Children of the revolution?

Students have a reputation of rebelling against the system. looks at the history of student politics and exercising the right to make your voice heard

Warwick students protest in 1975. Photo: Jake Bernard

Warwick students protest in 1975. Photo: Jake Bernard

“If you disagree with something, you have the right to fight for the right. So use your mind, use your vote, use your marching feet. Young people must live in the world that they create.” This is Jesse Jackson talking in Westminster last week. He speaks from experience. As Martin Luther King’s right hand man, he did exactly this in 1965, aged 24, taking part in the Selma to Montgomery marches, and subsequent other protests that led to racial integration and the modernizing of civilization. His protests were among a plethora of others against such topics as war and sexism, earning this era a reputation as revolutionary, and young people a reputation as protesters.

Giving this talk now, Jackson’s message coincides with the steady increase and widening of interest in activism against the spending cuts. As news headlines in the past few months have shown, the biggest cuts since the 1980s have inspired worldwide action. Last month, Spain came to a national standstill in reaction to the austerity measures, this month over six million French demonstrators have taken to the streets marching in protest against retirement age, and a large-scale UK protest is coming up next week with the National Demonstration in London.

However, Jackson is also addressing a generation that, in comparison to his own, has been largely unaccustomed to such a forcefully activist culture. Nowadays, the stereotypical label of ‘student protesters’ has changed: the words ‘student’ and ‘protester’ are no longer synonymous as they were 40 years ago.

Demonstrations have been far less prolific in recent years, and university is not a hub of political action detached from the rest of society. Oliver Burnham, a member of People & Planet protest group, insists, “student campaigning and protests haven’t died out, but there has been a shift from overtly-politicized campuses to smaller (but just as, or more, diverse) groups of campaigners. Students will still turn out en-masse, though, for any number of important issues.”

The impact, however, is overall far less powerful, which, considering the fact that around 30% of young people attend university, compared to the 13% in the 1960s, highlights a feeling of indifference about our generation. Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary and Education Secretary, observes the evident difference in interest in student activism between now and then: “the Vietnam war motivated students much more than the Iraq war did, for instance. I can’t talk with great authority on the later stuff because I wasn’t involved in student politics then, but the real year for student politics was 1968. I emphasise the international element: the student movement in France in 1968, the riots in Paris, was very important.” This consisted of students, in reaction to university reform, setting up barricades around the perimeter of Sorbonne University in Paris. The student strike provoked a nationwide labour strike that culminated in the closure of factories and President Charles de Gaulle calling for a referendum.

It wasn’t just France: “Then, and in the 1970s there were a lot of international issues. There was the coup in Chile in 1973, and apartheid.” In New York, Columbia University students took three university officials hostage as one of many demonstrations against the University’s affiliation with support for the Vietnam war, and in London there was the anti-war demonstration in Grosvenor Square, ending with 86 people injured and 200 demonstrators arrested.

Charles Clarke marches with protesters. Image: Jake Bernard

Clarke, who started his political career as NUS President in 1974, witnessed student politics in its prime. “There was the issue in the 70s of who controlled the curriculum and did students have a voice? A big issue was when the Conservatives in 1974 took away student autonomy. Then there was a reaction against the Labour government of the time reducing the number of student teachers.”

One of the protests Clarke provided support for in his stint as President of the NUS was a takeover by Warwick students of the University’s administration offices, Senate House, in a fight against rising student rent. Warwick’s then President describes how “we occupied the space for around six weeks, and brought the University to a standstill. We were taken to court, and asked to leave, but we said no. The whole place was set up with boom boxes. When the sheriff of Warwickshire came with a warrant for us to leave, we said no, and played ‘I Shot the Sheriff ’ by Bob Marley as he walked away. It ended when almost 500 riot police came to get us out.” The protesters left, but not without a last dig at the system, and in a pre-planned movement, filed out of the occupied building into the Arts Centre next door, over which the court had no order. “It didn’t mean anything, because no one cared if the arts centre was occupied, but it was amusing.”

It’s this humour about rebellion that helped make the headlines to fuel change. Students could act as they please – break the rules, poke fun at the system – because that reinforced the fact that they had nothing to lose with no rights to their name. It is something that protesters today, such as People & Planet, maintain in their demonstrations. For example, the Save the Bees campaign consisted of protesters dressed up as bees who pretended to die in Morrisons. It is, however, a more theatrical form of comedy than the rebellious humour renowned of student action in the 70s.

Alexandra Peck, a member of Disarm, the University of York’s protest group against the arms trade, suggests, “I wonder if we are more afraid of sabotaging our degrees because now we have to pay for them. For example, at Disarm, we end up being very cautious in our demonstrations, as we fear disciplinary action. It isn’t always the case. But certainly myself and many of my fellow activists at York are influenced by our desire not to get kicked out of university.”

Universities have not been entirely reluctant to take a dramatic approach. For example, a collection of Manchester University students recently dismantled and ran off with an entire BAE stall, and various university students, at places including Glasgow and Cardiff, have occupied lecture halls for days in protest. However, the overarching sense of apathy towards protests prevents any overwhelming impact to be had such as was the case with Warwick’s 1975 protest.

The student population at York has remained relatively low-key in terms of demonstrations. A clear act of disinclination to protest forcefully was shown by the majority vote against a more hard-line protest to cutting 24 hour portering in the University colleges, instead choosing the signing of petitions, and sitting in the porters’ lodges. Despite the volume of signatures, the protest came to no avail.

Peck insists, however, that this is not necessarily a result of cowardice. “What you can really feel, certainly at York, is that the foundation, the motivation, for activism has changed. Historically, protest campaigns have been founded in anger. They have consisted of furious students – furious at the state, at fascism, at racism. But, as a lecturer at this university pointed out to me, the kinds of activists we have now are very different. They are positive people who see injustice and campaign because they believe a better world is achievable. So instead of angry demonstrations, we are seeing debates and discussions, activists are putting on cake and coffee mornings, like the Activist Café last week, to raise awareness. I think there is a belief today that sometimes you can change things better from within; that by taking a purely aggressive approach, rather than negotiating, you are weakening your cause. So, even when you can’t see displays of activism, there is so much going on behind the scenes. It is a different kind of activism: definitely more positive and less angry and that is very constructive.

Protests in history

Kent State Shootings

A protest held by students at Kent State University on May 4 1970 culminated in guards shooting unarmed protesters. After firing 67 rounds in 13 seconds, four students were killed and nine left wounded. This caused a student strike of over four million students across America.

Tiananmen Square

In 1989, 100,000 people, mainly led by students, gathered in Tiananmen Square, China, to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a supporter of economic and political reforms. But the Chinese army stormed the square with tanks. The death toll is unknown but is estimated to be between 500 and 900.

“I think that our generation is less politicized in some respects than previous generations. Having grown up with New Labour, our generation has been raised believing that politics is less polarized these days. As a result many young people have become very detached from politics, seeing it as something that makes little difference to their lives and something that is to be left up to leaders. They have been told that everything is market driven these days, that everything boils down to business and the pursuit of profit and as a result there is no point making moral arguments: doing what is ‘right’ became unfashionable and perceived as foolish.”

If students are less politicized now, the recent events internationally, and locally, such as last week’s anti-cuts demonstration in York city centre, indicate the Browne review will change this. Aaron Porter, current NUS President, has released a statement reflecting the general consensus to inspire a response from university students against cuts to their own education: “This is a devastating blow to higher and further education that puts the future of colleges and universities at risk and will have repercussions for the future prospects of students and learners. This is a spending review that looks an entire generation in the eye and says ‘you’re on your own.’”

Charles Clarke acknowledges the potential new wave of student politics. “It’ll be interesting to look at what will happen with the fees – students will now be looking at whether their degree is value for money, as they are paying more for their degree.”

With the intent to remove the cap from university fees as stated in the Browne review, students are now hard-pressed to ignore current affairs, or act ambivalent, to the current protests.

See Nouse reports on the National Demonstration:

Two York students arrested over tuition fee protest riots (http://www.nouse.co.uk/2010/11/23/two-york-students-arrested-over-tuition-fee-protest-riots/)

Students take part in Millbank Centre riots (http://www.nouse.co.uk/2010/11/11/students-take-part-in-millbank-centre-riots/)

Protest in pictures (http://www.nouse.co.uk/2010/11/11/protest-in-pictures/)

Success of fee rise protest marred by violent minority (http://www.nouse.co.uk/2010/11/11/success-of-fee-rise-protest-marred-by-violent-minority/)

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