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Wednesday, November 10, 2010 

Almost the right idea, certainly the wrong target.


Looking at
today's student protests which culminated, whether the NUS likes it or not, in the antics at 30 Millbank, it's hard not to be reminded of last year's G20 protests. Then a demonstration which was overwhelmingly peaceful in the main was portrayed by the media in the main as if the black flag had been temporarily raised over the City, with photographers and cameramen lining up to take their money shots as the windows of a branch of RBS were broken and the building looted. Having done their day's work, they then all but ignored the wider actions of the police in kettling and battering other protesters away from the main flashpoint, until the video of Ian Tomlinson being pushed over forced them to recognise that there had been abuses by both sides.

The difference is that the G20 protests were flagged up well in advance by both police and media as likely to involve violent clashes, to the point where it all but became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with those determined to cause trouble being attracted where otherwise they might not have been. No one seemed to imagine that there'd be a repeat of that today. The similarity is that the media were well represented at Millbank, and there have to be questions raised over how that encouraged some on the demonstration to play up to the cameras, and not just those who were masked. Case in point was the kid in the footage who brings down one of the windows, delighting in having his actions filmed and making not even the slightest effort to hide his identity, who if he didn't have his collar felt shortly afterwards almost certainly will at some point, and going by recent standards, shouldn't expect to just get a slap on the wrist.

Regardless of the fact that the "violence", if it can really be called that, was confined to a single building which could have been considered an obvious target, such is its proximity to where the final rally was held, the media has been playing it for all its worth, as have, just as pathetically, the Liberal Democrats themselves. Anyone would have imagined that the centre of London had come to a standstill as temporary anarchy took over, rather than a demonstration got out of hand for a few hours in a quickly enclosed and sealed off area. It doesn't help either that the National Union of Students is so completely spineless, condemning the actions of a few in exactly the kind of language which only then encourages the media to play the demonstrators off against each other. Some of what they did certainly was despicable and stupid, such as the throwing of a fire extinguisher off the roof, which as this video shows those on the ground reacted angrily against, and ultimately counter-productive, yet whilst the media's reaction has been the over-the-top it's also ensured that the overall message of the rally has reached far further than it would have otherwise.

This said, very few are going to be persuaded one way or another by today's action. Those that already dislike students will only have their prejudices reaffirmed, while a few broken windows are hardly going to trouble the coalition's overall policy on tuition fees or cuts. While it may enthuse a few who were otherwise despairing that today's youth are more happy tweeting and blogging than taking direct action, the revolution also hardly starts here.

It's equally dispiriting that the targets of today's marchers were the same old enemies rather than those genuinely responsible. As nice as it is to occasionally
hear the youth of the day condemning "Tory scum" and attacking their seat of power as it were, they're not the ones who have ensured that students in the years to come will have to take on even more debt; that lies primarily with the Labour party for introducing top-up fees and instigating the Browne review, and most pertinently now with the party which promised prior to the election not to raise fees and which many marching would have voted for. The Liberal Democrats need to and should have felt the brunt of the onslaught, and while "Lib Dem scum" doesn't quite have the same pithy ring to it, they've barely been touched by today's demonstration, chants against Nick Clegg aside. It's not even as if the protesters couldn't if they had wanted taken the demonstration to Liberal Democrat headquarters, which in fact is only a few streets away from Millbank. For Simon Hughes to then appear on Newsnight condemning the NUS for urging the "hunting down" of his party when they've done nothing of the sort outside of rhetoric should show how cowardly and susceptible to pressure his party really is.

As undesirable as the possibility of the reintroduction of the kind of policing the G20 protests saw and which was criticised in a report afterwards as a result of the ransacking of Tory HQ is, almost the right idea, certainly the wrong target has to be the ultimate summary of the day's events.

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It sems to me that, bearing in mind the G20 protest and the recent events in Paris, trouble at the NUS demo was more than likely. Add in the fact that the march was going past the Tory Central Office and the events become a racing certainty. So why were the police unprepared? I suppose it's arguable that they were so knocked back by the events at the G20, they've lost their nerve or that they misjudged it but I suspect the explanation is more cynical. With all the noise coming from the government about cutting police numbers and privileges, what better way to make their point about how undesirable this is seen by the police than to let a demo get out of control by inaequate numbers.

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