Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cops off campus

Cops off campus, they said.  And how right they were.  There wasn't a copper in sight for the whole length of time I was there.  This lack of expected fisticuffs accounts for the comically pathetic news coverage, which mainly alights on the scandalous conflagration of a bin near Senate House.  When I arrived, there was a horde of journalists snapping and filming around this goddam bin, like moths drawn to a lightbulb.  It's a bin, on fire, and this is the most intriguing thing the entire city of London has to offer today.

Police vans had certainly been queued up as if a major confrontation was planned, photographic evidence of which was posted on social media.  The ubiquitous helicopter was sent aloft, although it kept its distance.  But at Senate House, I found about a thousand (I would guess, but please correct me) politicised students marching around the campus confidently.  The only person who genuinely looked nervous was ULU president Michael Chessum.  Later I found a bunch of students malingering outside the Royal Court of Justice.  Actually, student protesters seemed to enjoy relatively free movement of the city, with none of the usual brutality and kettling.  I hear roads were blocked with no real difficulty or obstruction.  The police, it seems, simply went into hiding for the day.  However you judge the tactics of this this, and it certainly seems to have been wise for the cops to be off campuses on this occasion, this does provisionally constitute something of a victory for the students.

What about the students?  Can we understand their mood, without merely getting swept along by the giddiness of the moment?  Maybe I can explain something about this with an anecdote.  The other day, I spoke in a debate for UCLU about whether there is a class war in Britain.  Our team won, by a good margin.  The two issues that the students responded to most passionately were the 3 Cosas campaign, and the University of London's insanely arrogant decision to seek a court order banning protests on its campuses.  When we said that you'd have to be utterly solipsistic not to notice class war when cleaners had to struggle for equal pension, holiday pay and sick pay - that raised a powerful cheer.  When we said that, if the university bans your protest, that's war - the assent was vigorous.  And when we said that, if the cops bash Alfie Meadows' head in for protesting, that's war - the resounding applause spoke volumes.

I think the main reason why the students decided there is a class war in Britain is because they can see it, and because they can see the effects of a very successful ruling class war on their immediate environment, and on their prospects.  Laurie Penny suggests that there's a germinal alliance forming here between workers and students.  This is true.  The student occupations have been, very often, in solidarity with striking lecturers, or with low paid staff.  And a large part of the reason why this is true is that increasingly students are workers, and they are able to identify with low paid staff as people much like them.  

I am in an interesting position in this respect.  Like most students, I work.  Unlike most students, my work consists of teaching other students, rather than serving coffee or scanning groceries.  So I am both a teacher and a student; both a worker and a learner at the University of London.  As a student, I'm in the same boat as all the other students, and as such those who are ready to fight are allies.  As a teacher, I have a certain obligation of care toward the students, which seems to me to extend beyond the formal remit of imparting to them the skills they need to get a 2.1 or a first.  At the very least, I think I have to be interested in whether the marketisation, standardisation and bureaucratisation of the education system is serving them well.  Of course, in the light of a certain ideology of excellence, it will serve some of the students very well.  It won't serve well those students, largely from subaltern groups and lower social classes, whose life chances have already put them at a disadvantage in the institution; whose needs cannot be met by a disciplinary regime; whose sense of their general interest is larger than their career path; and who must perforce occasionally protest because the system fails them.  So, while most students resign themselves to this as a simple fact of life, get their heads down, turn in their work and hope to be doing something better soon, it falls to a politicised, militant, scapegoated and - if the university authorities get their way, apparently - brutalised student layer to oppose this.

Unless the lecturers and teaching staff want to join in.