Police kettle student protestors yet again

James Turley discusses the critical problem of organisation in the student movement


When I wrote for this paper on the subject of the November 10 Millbank occupation, I warned that we might not have it so easy on the next round of anti-fees protests (‘After Millbank: the way forward’, November 18). One did not have to pick this up from the pages of the Weekly Worker – the Metropolitan Police had been making bellicose noises ever since what can only be described as its rank humiliation at the hands of a throng of spirited students.

And so it came to pass – when the November 24 day of action came around, the cops were ready. Armed with the grotesquely undemocratic ‘anti-terrorism’ laws, all they needed was an excuse. They made their own, leaving a lone police van suspiciously behind enemy lines. Sure enough, the excitable youngsters, along with idiotic black bloc types, attacked the van. The trap was sprung. Thousands of protestors, a handsome proportion of whom – perhaps even the majority – were school and college students, were kettled for up to 10 hours on a bitterly cold November day.

It really has to be emphasised how cynical the police action was. It looked every inch a set-up. Knowing that some kind of action was planned at Liberal Democrat headquarters (though the Socialist Workers Party, by far the keenest that something should happen there, stopped short of calling for an occupation). At the back end of a nest of small streets near Millbank, containing protestors would have been difficult, and perhaps impossible without cutting a portion of the police ranks off from the rest. So they resolved to stop us on Whitehall – and stop us they did, with all the efficiency of a planned military operation, until well into the night.

It is true, with the exception of a few meat-headed mounted police charges against fleeing protestors, that the day passed without much in the way of direct physical repression. Yet that is to make a mockery of how kettling actually works. If the police had turned up with a hundred paddy wagons and carted us all off to holding pens for 10 hours without charge, denying us food and water, the outrage would have reverberated around the world at such a flagrant violation of nominal civil rights and, indeed, basic human decency. The only difference with kettling is, so to speak, that the mountain comes to Mohammed – instead of putting the victim into a cell, a cell is built around the victim. The police do not like to use the word ‘kettling’ – perhaps they would prefer the more accurate term: mass arrest.

The same criticism holds for those who, once more, have been horrified by sporadic destruction of property in the kettled zone. In a peculiar profile of University of London Union leader and Counterfire supporter Clare Solomon, The Daily Telegraph summarises the November 24 events in London thus: “She led the march last Wednesday which led to mayhem in Whitehall, where thousands of demonstrators as young as 13 smashed a police van and clashed with officers” (November 27).

It only takes a handful of people to smash up a police van, and indeed only a handful were responsible. Add to the tally a couple of battered bus stops; that is more or less the extent of the damage. (Anything flammable was burned; not in pursuit of nihilistic destruction, but because fire is warm, and late November is cold.) Readers can judge for themselves whether this is the main story of the day rather than the enforced confinement of several thousand 13-18-year-olds, many turned away from police lines in visible distress, in physically punishing conditions.

Any attempt to hold the protestors responsible for the treatment meted out to them has to be vigorously opposed. The blame lies wholly with the police, with any MP who has not consistently taken a principled stand against ‘anti-terror’ laws and the ever-expanding repertoire of police powers, with the hypocritical scaremongers of the bourgeois media … and, indeed, with the ruling class as a whole, who should expect nothing less than rambunctious protests, given the scale of attacks on our side they intend to prosecute. Those arrested (in the legally accepted sense; we were all arrested) should face no charges and be free to go about their business – and, indeed, to protest without police interference.

Mercifully, the day’s events appear to have backfired somewhat on the police. People, it should be remembered, hardly rallied around the denunciations of the Millbank invasion – on one side there was the political establishment, the rightwing press and the National Union of Students leadership; on the other, everyone else. The sights, sounds and smells of November 24 have hardly alienated the masses of people from the students’ cause – rather, to a certain level of wavering political solidarity has been added basic empathy. There is not much political capital in kettling 13-year-olds.

The Whitehall events have also to be put in the context of actions up and down the country. Ten thousand, by some counts, came out in London, and thousands more in Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and hundreds of other towns and cities – 100,000 in all. On November 30 more protests took place – once again, school and FE students were heavily involved. The danger was that, instead of getting angry, the first-time protestors on November 24 would get demoralised. That does not seem to have happened.

The government, too, shows signs of feeling the pressure. Disquiet among the Lib Dems is reaching a considerable pitch. Not only have its leading lights reneged on very public promises to vote against tuition fee rises, with only the most risible excuses trotted out; they have also had the front windows of their HQ saved only by dubious police actions of a sort they once affected to oppose. Vince Cable has intimated that he may abstain on the Commons fees vote – despite having written the legislation himself; 104 Lib Dem parliamentary candidates have signed letters urging their party’s MPs to break ranks with the coalition government and vote against. Education policy has been a consistent flashpoint for discontent in their ranks, and the unease has only been exacerbated by very visible displays of anger from the student population.

The organisers of the November 30 protests seem to have learned some of the lessons of the previous week: the march was smartly rerouted on the spot wherever police blockages were encountered, in order to frustrate attempts to confine it. A short-lived (relatively-speaking) kettle in Trafalgar Square aside, the police did not have so easy a time of it. News reports in the run-up found young protestors dressed for Arctic conditions and armed with the phone numbers of solicitors.

Protestors, however, need to be more than simply reactive to the hard lessons of previous protests, and their attention must be on more than simply matters of match-day tactics. We must have a strategy to take this movement towards success. And the two key strategic problems are, firstly, that attacks on education are one small part of an enormous cuts programme; and, secondly, that the government’s cuts are one part of an international and indeed global ruling class offensive in response to the crisis.

The student protests have a certain amount of symbolic import in the anti-cuts movement as a whole: they have helpfully discredited the notion that militant and vibrant demonstrations are something for the hotheads on the continent rather than sensible Brits. Displays of practical solidarity between students and lecturers (such as the University and College Union’s mobilisation on November 10, but also teachers’ – usually passive – encouragement to students intending to walk out) are also welcome.

There is a need for far more effective unity in action, however, which poses the critical problem of organisation. At the moment, the student movement is divided three ways – firstly, the officials (the NUS leadership and ‘loyal’ student unions); then the Education Activist Network (effectively an SWP front); and finally the National Coalition against Fees and Cuts (including the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Workers Power/Revolution and others). Only the latter has anything approaching a democratic culture, which is likely what scares the others off. (The Socialist Party’s front, Socialist Students, also stands aloof.) As for anti-cuts campaigners more generally, they have their pick of the Coalition of Resistance, Right to Work, National Shop Stewards Network …

This situation cannot continue. Duplication of effort is inevitable, though the student protests have at least seen the different fragments agree on dates and places. Lasting unity can only be achieved on a democratic basis, but the sectarian culture of the left – in which self-appointed priesthoods of the revealed word cannot abide the thought of being outvoted – is a serious obstacle to this.

It is an old Trotskyist fetish to explain the disunity of the left with reference to isolation from the ‘real’ class struggle. In fact it is the other way round. Our disunity – and the competition between slender front organisations – itself isolates us from the masses. A united national campaign could receive affiliations from countless anti-cuts groups at campuses and colleges around the country, which could make it their own by sending accountable delegates to oversee it.

As for the international dimension, that is in the last analysis a profoundly political question. It demands international solutions, rather than the incipiently nationalist Keynesian shopping lists that much of the left propagate today – and, for that matter, the welcome but insufficient calls for Europe-wide one-day strikes. For the capitalist class to change course on cuts, we must offer them at least a glimpse of something worse than the negative consequences of not implementing them (soaring interest rates, flight of capital, etc). That something is the prospect of revolution on an international scale.

Yes – we need a (democratic, accountable) campaign that unites all prepared to fight the government’s cuts programme. But, more desperately than ever, we need a united Communist Party that can fight, openly and under its own politics, for leadership of the movement.

james.turley@weeklyworker.org.uk

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