ESSAY It's something like 11:30pm. I'm out of cigarettes and I can't believe it. I started with two packs at the beginning of the day - surely I can’t have smoked them all. It's been at least an hour since my last hit of nicotine, and well over 14 hours since I exited my friend's North London flat and shuffled my way onto the underground to Westminster. I remember getting off and looking straight at Parliament. It was a beautiful winter’s day. Big Ben read 9:30am and I was running late. The day had a foreboding feeling to it and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Over the past few months a movement had been growing and it was ready to halt, or boil over. I breathed in the moment and wondered about what the day had in store. Today they voted on tripling tuition fees.
Scrounging for cigarettes on Westminster Bridge, I approached a cute girl smoking a sparsely rolled cigarette. Desperate, I trudge over and ask if she's got a spare or some tobacco and a skin to roll (I don't know how to roll but at this point I'd eat the fucking tobacco). Of course, she's got nothing. That skinny minnie of a cigarette was her last. We both sort of sigh, knowing she will soon become the nicotine scavenger I’ve turned into. I make my way back to the people I’m with. Facing me, the glow of the Millennium Eye and a dense line of riot cops. Behind me, the glow of Big Ben and dozens more riot cops. On either side stand at least a thousand bored, shivering and nicotine-starved students. The
solution to this measurement of menace and boredom - the hokey-cokey. It wasn't the mindlessness of smashing the Treasury building’s windows like some had attempted hours ago, nor was it the thousands of students marching from UCL’s campus to Parliament Square, but when the going gets stopped, the stopped start dancing. The mass hokey-cokey, the following macarena and the ensuing serenade of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Wonderwall and Hey Jude might have been a bit silly, but it didn’t lack sincerity. Inevitably though, it was the acts of violence (violence, not vandalism mind) seen earlier in the day that made the front pages, and though senseless in most cases, it sells. Besides, no one wants to see a bunch of mad youth conga line and snake
their way up and down Westminster Bridge in the fucking freezing cold. It was mad as hell that they were there, and the police were equally mad to keep them there. If it were not such an exceedingly long and energy-draining day, people would have fought back. This was the beginning of the end for the student movement in the United Kingdom. I'm not being cynical, but as a statement of fact, 9 December 2010 was the day the movement died. That’s not to say the movement of protest is dead, because it isn’t. I believe the movement that died is in the process of being reborn into something bigger. To those that are part of it, the movement concerns everyone now. Not just students. The galvanization of the student movement
doesn't really have a start date. It just sort of happened. To see what exactly happened, just take a look at any of the British national 11 November 2010. They've mostly got the same story and the same picture. Every. Single. One. What was supposed to be a peaceful march of 50,000 from A to B ended with plenty of broken windows, a fire extinguisher plummeting from a rooftop and probably the best street party I've been to. All at the expense of the Tory Party and their headquarters. As one person put it in an email, “The media hysteria at a few broken windows (that the Conservative Party can afford to replace) should not distract us from the fundamental issues.”
What those fundamental issues are is still up in the air now because what happened since that extremely long day, when the Toryled coalition government passed through the hike in tuition fees, has not been a student movement. It might still be led by students, but it's no longer just about them. It's about everyone now, everyone that wants to perk up and take notice. When a few of us were standing on the edge of Parliament Square watching about two dozen black-clad protesters try to smash their way into the Treasury. It was like watching the Orc hoards try and break into Helms Deep. First they used sticks. Then they had pipes from ripped apart chain link fences. And finally they somehow got a hold of a ladder. One student told me “I think this has
ESSAY shattered the whole idea that British students are apathetic towards politics.” I don’t think he meant the pun intentionally. There are many elements of madness in protest, in the movement that gripped the students in the UK and the unfounded events unfolding across the Middle East. Trying to arrange them and figure out which is the romantic sort (hokey-cokey and conga lines) and the absolutely bat shit crazy that people are driven to (riding a camel into Tahrir Square and no-fly zones) is a more sobering task altogether. I was at party the other week with some of the guys that took part in one of the many occupations that swept across the UK last year. Again like most parties, I end up outside smoking talking with the other
smokers. Everyone had just returned from their holidays, mostly devoid of direct action and tired of the questioning from those at home who didn't understand. By the time a few beers and other libations were deep in the belly and flowing through the bloodstream, talk was rife with ideas of 'what next?'. The more cigarettes stamped out and beers thrown back, the more intense the discussion got. It seemed like an eternity since somebody went to the bathroom, but suddenly the lone face returned to the conversation via the miniwindow two stories up from the bathroom. With his head poking out, eyes alight and gasping for breath – that was it – the eureka moment. Even when these kids are taking a piss, they're thinking politics and the best way to subvert the current Con-Dem system
that’s driving them crazy. When I began writing this piece about the madness of protest I found myself struggling for words, well not words, but thoughts. So much has happened over the past six months, whether it’s the cuts and tuition fees in the UK, or the ousting of authoritarian regimes and megalomaniacal rulers. I put off writing for far too long because I feared I'd have absolutely nothing to say, not because of apathy, I just didn’t know where to start. When reading Robert Fisk's raw account of the serious chaos happening in Egypt on the train, aimlessly searching for a place to sit down and gather my thoughts. I found myself at a loss. The whole world is watching now and for
things to get to that stage, it is madness, but whether we choose to pay attention and then act requires a little something special. What's mad about the uprisings in the Middle East and to a far smaller extent the UK, is that it began entirely apolitically and without any sort of polarizing pull that would tear it down before it began. Sworn enemies have fought together to fight against one common oppressor. In Egypt, Coptic Christians protect Muslims as they pray and Muslims return the favour. Whilst I was skipping grad school and chasing around what started as a nationwide student movement in the UK. Well before the uprising in Tunisia and the historic scenes in Egypt. It has waned plenty since, but it's
not the numbers that are trailing off, it's the madness behind it. It was mob mentality that drove the thousands into the streets, and the further hundreds into the building, and the tens up the stairs and onto the roof. Madness that drove 18-year-old Edward Woollard to toss a fire extinguisher off 10 Millbank into the swirling crowd below. Questioning authority takes a special mentality. It's that will to let go, to open up and let the emotions flow and say I am going to act. I saw that in the eyes of many of the protesters. If I had a mirror, or saw my own reflection, I would have seen it in my own. It wouldn't have been against the government per say, but most definitely against the conventional journalism I've been trained to embrace and never question. Here's this movement that I can't help but feel a part of,
despite not being a part of whatsoever. The casual observer turned activist and for journalists the interviewer turned interviewee and it’s not just the lines of conventional unbiased coverage that are blurred, but the concept of such is as well. Good journalism is truth. But the best journalism, the stories that move us, are those derived from the madness of reporting on things firsthand and opening up. Seeing students of all ages, races, religions and backgrounds spontaneously converge to express their disillusionment about what lies ahead puts nothing but sheer joy into my own heart. My joy was apolitical, it had nothing to do with the politics or the contradictory rhetoric of the UK's ruling politicians – it had
ESSAY to do with the very simple notion that these kids were here. The apparent silent majority of a seemingly restless and faceless group of society that was supposed to be clouded by apathy and disinterest had arrived with their fighting words. And shit, were they loud. Pictures were beamed all over the world of black-clad students smashing up whatever they could, poking Camilla with a stick and tossing eggs at the royal caravan. Schoolgirls linking arms around a planted police van primed for pelting and vandalism. Not only were their actions loud so was their music. At times it seemed like there were drum corps waiting around every corner, waiting to rally. It was only when me and six other students stood outside of a Parliament protected by
rows upon rows of riot cops, I let myself go and give in to a bit of the madness that swirled around the kettled square. Under the glow of Big Ben and with an ongoing street battle with police, I did not throw a brick, or pick up a sign. I plugged in an iPod to some shaggy-haired protester's rigged vintage boombox. He, and everyone else had run out of juice long ago and music was nonexistent. All we could hear were the muffled calls of class war over a dying megaphone and the occasional sporadic burst of firecrackers a few hundred yards away. So it was me, already struggling to remain impartial, who gave in and took part. Finding yourself as the DJ for the few hundred students around me with nowhere to go, what do you even play in a situation
like that? I wanted to avoid the cliché. I was lost for both words and overwhelmed by 20GB of choice. Somehow I ended up on the soundtrack to the Coen brother's tale of Ulysses set in 1930s Deep South. In that moment we were all Homer, trapped and contained hours after we set out on a journey, all we wanted was to get the hell home to our girlfriends, boyfriends, friends or the comfy bed waiting for us. For better or worse, I was part of that nameless and faceless crowd. We were nothing but a bunch of cold students standing in a kettle waiting to go the hell home. So, with the utopia of my extremely generous friend's floor and a kebab on my mind, I played a song about a place I've always wanted to visit. The Big Rock Candy Mountain. One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fires were burning, Down the track came a hobo hiking, And he said, 'Boys, I'm not turning I'm headed for a land that's far away Besides the crystal fountains So come with me, we'll go and see The Big Rock Candy Mountains In the Big Rock Candy Mountains… I'm sure everyone was expecting something other than an Americana classic and I got my fair share of odd looks. In fact, only three people really enjoyed the song. Me, my one friend and clearly the coolest member of the London Metropolitan Police force. He liked it so much he gave me a wink and did a little jig, in full clad riot gear. I will never forget that. It was then that I decided that this impromptu set list was going
to be a bit different. Next up, Otis Redding's Sitting On the Dock of the Bay. This was a song everyone knew. Predictably, when Otis began to whistle, we all followed suit. It was pretty entertaining stuff, even more so when a few cops swayed a bit to the tune (…it might have been exhaustion rather than enjoyment though. They too had been standing outside all day.) Though we were kettled, standing in the freezing cold, out of cigarettes and nowhere to go, we could at least talk to each other, dance a bit and sing songs. The police could do nothing. Any sign of humanity during those hours would be seen as a weakness. Good on those few who embraced the madness and showed us humanity behind the plastic shields and fluorescent yellow. I always knew it was there.
Political protest is a funny old beast. On the one hand, there are the creative signs and slogans. The ones people put some thought and energy into. Signs announce slogans like “This shit wouldn’t happen at Hogwarts”, “IM LAREN TO READ” and everybody’s favourite, “Down with this sort of thing”. Usually the ones holding them are improvising chants like “I say Nick Clegg, you say dickhead,” or they’re belting out the tune “Cameron’s got a shiny face.” Conversely, there are the tepid chants like “When I say cut back you say fight back!” that get monotonous rather quickly and the mass-produced Socialist Workers placards and radical newsboys hawking the SWP paper on every corner. The commercialization of protest amongst the left is a bit disarming and frankly discouraging from the perspective
ESSAY of a neutral already struggling to subdue his politics. It reminds me of a protest in Washington DC that was accompanied by street merchants wheeling around shopping carts loaded with t-shirts commemorating the protest. That was over three years ago and was the last major left organized and slanting protest of date in the United States. Since then the grassroots activism movement has taken a turn to the right and veered off a cliff via the Tea Party express. It’s been eight months since I’ve moved to the UK, but at least once every other day someone asks me about the Tea Party. I’m always at a loss of what to say. Crazy? Absolutely. Misguided? Very much so just take a look at their association with the EDL and far-right groups in Europe. What hits me during these discussions is the realization that the Tea Party is the most successful activist organisation in recent memory. Yes, they’re bankrolled by billionaire brothers looking to further their agenda, and sure they’re politics are wonky and wrong, but they have managed to elect representatives to Congress and the American right are making
They may not be as loud as students when they’re united, and they’ve definitely got a few assholes with megaphones, but those assholes with the megaphones are in Congress. UK students? They've had their tuition raised and seen their movement’s popularity evaporate. Desensitised by violent scenes at further protests and succumbing to apathy or driven away by lefty rubbish. If students, workers or whoever in the left want to mimic the amazing scenes in the Middle East and give Glenn Beck another opportunity to add some more fire stickers to his map of the world in flames, they’d have to embrace the moment of clarity and uncloak the invisible hand that ushers us away and chomp right into it. While I was trying to write this piece, I spent a good bit of time at the coast, walking around and generally trying to clear my head. While I was walking back to the train station I found myself again cold and out of cigarettes, but there was no one to ask this time around. Crossing the street, I remember seeing a storefront called 'Children of the Revolution'. In the boutique's window were child-sized mannequins wearing t-shirts screen printed with skulls and crossbones,
Words by Jon Offredo
concessions in policy as a trade off for support in 2012.
accentuated by the studded leather belts fixed around their waist.
The Tea Party has since claimed (via Fox News) that their influence is spreading to Europe in the form of student protests in the UK. Here we Americans were again, sons and daughters of revolution, returning to the now-estranged motherland to spread their rhetoric and claim responsibility for the British students running riot.
The generation of British students that made a few ripples and kicked off a few months of unrest, is forever immortalised by the commercialization of revolution as seen through the locus of edgy children's clothing. Down with that sort of thing.
The madness of protest in its purest sense is entirely apolitical. As a movement’s language becomes more about class war and eating the rich, the real issues get lost under a truckload of silly rhetoric that alienates the people hit the hardest. The students were once a silent majority, and for a few months they had a voice, but what was once collective chorus of chants has been reduced to a whimper drowned out by one asshole on a megaphone once again. The Tea Party has managed to sustain a collective voice that ebbs and flows and never goes away. Slowly but surely they’ve solidified themselves in American politics.