I was sitting in the London Science Museum in South Kensignton, staring at a revolving globe depicting currents, weather patterns and lighting at night across the earth when I realised I really should be somewhere else. Although the #copsoffcampus protest had started roughly an hour earlier, and much of the action – including an attempt to take over Senate House Library – was over, I decided to make my way to Goodge Street to see if there was still much going on.
I rushed out of the tube and made my way to the University of London Union (ULU), where a debris of scattered banners was all that remained of the protest. I moved on to SOAS, where a large group of protestors were making their way into Russell Square, and ended up embarking on a tour of London including Leicester Square, 10 Downing Street and Westminster. As a non-Londoner, the walking tour was certainly welcome.
I’ve been to a few protests before, and have often been disheartened at the sight of young idealists taking the limelight and embarking on long impassioned speeches with elaborate sentences but little substance to speak of, clouding the real issues at stake. And, indeed, the issues being brought up by the protest in London last week were certainly important; increasingly bogged down by extortionate fees and smothered by police action in a number of universities, students certainly had plenty to shout about.
As thousands of us marched – or rather strolled – down London streets on our tour of the capital, I made my way to the front of the march, where a group of masked students were waving anarchist flags, and a sound system had been attached to a trolley in order to provide an upbeat soundtrack to the protest.
In general, the protest was peaceful and constructive, with students flowing down the streets and shouting slogans or simply chatting as they made they way through London. Being a protest sparked by police action, moments of tension with police themselves were to be expected. In the few clashes with the police which I witnessed, my overall impression was that, whilst a select few sought a direct confrontation with police cars – at one point jumping on a police van, throwing garbage bags on it and repeatedly bashing it – the overwhelming majority of students present had no such intentions, and actively discouraged the more excited protestors to desist.
However, the general attitude of the protest, with slogans such as “No Justice, No Peace, Fuck The Police”, together with a number of verbal attacks on individual police officers, made me think that perhaps many of the students protesting last week were slightly off the mark in the target of their protest. No doubt the police as an institution has been widely discredited recently; endemic racism and cases of undue violence within the police force have made many people – including students – distrust their agents of justice. There is no doubt either that responsibility has to be acknowledged, and that important changes – including a debate to drastically reconsider what role the police is meant to play in public life – must take place for that trust to be regained. The case of Mark Duggan, whose face was printed on many of the banners held by students last week, is perhaps the most high-profile, relevant example of the police’s weaknesses as an institution. The outrageous case of police spying on Cambridge students as revealed earlier this year is another.
However, the officer on the street is simply too easy a target for student anger. Most officers are not too dissimilar to the average citizen. Their wages have also been cut, their children also pay extortionate fees to study at university, they also have bosses to answer to. By confronting the police as a whole, and in particular the individuals stationed across London last Wednesday, rather than seeking institutional responsibility, the #copsoffcampus protest attempted to simplify the issue: despite playing an important part in highlighting the need to address flaws in the police force, the protestors obscured the more complex, systematic nature of the problems.