Posted tagged ‘student protests’

Occupation therapy?

November 28, 2010

It is hard to say when exactly the idea of student occupations was born, but some trace it to student protests in Columbia University, New York, in 1968 against the university’s alleged involvement in a defence think tank; these protests involved the occupation of several campus buildings, from which the students were eventually evicted by police action.

In the years that followed, student occupations became a common weapon in protests, to the point where they was almost a reflex action. Unhappy with President Nixon’s re-election? Occupy the administration building! Want to end the Vietnam war? Occupy the university library! These actions were often fun, though whether they achieved anything very much is another matter.

During the more conservative years that followed from the 1980s onwards, student occupations became very rare. But now, it seems, they are back; so much so that there is even a website dedicated exclusively to student occupations, starting with British university occupations in protest at Israel’s offensive against Gaza, and more recently the wave of occupations prompted by British government funding cuts in higher education.

I must now confess that, rather many years ago, I too participated in an occupation or two. Of course the occupations had no effect whatsoever on the grand political issues at they were directed, but I would not say that they were pointless: they produced debate and political analysis amongst the occupiers, some of it not uninteresting. But until recently I would have said that, as a society, we have moved on: we have very different opportunities for registering our views these days. Also, my concern (as I have stated before) is that these occupations actually help to turn the wider public against universities, something that we cannot afford right now.

I would not dismiss the intentions and motives of at least some of the protestors; but I think their methods are misguided, not least because they give opportunities to some whose motives are rather less clear.

The politics of protest

November 11, 2010

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.

Spinning the protest

November 7, 2010

As readers of this blog know, last Wednesday there was a student protest march in Dublin, at the close of which there was an outbreak of violence as a small group of protestors attempted to occupy the Department of Finance building, from which they were ejected by Gardai (police). That much is agreed by all participants; what is in dispute is whether the break-away group of protestors started the violence, or the police. In the days after the events, several comments have been published suggesting that the protestors had behaved entirely peacefully but were attacked aggressively by the Gardai; this theme is pursued in this article published by Indymedia, and in this letter to the Irish Independent newspaper – and there are numerous other examples.

The authorities have not, as far as I know, published their version of events, but an eyewitness account by Irish Times Education Editor Sean Flynn and colleague Cian Nihill would I imagine be the most objective description of what actually happened. This account makes it clear that the protest march overall was well organised and peaceful, but it suggests that a small group of activists had joined the protest intending to play a particular role, as follows:

‘Interviewed later a student member of the Socialist Workers Party said a group from his party had met with like-minded colleagues from the Republican socialist movement Éirígí and the Free Education for Everyone movement a half-hour before the main protest began at 12.30pm. He said they all expressed their unease with the tactics of the USI and were determined to be the most vocal and high-profile protesters.’

Whatever anyone might think of the demands made by the protestors in the main march, they had and have a right to express these views publicly and to seek to persuade the public and politicians. But the public, as we know alas, is not necessarily on the side of those working and studying in our universities and colleges, and unlawful or violent conduct will tend to alienate them further. I have no idea how anyone could rationally believe that occupying the Department of Finance will help the cause, in any conceivable way. But this is how one of the comments on the Indymedia article puts it:

‘Yeah..there is a palpable feeling in the air. A tension in the psychic commonality if you will. Last wednesday’s protests seem to have given the cowering irish people the insight they needed to see that this government will even stoop to brutally assaulting and abusing people’s kids by proxy if that is what it takes to get what they want from us for themselves and their shady financial masters before they leave office. This raw protest and the paint throwing has shown people that we CAN protest in a way that has an effect that politely holding up signs and marching can never have. We need to SCARE these complacent bastards. they need to see us outside their homes, outside their meetings, outside the dail. getting MAD AS HELL and NOT WILLING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE.’

I suspect that those involved are a very small group. But they can do a lot of damage, and the victims will be higher education.

Student marching season

November 3, 2010

Today a student protest march will be taking place in Dublin, and the organisers expect thousands to take part. The purpose of the protest is to put pressure on politicians not to increase the student registration charge, to provide adequate student grants and to secure jobs for graduates.

I am not a stranger to protest marches. Those I remember taking part in as a student and postgraduate and as a young lecturer concerned Vietnam, contraception, and third world aid. I don’t in any way want to suggest that today’s protest is not appropriate (I am not unsympathetic to some of the demands, though sceptical about others), but for all that it is a shame that nowadays student activism, when it erupts in these rare moments, is fundamentally concerned with self-interest.

I cannot help feeling that student engagement with the big issues of the day is often disappointing – but I also wonder whether this is in part the fault of the universities or perhaps the system, and that we don’t sufficiently encourage extra-curricular interests and activities. It is something to ponder.