Press "Enter" to skip to content

The power of protest

You say cut back we say fight back! In the face of education cuts and rising tuition fees you may have found yourself chanting these words in the nationwide marches that took place at the end of last year. The storming of Millbank Tower by protestors will undoubtedly go down in history as an iconic moment of government defiance and police brutality, fitting in with the worldwide revolutionary fervour of the past twelve months. Students the world over, from here in Manchester to those risking their lives in North Africa, have been locked in conflict with their respective governments in protest against austerity and tyranny. But how does this fit in an historical context?

Although it is common knowledge that students and revolution go hand in hand in modern events, what you may not realise is that in protesting you are continuing a tradition of student activism that has been almost a thousand years in the making. The start of the movement in Britain is considered to be marked in 1967, where the first sit-in was held at the London School of Economics over the unfair suspension of two students. Its success was followed by a national anti-racism rally held in the same year, attended by over 100,000 protestors. From the 1960’s onwards, issues including the Vietnam War and racism became the focal point for student activism. This tradition continued into the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, where students joined the public in taking to the streets several times against the introduction of poll tax by the Thatcher government. The largest of these protests, on the 31 March 1990 in London, saw mass rioting in Whitehall and Trafalgar square, with approximately 200,000 protestors demonstrating their resentment toward the tax.

Headlines on the recent demonstrations in London focussed on the thuggish antics of the student protestors and the harsh measures used by police to restrain them. However, this brute force pales in comparison with that used in the past. Most famous is the massacre of thousand of students peacefully gathered in Tiananmen Square in 1989 by the Chinese authorities. Less well known is the case of Kostas Georgakis, a Greek student who, in protest against the dictatorial regime of Georgios Papadopoulos, set himself on fire in 1970, becoming a burning emblem for the revolutionary cause. In the same year in America, four students were shot dead by the National Guard who had been deployed to dampen the protests at Kent State University in Ohio, where students protesting against US involvement in the Vietnam War had taken to arson and looting. Two of the students killed were not protestors, but simply caught in the cross fire as they walked to class.

For as long as there have been students there has been student protest. In 1229 the first university activists took to the streets of Paris to protest the deaths of a number of fellow students. However, throughout history student revolts have not always had such noble motivation. The well named 1766 Great Butter Rebellion saw students at Harvard University walking out in protest against the poor quality of butter in the University canteen. The butter was soon upgraded.

This year has already seen revolution in the Middle East, North Africa as well as the marches right here in Britain, all upheld broadly by the students themselves. But what of the future of student protest? Earlier this year a fresh generation was seen to take interest in politics, quoting Dumbledore, rather than Che Guevara, as their icon. The German state of Hesse recently revoked its tuition fees in response to nationwide unrest, proving the continued strength of student activism. The melting pot of culture, class and political views at university will forever ensure that the words ‘student’ and ‘protest’ will always be intertwined.