The Millbank ‘riot’

The thought that came to mind watching coverage of the break-in into Tory HQ was whether the more aggressive ‘protestors’ might not, in fact, have been provocateurs, so convenient was the excuse they provided for synthetic right-wing outrage. I spoke to several people who had been on the demonstration in London, and without exception they described it as a heartening, good-natured, serious mobilisation of public opinion which was clearly about more than just the narrow issue of student fees. But you’d never gather that from a survey of the mainstream media.

This point is nicely articulated by Guy Aitchison in his piece on

Now, clearly there were acts of vandalism that accompanied the occupation of Millbank, but the instinct of the crowd was decisively against violence. When one protester picked up a rock, he was told to stop being an “idiot” and the throwing of the fire extinguisher was greeted by a chorus of booes and a chant of “stop throwing shit”, as this video shows. A 23 year old man from Cambridgeshire has apparently now been arrested over this incident. Good. If it is indeed him who hurled the projectile, he had no support for his actions amongst students at the time, and will have none now.

The occupation of 30 Millbank, on the other hand, certainly did have the support of the crowd. This wasn’t just a minority of hotheads, a rogue gang of “anarchists” and “Trots”, as Caroline Flint put it on Question Time yesterday. These were young, fresh-faced kids of the kind you’d find in any student bar. Disillusioned and enraged by a political elite that has chosen to make their generation pay for a crisis they didn’t cause, they saw an opportunity passing Millbank to get involved in a spontaneous direct action against the poorly guarded Tory HQ. And they took it. The hundreds who occupied the building had the support of the thousands who cheered them on outside, and many more no doubt on TV. Many I spoke to, who got involved in the occupation, were 16 and 17 and had taken the day off school, risking the wrath of their teachers, to protest. As John Harris put it:

“What happened on Wednesday afternoon was not some meaningless rent-a-mob flare-up, nor an easily-ignored howl of indignation from some of society’s more privileged citizens. It was an early sign of people growing anxious and restless, and what a government pledged to such drastic plans should increasingly expect.”

The other important point to recognise is that this wasn’t a purely self-interested protest about fees by a privileged few. The majority of those protesting won’t be affected by the hike in fees, and in any case students were keen to show solidarity with other victims of the coalition’s austerity agenda. The slogans and statement by those on the roof of Millbank make this clear. As Richard Seymour points out, it is patronising and untrue, to imply, as Polly Toynbee does, that only the middle class care about defending university education – many students come from working class families, live in poor quality accommodation and struggle to get by on low paid jobs. The benefit of accessible higher education to the individual and society is recognised across all social classes.

The strange thing about the current period of phoney war is how strangely passive enraged populations are, both here and in Ireland (where the public sector cuts necessitated by the recklessness of bankers and their corrupt political associates are much more savage than anything contemplated by the Con-Dem coalition). But the rage is real, and deep-seated. And it will find an outlet, one way or another. In the US, the rage has taken a particular route — in the Tea Party and the mid-term elections. It hasn’t yet been expressed in Europe, except in France and Greece. All it needs is for the appearance of a skilful, charismatic politician on the scene who is willing to exploit and channel the rage and then we’ll see some interesting developments.