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UK students: The battle of Parliament Square

A World to Win News Service.

On 9 December Parliament Square in London became the scene of an intense struggle. On one side were energetic university and secondary school students fighting for their right to an education and for the education of future generations. On the other were around 650 Members of Parliament hiding behind a brutal police force as they prepared to dictate a tripling of tuition fees to as much as £9,000 ($14,000) per year.

Tens of thousands of London students and pupils had walked out of class that morning to join a mass march through central London to Parliament Square. They assembled at Malet Street in front of the Union of London University (ULU). As they marched, passers-by expressed warm support. The provocative intentions of the police were clear from the beginning. As the march moved through Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, the main route to Parliament Square, was blocked by a police line so that the students could not pass by the Prime Minister’s residence in Downing Street. Protesters were forced to go through St James Park where they were again blocked

But the police could not resist the enormous mass of protesters and were forced to retreat inch by inch. Finally demonstrators managed to break through into Parliament Square. As groups of students started fighting the police, the police did not hesitate to respond as brutally as they could. While the police were beating some students with their batons other youth joined hands and danced in the square without fear. The protesters’ spirits were high and lively.

By just past 3 pm the police had been humiliated. A police van and all the police and their riot shields in front of the van were covered with paint.

Despite police promises not to stop the demonstration they started to close all the roads coming into Parliament Square to prevent more people from joining it. They also surrounded and “kettled” (trapped) those already in the square. While anxious parents and others watching live TV coverage were told that the youth were free to leave, that was a lie. By 5 pm no protesters were allowed out and the ring around them was getting tighter and tighter. The students were frustrated and angered by this “kettling” that was first used at the 2009 anti-G20 demos and has become a favourite police tactic in the UK.

At 5:40 the vote of the Parliament was announced. Many students felt that Parliament had shamefully ignored the people’s will and the struggle with the police intensified. As the police raised their sticks higher and hit harder, angry demonstrators fought back and attacked the Treasury Office and the Royal Court of Justice. They tried to bring down the Union Jack (British flag). The statue of that great man of empire Winston Churchill and the War Memorial were also targeted.

The fight between protesters and the police got even fiercer and both sides threw crowd-control barriers at one another. The police kept beating students indiscriminately and attacking them on horseback.

To give a taste of what it feels like to be kettled, we quote the following: “Gabriel Lukes, 14, left Dunraven school in south London on his own to join in the march. He was kettled in Parliament Square before being moved to Westminster Bridge just after 9 pm. He stood alone for two hours before being allowed off at 11 pm. His father Peter was waiting for him. ‘It was cold, cramped, you had like half a metre to yourself,’ he said. ‘It was just terrible.'” (Guardian, 10 December 2010)

Many people injured by the police were refused medical treatment and not allowed out of the temporary prison.

People attempted to break out, and some succeeded. A few protesters attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife.

According to eyewitnesses, when one of the officers chasing people on horseback fell to the ground and was trampled by his own horse, the police became even more aggressive in hitting and swearing at people.

A 20-year old philosophy student, Aflie Meadow, was left unconscious after a police officer hit him on the head with a truncheon while he was trying to leave Parliament Square. He underwent a three-hour operation for bleeding on the brain. The pavement designated a casualty area was littered with injured protesters. The majority were under 18. There have been reports in the media that around 40 protesters were taken to hospital, but these figures seem too low. There were certainly a great many walking wounded. It has been confirmed that police tried to stop hospital staff from treating the civilian wounded, including Meadow, who had to be taken from hospital to hospital. He is expected to recover.

Video footage posted on the Net since that night shows police dragging a disabled youth across the road after they tipped him out of his wheelchair. Another video shows at least one officer who removed her identification tag. This is considered a grave infraction of police regulations since officers without tags killed a bystander they mistook for a protester at last year’s anti-G20 demonstration.

The kettling continued into the night as a form of punishment. Then after 9 pm the police pushed all of the several thousand demonstrators onto the Westminster Bridge. They were kept trapped there until 11.30 pm, when they were allowed to leave one by one after being forced to show their faces to be filmed.

Many young people were beaten and/or arrested. Scotland Yard confirmed 26 arrests that night. Another nine have been been arrested since then and the police are circulating pictures of more than a dozen more wanted youth.

Thousands of demonstrators also marched through the city of Leeds, the constituency of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal-Democrat party that is part of a Conservative party-lead governing coalition. There were reports of student protest marches and other actions in many other cities that day.

Building to a fever pitch

Opposition to the proposed fee hikes had been building up to a fever pitch for a month.

The first demonstration on 10 November saw more than 50,000 students march through central London to Millbank Tower, the headquarters of the Conservative Party. Angry students attacked the building, broke the police line and forced their way inside. They occupied the building, its roof and the court yard. At the end of day 35 students were arrested and 14 hospitalised.

On 24 and 30 November, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) organised more demonstrations and days of action across the UK. The biggest demonstration took place in central London, but according to BBC, tens of thousands of university students and now secondary school pupils also staged marches, occupations and other actions in Manchester, Birmingham, Cambridge, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield, Leeds, Brighton and other cities.

After the debacle at Millbank, the police prevented the 30 November march in London from reaching its destination, even though it had been authorised. Avoiding a frontal confrontation that seemed to be what the authorities wanted, protesters split up into small groups. Eventually they converged on Trafalgar Square, where police contained them. By the end of the day, more than 150 were arrested.

Universities and colleges in London and all over England are still occupied. Many students believe that the parliamentary vote in favour of the tuition hikes has not settled the issue and want to continue this struggle.

Why the fees increase

The new coalition cabinet of Tories (Conservatives) and Liberal-Democrats introduced a plan to save over 9 billion pounds annually through huge cuts in public spending. Budgets were cut for universities and education as a whole. This was followed by the plan to raise the cap on university fees to £9,000 a year. The government seemed confident that it could carry out this plan with no serious opposition but the student protests put an end to this dream.

Although the Labour party voted against the plan on 9 December, they were actually the first to introduce big tuition increases when they were in power, and they were the ones to commission the review that led to the current fee hikes. But the new coalition cabinet under Conservative leadership accelerated that trend with a speed that shocked everyone. Lib-Dem leader Clegg had put his signature on a pledge not to increase tuition when his party was campaigning for election. Then, after he became Deputy PM, he turned around and said that the pledge had been a “mistake” and that the proposed increases were “a fair and progressive solution to a very difficult problem.”

This arrogant dishonesty enraged many people, who tend to believe that the Lib-Dems sold out just to share power with the Tories. This is not quite correct. In fact, while all three parties had promised to reject even smaller tuition increases than the ones that were eventually adopted, none of them have now stated any opposition to them in principle. Even the opposition Labour Party’s disagreement is with the speed with which the increases are to be implemented, which they feel risks too much social discontent, and not with the overall approach.

The agreement among the ruling class parties is related to the financial crisis affecting all the imperialist countries, including the UK. Since the crisis broke out, billions of pounds have been allocated to bail out the big banks and companies and help them become more efficient and successful in their competition with the financial institutions of rival imperialist countries. The cost of these efforts is to be borne by the people. For many, this amounts to snatching away the promise of the kind of life they thought they were entitled to and guaranteed.

Education budgets in the UK have been reduced by billions of pounds over the last few years. This has already damaged the educational system and dramatically lowered its quality level. The UK has already gone from a third place ranking on a world scale to tenth. Previous fee increases and cuts in grants have made it much more difficult for people from the lower sections of society to acquire an advanced education. The availability of education to all, which was once proclaimed a right, has disappeared as an official goal for some time now.

The government defended the tuition increases by saying that students can get loans. Even if and when this is so, they must begin paying back the loans at the end of their study or when they find a job. That means students may start their post-university lives with a debt of 30,000-40,000 pounds that must be completely paid off within 25 years. Buying an education is the logic of capitalism. Education is to be privatised and any investment made conditional on its immediate profitability.

The idea behind this plan, or at least the excuse, is that by buying an education – as they might buy a suit – students can advance their earning power. But even if this “works” for some people, it can only increase social inequalities. Such an approach means a further step in reducing people to soulless, competing personifications of money. It robs individuals of their human potential and impoverishes society intellectually and culturally. No wonder so many youth reject this vision of the future.

Who are the hooligans?

The radical protest actions indicate the anger and frustration of students, teachers, lecturers and parents. They are fighting not only for themselves but for the education of future generations that is now under attack by the thugs who are trying to vandalise the whole educational system. Yet the government and some media have waged a campaign to depict the students as hooligans. They have launched a witch-hunt to criminalise these youth who are actually the hope of the future.

These huge and determined protests have signalled that the British ruling class and their guard dogs may have a very difficult time in carrying on with their planned “austerity” measures. Many people have compared these actions to the protests against the poll tax that broke the back of Margaret Thatcher’s government two decades ago. While it is impossible to predict where the student movement will go next, it can certainly be said that British imperialism is in a much weaker and more volatile situation and deeper in crisis than 20 years ago.

December 17, 2010 - Posted by | A World to Win, articles, Education, movements, news

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