There is nothing like winter rain to dampen enthusiasm. And there wasn’t much of it left by the time I parted ways with ‘Demo 2012’. Students were angry, demoralized, and wet through.
I joined the National Union of Students (NUS) protest on Wednesday 21 November, at the designated meeting point at Temple, where groups of young people were dutifully assembled for the march against education cuts, under the NUS banner ‘Educate, Employ, Empower’.
The now-scrapped Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was high on the agenda, even among the undergraduates I spoke to. The weekly payment was previously given to Sixth Form students from lower household incomes who stayed in full-time education past the compulsory age of 16.
Jess and Tom, aged 18 and 17, attend Sixth Form in Greenwich. ‘The area I live in has a lot on people who would have been getting EMA. I have seen the effects that cutting it has had on the community,’ explained Tom.
‘I know a lot of people whose families depended on EMA,’ added 20-year-old Angela, as we walked along the side of the River Thames, the march in full flow. ‘It went to the parents to pay for the school buses. These are families that are living on the breadline.’
In neon-pink Dr. Martens boots and carrying a home-made cardboard placard, Andrea had travelled three hours from Norwich with her house mate Imogen to protest university tuition hikes. ‘My little brother is 17. My parents can’t afford to put two children through university,’ she said.
‘I don’t think the government is going to change because of this protest,’ said Imogen. ‘It’s more about building grassroots networks and creating an atmosphere of resistance. What I really want to see is a general strike.’
Andrea was on her first protest, encouraged to attend by her students’ union which had arranged transport. The NUS were key to the mobilization of over 50,000 people to a national demonstration in 2010 but yesterday there were less than 10,000.
The planned Demo 2012 route did not go through Parliament Square like most national protests, and although one group did break away for a stand off with police, everyone was eventually herded south of the river to a rally in Kennington Park. Many felt this was a deliberate case of ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Even the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) feeder march, which had promised a ‘march on Parliament’ joined the agreed route.
Pubs and cafés along the mainly residential route sheltered groups of young people from the now torrential rain. I overheard one marcher saying ‘what’s the point in walking through the street chanting here; there’s nobody to hear you.’
‘What’s the point of walking and chanting by parliament, there’s nobody listening there either,’ his friend replied.
When I arrived at the rally, the speeches had already started, and the mood was angry. Every time NUS president Liam Burns came on stage he was booed. People chanted ‘NUS, shame on you, where the fuck you brought us to?’ When he began his speech he was egged and a group stormed the stage, forcing him to leave.
Before this, Burns accused those chanting of not being ‘progressive’ campaigners and discouraging unity in the movement. But it was clear on Wednesday, that unity can not be built solely on the terms of the NUS. Many who had made it as far as the rally were angry at the stage invaders but they also voiced sympathy for the message vocalized by the previous disruption.
The NCAFC has called a national day of action for 5 December, the day the Chancellor delivers his autumn statement. But a boost of inclusive unity and inspiration will be a necessary precursor after Wednesday’s soaking.