By Beth Tichborne
Was it spoilt middle-class kids making unrealistic demands, or was it thuggish anarchists undermining the mainstream peaceful movement? What happened at Millbank is already being twisted uncomfortably into any available stereotype in a nervous effort to explain it away.
For once the chant “this is not a riot” had no place. This was a riot. It looked like one, it felt like one. Us ‘middle-class kids’ who’ve been trying to engage in democracy at Make Poverty History, various Climate Camps and Vodafone occupations were there, but we were a minority. Some of the NUS lot, who’ve been practising their speeches in front of the mirror for six months, were there, but they were an even smaller minority. The anarchists, masked up and well stocked with megaphones and flags were there, but even they were a minority. Going to Millbank might have been their idea in the first place, and they might have been the first on the roof, but it wasn’t their protest.
The majority were just plain old students, but angry. The kind of students who go to their lectures, go to parties, play sport at the weekends and sometimes get a bit drunk and lairy. And there were a lot of very young students there. Maybe they were first years, but many of them looked like school students. They weren’t all middle class, they weren’t all white, they hadn’t all come in on the student union buses. They were never looking at the Russell group education that private and grammar school educated kids could, until now, take for granted. These are the people who made up the majority of the people at Millbank – ordinary young people, working class and middle class, from school age up to university age, who hadn’t been on many demos before, whose only encounter with the police, or with agitated crowds, had been Saturday night lairiness or sports matches.
And that set the mood. It felt like a rowdy night in a busy town. People were angry and frustrated, and they hadn’t had the training or the experience to deal with the situation. If it was true that a militant anarchist faction had led the violence at Millbank then here’s what it would have looked like:
Everybody facing the police line would have had a mask on. Nobody would plan to feature prominently in national newspapers with their face clearly exposed, throwing a stick at a police officer or smashing a window. But what did we actually see? A few make-shift bandannas slipping down people’s faces and a huge number of students who hadn’t even tried to hide their identity.
The police line would have been stormed. There was a large plate glass window missing, right in front of the crowd. There were hundreds of protestors, there were a laughably small number of police. Very little organisation would have been required for everybody to link up and just walk through the police line, with little damage done to either side. Instead there a mass of people hanging back, and a handful of angry people launching themselves one by one at the police with fists or sticks to be beaten back with batons.
When the snatch squad was sent in their targets would have been surrounded and protected by fellow protestors. Instead the crowd allowed the police to get to their targets and then to carry them back out, right through the bulk of the protestors. The reaction was angry, and violent, but completely ineffective. It was clear that people didn’t understand what was happening until it was over.
There would have been a sense of purpose. I did quite a bit of chatting and eavesdropping. People didn’t know what was going on. Not just the people milling around near the back. Students in university hoodies who were right up near the front, the ones who were launching sticks as if they were javelins, were confused. They asked each other if anyone was in charge, they wondered if they were going to miss their bus back, they talked about ‘kettling’ as something that they’d heard of but never experienced. They had a slightly dazed look, part exhilaration, part anger, but partly just the look of someone trying to cope with a situation that they’ve never been in before. There was no one in charge, so they made it up. And a number of them got it wrong.
Millbank showed what happens when a generation realises that they are being disenfranchised. We voted, it didn’t count. We’ve marched before, literally millions of us, and that didn’t count. What do we do now? We occupy, we disobey, we wave flags and shout from rooftops. We’re angry, and a lot of us haven’t done this before. Violence provokes violence, and the cuts are violent. Yesterday that showed. We can hope that the non-violent tactics used by movements like ukuncut and climate camp will spread. And student groups around the country are already actively trying to do this, by offering training in non violent direct action to anyone who wants it. We also need student leaders to stand by those students who are taking direct action, not to reject the people who are most vulnerable and have the least access to a voice in the national media. Condemn the stupidity of dropping a fire extinguisher on a crowd, of course. But the masses who swarmed peacefully into the lobby through open doors should be heroes. And the students who were throwing sticks, let’s try and win them round. At the moment they seem to be caught between a rock and the NUS – riot or student politicians with an eye on their future career. We need to make the alternative option clear – occupation, good; trying to hurt people, bad. Is that so complicated?