*A piece by a new Warwick For Free Education activist reflecting on their experience of the National Demo*
It’s been 16 days since over 100 Warwick students travelled down to London to join the National Demo for Free Education & Living Grants for All. To many of us the day represented just another demonstration to add to their personal stories of direct action. Yet for some of us the day represented a realisation of the struggle towards the political objective that WFFE espouses, and an uncomfortable proximity to the stance that the state maintains towards student activism, and the tactics the police deploy in the face of our democratic right to assemble.
With an early start of 8.30am, we assembled on the piazza. The mood was amicable, friends greeted friends in the backdrop of pickets, banners and coats with red felt squares pinned on to them. Pictures were taken, and then we swiftly boarded our pre-booked coaches.
On our way, one of the SU representatives stands and gives a short speech about the position the SU has towards our participation. It was encouraging and helpful, but lined with care. They went on to say that the SU does not condone illegal action on behalf of students. If you witness illegal action please move quickly away. If you are part of any illegal action the SU then your actions do not represent the SU.
Many students on the bus brush this off; there is no cause for concern because our causes are legitimate. However some of the newer activists become quickly concerned, ingrained was an assumption that we had already committed wrongdoing, and in entering the realm of the ‘’pre-criminal’’, legal advice cards were handed out to be used upon our ‘‘arrest’’. None of us had any intention of being arrested, the mere existence of these cards, which could ultimately prove to be a helpful lifeline, is in some ways a cause for concern.
Upon arrival any concerns faded away as we were joined by other blocs; Free Education movements from Brighton to Glasgow, Anti-austerity, anti-borders, anti-fascist, anti-prevent, the LGBTQ community, those in support of refugees, socialists and communists and all our other allies rallied behind us. The mood was electric. Colourful pickets, clever placards with catchy platitudes. Out of the masses, John McDonnell rose to a stand and presented us with an inspiring reminder that:
‘’Your generation has been betrayed by this government in increases to tuition fees, in scrapping the education maintenance allowance and cuts in education. Education is a gift from one generation to another, it is not a commodity to be bought and sold.’’
Our students marched on the front lines, to a swarm of press earning their wages acting like flies bumping into one another to take the perfect shot. Natalie Bennett, Owen Jones and Aaron Bastani were all glimpsed in the crowd at one point or another as we made our way through London. The city heard our chants as we passed the Houses of Parliament, the Home Office all the way to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Boos erupted as we stood collectively outside the building that decided to scrap the maintenance grants that feed and house our students. To the individuals lining the streets to watch, the workers taking breaks to make us part of their snapchat stories and the government employees peeking through closed curtains we made our presence loud and clear.
Surrounding the peaceful actions of between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals was a heavy police presence. Especially protective of the government buildings. A heavy police presence could be seen as a sign that the government is attentive to our concerns; the actions that followed proved us wrong.
For those of you that don’t know, kettling is a police tactic for controlling large crowds in which a formation of large cordons of police officers move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Many of the demonstrators are quite familiar with this tactic, which often keeps a group immovable for hours at a time, involves the use of, arguably excessive, force to drive back protesters who try to leave the area and often accompanied with unwarranted, indiscriminate arrests.
Understandably, most people don’t like being kettled. Being effectively detained for an undetermined amount of time is a pain if you get hungry or thirsty or need the toilet. Let’s not forget the negative effects it may have on the mental health of individuals who want to simply voice their opposition to government policy. The swift movements of the police were met with a stampede to escape, which led us into streets not allocated for our protest and not restricted of traffic. The police didn’t become any calmer, and as we dispersed we were met with chases, individuals being tackled, violent force being used to restrain some, and the distressing sight of riot vans and police helicopters.
Accompanying the riot helmets was consistent surveillance. Some officers held video cameras designed to collect the information of any individuals involved in the protest. This agenda to identify those participating presumes guilt, and is yet again another cause for concern. We are not criminals. We are exercising our civic duties to political expression. In this respect we march in solidarity with those who support us but would like to conceal their identities from the more repressive instruments of the state.
We organised because we want a free education system, free from regressive loans and corporate control. Free from discrimination in who is allowed to study and what we study. The protests turned violent after an escalation by the police that saw us not as the concerned citizens that we are, but as rioters who threaten public order.
Thankfully none of the Warwick students who participated were detained. Much to the testament of the SU, the NCAFC and the organisers at WFFE, whose support is greatly appreciated. Yet as the adrenaline died down, clarification set in. By the end of the night all of us were accounted for, which cannot be said for other protesters that we marched alongside. Being detained, being questioned and the threats of trial and punishment are harrowing experiences. But the struggle continues…
What do we want?
When do we want it?