The politics of protest

The very first protest march that I ever participated in was in Germany in 1969, and it was about the growing prominence of a German neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (the NPD). Our concern with the NPD was connected with the then imminent German general election, as the party was managing to attract a lot of attention in the campaign and it was feared it was about to enter the German parliament, the Bundestag; it didn’t, and I have always liked to think I played my part in that result. Shortly afterwards I joined another demonstration protesting about British involvement in the Nigeria/Biafra civil war. Though of course these marches didn’t change the course of history, I remain totally proud of my involvement in these and other protests.

I mention this in order to stress that I am not opposed to protest, and believe it to be one of the key civil liberties. Nor am I opposed in any way to demonstrations that express views with which I disagree. I also accept that protests are not necessarily about facing realities – the idea of shaking one’s fist at something we regard as wrong or unjust has its own merit, as it keeps our focus on pursuing what is right. But I am talking metaphorically: I am not as supportive of the fist being shaken in real time.

Last week, as we have mentioned here before, there was a student protest in Dublin in opposition to fees which ended in some violence on the part of a minority, with a police response. Yesterday similar events unfolded in London, again with violence erupting on the edge of a peaceful protest about tuition fees.

I think I shall steer clear of the vexed questions of who did what and in what order, and whether protesters or the police were more violent. Rather I am wondering about the politics of it, or rather the political judgement. Some sections of those who were involved in or who have supported the less peaceful elements of the Dublin protest have referred to the alleged benefits of scaring the establishment by such actions. That’s dangerous talk: dangerous because the opposite is true, and these actions have the clear potential to turn average citizens against the higher education cause.

Right now the future of many universities in a number of countries rests on a knife edge. To survive and prosper, we need to engage the support of those outside higher education whose voices could be influential: in politics, in business, in the voluntary sector, and so forth. Raising our voices may have some potential for influencing society; raising our fists does not.

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15 Comments on “The politics of protest”

  1. Jason Michael McCann Says:

    Ferdinand, to this I could not agree more. Violence, whether actual or implied, has as Gandhi said, “the power to transform the beautiful nature of man into a brute.” There is also the argument to ‘sometimes,’ arguing that sometimes violence is required. This too I find disturbing, though I am no pacifist, because – as you have said – the opposite is also true. Peace presents its own threat to authority, especially when that authority parasitically requires the subservience of the powerless.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    I’d like to think that you’re right but given that everybody seems so majorly p***ed off (& I’m writing this from the US so I may have picked this up wrong) is it not possible that average citizens may actually think “Fair play to the students”?
    If the students are seen as successful (in whatever they are fighting for or against) might this also not be a prelude to similar activism by other groups, for example those in mortgage arrears- as Morgan Kelly predicted recently?

    • Well, overheard in a pub last night as the TV showed footage if rioting students in London: ‘great, now all we need is bankers rioting because of their reduced bonuses!’

      It may be wrong and unfair, but many see the HE community, including students, as a privileged elite

      • Fred Says:

        There are a lot of academics in marketing and public relations-communication studies, so I thing that it is time to communicate to the people why HE is not privileged and why is important to the economy and the society.
        In other words, communicate the obvious!

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        This is nothing new, the Anglo-Saxon empiricist-based philosophical tradition has always been suspicious of academia. Interestingly, English is one of the few languages where ‘academic’ can have a negative connotation…

  3. copernicus Says:

    I am a Londoner,and however much the NUS and their supporting academics, and scenes played out on the screen have attracted wide criticism from the public. Except one/two left-leaning newspapers and blogs, the piublic opinion is that the NUS and the students have shot themselves in the foot. London has 10 universities ( including Greater London) and the common complaint now from thise who live nearby each university is that students behave as though the rest of the society owes them something- a sense of entitlement, and increasing drunken and disorder behavior from them have alientated the public. My neighbour an elderly lady said to me that no way she is going to accept the behaviour of this mob who she called the thugs, and she said all this mob demonstrated is that they have an entitlement which she brushed aside. A painter who was doing the painting work next door to my home was shocked to see the vandlism shown on the screen, and said that his earning which is not much should never be taxed to educate this mob.

  4. copernicus Says:

    The fire extinguisher thrown by one of the students on the top of the tower narrowly missed a student on the street who was meekly holding a placard, I now heard from a witness.

    • copernicus Says:

      The fire extinguisher students is to nbe identified and charged with “attempt to murder” charge-the latest report. There are blogs which are offering £1000 for anyone who identifies this person.

  5. Colum McCaffery Says:

    This isn’t about whether students are good or bad. The point is that ANYONE who calls people to protest on the streets is aware that there are groups who will adopt a parasitic tactic. Those groups who talk about violence and fear could never hope to attract more than a handful of people and they therefore desperately need a populous host if they are to make an impact. Now, peaceful protest is – must be! – possible but oranisers have to face facts and devise anti-parasitic tactics.

  6. Vincent Says:

    Odd the reactions all the same. At the time you were marching about, you and your cohort were frightening the bejasus out of a Bavarian Prof. Him that turned out to be Benedict XIV. Spun him right, in a big way.
    Anyhow, its not the marching about the place or the bit of violence that hacks people off about the student marches. It’s the myopic selfishness that attaches to them like a bad smell. And one that continues after they leave.
    Look at it, in both the ROI and UK, was it cuts in benefit to the non-privileged that stirred the little *****. No, just something that might have costs to themselves.
    Surely if you have the brain to sustain a course at university you have the ability to empathise.

  7. Victor Says:

    As the example of Greece showed, cutting long standing, though unaffordable welfare entitlements can result in widespread demonstrations and even riots.
    The alternative, which is keep funding government spending by borrowing is illustrated by Ireland, whose problems on the bond market have brought it one step closer to default.
    The Financial Times writes:

    In the eyes of bond market investors, the prospect of an Irish bail-out, similar to that of Greece, is growing by the day.
    Yields on Ireland’s 10-year sovereign debt saw their biggest one-day surge since the launch of the euro on Wednesday, jumping more than half a percentage point to 8.64 per cent. …

    This, traders said, forced Irish banks to sell government bonds as they scrambled to raise the cash to meet the new margin requirements, sending a shudder through the market.
    The latest market moves comes at an awkward time for Dublin and the rest of the eurozone as financial markets move to price in renewed fears that one of the peripheral countries of Ireland, Portugal and Greece could default on their debt.

    Don Smith, economist at Icap, said:
    “Irish bond yields keep on rising and today was yet more bad news.
    Investor confidence has been shaken in Ireland and the move by LCH.Clearnet is a very bad sign.
    It is potentially a tipping point that the Irish may find difficult to recover from.”

    It could take Ireland a generation to get out of the catastrophe.
    Emigration is booming again and will accelerate because the will be no jobs.
    Currently 50,000 per year are emigrating and they are the people who can land on their feet in the USA or Australia–they have graduate degrees in science or engineering.

  8. copernicus Says:

    The Times (London) leader puts it very nicely. The students destroyed their case very effectively. My friend who marched peacefully and left it when it was turning bad, said that the talk of outside mob infiltration yesterday is nonsense as the Social Workers Party of Britain has inflitrated university student unions and at least 25% of these students believe in violence. The Scottish student- from Strathclyde. clearly identified with his name as vociferously protesting and was the one who kicked the police helmet. If anything, these students have lost any remnant sympathy with the public as the pedestrians were threatened by the students’ behaviour yesterday near that area. The situation yesterday was, all those students who were involved including the ones who destroyed the reception, roof etc..were students.

  9. […] the recent violent actions on the margins of major student protest marches in both Dublin and London, the official student […]

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