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Showing posts with label birmingham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label birmingham. Show all posts

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Defend Education's Demonstration and the Aftermath

Photo © 2014 James Phillips

The protest at the University of Birmingham had its troublemakers, but we should make sure not to accuse everyone there of violence and vandalism, and should recognise all of those at fault in this multi-faced debate.

This post is going to be very different from my others and will describe Wednesday’s events and aftermath from a very personal perspective. Attending the event as a journalist reporting for the University newspaper, Redbrick, I became subject to the same treatment as the protesters I was with. Although I sympathise completely with the demands of Defend Education, my attendance at the protest was as a completely impartial reporter. This article, posted on my personal blog, is a true account of my thoughts and feelings about the day.

The demonstration was never going to be a peaceful protest. It is almost impossible to actually hold a peaceful protest – one where aggression is absent – because of the passion that drives such events. Here it was anger towards the university at their continual attempt to shut down political conversations, anger at their choice to spend £60,000 on injunctions rather than raising the wage of the lowest-paid employees, and anger at the initiation of disciplinary procedures against six randomly selected students from the peaceful occupation of the Senate Chambers last year. This aggression cannot be held back otherwise the protest would be pointless. However, the physical aggression we saw from both sides – the protesters and the security staff – was unnecessary, damaging for the group’s reputation and a major set back for this opportunity for change. We only have to look at how close the group's demands came to becoming part of the Guild of Students' Beliefs and Commitments to understand this.

Defend Education’s potentially game-changing demonstration was hijacked, as we have seen multiple times before, such as at the 52,000-person strong march against tuition fees in London in 2010, which ended in the violence at Millbank. What could have been a loud march around campus, even ending in a new occupation or a strengthening of the existing one, was immediately ruined by the minority who chose to break into the campus’ well-loved icon: Old Joe clock tower. If there was one thing that the demonstration could have done to annoy the majority of students at the University, it was the defacement of this beloved symbol – the graffiti painted on to the base of the tower has angered even those students who would have ended the day still completely oblivious to this growing campaign. The unfurling of a 50-foot banner from the top of the clock tower, a clever move, would have been accepted, but this vandalism won’t be forgotten or forgiven. We are already seeing a rallying call for a clean up operation much like that seen in the aftermath of the London Riots of 2011. This act has unified students against the campaign group, rather than with the group.

To add salt to this injury, the demonstration moved around campus trying to gain access to the Aston Webb building through multiple entrances. The use of smoke grenades and fireworks to cause disruption (I can only assume in an attempt to cause confusion that could be used to gain access) was another step too far and any aggression from the security staff in response is overshadowed by this fact. Spectators will say that the security staff were only defending themselves and the University buildings from this threat. Maybe this is correct, but the level of aggression from the staff was disproportionate, and only angered protesters even more. When students are being allegedly shoved to the ground, some by their hair, this obviously exceeds what would be categorised as a proportionate response. So, noone is off the hook here: those who threw the smoke grenades and fireworks, and the security staff who violently responded are as equally as bad as each other. The eventual entry to the Great Hall did involve the violent breaking down of a rear entrance to the Hall, and this is certainly another example of actions that have damaged the campaigning group’s image, but we must remember that damage to property is trumped by the damage to persons that we had already witnessed, and were still yet to witness.

We must remember, however, that a small and unknown minority of the protesters committed these violent acts and that we cannot simply lump the entire demonstration into the same group. Arguably, the others are complicit in their acts by continuing to demonstrate and not distancing themselves from the actions but after some meticulous planning and large-scale coordination, to abandon the protest would have disheartened many in the movement and was simply not an option.

Once in the Great Hall, aside from the construction of a barricade made from equipment set-up for the Give It A Go Fair (another action that meant sympathy with the campaign was lost from students, although it’s not entirely clear whether protesters knew this was the case), the group were entirely peaceful, simply singing songs and co-ordinating next steps, despite the intimidation tactics used by security staff filming from overlooking balconies.

The arrival of the police caused a further loss of morale from those in the protest. As we were forced to stand outside in the cold and rain, without access to food, drink or toilet facilities or several hours, tensions heightened, protesters became agitated and some became unwell. Despite our pleas for some humanity, we were detained with no charge, and some who needed medical attention were refused it. The police can deny it was a kettle as much as they like but if one goes by its definition – the containment of protesters within a police cordon, with police deciding when and how protesters can leave – it is most definitely what happened on that dismal evening. Those who had committed the crimes that we were accused of – aggravated trespass, criminal damage, assault -, those who were just protesting and those who were there reporting, were all considered as guilty as each other. As a condition of leaving the kettle, we were all (illegally) given a choice: to give our details to police, or to be immediately arrested and taken to the police station. 13 people chose the latter, and ended up spending up to 30 hours in detention for a refusal to give over their names. This use of illegal tactics immediately put the group at a disadvantage and shows another classic example of intimidation tactics, designed to dissuade people from taking part in these legitimate activities again.

We must also take into account the University’s attempt to play psychological games with the protesters and other students, using divide-and-rule tactics. The University’s plea for sympathy over social networks and the follow-up message from the Vice-Chancellor now dominate the market for empathy from students. While students at the protest were being detained, charged and taken to court, unable to defend themselves on campus, the University slyly and successfully continued its campaign to discredit the group and, thus, their demands.

Hence, this leads me to my final point. It is incredibly disappointing that the Guild of Students, a union designed to represent students, support students, and fight for better conditions for staff and students at the University, has taken the stance it has. Having read through the President’s personal statement, I can agree with her that the way her distress was ignored by protesters was appalling and that should not be tolerated. But, similarly, those within the police kettle who needed medical attention were ignored. The censure of the Vice President (Education) at the Guild Council took place without the Vice President being able to defend herself and ignores the mandate on which she was elected: to fight against fees and cuts, and for better student representation. Of course, this latter point is a matter of interpretation, but this is the Vice President’s interpretation of mandate and, on that basis, she was fulfilling it. Further, she was doing the Guild’s job and supporting those students who had been illegally arrested, whilst the Guild ignorantly condemned the entire group of protesters.

Despite being a supporter of Defend Education and their demands, I agree that the demonstration was an appalling display. The violence and vandalism that happened had no place within the remit of a peaceful protest. Protesters did themselves, and the cause, no favours by resorting to it. The movement’s growing credibility was destroyed that evening when the clock tower was defaced, security staff were assaulted and an event designed for the benefit of students was postponed. This is not to say, however, that everyone at the demonstration is to blame, but just the minority who had their minds set on vandalism and violence from the start. Furthermore, the reaction from security staff, the university and the illegal arrests made by police show that they behaved just as inexcusably on, and prior to, the day. This is not an event that should be, or will be, forgotten.

Monday, 4 February 2013

On Track to Disappoint



Image by Victoria Kettlewell

The Government has announced phase 2 of its High Speed 2 project, connecting the major northern cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield to the capital. It also endeavours to link the route to existing networks so that journeys can continue to other cities and major towns. However, the route seems set to benefit few and drive up customers' travel costs. As such, there is large and justified opposition to the plans. Many arguments draw from the criticisms of High Speed 1, which serves the South-East county of Kent. The announcement also comes in the wake of recent failures of the existing infrastructure in Wales, the South-west and the West Coast Mainline franchise bidding process. Hence, the argument of whether we should really be developing the new rail network is one is understandable.

It's apparent that this is a ludicrous commitment from a Government forcing austerity on its nation and cuts on its vital services. It's quite strange that there would be such a high-cost project when the Government is telling us to restrict our spending. This added cost of £50 billion over a relatively long time frame of at least 16 years just does not make sense and is an unjustifiable amount to the taxpayer's bill. In the UK, we already have failing rail networks; a lack of electrification in Wales and on the East Coast mainline, failures of trains in adverse weather conditions in the Southern counties and a massive problem with existing trains regularly running delayed. Surely if we are to invest any money into the railways, it should be in upgrading and strengthening existing infrastructure rather than developing an entirely new costly project.

The construction of High Speed 1 and its opening in 2007 does not give any empirical evidence that justifies its extension. The route which serves parts of Kent is dismal and disappointing whilst it also disproportionately raised fares across the rest of the Southeastern network. After its launch, no matter where you travelled from, you were likely to be met with a hike in ticket prices and a reduction in service. The train also pulls into Saint Pancras International meaning customers then have to pay an extra £6 for a London travelcard in order to get to more central parts of the city. Customers have also noted that the journey times of the High Speed trains are only minutely less than those of "normal speed" trains, some pulling in to London only ten minutes later. Take into account the number of extra stations these older trains call at, this is not surprising. What’s to say that these criticisms won’t be made of High Speed 2 also?

The limits of the guaranteed high costs of the train and the few stops it will call out demonstrate that this network will only benefit few. Essentially those on high incomes, travelling for business or who have managed to buy a cheap advance ticket will be the only people to benefit from this deal. Whilst those living in parts of the country that it won’t visit will be paying the construction and maintenance costs without ever the likelihood of putting one foot on the service.

Furthermore, the given route for this network seems simply an extension, or perhaps a replacement, of the existing highly commended West Coast Mainline as the route is planned to run from its terminuses London Euston, Manchester Piccadilly and Liverpool Lime Street as well as new stations in other cities it serves, such as Birmingham (Curzon Street). For the London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street route, it seems set only to cut the time by the small amount of 15 minutes.

High Speed 2 seems on track to disappoint many of us as we realise that the service has not benefitted us, but only cost us money. Whilst the Government proceeds with this preposterous development through our taxes, existing networks will fail, we will continue to get frustrated and our service will not improve. Full speed ahead then, right?

Monday, 7 January 2013

How Not to Protest Effectively


Protestors rally outside Starbucks in Birmingham City Centre

The right to protest is a fundamental and respected right of the United Kingdom’s democracy and over the past couple of years we have seen many protests of varied causes take place in cities and towns across the Isles. Carefully and tactically planned, the aims of these protests are clearly to try and create change by winning over those around them with their cause, gathering more supporters and influencing the public opinion as a whole. However, the opposite effect can often be the result; rather than join the cause, the public criticise the protestors for “disrupting the working day”.

The anti-cuts and anti-tax-evasion pressure group, Anonymous, protested in the city centre of Birmingham on Saturday 5th January. Demonstrating outside major high-street retailers and banks such as HSBC, Vodafone and BHS, the group rallied outside the Bullring Shopping Centre, causing the entire building to be locked down with shoppers stuck inside and outside waiting for them to disperse. Among those waiting outside was a shop-owner who complained to those protesting that they were interrupting his working day and causing him to lose money. Inside the shops, staff members barricaded the doors to stop those protesting from getting inside as customers were moved towards safety at the back of the shop. Commercial behaviour in Birmingham was brought to a standstill.

Compassion can be felt all-round. There is some agreement with the cause that the cuts are hard and detrimental and that tax-evasion by major corporations is unjust and immoral and there is agreement that a protest should be held to demonstrate this anger as an effective way of raising awareness and rallying support. But there is disagreement over the method and tactics used by these pressure groups in order to do the former. The question raised is whether it is effective and fair to demonstrate outside the individual high street stores. It is arguable that it is neither and this is an opinion that many observers in the streets raise.

An apparent lack of consideration appears to prevail in the organisation of a protest outside a high-street. The fact that the employees of these companies have little or no say into the governance of the corporation as whole appears forgotten in the minds of protestors. Hence, the method of attacking individual shop stores is ineffective and often ignored by the decision-makers. In essence, the protestors are simply instilling fear in the hearts of the employees and customers of these shops as well as increasing a negative perception of themselves and their cause, creating the opposite of the desired effect.

However, the alternative (to protest outside the headquarters of the major corporations to the decision-makers themselves) is difficult. Usually these businesses are placed in locations far from the major public eye, reducing awareness-raising and there’s no way of knowing when the senior bosses are actually present at the headquarters to take note of the protestors concerns. Even if they are, it is not necessarily going to make any difference. Upon observation of previous examples (i.e. most protests outside the Houses of Parliament, Downing Street or Millbank), it is uncommon that we can see any direct effect on impending legislation.

The right to protest is one that should remain, but the ability and effectiveness of protests is minimal. Hence, the organisation of a protest must be more thoroughly considered before it is carried out, or the risk of making no effect but a diminishing level of support is highly likely. The protests witnessed in Birmingham and the comments during and after them simply show the disastrous effects of an ill-thought-out demonstration.

Also published on Backbench