Published: 19 May, 2011
by CONRAD LANDIN
My most vivid memory of last autumn’s student protests is standing at the foot of Millbank Tower, the Tory HQ occupied by students in a diversion from the official National Union of Students (NUS) march. With crowds surrounding bonfires of placards, a team of drummers raised our spirits.
In any other protest, the rallying speech of a leader would follow. But this movement had only just begun. There was no leader – so who could make such a speech? And thus, the drumming resumed.
It is therefore fitting that the two responses to the renaissance of student activism are not biographies of the NUS leader Aaron Porter, nor thick hardbacks from middle-aged academics claiming sovereign oversight and judgment.
Rather, we have two collections of the accounts of university students, teenagers, academics and activists, both seeking to link the student protest movement to a wider youth enlightenment and moral consciousness in the face of spending cuts and the neo-liberal consensus.
The first, Fight Back!, describes itself as a “reader” rather than simply a book, and has the stated intention of collecting on paper the online responses to the movement. Editor Dan Hancox, who has compiled the book along with an “editorial kettle” – six young people all contained by police during the demonstrations – describes how his mother, without access to online forums and social media, had no knowledge of the entrapment of protesters on Westminster Bridge on December 9.
Many of its contributions are thus second-hand articles from openDemocracy.net, a pioneering website that has covered the protests and their wider context.
Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters, key figures in the UCL occupation and tax justice pressure group UKUncut, also make frequent appearances to offer insight on the role of social media and the future of the movement.
While Fight Back! makes much of Unite leader Len McCluskey’s call for the labour movement to take inspiration from the students, Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, a collection of a similar nature, focuses on the global picture, with sections on Britain, Italy, California, France, Greece and, perhaps most significantly, Tunisia.
Clare Solomon, the radical leader of the University of London Union (ULU), has edited this collection of primarily original accounts with Tania Palmieri. She contributes a tight summary of the movement so far – confirming the books’ shared intention to reach out to those outside the young, radicalised generation – and offers a “welcome to the old mole that has emerged again: the revolution”.
My main frustration with the books is that many of the accounts could have been developed in more depth. Reading Fight Back!, one moves from one perspective to another quite relentlessly.
Having said that, the two books are invaluable in collating the (often digital) material of an entirely new movement in one place, and their breadth is admirable.
As for the unresolved question of whether a movement without leadership and organisation can be sustained, I’m with UCL’s Jo Casserly, who argues in Springtime that “leaderlessness” can sometimes be a cover for dominance and unaccountability. But that’s not to say that the consensus decision-making and division of responsibilityof the student occupations are not valuablein themselves.
• Conrad Landin is a sixth-form student at Camden School for Girls
• Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest. Edited by Dan Hancox, openDemocracy.net, £9.99 (also available as a free digital download)
• Springtime: The New Student Rebellions. Edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri. Verso, £9.99