Just Getting Started: Did UK Students Ignite a Movement?
Photo by Liverpool photographer David J Colbran: http://www.djcdesign.co.uk
“The young British left has already waited too long and too politely for politicians, political parties and business owners from previous generations to give space to our agenda. We have canvassed for them, distributed their leaflets, worked on their websites, updated their twitter feeds, hashtagged their leadership campaigns, done their photocopying and made their tea, pining all the while for political transcendence. No more; I say no more.”
— Laurie Penny, July 30, 2010
Remember London? Before we became riveted by uprisings in North Africa and Wisconsin, late last year tens of thousands of high school and university students took to London's streets to protest massive tuition hikes and education cuts. What started as a day of action in November led to occupations on campuses across the country, clashes with police, and marches throughout the winter.
The protests weren't just a one-off thing—and no longer are the protesters just students.
On March 26th, more than 100,000 people will gather in London to 'March for the Alternative.' They're protesting deep government cuts: slashed local budgets that mean cuts to libraries, child care, public transportation, public safety, and assistance for the elderly—combined with opening up the publicly-funded National Health Service to private companies at a loss of 50,000 jobs.
One of the strongest groups to have emerged in this fight is UK Uncut, a decentralized movement that began this fall with the Twitter hashtag #UkUncut, a march, and a sit in that shut down a Vodaphone shop. While the government argues the cuts are necessary in order to manage the deficit and respond to the financial crisis, UK Uncut counters that instead of shifting the burden to the working-class, corporations need to pay the taxes they've been avoiding. While the group's tactics of sit ins that shut down stores may be on the radical side, they have attracted a diverse group of folks and been well received by the public and the media—even getting unexpectedly favorable coverage in conservative papers like the Daily Mail.
UK Uncut takes advantage of the distributed nature of the web: their site gives users a way to register and publicize their own actions, where others can find them and join in. Anna Mason, a 15-year-old involved with UK Uncut in Liverpool, found out about the group through Twitter, wrote: "UK Uncut is easy to get involved in. You can post an event on the website just a week in advance and people will come along and join you, regardless of who you are."
UK Uncut doesn't plan central actions, but instead gives people tools to plan their own. This video shows five easy (and fun-looking) steps to holding your own "bail in":
Participants like Mason meet on the web and then bond through taking direct action together—turning weak ties into intense personal connections. In five months, UK Uncut has shut down more than one hundred stores, gained nearly 22,000 followers on Twitter and gone international. There's a US Uncut, Cape Town Uncut, an Australia, Canada, France, and the Netherlands Uncut—and even a Sudan Uncut.
Activists are moving beyond marches and sit ins. Michael Chessum, 21, a student and co-founder of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, says London's huge march against the Iraq war made him realize that marching wouldn't be enough: “One in every 30 people in Britain were on the streets, and we still didn't stop the war...it didn't fundamentally alter the landscape because of the sterility of an A to B marches." Ellie O'Hagan from UK Uncut explains that the group's first sit in came after people became bored on a march—and after such a successful first action, they kept doing it. “When you experience shutting down a shop, it's a shock how easy it is to scare a corporation, these companies you're brought up you're whole life to think they're powerful, but then you sit down in them, and they're scared,” she says. Now, though, many say they're ready for a more sustained struggle. "We need to say, 'We're not here to protest, we're here to resist," says Chessum.
That resistance will be in full effect next weekend, and many credit winter's student uprising with energizing the larger push against the government cuts. At a recent Six Billion Ways gathering in East London, students, environmental campaigners, and anticuts organizers all stressed the need for a strong presence on the 26th. At one panel discussion, Andrew Burgin from the Coalition of Resistance said that: "It's the students we have to thank for sparking this whole movement into life."
It remains to be seen if the protests will evolve into, as the activists hope, a much larger mobilization. But it's clear that what began as student organizing has turned into a larger network that's beginning to look more and more like a social movement.
For ongoing discussions and coverage of the cuts and next weekend's protests, check out:
Erica Sagrans worked as a new media staffer for Organizing for America and the Democratic National Committee before leaving DC this winter. She twitters here and blogs here.
Photo by Liverpool photographer David J Colbran.