Bristol Against Education Cuts: Protest 24.11.10
Honking mini horns and whooping, teenaged girls screaming, cheeks striped with fluro facepaint…it feels like a gig, as another group arrives, joining a few hundred on College Green. A sign reads “Fuck this, I’m moving to Scotland.” Having just graduated in Anthropology I couldn’t sit out any more than I could resist the temptation to chat with lots of people I hadn’t met yet.
Three boys in their school uniforms next to me reckon they’re the youngest there, at 16: “we’ll get 12 hours detention for this, and a 50 pound fine!” His friend interjects - “we walked out mid lesson - jumped the fence, ran for our lives!… They’ll have this off me now!” pointing at his prefect badge. It’s the first demonstration they’ve been on.
The crowd faces their banners to the traffic, horns honking as cars pass. Cardboard signs flap in gloved hands:
“Chuck Norris hates tuition fees.”
”I can’t even afford a real sign.”
We start up Park Street, moving quickly despite the incline, like everyone wants to be at the front, our number growing. A brief pause as a police horse shits in the road and we stop and laugh at it. Outside the university of Bristol Senate house, loudspeakers blare across the street, packed solid from the science buildings down to the junction, maybe 1,500 people now.
“No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!”
“Nick Nick, we know you, you’re a fucking Tory too!”
There’s a huge and well organised turnout from St Brendan’s College. Katie and Rachel, 16, are Ist year A level students, so potentially the first to be hit. Rachel wants to study Architecture, but “7 years at 9 grand a year, maybe not… I want it to be a choice. I don’t want to just not go because I can’t afford it.” They point out that low income students who get an EMA won’t get this week’s payment if they attended today, which doesn’t seem fair. Steven and Hannah are studying for a single International Baccalaureate rather than A-levels, “so doing a degree abroad seems extreme… but its an option – it’d be cheaper.”
Amy is 20 years old. “I’m angry. I’m a lone parent and I’d like to continue in education and have the opportunity to contribute to society, raise myself up. I want to study English Literature. I have a three year old daughter, so I rely heavily on Care to Learn - if that gets cut then single parents like me just wont be able continue in education, they wont have that access.” Someone hands her a piece of chalk and she writes “CU*TS” on the pavement.
“Think now before its too expensive.”
“We don’t need no edumacation, obviously”
Back at the bottom of Park Street, I meet Nilfa and Mita - Nilfa’s studying Business at City of Bristol. “Our teacher told us to come. There’s no point in protesting really, it’s just drama…” Our route into the centre is blocked by police who appear to be posing for their photograph. Legs are swinging from the walls around us, one hipster in a multicoloured striped dressing gown and geek glasses has a beautiful vintage SLR. “… But it’s a good way to get your point across. Show how serious you are. This is the first time I’ve protested against anything. “
Mita is set on going to University despite the fees hike. “I’ve applied to do Criminology and International Relations at UWE. If I didn’t go to university, I’d probably wait a couple of years and then get married, that’s what my parents would expect I think. But I want to go to, so that’s what they want - I’m the first person in my family to. It’s just going to be hard.”
As we’re edged up the road a second time, a young man, carrot poking out of his Barbour jacket, approaches a policewoman on horseback, extending his flat hand to the horse’s muzzle. “Is this Benny? I’ve met him before, he’s my favourite, he’s lovely…“ The policewoman seems to humour him; yes, it is Benny. “I usually bring sugar lumps and food with me, but I understand they’re not allowed to eat on duty?” She smiles, but it’s time to move forward again.
Walking back up, Izzy looks the part in heartshaped metal rim shades and dungaree shorts. - “I’ll be finished so I won’t be affected, but a good friend of mine for instance, has mild OCD. Taking a year out could really help him, but now he’s going to have to go straight through. There’s a lot of intelligent people that are going to be just squashed by this. And a lot of people enforcing it went to University when there were no fees.” Will this protest make a difference? “No. I think the London one made it worse… but I’d rather voice by opinion than not.”
“Knowledge closed until market deems necessary.”
"Less strategising, more philosophising."
I speak to Jack for a while, who has a great banner; Cameron with a Robin Hood hat and Hitler mustache. “The irony is, if you want your EMA for the rest of the week you have to attend school today, if you want your EMA for the next three years, you have to be here! Hopefully this will get some news coverage, force some politicians to comment and prompt further action, have a snowball effect. Lots of people think it won’t have any impact.. it definitely wont if you don’t come! This is the first march I’ve ever been on. I’m incensed! If something is clearly wrong, then you’ve no choice but to go out and voice your opinion… I like the atmosphere here today, it’s a good to be with like minded people.“
The police line moves us back up the road every few minutes. I ask one if he went to university. He smiles at me and winks. Yes I did. Would you go now, with higher fees? Probably not, no. I spoke to another policeman later who agreed “We’re not here to take issue with their grievances, but uphold their human rights. Students are usually vocal but peaceful, that’s fine, they can be vocal! But there’s always another small group just wanting to start trouble.“
Kettled back at the top of Park Street, sat on the tarmac, Habben and Raphael agree - “some people are just here to riot. I could point them out to you.” The police edge toward us and Habben shouts out “Sit down! Stay sat down!” Raphael says he’s outraged. The economic crisis isn’t going to get any better if people stop going to university. We need to prioritise - education is important! Look at the French, they know how to protest. I nearly did a degree there…” – he pulls out the Strasbourg logo on his sweatshirt – “…but I shouldn’t have to. France is a nice country but I want to be able to enjoy English culture. You’ve got to have a degree, for any good job, really… unless you want to work in Asda.“ Habben teases his afro and complains as a paper aeroplane hits him – “So childish. That doesn’t help does it?!”
We have to get up as the police get closer. Crammed together, a couple of eggs hit from a window and everyone’s hands are over their heads “Stop throwing eggs they’re yummy!” We’re stuck, staring at the window of Costa coffee, no place to go. Someone pipes up – “Is this the queue for Justin Bieber tickets?”
Eventually we’re dispersed – most to a people’s forum in the University of Bristol Union Building, discussing future action and holding the space in protest. Some head back down to College Green. A policeman reckons about two, two and a half thousand attended, though smiles at the idea there was time to count - “It’ll be reported differently.” I say I might write about it. “Well, include that we didn’t bundle or charge, there were no arrests - and we had fireworks and eggs thrown at us.” So there you go, I’ve included that. Both roles have to be played, and if the political engagement, activism and cohesion this has stirred up continue (fingers crossed), then we’ll have to carry on getting along nicely. In the pub later I overhear someone criticising the damage to property in London by students – “What pays for your education? Taxes. What pays for that damage? Taxes.” But back at the Student Union, the dilemma of direct action or peaceful protest continues, some feeling that stopping traffic, or stopping business, is the only way a system attempting to commodify education can be made to listen.
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