass, where an event is announced and you either sign up or you don’t. The scale of the attacks by the ConDem government on the welfare of students and the working class have drawn an inspiring response, but it is foolish to attribute this response wholly to a spontaneous upsurge actualised by social media.

In the end social media does one thing: that is to make connections, networks. But networks don’t think themselves. They don’t analyse their situation or reflect upon their cause or purpose. They are exactly as has been stated, spontaneous upsurges of mass resistance, their appearance and tactics beyond the control of any centralised group of individuals. But for that spontaneity to become coherent, to solidify into a movement with longevity that focuses and multiplies its strengths, it is required to reflect upon itself, to take stock and assess its actions, not just smash itself in wave after wave against the rocks like some primordial life-form emerging from the sea. The 2005 riots in France were a dose of the rough music for liberal elites sitting comfortably in the citadels of the Ile de Paris, but none the less it ended in suppression. The question we face now is how to turn our rage into a hardened, unflinching movement that unites with already established groups, that draws strength from their experiences and learns from the defeats of the past. One advantage of having structured representation is that when a bigoted politician calls your comrades scum you are able to reply as one unified voice. This was precisely what the immigrant youths of Clichy-sous-Bois did not have in 2005, and so were all too easily vilified by the scare mongering press and politicians.

As has been said elsewhere(4) the next step is to fuse the student movement with the wider fight against cuts. The energy and shear gall of the student movement has put the unions to shame. The NUT and UCU couldn’t get their members out for one single hour in support. Given this fact the notion that it is for students to open up and offer support for union action beggars belief. Unite’s new general secretary Len McCluskey may understand this: “Trade unions need to reach out, too. Students have to know we are on their side. We must unequivocally condemn the behaviour of the police on the recent demonstrations. Kettling, batoning and mounted charges against teenagers have no place in our society.”(5) This public support in the liberal news media is only one small step. To convince the new generation of activists the unions need to be seen on the ground, sending representatives to occupations, inviting student leaders to address their members, and making links with students on their campuses. This must be support that stands side by side with students on freezing mornings against the lines of riot police, it must be the very definition of material solidarity. The militancy and enthusiasm of the students has the power to draw in the reticent union bureaucracy and energise the movement as a whole.

The communities of the banlieues fought their battles on their own doorsteps, we must take the struggle against the ConDems cuts to every community in the country and right to the very heart of government. No doubt their will be a rejoinder to the December actions early in the new-year, but one date that looms large on the horizon is the national demonstration called by the TUC on March 26th. All students, trade unionists and local anti-cuts activists must seize the opportunity forged by the recent actions and work to make the TUC demonstration the biggest the country has ever seen. The ideological edifice of the neo-liberal ConDem government has cracked, the consensus has been breached, now is the time to hammer home our advantage. To this end we need the kind of networking and spontaneity Laurie Penny lauds, we also need strong leadership, democratic accountability and the old fashioned methods of grass roots activism, and yes that may include the occasional printed publication. Now is the time that all these forces must reflect on what has been a remarkable explosion of mass resistance. But we must not rest on our laurels or settle back into comfortable routines. If the movement is to develop each section must learn lessons from the previous two months and then move forward as a whole.

Xaven Taner
December 20th 2010

3) and