Brighton Faces New Wave of Protest

As is so often the case in times of dissatisfaction, the student movement appears to be leading the way. With the betrayal of the Lib Dem’s free education promise still in the minds of young voters, and having faced a tripling of university tuition fees under the Coalition government, students are at the forefront of anti-government protest.

In November as many as 10,000 students descended on London to demand the right to free education for all, no matter their class, race, or financial situation, and an end to austerity. This protest was not supported by the National Union of Students (NUS) who cited safety fears as the reason they were not alongside the people they were supposed to be representing. The decision not to support the protest shows that the NUS are out of touch with the wishes of students across the country.

Though the NUS distance themselves from this new wave of protests, the tide appears to be turning against their authority. Following on from the protest in London, marches and demonstrations have occurred throughout the country without the need for NUS support. It seems that the students have woken up to the fact that if they want something done, they need to do it themselves.

In East Sussex, the universities of Sussex and Brighton have come together to form a grassroots campaign under the banner of Free Education. There are similar movements in Warwick, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester, and regardless of NUS support students are taking to the streets and campuses to demand change.

On Saturday 6th December Brighton came to a standstill as up to 400 students and protestors marched through the streets in opposition to government policy. Spurred on by the words of the protests organisers, and given support by Green MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas, the movement dominated Brighton city centre for many hours.

Before the march set off from the Level, Caroline Lucas spoke of her support for the demonstration, and for the goals it wishes to achieve. In a scathing attack on coalition policy she spoke of how “austerity was economically illiterate” and how such policies are driven not by fact and statistics, but by ideology. She was right to say this as it’s been proven that increasing tuition fees is likely to cost the UK more money than it makes as many students will never be able to pay off the debt incurred. The logical decision to make would be to eliminate tuition fees, but of course logic seems to play no part in government decision making.

As the demonstration took to the road, the numbers seemed to swell. Free Education flags were flying, as were Palestinian and SolFed banners, solidarity being shown from the various groups of the Left. 400 or so marched past St Peter’s Church and down towards the sea front. Roads were shut, drums were beaten, and chants filled the afternoon air. “What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!” “Students and workers unite and fight!” and my personal favourite, “We’re here, we’re queer, we can’t afford nine grand a year!”

There was a brief detour to the law courts where loud chants of “No justice, no peace, fuck the police” were accompanied by short speeches from some of the organisers. No doubt the gathered crowds wanted to show solidarity to the students in Warwick university that had been assaulted by police earlier in the week, and also to the families of Americans who had lost their lives at the hands of police violence. Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner the most recent victims of a long list of racially motivated killings.

The crowd headed past Brighton Pavilion and the university building opposite as it began to wind its way towards the city centre. The windows of the university building flooded with onlookers and well-wishers, and a banner hung on the outside of the building showed clearly that though they were not marching in person, the staff were marching in spirit.

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At the head of the march, leading from the front with DIY shields displaying iconic book titles were the Black Bloc. Students donned head to toe in black, and with their faces covered to protect their identity. Many believe that Black Bloc is a movement in itself, but it is not, it is a tactic. With their attendance on the march, it was clear that it was to be more than simply a Saturday afternoon stroll.

Traffic came to a standstill as the crowd moved up from the Old Steine and on towards Churchill Square. In defiance of buses, police escorts, and the shoppers hunting for Christmas presents, the mass of demonstrators marched up the road and bellowed their manifesto. “One solution, revolution.” “Anti, anti, anti-capitalista.” “Education is a right, is a right, is a right. Education is a right, not a privilege.”

Stunned shop assistants and horrified members of the public looked on as the crowds engulfed the entrances to both Barclays and Boots. Both buildings closed their doors for an extended period of time, the worried faces of those inside were met with defiant chants of “pay your taxes!” Though it seems it is fine to demonise those unfortunate individuals who are reliant on benefits, it seems that society is shocked when tax cheats are given the same treatment.

The Guardian reported in 2013 on a number of tax issues that Barclays would prefer to be kept secret. The existence of a tax avoidance division which generated revenue of £1bn in three years; or the fact they were accused of “industrial scale tax avoidance”; or that just £82m was paid in corporation tax in 2012 despite an initial top line profit figure of £7bn. Boots are another industrial scale tax avoider, robbing the public of huge quantities of money, and yet when the doors were locked at the venue, many inside looked confused and surprised. War on Want, a charity that fights global poverty, have a report entitled Alliance Boots and the Tax Gap which demonstrates that Boots “has avoided more than £1 billion in tax since it went private six years ago.” Such a figure represents paying the starting salary of more than 78,000 nurses for a year.

As the Black Bloc led the march past the Palestinian Solidarity members at the clock tower, Police from Queens Road ran ahead to protect the tax-dodging businesses that were present at Churchill Square. They knew what was coming, Topshop, Vodafone and Starbucks lay ahead, and all were in the crosshairs of the gathered masses. The sight of Policemen and women running to shield businesses who owed the public billions of pounds is bizarre and unsettling. If I were to not pay my taxes I would be dragged away by the police instead of being protected by them. Such action though, is a reflection of the “democracy” we live in. The wealthier you are, the more immune you are to the laws of the land.

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The police had beaten the protesters to Topman, and Starbucks was also well marshalled. In a move that Robert E Lee would have been proud of, the march began to move away from outside the store front of Topman, only to race into Churchill Square itself through an entrance to another shop. The staff and security were helpless to prevent the flood of protesters. All consumerist activity was put on hold as shops locked their doors, and store assistants watched on in shock. The splinter group that had entered Churchill Square ran through the shopping centre and headed to the back of Topman. Drums playing, chants ringing out, a victory was secured as the shutters came down on the store.

For what must have been an hour there was a stand off between the gathered demonstrators and the staff of the stores. Unwilling to open their doors for fear of being swamped, the tax-dodging venues were on lock down. Customers waited inside to be let out, protesters waited on the outside to be let in.

A Saturday before Christmas is a golden time for shops to maximise their revenue. Faced with a crowd of hundreds, shops instead closed themselves off and tried to ride out the storm. It was people power in its purest form. There was very little police presence, there were no arrests, and yet with only a few hundred people, the city was overpowered. When the government chooses to ignore the criminals that hide in plain sight, it becomes time for the people to take matters into their own hands.

I truly hope that this is just the start of a much wider and more active movement to bring about the change that is so desperately needed in this country. If 400 people can bring a city to a standstill on one Saturday afternoon, imagine what 800 or 2000 people could do to a city every weekend. Imagine what 10,000 may be able to do to a country.

The coalition government do not care for the futures of working class people, they do not care for the futures of students, or the homeless, or NHS workers, or firemen, binmen or teachers. They care only so far as how much money they can make from us. Our futures have a price tag on, and though they may know the price, it will be us who feel the cost.

Brighton has always had a revolutionary spirit to it, perhaps now it is time to turn that spirit into something more solid.  The students have found their voice, the people stir, the beast awakens.

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2 thoughts on “Brighton Faces New Wave of Protest

  1. As a student at the university of Brighton I am sad to say my course is not at all worth £9000 a year in tuition fees. It really is a joke – it’s very great to have nice new buildings and ICT facilities but the student services I feel I could access elsewhere for free. I was told my 6 week work experience worth 20 credits at level 4 costs £1500 – £1500?!?! They’re rinsing students!

    Another thing which might not go down to well with a lot of people is I think education is not respected enough anymore and neither are the jobs that further education can lead you too. I think we need to bring back institutions and have fewer universities as well as less of an intake and less courses!

    Too much choice and this can lead to more debt incurred by mistakes and regrets of location and courses chosen.

    Essay over! For now!

    1. I don’t think any course is worth £9000 a year. That is a preposterous sum of money for a few hours a week in education.

      I partly agree with you on the issue of university intake. I believe that a highly educated population is never a bad thing, but if there is to be a limit on university attendance, it should be based on grades and ability rather than wealth.

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