A Generation in Revolt

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For years we have been told that today's students are apathetic. Dave Sewell argues that the "Day X" demonstrations marked the birth of a new student movement.


Image: Loki English

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven."

So the poet Wordsworth hailed the French Revolution of 1789. In 1968 Paris activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit said of 10 May, the night of the barricades:

"It's a moment I shall never forget. People were building up the cobblestones into barricades because they wanted - for the first time - to throw themselves into a collective, spontaneous activity. People were releasing all their repressed feelings, expressing them in a festive spirit. Thousands felt the same needs to communicate with each other... That night has forever made me optimistic about history. Having lived through it I can never say 'it will never happen'."

The student revolt that took off in November 2010 has yet to reach anything like the scale of Paris in May 1968, when a sit-in sparked the greatest general strike in European history, and is even further from being a revolution. And yet there is something Parisian in the atmosphere; something that resonates with Wordsworth and Cohn-Bendit's words.

If I forget everything else I'll always remember 10 November for the number of people who described it to me as the best day of their lives. It began with a demonstration organised by the lecturers' UCU union and the National Union of Students (NUS) - the first that NUS had organised for a number of years. Expectations were low: initially the police were told to expect a turnout of 15,000, revised at the last minute to a little over 20,000.

In the event we were 52,000, spilling out at both ends of the short street we had been given to assemble in, a crowd the size of a music festival ready to face down the politicians out to wreck education. The atmosphere was electric, feeling like so much more than "a march from A to B". And so it became. As the route of the demonstration passed Millbank Tower, home of the Tory HQ, thousands poured in to occupy the courtyard, lobby and roof. And the rest is history.

Placards disappeared into a bonfire. The people who, 11 months previously, had made Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name of a Christmas number one were now chanting its lyrics in the face of the overwhelmed riot cops. The idea of student apathy has become a well-worn British cliché, and behind apathy lurks a sense of powerlessness, of despair. On 10 November we began to chip away, at least, at that cliché and the hopelessness it represents.

That demonstration was attended mainly by university students, but it was watched by millions who had been stuck in work - or school - and wished they had been there. The right wing press had to quickly temper its predictable denunciations. In the words of one memorable Mail on Sunday article, the stick-wielding lefty thugs were in fact "our children". The mood of the public was summed-up by light entertainment TV presenter Paul O'Grady, who won rapturous applause on his chat show for the suggestion that he should go and give the students some "riot training".

Mass movement

It was the birth of a mass movement. By the end of term almost 50 occupations had taken place in universities and colleges across the country. Thousands of students were taking action together to take possession of offices and lecture theatres and to use them as bases for organising further action. An occupation might host a teach-in one day and then use the next to build for direct action against firms like Vodafone and Topshop, which could remove the need for education cuts by paying the taxes that they owed. In between, mass organising meetings would roll on into the early hours - although many of the occupiers did find time to engage in a "dance-off" competition via YouTube. And this was despite the attempts from some university managers to drive the occupying students out by turning up the air conditioning at night to create subzero temperatures.

The occupations, with a few exceptions, took place inside universities, but they drew in active support from way beyond their campuses. Workers and trade unionists were welcomed with open arms. Several occupations hosted general assemblies, bringing together cross-sections of entire communities. In Cambridge over 300 people attended, including many mobilised by the trades council and speakers ranging from "Grandparents against the cuts" to 13 year old school students.

And it was precisely the youngest school and college students who were to become the cutting edge of the movement. After 10 November came a series of days of action - Day X (24 November), Day X2 (30 November) and Day X3 (9 December) - when students walked out to take part in militant protests against fees and education cuts. Most major cities saw several thousand school and college students walk out on Day X, with hundreds in even some of the smallest towns. Pupils went from classroom to classroom chanting "Strike, strike" and pulled out whole schools. Town halls and Lib Dem offices were occupied. In Brighton protesters took over four buildings.

Whitehall and Parliament Square in London were given the Millbank treatment on a greater scale. On Day X3, while the bill to raise tuition fees was getting its first reading in the Commons, tens of thousands of students defied the police to occupy Parliament Square and besiege their traitorous MPs. When the bill was passed, hundreds attempted to break into the Treasury chanting "We want our money back". The uprising on our university campuses has been on a remarkable scale, but even this has been more than matched by a whole new generation of activists in their early teens.


Inside the Parliament Square kettle on "Day X3". Photo: Geoff Dexter

The impact of this revolt on the coalition government has been tremendous. The tuition fees bill limped through its first reading at great cost: the government's majority had been cut from 84 to 21, and three Lib Dem MPs resigned from positions in the government. The Liberal Democrats were split three ways - or was it four? - with the bill opposed by the party's president and two former leaders. Even Vince Cable, the minister responsible for drafting the legislation, speculated about abstaining.

This is already worlds away from the calm, confident David Cameron and Nick Clegg of May and June. This is a government that has been shaken, humbled and pushed to breaking point in just six months. Gone are the smug smiles - the fragility of the coalition is clear for all to see.

Not for the first time in history, the government's weakness has been matched by its willingness to resort to force. Dozens of students were arrested after Millbank, and by Day X2 the number was already well into the hundreds.

The casual brutality of the police astounded many. On Day X3 Jody McIntyre was dragged from his wheelchair and his brother, Finlay, was prevented from coming to his aid. Tahmeena Bax was knocked unconscious, and awoke to find police medics making jokes about her hijab. Fifteen year old Imogen had her leg broken, and many more were filmed and photographed being kicked, punched or charged with horses.

"Restraint"

Most chilling of all, 20 year old Alfie Meadows needed three hours of emergency brain surgery to save his life after a baton-blow to the head - and the police even tried to stop him being treated at the hospital nearest the scene. Within days, Metropolitan police chief Sir Paul Stephenson was offering his resignation - not because of the violence unleashed on Alfie and others, but because the protesters had broken through the protective bubble that is supposed to surround the royal family, defiling Prince Charles and Camilla's car. Senior officers began to lobby for the right to deploy water cannons against students, and armed royal escorts were praised for their "restraint" in not blowing anyone's head off.

But even more than the violence, it was the use of the kettle that typified the policing of the protests. Thousands of very young protesters were kept penned in for eight hours on Day X, and even longer on Day X3, in freezing temperatures with no access to food, water and toilet facilities. Some media reports produced as fact the police story that protesters were allowed to leave as long as they were peaceful, but in others it was impossible to ignore the plaintive chant of teenagers, "let us go".

This police brutality was interpreted by many students as an attempt to scare and demoralise them into giving up and going home for good. The effect was instead to harden their resolve. Many of the students involved have been first time protesters, but many have memories of the protests against the invasion of Iraq. We tried marching peacefully, they say, and it got us nowhere.

Many more had responded to both Iraq and tuition fees by dumping Labour for the Lib Dems. But when you vote Lib Dem you get broken promises, and when you protest against the broken promises you get kettled and horse-charged. This is the generation for who the cuts would deny any hope in the future - and who lying politicians and violent cops are now denying any voice or representation within the bounds of the system. The logic of rejecting those politicians and defying those cops then leads towards seeking an alternative to that system.

I had the privilege of addressing the Whitehall kettle on a megaphone. The vast crowd went wild at every mention of a general strike or revolution. Later, small groups kept warm around burning placards and traffic cones as they discussed what this revolution would look like and how it would come about. The level of political generalisation is astounding. This revolt is about education, but it is also about housing shortages and benefit cuts. It is about police racism and stop and search. It is about class.

In all of this comparisons with 1968 are hard to avoid. There are many important differences but the parallels are striking. In 1968 almost every worker in France had a reason to fight, yet few had the confidence. On the surface apathy reigned and anger was subsumed into bitterness. The silence was broken by the students who kick-started a revolt that shook the world so spectacularly that 40 years later Nicolas Sarkozy defined his presidential project as dismantling the legacy of 1968. He warned his contemporaries to "watch the youth like milk on the boil".

Then, as now, young people have a special role to play in the class struggle. We have a greater stake in fighting for the future, and less to lose - from jobs to mortgages - in the present. We are almost entirely free from the "nightmare of the past" - the memory of the defeats that have conditioned the working class and the organisations that claim to represent it. We have no excuse not to fight.

At the end of last term the student struggle in Britain was going from strength to strength. Even as most of the largest university occupations were shutting down for the Christmas break another wave was just beginning, with students in Hull and Aberystwyth keen to prove that they had just as much fight in them as those of Manchester and London. The Day X3 demonstration was the largest since that of 10 November, and in the kettle we chanted "We'll be back". In the new year a second and possibly a third Commons vote will give us more chances to keep that promise.

The student revolt has already shaken the government, and it is only beginning. But as Gary Younge has pointed out in the Guardian, "The danger posed by the students is that of contagion." The student revolt in 1968 started a general strike and almost a revolution. In 2010 university occupations sent delegations to visit workplaces and trade unionists answered their call by providing food and blankets, mobilising to defend the occupations from eviction, paying for transport to demonstrations and even, in a few cases, walking out to join them.

In 2011 we have all to play for. Socialists can take inspiration from the students, but we cannot let them stand alone with the forces of order lined up against them and the fate of the government at stake. The resistance has taken off and everything we have needs to be thrown behind it, from the solidarity of our union branches to the ideas of the world we have to win. Students and workers - unite and fight!