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Showing posts with label campaign. Show all posts
Showing posts with label campaign. Show all posts

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Defend Education's Demonstration and the Aftermath

Photo © 2014 James Phillips

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.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Stop the Badger Cull

The badger cull pilot project is set to begin in the UK shortly, trialling in the south-western counties of Gloucestershire and Somerset despite many calls for its cancellation. It disheartens me that the hard work of The Green Party, the RSPCA and high-street store, Lush, have been ignored by the Government. What we are seeing now, according to the BBC, is the massacre of 5094 innocent creatures by February next year. 

People will proclaim that the badgers aren’t innocent because they have spread TB to cattle across the country and cost farmers and the nation massive amounts of money, but this is to neglect the fact that these creatures are none the wiser. We, as humans, are lucky to possess the intelligence that we have – we can stop the spread of diseases and viruses using our mental capacities – but, unfortunately, badgers don’t have this same awareness. So, to treat them like they do and hold them as “guilty” of carrying TB and ruining livestock across the country is preposterous. 

It would be outrageous if we were to wipe out the entire population that carry HIV, so why should we do the same to badgers? There are other ways of tackling the problem, and these have been tried and tested. So, they cost more and harder to administer, but should these creatures pay the price for our laziness and ignorance? No. Besides, leading scientists (including the Government’s chief scientist) have argued that there is no real evidence to justify the slaughter, yet the activity goes ahead. 

In October 2012, the House of Commons voted against the proposed cull but this non-binding result from the house was only greeted with a slight postponement by the Government. Acting against the wishes of the House’s members and, indeed, the population, we are seeing an act of downright betrayal from those who are meant to represent us. 

A campaign has been launched by Lush, the high-street cosmetics shop, against the cull, gathering support from customers and passers-by across the country, via organised flash mobs as in the video below. But, we have seen that, time and time again, the Government just does not listen; despite how hard the campaign is fought, and the damning evidence, unless it’s the right people pushing the buttons, it’s hard to get your voice heard. 

Unfortunately, it is already too late to save some, but it is not yet too late to put pressure on the Government. Join me and many others in saying no to the badger cull. Tweet your support using “#stopthecull”, sign the petition, stick up a poster and tell everyone you know. Let’s give those badgers back their lives.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

How Effective is Prime Minister’s Question Time?


Image by Victoria Kettlewell

It is a way of ascertaining the direction of the Government and the performance of the MPs we elect, but Prime Minister’s Question Time is beginning to appear more and more like a Punch and Judy show, with more drama yet less variation within it than Eastenders. The weekly half-hour session is repetitive and nothing more than a trashing session. However, week after week, we continue to rely on it as a tool for scrutinising our representatives.

It is all too common that we see Miliband and Cameron calling each other less than imaginative names across the House of Commons – we probably mutter something more imaginative under our breaths at the mere mention of their names – whilst attacking each other’s policies. I’ve seen some supposed behavioural problems in classrooms before and nothing compares to the continual rowdy nature of the House. It’s too regular an occurrence that the Speaker has to step in and embarrass a member and quieten the House down before they are kept behind the bell.

However, aside from the poor use of nicknaming and insults, the House is beginning to get a bit repetitive. Labour attack the Tories for being “out of touch”, “on the side of the rich” and having terrible economic policies, whilst the Tories attack Labour for being “out of touch”, “on the side of the lazy” and wanting to increase the deficit, and this happens time and time again. The same phrases get churned out, the same business gets discussed – it’s no Royal Variety Show in there. Somehow, however, they manage to suppose a different slant on the discussion; Labour begin their questions about the NHS, the Leveson Inquiry or welfare reforms, but it always returns to an angry offensive against the economic policies of the Tory party; that’s Capitalism for you. Continually slating each other’s policies only amounts to engineered campaigning for the next General Election; is it a debate on an issue that effects the population, or on which party has the better policy? The latter seems a bit more believable.

Furthermore, it’s a rare occurrence that you see somebody stand up and honestly say “my constituents” when referring to a particular opinion they are presenting to the house. Despite being elected representatives of sixty million people, Prime Minister’s Question Time only serves to demonstrate how little they represent their people. Occasionally, you do see the odd MP stand up against their party-line, but even within the coalition (with their opposing ideological perspectives), it is too risky a move to make if they are scared of losing their party membership. Yet, according to Total Politics, of sixty million people, only around three-hundred and fifty thousand members of the public actually tune into the show. With the exception of those who catch the show on catch-up or via snippets on the news, less than five percent of the population choose the question time as a source of keeping account of their representatives. As an indication, we can only assume that less know of the ability to watch other debates live on BBC Parliament, or even visit Parliament and watch the debates in the houses themselves.

Prime Minister’s Question Time serves only as a new source of humour, an indication of the worthlessness of our representatives in a representative democracy and a sense of the democratic deficit that the UK population has. Perhaps in the future, the show will become more worthwhile but, in its current set-up, it is merely a tool of amusement, pretend accountability and continuous party-campaigning.


Also published on Backbench and Redbrick