Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Battle of Millbank

After the exuberance and excitement of Wednesday's massive demonstration (50,000+) against education cuts in London, the hangover is setting in as the inevitable witch hunt is launched against those accused of taking part in the clashes at Millbank Tower, where the headquarters of the Conservative Party are located.

So far more than 50 people have been arrested, with newspapers including the Daily Mail and the Telegraph running photos of protesters and urging people to shop them to the police. I hope some of the Facebook generation don't have to learn the hard way that there are times when filming every moment and sharing it with the world can put people at serious risk. No doubt in future protests too the police will be back to cracking heads Iain Tomlinson-style, now that they have 'shown' what happens when they are expected to show restraint. Today's Observer quotes a 'senior police figure' as saying 'In the past we've been criticised for being too provocative. During the next demo no one can say a word'. You reckon? A swifter and more brutal response at Millbank might have saved a few windows, but seriously injuring students would inflame the protest movement across the whole country.

So potentially dangerous as well as exciting times ahead, but it does feel like a turning point has been reached. Two years after the 'credit crunch', and months of phony war about austerity, the reality of cuts is beginning to be felt and the opposition to them is beginning to get serious. Nobody should dismiss this week's demonstration as just a bunch of students protesting as usual - in the history of the education system in the UK there has never been a student protest of this scale or militancy.

An article in the Evening Standard by the pro-cuts Chris Blackhurst on the day after the demonstration warned: 'The temperature is rising all the time. Already, we've had strikes from the Tube drivers and firefighters, and now students are taking to the streets. More groups are likely to follow suit... Disturbingly, the scene is set for more yesterdays. The police will undoubtedly be better prepared. But that is not to say there won't be trouble or that the rage is going to disappear ('Expect more rage if the rich and poor divide gets bigger', 11 November 2011).

The Government is clearly hoping that the diffuse nature of the cuts, with different groups affected in different ways over a long period, will prevent a united movement. They are trying their best to inflame division and resentment between those bearing the brunt of the cuts. For instance claiming that attacking benefits claimants is good for ordinary workers because it is 'unfair' that some people earn more from signing on than others do for working - easily remedied by increasing wages, rather than cutting benefits which will actually tend to put downward pressure on wage levels as a whole.

In relation to the students protests, we are told that they are being selfish and that they will be the privileged of the future. Some of them may be, but many of them will be 'lucky' to find a job when they leave college. Many of those protesting this week, including some of those arrested, were actually working class 16 & 17 year olds facing the axing of the Education Maintenance Allowance, the small payment to young people from the lowest income families to help them stay on at school or college.

In any event, the current generation of students will not be affected by the planned rise in fees as they are likely to be phased in for new students. So their motives cannot be dismissed as simply narrow-self interest (not that there's anything wrong with that). As Nina Power argued this week: 'The protest as a whole was extremely important, not just because of the large numbers it attracted, and shouldn't be understood simply in economic terms as a complaint against fees. It also represented the serious anger many feel about cuts to universities as they currently stand, and the ideological devastation of the education system if the coalition gets its way. It was a protest against the narrowing of horizons; a protest against Lib Dem hypocrisy; a protest against the increasingly utilitarian approach to human life that sees degrees as nothing but "investments" by individuals, and denies any link between education and the broader social good'.

Dancing in the streets

Anyway I was at home sick during the demonstration, so had to make do with watching on TV. Like at the G20 protests in London last year, the endless looping of the image of the windows breaking was used to convey a sense of an ongoing orgy of destruction. Clearly a time limited episode of smashing things up was part of what was going on, but there was also celebration. At one point on Sky TV they showed footage of people dancing to some wobbly bass and the presenter announced 'drum and bass is playing, and the beer is open'. Yes a cycle-powered sound system was on hand, according to a participant account at The Commune: 'A sound system started playing dubstep leading to a Reclaim The Streets carnival atmosphere'

Some good footage here of people dancing, with a megaphone-wielding MC:

This film provides a good overview of the whole event - clearly the main demonstration was carnivalesque, not just the Millbank protest, with people climbing on bus shelters etc:

* Advice for those at risk of being arrested at the November 10th Defence Campaign

Updated 16 November:

* Rouge's Foam has a good post on the demo, including some reflections on the music used:

'That day music stepped out of the record collection paradigm and played a role in raising morale, coordinating chants, and most importantly cohering and drawing attention to ourselves as an organised collective. Just south of Trafalgar Square as the march was starting I was near the back and still stationary, tightly packed in and shivering with hundreds of strangers from dozens of different universities. Eventually a sound system started up and boomed out Cee Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You’, a powerfully catchy, upbeat song and a perfect choice at that moment.

Recognising the sentiment we all turned, smiled, and started dancing and singing along, our eyes meeting with a strong and implicit sense of mutual understanding and agreement. There were performers on instruments too. The music of drummers and samba bands contributed to the sense of a shared mood. Outside the Houses of Parliament a student brass band were playing a characteristically old-fashioned and very English sort of music, and yet it only enhanced the atmosphere of diverse voices contributing in every unique way to one cause. By the time I arrived at the Millbank buildings, sound-systems were playing techno, dub, and if I’m not mistaken, Aphex Twin’s ‘Come to Daddy’. Together with our reasons for being there, the sense of collectivity that music instilled that day was ten times as strong as that whipped up at the very best of raves, and I’ll never forget it'.

* Beyond the Implode has done a very funny riff on the line 'drum and bass is playing and the beer is open'. Wish I'd recorded that Sky broadcast, would be a great sample.

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