The more I tried to write about Wednesday, the harder I found it. That’s probably a good thing.
Acrid tarmac smoke mingled with fog Wednesday morning whilst cops crawled all over New Cross looking for cyclists to fine and black men to harass. It felt like Moses was outside the walls of the city, visiting Holy Justice on a town that has declared war on its youth. It set off those religious visions of bad things to come – fearful omens – about the #copsoffcampus demo in Bloomsbury.
Despite that tight knot in everybody’s stomach, however, the police hardly turned up. The indiscriminate thuggery we saw last Thursday was almost completely absent. All the police I saw looked like they were stumbling around after a staff Christmas dinner. And whenever I saw groups of riot vans they would careen off in one direction, only to return the completely opposite way a few minutes later, Benny Hill-style.
So we have some problems to approach, not just about Wednesday but about what led us there. What seems clear to me is that there are clear reasons that this is happening, and why this protest was able to chime with people in a way most of what we’ve done since Mud-Gate hasn’t.
Why have the police become so more violent in the last few weeks? Clearly a key component was UoL Managements’s green light, to its own security and the Met, to prevent any direct action that challenged its authoritah, by any means necessary. I would guess as well that they thought that they could just beat people off of the streets before it became a bigger issue.
I think it was a mistake for them, and they misjudged the degree to which they have been delegitimised. Even the NUS, which has been useless on loan privatisation and the strike, roundly condemned the police violence. That’s because something has shifted, some myths have been undermined and that means something.
Why did the police hold back on Wednesday? I think its fair to say that they had been shamed, and they had been publicly shamed in a way that they hadn’t in 2010. This can’t be related simply to the successive crises at the top around hacking and Murdoch – this is also about what people have actually done to oppose them. Alfie Meadows is a clear example. But also the Hillsborough inquiry. The Rigg sisters forced the IPCC to re-open the probe into the police’s role into Sean Rigg’s death. These things drill into the ideological bedrock that the police strive to do the right thing, that the police are what ensure justice, that the police would never use violence unless provoked.
As a result of that process of delegitimisation, it was far easier to engage a wider layer of people against police violence. When it comes down to facing off state repression this is the most important thing. Masking up and affinity groups are ways of dealing with the tactics police employ in order to criminalise protest, but what allows us to be powerful is numbers. Occupy Sussex has shown how crucial it is for movements to be something that the majority of the student body can relate to and engage with. Its what ensures that we move beyond our own circles, beyond people who call themselves ‘full-time activists’.
If last Thursday was a good-sized demo that the left could muster from its own ranks, then Wednesday was a better-sized demo as a result of the left organising and prising apart the gap that had been opened by having videos of police violence at Senate House go across the world.
To a degree its probably good that we didn’t have to face off the police again – simply for the reason that its not something we can sustain. Moreover, whilst being the victims of police violence can generate a sympathetic audience, continually facing off against the cops can lead a to a political impasse if the rest of the student body, and a healthy section of workers, don’t see the need.
People have written well about needing to take the police’s ‘retreat’ with a healthy dose of skepticism. It certainly is true that they were attempting a tactical retreat and we didn’t force them out by physical force. But I’m not sure we want to _just_ as students in Bloomsbury. Ashok wrote that it took us ‘3 years and a riot’ to realise that black communities faced police violence every day. It needn’t take us 3 years more to realise that we can only have relevance if we are fighting for our own concerns as a component of struggles for all oppressed and exploited people in society.
That said, I do believe in history; that events and processes mean that things change. The police’s response was a tactical retreat, but there were equal parts choice and circumstance in that decision – to a degree they were bound to act in a way that didn’t increase sympathy for students. Just take a second to compare that to the way they became more violent as 2010 protests continued. They were able to do so because we were absolutely demonised by the media.
So whilst we accept that its a contradictory development, we have to recognise it as a small victory. We didn’t acquiesce, and we won something. But this is just a platform, a jumping board that shows the potential for a real invigoration of the student body. Just like when we took a student demonstration to the Egyptian Embassy in 2011, taking the demonstration down to the Royal Courts of Justice is important. Yes, it would have been fantastic for that number of people to have been involved before Wednesday, and to be fair, some of them were. However from what I saw the majority of the people that made up the demonstration, who bolstered it and provided the key difference, were people I didn’t recognise at all.
Yes it was symbolic, but symbols have power, and our collective task is to take that action and make it committed. If we expect people who are attracted to the movement to have participated in solidarity action with everyone who has been the victim of state violence we are missing the point, we are denying the reality of the historical process that means we can have demonstrations against cops, something we wouldn’t have been able to do in 2010. People have begun to debate where to take the #copsoffcampus mood. I admit I’m not sure; there’s a problem of only directing it away from campus to other struggles against state violence, as important as that is.
Coming back to the point about relating to the mass of students, I think it needs to relate the frustrations and pressures of students to a collaboratively constructed vision of better education. Increasingly there’s the possibility of making that vision one of social justice, that doesn’t just understand education as a campus for 18-23 year-olds, but as a component of reproducing class society. The pressures and concerns that such a vision would have to relate to would have to be far broader, not just feedback times and employability, but the entire raft of shit. It would have to be a vision that relates to lives defined by insecure work, exploitation and oppression that could actually provide an antacid for all the neoliberal memes we’re supposed to ingest in order to justify such an existence.