A WINTER REBELLION

Published: Fri, 02/25/2011 - 14:48 Updated: Fri, 02/25/2011 - 14:49

A big fee hike has enraged students in the UK as they spill over on the streets, often facing a brutish police out to smash them
Aniruddh Ghosal London

Students protest all the time, it's one of those stereotypes that don't conform to the limitations of culture and time. Students protest and they are mostly broke. So when students started protesting in the United Kingdom over fee hikes, no one really paid much heed to them. But, in only a few months, it had turned into one of the most serious and violent student protests in the country. 

It all started quite typically, a bunch of angry students with banners and catchy slogans armed with righteous anger protesting peacefully. However, over the last winter the increasingly frustrated protest has morphed into an ugly and extremely angry phenomenon. A day after students from all over London marched to Parliament, one found the streets of London scarred with placards, furiously scrawled graffiti, shattered glass and a knotty mess of metal fences. 

Initially sparked off by the coalition government's decision to hike up university fees from £3,290 to £9000, the police's aggressive and undemocratic handling of the situation has only made the situation more volatile. When you add to this the Conservative-Liberal coalition government's initial refusal to initiate a dialogue regarding such severe austerity measures, we have a very lethal combination. 

Before the general election in May 2010, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, had promised to vote against the proposal of increased tuition fees. After coming to power, Clegg changed his thoughts and supported the fee rise. Students believe that these changes in university fee structures and funding make higher education a prerogative of the rich, effectively destroying many of their prospects to do well in life. 

The protests which started in November last year were initially planned to be peaceful, but from the very beginning there seemed to be a certain anarchist edge to the protests. The first demonstration in London on November 10 was officially known as "Fund our Future: Stop Education Cuts"; it was disrupted when almost 200 protesters occupied Millbank Tower, campaign headquarters of the Conservative Party. This led to clashes between the riot police and the students, resulting in 14 injuries and 50 arrests. 

There were related protests through November and December all over the country, as universities such as Sussex and Kent saw their buildings being occupied for days by frustrated students. On November 24, several thousand protestors gathered in Trafalgar Square while the police had also decided to strengthen their ranks. The resultant protests saw the vandalisation of an unoccupied and old police van. Students vented their frustration at the symbol of injustice that many political commentators noted was left conveniently in the path of the protestors. A video posted on Youtube reveals that mounted police had been charging at the students, and in the process injuring them seriously.

Later interactions between the police and protestors reveal that the police seem to have decided that 'kettling' demonstrators was the most effective way of containing them. The process of kettling is quite simply surrounding a bunch of protestors deemed to be violent by the authorities and then trapping them. This process is, not surprisingly, very counterproductive. Protestors who had marched out onto the streets of a frozen London suddenly found themselves confined and surrounded by armed police officers. For hours they remained entrapped without any food, toilets or water while the unforgiving grey clouds emptied snow onto them. 

In such a situation, it's not very difficult to understand why the frustrated students (many of whom are not even 18) would see the police and the government as their enemy. Police tactics and violence against the protesters clearly goes against the very principle of protest that is the foundation of any democracy. By blocking legitimate forms of political expression, the government has only escalated the violence of these protests, and yet, uncannily, they continue to be 'shocked' by these protests.

The turning point in the protests was the incredibly hypocritical and almost laughable media frenzy that surrounded the 'Camilla attack' on December 9. Prince Charles and Camilla were being escorted back from the theatre when a student protestor managed to poke a stick into the heavily armoured Rolls Royce and poke the Duchess of Cornwall in the ribs. 

While this was happening, the police had started beating down the protestors using batons and charging at them with riot-horses.  A 20-year-old student, Alfie Meadows, was left with a severe brain injury; he almost died on December 9. The penetration of the Royal Rolls Royce signalled the end of any mask of fairness that the government had chosen to don. While Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the assault on the royal couple as "shocking and regrettable", politicians lauded the restraint shown by policemen in not shooting the unarmed students.

The media coverage and public statements made by politicians clearly show a gigantic effort to brand the protests as violent and hence somehow baseless. Ironically, this strategy has worked so well that today the protests, which were initially meant to be peaceful, have become very violent. Projectiles were thrown at moving buses, telephone booths were destroyed, roads were blocked, petrol bombs launched from roof-tops and a couple of protestors even tried to sneak into Buckingham Palace as a form of protest. A massive witch hunt has been initiated in the country as the police pours over CCTV footage and tries to trace back the students deemed a threat to society. 

Judges have forced universities to clamp down on these protests and expel students. Oxford University alone was asked to expel over 50 students. Marches, walkouts and occupation of university buildings took place all over the country. There has developed a clear split within the protestors, some still believe in peaceful protests and dialogue while another section of students has started questioning the value of such permitted transgressions. 

The changing nature of the student protests are but a symptom of England and even Europe's precarious economic position. The economic instability, coupled with unpopular and often weak governments, has left much of Europe in a state of perpetual unrest. While most people go about their lives in much the same way as before, a jagged undercurrent of frustration has penetrated layers of the social fabric. 

After protracted protests in the recent past, Greece recently witnessed a similar eruption of violence on the streets when a powerful bomb tied to a stolen moped blew up in late December. Italy and Spain have also been affected by anarchist violence and massive street protests. 

Even though the government has made it clear that the fees will be hiked, the student protests in the UK have not reached such violent proportions yet. These torrid months of resistance and defiance have shredded the typical and comfortable ease which one normally associates England with; instead, the 'city' finds itself struggling to answer many of the questions that have come up. 

Is there any point of protesting against these austerity measures? Can the financial debt of the country be only managed at the cost of a more human debt? Is the entire idea of protesting peacefully with permission, entirely idiotic and useless? Students will return from their Christmas break next week. And as they prepare for more marches, London breathes uneasily, waiting to see how the protests pan out.

A big fee hike has enraged students in the UK as they spill over on the streets, often facing a brutish police out to smash them
Aniruddh Ghosal London

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This story is from print issue of HardNews