devi: (tension)
[personal profile] devi
I wasn't really planning to go to a protest on Wednesday. I knew there was something happening at Goldsmiths but I didn't have the details; I thought they might be occupying the library or something. If I'd known what was going to happen I'd have brought food and water and a flask of tea and worn more jumpers. All the jumpers. But whatever was happening, I wanted to be there for it. I've spent all this time thinking and planning and getting up the nerve to try and get back into academia, then being almost unbearably excited that I was going to Goldsmiths, and now it seems they're having all their funding cut. My plans for the next bit of my life are going up in smoke - but whatever, I don't want to make it about me. Every time I see anything about education on the news I get a sick falling sensation in my stomach. In any case, I got there at 11 to find people gathering in front of the main doors. Only a few hundred to start with. I had stuff to be getting on with, but when they set off for New Cross station I couldn't not join them.

On the train people were handing out 'bust cards' with solicitors' numbers and legal advice on them. It was all friendly and well-behaved, with a sort of fizzing enthusiasm bubbling underneath. We poured out of Charing Cross station and merged with the crowd already growing in Trafalgar Square. Thousands of people, lots of them schoolkids, cheering every time a new contingent arrived, climbing up on the steps and the bronze lions, chanting and shouting. It didn't feel at all destructive; it felt like a party, angry but smiling and exhilarated, like they were excited to be standing up and saying something. I thought, is that it? I admire them, but we'll just demonstrate and go home and nothing will really change.

Then the crowd started flowing down Whitehall, past the traffic. I lost the Goldsmiths people, then found them again thanks to their huge banner. By the Cabinet War Rooms people milled around; some sat down; there was more chanting. The police were already blocking the end of the street, with barriers, but I think most people hadn't realised they were shut in yet. "Where do we go next?" "I heard Lib Dem HQ." "Right, let's go... oh, we can't." "What's going on?" I was in the middle of the crowd; I had to climb up on a balustrade to confirm that a kettle had formed. A photographer gave me a hand up. But my impression was that no one broke or graffitied on anything until after we were shut in. At the start, before that, before all the stuff with the police van, people were chanting "Stop throwing shit" whenever anyone threw a can or the stick from a placard.

They were mostly very, very young. School uniforms and all that. Other protests I've been on have been vulnerable to the (trite, lazy) criticism that a lot of people there were just the usual suspects, protesting because it was their hobby, their way of life. You could say stereotypical things about dreads and poi and costumes and torn army-surplus clothes. But these people were just normal-looking. Normal-looking students and lecturers and tiny children who had probably never been on a demo before.

So I realised we were shut in, and then they started shoving and spraypainting and climbing up on the famous police van. I'm sure that was the order it happened in. Uh-oh, I thought. Some people were cheering, others telling them to stop. I was surprised that the police didn't make a move to stop it, just put their visors down and stood there. Later, though, they did charge into the crowd and I saw them try to catch a young guy who wriggled away, but by then the van had been under attack for a good ten minutes. I chatted with the photographer, who gave me a flyer for the National Climate March in a couple of weeks' time. "Maybe I'll see you there," I said.

Slowly I started to realise we were going to be here for a long time. I wished I had some water. Or had had more than a bowl of cereal for breakfast.

In the end I was in there for nearly eight hours, till well into the dark and cold. I'd got chatting with some of the Goldsmiths people, but basically I was there on my own. I had the odd conversation, I overheard lots of kids and students having political conversations as if it was the first time they'd ever engaged with these ideas, which was kind of amazing, but mostly I just drifted from group to group, an observer. There were some people with a soundsystem who threw an impromptu rave in a bus shelter, maybe a hundred kids dancing to dubstep with their hands and placards waving aloft every time the beat kicked in. On top of the bus shelter, here behind the barricades, they were waving a big red flag with a smiley face on it; it was like a dance remix of Les Misérables. For about half an hour I joined a quite orderly queue for tea outside the only café in the kettle. I'd weighed things up and decided that on balance a cup of tea would be worth the inevitable need to pee. This was the way it seemed to be for a lot of people: trading off all the different kinds of discomfort against each other, cold, hunger, thirst, need for a toilet. Then they closed the shop just as I got to the door.

People started burning placards to keep warm. When those were gone, they went into their bags to see what paper they had. Blank pages were ripped out of refill pads and crumpled up. One guy went to throw a whole, half-full notebook on the fire and another boy next to him said "Don't do it, man! That's your uni notebook! You'll fail your degree and then you'll have to pay nine grand to do it again." "Fair point," the first guy said. It kept getting darker and colder. Around another bonfire there were people with guitars, singing "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life". The little warm puddle of dubstep kept going on, a guy with baggy trousers was standing on a wall rapping ("Look what the cat dragged in" - everyone nearby seemed to know the words), but I felt too old and self-conscious to dance.

Maybe four hours in, the police brought in a couple of portaloos and started handing out the occasional bottle of water. That was when I realised there'd be a long wait ahead and I wasn't going to get to the music quiz I was supposed to be at with [ profile] dr_f_dellamorte and co later. A warm pub with beer and food and friends seemed like an impossible dream. My phone was running low, but I couldn't not lend it to a miserable-looking boy in a thin hoodie who'd left his at home and needed to phone his mum. He was tearful on the phone to her. Nearby, also on the phone, a tiny uniformed girl's dad told her he was proud of her; she relayed this to her friends.

People got more and more dejected and angry. Someone set the bus shelter on fire in earnest. The air was full of clouds of smoke and the smell of burning plastic. I felt like I'd be smelling it forever, even when (it seemed like an if, with my thoughts cold and slow and stupid) we did eventually get out. People stood round the burning bus shelter to get warm. Someone else - maybe the same someone - started hitting a nearby window with a hammer of some sort. "What's that supposed to achieve?" a student union official shouted through a megaphone. "Is that going to bring down the government? That's bomb-proof glass. Wanker."

It was the helplessness and uncertainty that was the worst, worse than the hunger and cold. The police at each corner seemed to be sending people on to the next corner round, saying they were letting people out there, but nobody was. It's easier to endure things when you know when they're going to end. Rumours went round that they might keep us there till midnight. Every police officer you asked gave a different time and a different reason. My phone was about to die. Shivering, I went to find the music. I didn't really feel like dancing but it was a pragmatic decision: it would distract me and keep me warm. Maybe get my body burning fat reserves so I could dance through the hunger. They played Madness and The Specials (it really was the 80s again) and most people seemed to be dancing the same way I was, doggedly rather than for fun. Then something else happened. Power chords rang out and people cheered as they recognised it: Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine. Suddenly there was a proper moshpit going on, more and more people joining in, a forest of arms - fists - in the air, shouting along with all the words. I felt like I was a student of 18 on the Fibbers dancefloor again. It was kind of beautiful. The song built and built until everyone was hurling the words at the police line nearby, warm again, angry rather than miserable, letting out the built-up rage at being detained like this: fuck you, I won't do what you tell me.

Then the song ended, and silence fell, and then they let us out. At least those of us in that corner. It still took another half-hour, shuffling along in a tightly packed queue through a gauntlet of vans and dogs. I was squashed in next to a girl who was doing Afghan Studies at SOAS, whose friends were occupying the library there. She was freezing - she'd only got a thin hoodie on - and wanted to go home for a bath, but she was going back to SOAS to check on her friends first. Meanwhile the sound system blasted out Anarchy in the UK and I Fought The Law. Finally I passed through the last line, trying to look at the police's faces, to remember that they were individuals, not The Man I'd been yelling Rage lyrics at a little while earlier. Then striding up Whitehall, revelling in taking big steps and being on my way to somewhere and being able to go where I chose, go into a restaurant and eat food and not be a prisoner, not be assumed to be some sort of public enemy. There was another kettle by Trafalgar Square; earlier on a friend of mine had said she'd been charged by the police near it while waiting at a bus stop. But for me, food. Home. Toilets. Hot bath. Yes.

For a while, in late '08-early '09, I was actually quite enthused about politics. Sometimes, though I was wary of the feeling, I had a sense of being part of a great wave; of the system itself changing. Then, of course, the long slow fall of disillusionment. I got enthusiastic again for the election here. I took it all terribly seriously, and it all went horribly wrong. My faith in doing things through the proper channels is dwindling by the minute. But whatever was left shrank still more on Wednesday evening, as I walked back and forth like a bear in the zoo, looking at hordes of teenagers imprisoned for eight hours outside in November for having walked down a street. Seriously, in what universe is that fair?

EDIT: Photos on Flickr here.

Date: 2010-11-26 03:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Mind if I post this to my facebook?

Date: 2010-11-26 03:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks. And thanks for writing it... there's a propaganda war going on and every eye-witness account helps.

By the way, you may be interested in this:

Date: 2010-11-27 04:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm going to link this to a friend as well if that's alright.

Date: 2010-11-28 12:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Absolutely, go ahead.

Date: 2010-11-26 03:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you for writing this up.

Date: 2010-11-26 03:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for that; it's really useful to know what actually went on (and the resilience of people).

Date: 2010-11-26 03:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, in so far as any one account can be said to be 'what actually went on'... but thanks.

Date: 2010-11-26 04:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well I meant, as opposed to the police/media reportage.

Date: 2010-11-26 03:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you. For doing something, and for writing about it.

Date: 2010-11-26 04:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My faith in doing things through the proper channels is dwindling by the minute.

The question, really, is not whether one ought to have faith in the "proper channels" so much as what approaches or mechanisms could theoretically replace them. We apparently had a fair, democratic election in which tens of millions of people voted for "yes, please shaft lots of people and put the money in my pocket". Faced with that situation, I don't really have a plan.

Date: 2010-11-26 04:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Tens of millions, yes, but far from a majority...

Date: 2010-11-26 04:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Absolutely, but for me that isn't actually what matters. What matters is the massive resistance to doing anything good. There's so much stuff that's tricky enough to solve with everyone working together... but no, instead we've got a substantial percentage literally pulling the wrong way!

Date: 2010-11-26 04:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is basically what I'm thinking when I'm being flabbergasted at the Tea Party. A feeling of not even living on the same planet.

Date: 2010-11-26 04:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes! Exactly!

(They get my facepalm icon... but only because I don't have a worse one!)

Date: 2010-11-26 04:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes. Their mental world is so far from mine, there just seems to be no shared basis for communication. And where do you go with that?!

Date: 2010-11-27 10:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
To the barricades!

Date: 2010-11-26 06:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
We apparently had a fair, democratic election in which tens of millions of people voted for "yes, please shaft lots of people and put the money in my pocket".

Do you think so? I don't think the current Government's policies were well trailed in the election, either in the formal manifestoes of the winning parties, or in their public utterances, or even in the themes of their campaigns. Indeed arguably many members of the Government pledged to do the opposite of what they're doing. So I don't think it's fair to blame the electorate for this, tempting as it is.

Date: 2010-11-26 06:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm not tempted. I believe it because I've met these people.

Date: 2010-11-26 06:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What, all of them?

Date: 2010-11-27 04:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What they voted for was the fresh faced young well spoken and positive guy(s) over the grumpy old cantankerous defensive guy. Policies were completely irrelevant and hardly mentioned in favour of procedural mud slinging and image conscious posing.

But that's the way visual media works now, nothing of substance.. it's all about personalities and conflict, nothing that can't fit into 15 seconds of video is reportable. I've gotten completely fed up with TV in general these days when even in shows about technology and science they have to bring some kind of spurious competition in let alone go into the more interesting technical details.

Date: 2010-11-28 12:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ha, yes. Teach the controversy! This is especially annoying with things like evolution and climate science, where they think it has to be 'balanced' and get a second talking head in regardless of how flimsy their argument is.

Date: 2010-11-26 04:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
In case you were misled by my Twitter scorn for the pissant occupation in Oxford, I've been really encouraged by the number of people who turned out for this march and the one before. Thank you for adding to that number.

Date: 2010-11-26 04:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ah - yes, I was a bit misled as it turns out, so it's good to be un-misled. Your tweets were funny, though.

Date: 2010-11-26 04:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow, I missed this until now, or I would have mentioned it elsewhere. That's very depressing. But it's depressing in a way that requires more action, it's also wonderful that in the reports I'm reading the schoolkids seem to be mostly up for doing it again, but maybe this time they'll bring survival gear...

Date: 2010-11-26 04:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes, tactics like that don't calm people down, they make them more radical. Certainly seemed to be the case from what I overheard.

Date: 2010-11-26 04:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Although the kettling and general police response was depressing, I feel more enthusiastic about the future than I have done in a while. It's great that people are engaging with politics, rather than drifting off into a state of learned helplessness which I think it would be very easy to do. I think it's brilliant that so many school-children were involved. (Although as you say, that makes the police tactics then used even worse). Thanks for writing this!

Date: 2010-11-28 12:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank *you* for this comment. I'm hopeful about that too; I'd been thinking learned helplessness (exactly) was the way it was going to be henceforth as well.

Date: 2010-11-26 06:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
8 hours in the cold is very cruel. I have been shocked and apalled by the entire thing, and failing to see how the aggressive tactics of the police have done anything but turn people more bitter and radical.

Date: 2010-11-28 12:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It seems to have been a great big own goal, yeah...

Date: 2010-11-28 01:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The police have an agenda here too. The more intense things get, the more wary the govt will be about cutting police budgets. It can hardly have been by chance that they abaondoned that van in the middle of the kettle.

Date: 2010-11-28 06:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Good point well made. There's been lots of debate about the 'baitvan' but I haven't seen it put that succinctly.

Date: 2010-11-26 07:13 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The tactics seem to be to discourage from going on the NEXT protest, the next campaign against it.

And despite the claims of a democratic election, at least ONE party clearly stated that they would not increase tuition fees, and yet have happily gone along with it as part of their alliance with the DarkCyde. This -should- be an issue where some of the LibDems are resigning or exerting pressure on their leadership, but it appears it's not happening.

I believe if they don't, it's pretty much the death of the Liberal Democrat party for forseeable future. They've always had a reasonably young, middle-class voter base in the areas I've been in. This is the sort of move that's like the Tories increasing the top tax bracket or Labour stomping down on Unions...

I still get to vote in the UK. I'm unlikely to vote LibDem again for this policy, which they are fully culpable for, whatever they may say, after pretty much always voting for them. I'd be less bothered by it if this was a Tory and Tory-only government... it's much more expected of them.

Date: 2010-11-28 12:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, I have the same sense of betrayal. But if this was supposed to discourage people from protesting again, I think it's been a spectacular failure.

Date: 2010-11-29 08:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
For sure, as a motivated young movement has always been at the core of political campaigning.

I find the whole tactic of stiffling and containing protest rather unsettling. I'm not sure if this will go the same way as the Poll Tax, but you can never tell.

Date: 2010-11-26 07:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Damn, that anonymous comment you just got was from me...

Date: 2010-11-26 08:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you for this! Edinburgh uni is standing in Solidarity with you guys, we're going in to our third evening of occupations. Unforuletly Security have denied me access back in to the occupation but I'm not stopping there. We are now holding public meetings for Tuesday. Stay strong. Stay united.

Love and Solidarity <3 xo

Date: 2010-11-28 12:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hello! Thank *you* for this, and very best of luck to you all in Edinburgh. xx

Date: 2010-11-26 09:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks so much for posting this. x

Date: 2010-11-29 07:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Great write-up, thanks!

Date: 2010-11-30 10:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh BTW - thanks for the pre-order and sorry IndieGoGo is playing up! You'll be able to buy it in the normal way off the website once I've gone to print in a couple of days.

Date: 2010-11-30 02:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Every time I see anything about education on the news I get a sick falling sensation in my stomach Same here - at least for all the stories I've seen recently.

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