ULU holds press conference ahead of tomorrow’s protests

The Route and Negotiations with Police

A Press Conference was held in ULU at 11am today to discuss the plans for tomorrow’s march.

Speaking to the press were Clare Solomon (President of ULU), Simon Hardy (student and National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts activist), Michael Chessum (Education and Campaigns Officer, UCL), and Mark Bergfeld (member of NUS National Executive Council).
Final discussions have been held with the police to map out tomorrow’s route, which will involve marching through Holborn, along the Strand, through Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square before congregating at the Victoria Embankment where the NUS will be holding their glow-stick vigil (candles have been deemed a health and safety risk). Police put the estimated attendance number at 30,000, excluding the 10,000 the NUS believe will be at the vigil.

Despite negotiating their route with Police, there are fears that factions will be ‘kettled’ and prevented from joining up with the main march after an initial rally at ULU. Clare Solomon expressed her disappointment, claiming that there would be no given guarantee that Police would not employ “quarantine” or horse-charging tactics, particularly given that there will be a number of young students in attendance. All members of the panel frequently emphasized their desire to exercise their “democratic right to march on parliament”.
Mark Bergfeld referred to the days of negotiations as “quite Orwellian”, claiming that while the Police held that they were “defending democracy” their assertion that the protest will be hijacked was part of a pretence by which to “ramp up action” and intimidate students by confronting them with police in full riot gear. In particular, Simon Hardy picked up on the comments of Bob Broadhurst, who was quoted in the Evening Standard as saying “there will be a hard core of anarchists who will try and whip up trouble”, as a “cynical attempt by police to preemptively criminalize the demonstrations”.

There was a great deal of optimism that the protests were making a difference however, Hardy spoke of the “concessions wrung from government in relation to lower income households” as proof that protest works, arguing however that he does not “agree with the politics of appeasement at this point”.

The Vote

At today’s conference the focus remained very much on the key vote taking place tomorrow for the Education reform over which the protest is taking place. Michael Chessum spoke of the broader context of the movement, expressing his belief that “for the first time this is becoming a broad movement” which is overwhelmingly backed.

Chessum critically referred to the “18 millionaires” that make up the cabinet, “all of whom received their education for free”, further arguing that what we are seeing is the “price on education, on public service, and on human beings”. Regardless of vote outcome however, several of the leaders present vowed that “this will not be the end, we will not conclude that democracy was served.”

The NUS

The NUS, who have come under attack from some groups for failing to support tomorrow’s march, plan to hold a vigil instead. Bergfeld, himself an NUS Executive Council member, argued that we are not “mourning the death of education yet, therefore the vigil is not helpful” in the fight. The student movements should support protest actions but Bergfeld argued, the cause has “far over-flung official proposals of the union”. Chessum later added, “glow sticks aren’t going to cut it” with Bergfeld joking “rave against the cuts time”.
The occupations, which run counter to official NUS policy, seem to suggest not one unified movement but several small factions, an opinion posed to the panel. Bergfeld responded that the NUS supports non-violent direct action, and reiterated that the majority stand shoulder to shoulder.

In relation to the proposal of no confidence Clare Solomon faces on Friday, Bergfeld continued “in any social movement we will have interventions to go against the leaders”, noting several others present including himself who had also faced such a threat, arguing that these were “not political actions, not legitimate political actions”.

Returning to ideas of the NUS, Chessum made clear that he was not against the NUS, but rather that the movement which has emerged from this process is “bigger than factions, even the NUS” and that they will continue with the NUS “where we can”, and without “if we cannot”. He argued that the NUS would have to “step-up after Christmas to help defeat” these proposals, and that “if they are not willing… someone else will”.

Solidarity

Despite consistent claims that the protests represent the majority beliefs of students and a wider community at large, it was posed to the panel that at University of London alone there are approximately 120,000 students, and yet at its height the marches attracted between 50,000 and 60,000.

Bergfeld responded that the use of such figures showed a misconception, arguing that students are not only those who have recently left school but also those who go to university part-time, have families, and have debts. These people, he felt, were “dominated by fear”, and that had to change. The conclusive evidence that this was a mass movement for Bergfeld was the fact that this was the greatest mobilization of students since the 1960s. Hardy added that opposition to the war ran at 50%, and yet only 2 million marched, “not everyone will march”.

The Media

Recent marches have purportedly seen an increase in aggression towards and against the media, a point of concern for some and a counterargument to the insistence on the peaceful intent of marchers. Hardy argued that such a reaction was understandable given that young people “feel alienated from their country”, while unfortunate, many feel that the media “hasn’t portrayed them sympathetically” and this has led to a general feeling of frustration and cynicism towards the media in general.

Bergfeld in particular argued this point, stating that the Dail Mail’s portrayals “of women protesters are sexist, other paper’s portrayals of black students have been racist” and that further outlets had sparked a “witch-hunt” against students. He contended that the coalition was “impotent and has to resort to methods with the media and police” who, along with teachers, have demonized students and created a mood of fear and anger.

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