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Defend Education’s Demonstration and the Aftermath

The protest at the University of Birmingham had its troublemakers, but we should make sure not to accuse everyone there of violence and vandalism, and should recognise all of those at fault in this multi-faced debate.

This post is going to be very different from my others and will describe Wednesday’s events and aftermath from a very personal perspective. Attending the event as a journalist reporting for the University newspaper, Redbrick, I became subject to the same treatment as the protesters I was with. Although I sympathise completely with the demands of Defend Education, my attendance at the protest was as a completely impartial reporter. This article, posted on my personal blog, is a true account of my thoughts and feelings about the day.

The demonstration was never going to be a peaceful protest. It is almost impossible to actually hold a peaceful protest – one where aggression is absent – because of the passion that drives such events. Here it was anger towards the university at their continual attempt to shut down political conversations, anger at their choice to spend £60,000 on injunctions rather than raising the wage of the lowest-paid employees, and anger at the initiation of disciplinary procedures against six randomly selected students from the peaceful occupation of the Senate Chambers last year. This aggression cannot be held back otherwise the protest would be pointless. However, the physical aggression we saw from both sides – the protesters and the security staff – was unnecessary, damaging for the group’s reputation and a major set back for this opportunity for change. We only have to look at how close the group’s demands came to becoming part of the Guild of Students’ Beliefs and Commitments to understand this.

Defend Education’s potentially game-changing demonstration was hijacked, as we have seen multiple times before, such as at the 52,000-person strong march against tuition fees in London in 2010, which ended in the violence at Millbank. What could have been a loud march around campus, even ending in a new occupation or a strengthening of the existing one, was immediately ruined by the minority who chose to break into the campus’ well-loved icon: Old Joe clock tower. If there was one thing that the demonstration could have done to annoy the majority of students at the University, it was the defacement of this beloved symbol – the graffiti painted on to the base of the tower has angered even those students who would have ended the day still completely oblivious to this growing campaign. The unfurling of a 50-foot banner from the top of the clock tower, a clever move, would have been accepted, but this vandalism won’t be forgotten or forgiven. We are already seeing a rallying call for a clean up operation much like that seen in the aftermath of the London Riots of 2011. This act has unified students against the campaign group, rather than with the group.

To add salt to this injury, the demonstration moved around campus trying to gain access to the Aston Webb building through multiple entrances. The use of smoke grenades and fireworks to cause disruption (I can only assume in an attempt to cause confusion that could be used to gain access) was another step too far and any aggression from the security staff in response is overshadowed by this fact. Spectators will say that the security staff were only defending themselves and the University buildings from this threat. Maybe this is correct, but the level of aggression from the staff was disproportionate, and only angered protesters even more. When students are being allegedly shoved to the ground, some by their hair, this obviously exceeds what would be categorised as a proportionate response. So, noone is off the hook here: those who threw the smoke grenades and fireworks, and the security staff who violently responded are as equally as bad as each other. The eventual entry to the Great Hall did involve the violent breaking down of a rear entrance to the Hall, and this is certainly another example of actions that have damaged the campaigning group’s image, but we must remember that damage to property is trumped by the damage to persons that we had already witnessed, and were still yet to witness.

We must remember, however, that a small and unknown minority of the protesters committed these violent acts and that we cannot simply lump the entire demonstration into the same group. Arguably, the others are complicit in their acts by continuing to demonstrate and not distancing themselves from the actions but after some meticulous planning and large-scale coordination, to abandon the protest would have disheartened many in the movement and was simply not an option.

Once in the Great Hall, aside from the construction of a barricade made from equipment set-up for the Give It A Go Fair (another action that meant sympathy with the campaign was lost from students, although it’s not entirely clear whether protesters knew this was the case), the group were entirely peaceful, simply singing songs and co-ordinating next steps, despite the intimidation tactics used by security staff filming from overlooking balconies.

The arrival of the police caused a further loss of morale from those in the protest. As we were forced to stand outside in the cold and rain, without access to food, drink or toilet facilities or several hours, tensions heightened, protesters became agitated and some became unwell. Despite our pleas for some humanity, we were detained with no charge, and some who needed medical attention were refused it. The police can deny it was a kettle as much as they like but if one goes by its definition – the containment of protesters within a police cordon, with police deciding when and how protesters can leave – it is most definitely what happened on that dismal evening. Those who had committed the crimes that we were accused of – aggravated trespass, criminal damage, assault -, those who were just protesting and those who were there reporting, were all considered as guilty as each other. As a condition of leaving the kettle, we were all (illegally) given a choice: to give our details to police, or to be immediately arrested and taken to the police station. 13 people chose the latter, and ended up spending up to 30 hours in detention for a refusal to give over their names. This use of illegal tactics immediately put the group at a disadvantage and shows another classic example of intimidation tactics, designed to dissuade people from taking part in these legitimate activities again.

We must also take into account the University’s attempt to play psychological games with the protesters and other students, using divide-and-rule tactics. The University’s plea for sympathy over social networks and the follow-up message from the Vice-Chancellor now dominate the market for empathy from students. While students at the protest were being detained, charged and taken to court, unable to defend themselves on campus, the University slyly and successfully continued its campaign to discredit the group and, thus, their demands.

Hence, this leads me to my final point. It is incredibly disappointing that the Guild of Students, a union designed to represent students, support students, and fight for better conditions for staff and students at the University, has taken the stance it has. Having read through the President’s personal statement, I can agree with her that the way her distress was ignored by protesters was appalling and that should not be tolerated. But, similarly, those within the police kettle who needed medical attention were ignored. The censure of the Vice President (Education) at the Guild Council took place without the Vice President being able to defend herself and ignores the mandate on which she was elected: to fight against fees and cuts, and for better student representation. Of course, this latter point is a matter of interpretation, but this is the Vice President’s interpretation of mandate and, on that basis, she was fulfilling it. Further, she was doing the Guild’s job and supporting those students who had been illegally arrested, whilst the Guild ignorantly condemned the entire group of protesters.

Despite being a supporter of Defend Education and their demands, I agree that the demonstration was an appalling display. The violence and vandalism that happened had no place within the remit of a peaceful protest. Protesters did themselves, and the cause, no favours by resorting to it. The movement’s growing credibility was destroyed that evening when the clock tower was defaced, security staff were assaulted and an event designed for the benefit of students was postponed. This is not to say, however, that everyone at the demonstration is to blame, but just the minority who had their minds set on vandalism and violence from the start. Furthermore, the reaction from security staff, the university and the illegal arrests made by police show that they behaved just as inexcusably on, and prior to, the day. This is not an event that should be, or will be, forgotten.

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