The Winter of Discontent

The following is an interview conducted via email over the space of a few weeks.
I was contacted by Tom as he looked to gather information from people who participated in the student protests of 2010/2011. I was active in the protest movement at that time and gladly answered the questions he sent my way.

After the Winter of Discontent
An Oral History of the Brighton Student Protests of 2010


What was your experience of student protest activity in autumn/winter 2010?

During this time I participated in many activities that related to student protests, both in and around, Brighton and in London. Of particular relevance was the occupation of Pavilion Parade which occurred after a demonstration on the streets of Brighton. I was present for the first few days of the occupation, and though I supported their aims and what they hoped to achieve, I did not stay with other occupiers in the building as I felt it would not bring about the desired change. The tactic may have been correct but I feel the target was not.
That autumn, my first term in Brighton Uni, was where I began to make connections, friends and form a network of activists and like-minded individuals. Even now people can reminisce about the protests and the occupation, that is where the core of “the group” was formed.
My experience was very positive as it brought a unity to many students and it gave me a real taste of activism. Though I had participated in activism before, it wasn’t quite on such a level. As is the case with many Uni students I imagine, this sparked my interest in opposing what I believe to be, unfair and immoral government decisions. Actually, rather than sparking my interest, this was the event that poured petrol on it. This hardened my opposition, increased my desire to fight for change.
There was a romantic feel about it all even though, in reality, we were to change very little indeed.

If you participated in the University of Brighton occupation, please tell us about your experience.

As stated previously, I did participate. I was at the Pavilion Parade building as the days demonstration came to a close. Calls were made for all students to head to this location so that it could be claimed for occupation. The idea being that we would “capture” something from the days activism. 

The ground level swelled with students and the main room became packed with activists. There was a buzz of excitement though nobody really had a clear vision of what we there to achieve. Police forced their way into the building at one point but they were told to leave by the lecturers of the University. The lecturers were very supportive of the entire movement and occupation throughout it occurring.
In the evening of the initial occupation there was a party atmosphere. We had claimed a University building for our own, and we wanted to celebrate. Many, myself included, went out and got some drinks, bought some food for the evening and spent the time chatting and relaxing. Some got drunk, some got tipsy, some left, and some stayed the night. That was the only night I stayed there, though I did check in regularly on meetings, decision processes and spoke to those who slept in the building for a longer period of time. As mentioned earlier, I was supportive of what the aims were, I just felt the tactic was wrong. I did not see how staying in our Uni building, occupying our lecture halls and preventing other students from using them, I did not see how this would help us achieve what we wanted.
At times during the occupation I helped with flyering, petition signing, signature gathering and I also participated in more frowned upon activities. These were graffiti and banner hangings. One such banner hanging occurred on the roof of the Grand Parade campus, though the banner did not last long up there unfortunately.

How did your participation in the autumn 2010 student protests affect you?

As I already previously mentioned, it reignited my fighting spirit, my desire to oppose and to change what I saw as unjust rulings. The anger I felt due to various decisions from the government was allowed an outlet through the student protests. No longer was I just ranting and raving online, and talking to friends, I was actively a participant in something, a movement fighting for change. 

For a short time I felt very good about what we were doing, but I soon lost faith and lost belief. Again it boiled down to the tactics used mostly. I saw no “victory” for the occupation and the longer it went on the more I saw it as less of a means to an end and more of an end in itself. In my eyes the occupiers began to stay there purely to say the building was occupied, purely to say they were doing something.
On a personal level the student protests hardened and reaffirmed my beliefs, the protests introduced me to like minded people, and it shaped my views on later activist tactics.

You talk about the protests hardening your desire to fight for change. I was wondering whether you could say something about precisely what it was about the experience of the protests that motivated you in this way?

I knew I was against certain policy, I knew I felt a certain way regarding  legislations and laws, and the protests showed me that I was not alone in thinking it. It justified my anger and disillusionment. It was not just the angst of some student, it was the majority held belief of the student culture en masse. I didn’t consciously decide that I would become active in the protests, and that these protests would be the real catalyst for my political activism, but that is what happened. I believe that if you are not an activist, you are an in-activist, and thus a complete waste of time and  energy, content to sit back and simply accept whatever is given to you. The world does not become a better place by people accepting, by people not being active, it becomes a better place through action, demands and struggle. In the case of politics and certain legislation, I don’t think you are able to sit on the fence. Either you agree with something, or you don’t. If you don’t agree with it you should feel obliged to fight against it. Having these feelings within me, the anger, the betrayal, the disillusionment, I had to walk the path of action, I had to fight against it, because it was something I felt so strongly about. I guess in times of struggle or protest, with any issue, you see the true colours of people. The true desire and commitment. If they really oppose certain legislation, they will become active in that opposition. If they don’t, they obviously did not feel that strongly about it in the first place.

You mention the effect the protest had on your political views. Can you say a bit about what those views were that were strengthened/changed by your participation?

University is always a time whereby people become more political. It is where you stay up talking late at night, you attend your first demonstrations, you begin to take notice of the real world, as you have left the bubble of the family home. 
Before Uni, and thus before these demonstrations/protests, I was political. I was inclined to talk about this and that, and I knew a little but I had no manifesto. I had loose ideas that didn’t really interact and I was inclined to just go along with certain policies and ideas, simply because. 
The protests, the demo’s and uni opened my eyes that little bit wider. Politics became more tangible and accessible. And because of this I felt I needed to have a system of beliefs that were steady. Certain ideas and beliefs could not contradict one another. I was aware that if this was the case I would be a walking hypocrisy. 
My views were shaped rather than strengthened. My resolve was strengthened, my determination, my hatred of certain policies and certain people. That was strengthened, but my views were moulded. No drastic changes occurred, just a few things were refined. The protests and demo’s highlighted areas I would not usually think about and so I had to adapt my overall political view to fit them in. I had to slightly amend a few things in order for it all to piece together. 
Examples I could give you were, in particular, and most obviously. tuition fees. I had always been opposed, but I had never been so vehemently and actively opposed. As I learnt the history, as I saw the privileges of those inflicting the changes, as I spoke to other students who were appalled by the actions of the government, that is when my resolve hardened. Some may say I became more radical, but I think radical is just a term used to describe anything that isn’t the mainstream. 
In terms of radical thought, I had always been left-wing, though I don’t associate with a party because I see myself as an Anarchist, my views fall into the left-wing of the political spectrum. University, the protests, the demo’s, pushed me further to the left.

What was your experience of policing on the protests?

My experience of the policing…

Well in Brighton it wasn’t too bad in all honesty, at least my experience wasn’t. Lots of reserve forces had to get pulled in from nearby stations, but the police on the whole weren’t particularly heavy handed or bastard-esque.
There was one incident which sticks in my head whereby a very hefty policeman broke through a door inside Pavilion Parade to attempt to disrupt the occupation but that was as far as it got I believe.
My experience of the police during the student protest is perhaps not as damming as other activists. The times I have attended counter demo’s against the March For England is when I have experienced worse police treatment.Police in London were a completely different story however.
I heard the Met had a reputation for being pretty awful and on the times I attended demo’s and protests in the capital they certainly lived up to that. The one time they didn’t was at the Battle of Millbank, when Millbank tower was invaded and taken over. Then the police did practically nothing at all. Just stood back and allowed it all to happen. There are many that believe it was all part of their ploy, allow the damage to occur so then the student protests could be painted in a really negative light.
There were numerous instances in London whereby the police demonstrated tactics and actions which makes you question your trust and faith in them. Certainly when it comes to activism and protests now I do not consider the police on my side.
I am not so naive to follow the Anarchistic motto ACAB (all cops are bastards) because I understand the job they do, and I know that if need be, the chances are they would certainly aid me during my life. However, when you are protesting in opposition to something then the police are not there to protect you, they are not your friends and they are not keepers of the peace.
In London I was threatened with arrest on a handful of occasions, photographed whilst taking part in protests and demo’s, charged at by police horses, pushed, shoved, shouted at, segregated, kettled and disciplined.
On a lighter note I took advantage of a stray policeman’s hat and wore that for a short time at a protest. A Reuters photographer captured the moment and my bandana and hooded face/head appeared in the Daily Mail and the Guardian (not that I was attributed in the caption of course).
(can be found here: did these experiences of policing on the student protests (in London and Brighton) relate to your previous views of the police? Did they alter your perspective, or reinforce existing ideas?Good question.I think before the student protests, both in London and in Brighton, I had sort of a romanticised view of Police. I believed (falsely) that they were only there to protect us and that they were keepers of the peace, perfectly neutral and moral.

Since attending the various demo’s and protests I saw a much darker side, and that has definitely stuck with me. I know you can’t tarnish every police officer with the same label, but my view of the police took a turn towards the negative.
For every one officer who was helpful and conversational there was another that was rude, argumentative and forceful. The police violence is something which I think is often ignored. I think it is absolutely shocking that they have the right to taser people, hit people with batons and charge them whilst on horseback. The latter two I experienced myself.
Some of the actions of the police were absolutely disgusting and my opinion on the police changed dramatically during the Winter of Discontent. It has stuck with me until now, and if anything it is only becoming more resolute.

It is stupid to follow the mantra of ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) but it is equally naive to believe that all police act in your best interests, and are there for your benefit. I think the best way to treat and handle police is just to never trust them. They are agents of the state and so must conduct whatever is required of them. Anything, or anyone, that cannot think for themselves, and follows orders from above unquestionably, should not be trusted. Simple as that.

In short, my perspective on the police definitely changed. There are few ethical and moral considerations, no individual thinking, and an abundance of violence.
In my own experience, I have been followed, videoed, photographed, charged at by mounted police, threatened with arrest, beaten with a baton and kettled. And for what? Because I was acting on my right to protest and demonstrate within a Democracy. The whole state of politics disgusts me, and the police are simply the brawn of the regime that millions oppose.

What do you think the student protests of 2010 achieved?

How do you feel about the possibility of government policy being changed by grassroots political action?

I have been waiting for this one.
The inevitable question.

What did they achieve?

That is a very complicated question, or at least it is an easy question with a very complicated answer.
Achievement is a tough one, and many arguments and opinions could be voiced, depending on who you were, which side of the political spectrum you sat on and whether you were looking at it in the short or the long term.Politically I guess the protests achieved nothing because the fees were increased, the cuts still occurred, and the voice of the people was ignored. In the short term, at least, it seems as if the fight was futile. It is hard for me to say that because you never want to admit to a cause that you fought for being futile. Essentially it was though, and my personal opinion is that the large majority of demonstration and protests is equally futile. The system is set up, and maintained, in such a way that the people cannot gain, or hold, any power. In this democracy you have the right to say “I am against this”, you can march, you can petition, you can demonstrate, but at the end of the day, you do not decide policy, and so everything you have done is meaningless unless the elite, select few, who do decide policy, sympathise with your cause.
I am an anarchist (as I may have mentioned) and I know the system is flawed, I know nothing can be achieved by the channels we are active in, but as with war, when an enemy is cornered with no chance of escape, they fight even more bravely and aggressively. And I think that is true of politics. If the people truly had power to change things then you would not see the UK Uncut, the Student Protest Movement, rioting, activism, the Battle of Millbank, the Winter of Discontent etc.Maybe in the long run people will look back at the protests and find an achievement within them. Perhaps we will have inspired others, perhaps it was simply the action itself, the mere fact we protested and fought, perhaps that was an achievement. For the next two decades perhaps we will not have a Conservative leader, maybe that achievement could be attributed, in part, to the student movement.
Who is to say.I think your question leaves us with more questions, rather than providing us with answers.I have touched on your second question with what I have said previously. As you may have noticed I am not too optimistic about the thought of grassroots movements changing government policy. I do think it is a wonderful thing to do, an honourable and admirable action to take, but the results will be limited. The wealth inequality is an almost exact replica of the power inequality in the UK as well. And with power comes the chance to make significant changes. In fact the power inequality is the perfect replica of the wealth inequality. A grassroots movement would need the solidarity and maintained passion and desire from millions of people in order to match the power of perhaps a handful of wealthy individuals. Though this scenario is possible, the odds are against it ever happening.

I see flaws throughout the political system, and I believe the flaws are there deliberately. I can promote activism and protest as much as I like, and I will continue to participate in it, but in truth, I know that in order to really change the shape of this country you need to be a member of the inner circle. If you want to change politics you would have to do so from within the system, and then the system will inevitably corrupt you.

It is a truly disgusting state of affairs. Even the few token gestures we are allowed to make, the protests, the demo’s, the rallies and occupations, the few channels of democracy that are still open to us, even they are demonised.


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