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Oxford free education demo report

a participant | 26.11.2003 15:07 | Education | Oxford

This afternoon a group of between 30 and 70 students held banners, chanted and sung on the steps of the Clarendon Building against top-up fees and for free education for all. Many of them then went on to briefly block traffic on Broad Street with a sitdown protest.

There was a large mainstream media presence; it was almost impossible not to get
asked for a quote. Chants included: 'What do we want? FREE EDUCATION!
When do we want it? NOW!', along with some bizarre songs about Blair being
a tory bastard :) Probably exactly the same ones as you'd hear on an NUS

After a bit of singing and chanting, someone gave us a quick 'reminder of why
we're here'. Some more chanting, then another person announced that as we'd
been ignored so far, we were going to 'take things a bit further' and block the
road, 'in good order' (!) - for 'about 30min, or until the police get pissed off' (!!).

So we took the protest into the road. Between a third and two thirds of the crowd
had left by this point, but there were still plenty to block it. Slips of paper were
handed out saying that the police 'had to give two warnings' before they could
arrest for obstruction of the highway (not true).

It would have been more accurate to say that the police almost always give
a warning, and even after this warning people are usually removed from the
road the first time rather than arrested, and are usually arrested only after going
back into the road several times. There is no guarantee of a warning, but it helps
them to secure a conviction if they give one, and they almost always do.

After what seemed like only 5 minutes, somebody with a Loud Voice who seemed
to be In Charge told us we were going to finish the blockade. I went along with
this (in retrospect I really should have made a fuss and called for a group decision).

There was some milling around, and more scavenging for soundbites by the
media. I asked one of the others what they thought about it, and she said she
would have liked to stay in the road longer, since people seemed up for it (I'm
only quoting roughly from memory here).

The last few people left said they were going 'to block Wadham'. I was unsure
about whether Wadham was actually pro-fees or not and decided to call it a day.

My Thoughts


+lack of numbers

Somebody mentioned a lack of publicity as perhaps causing this, but I think there a
bigger problem of student apathy, even on issues that directly affect us. The best way
to overcome this is by inspiring, creative action. Which today didn't really feel
like, for me at least.

+media spectacle vs dialogue

As anyone who has ever been to an OUSU protest will agree, they are very
much targeted at the media present, rather than passers-by. The whole thing
was too much of a photo-op. By allowing the media to position us neatly on the
steps, we separated ourselves from the public and turned ourselves into a
bizarre spectactle, rather than something real that people can engage with.

This means that almost all of the message is filtered through the mainstream media;
we are relying on them to make our point for us, and we have to trust them to get
it right. When we talk to people face to face, on the other hand, not only is it
direct, unmediated contact, but, at an individual level it makes more of an impact
than somebody picking up a paper and reading about something that apparently
happened somewhere.

But, sadly, there was no attempt to dialogue or engage with the public, and
no leaflets were provided to help us do so. Leaflets would also have been
handy to give to blocked drivers to explain why we were taking the action
of blocking the road.

My suggestion would be: make talking to people a priority, media coverage an
unexpected bonus. Never let the media direct what you do or how you do it.

+Broad St as a target

Blocking Broad St seemed like a strange target. I would have prefer to have a
more obvious target eg the offices of Chancellor Wotsisface who's just come out
in favour of fees, or maybe one of the banks that profit so much from student debt?
If our intention was disruption, Longwall St would have been more effective.

+undemocratic decision making

There was no collective discussion or decision making about how long to stay in
the road, or whether to move on to another target, etc. This was one of the worst
things about the action, because with such a smallish number of people it would
have been so easy to have a quick discussion and reach some agreement.


+new militancy?

If this signals a new readiness by the OUSU crowd to using civil disobedience
and similar methods, that can only be a good thing. The government can easily
ignore any number people politely standing in front of cameras with banners.

But they can't ignore effective or inspiring action, which is what is really badly
needed now against top-up fees. Looking at the faces of those sitting on the road today,
I got the sense of some surprisingly determined and up-for-it people. It seems like
some of the militancy of the student anti-war and activist groups has leaked through
to OUSU (albeit in a strange form). So there is definitely the hope of better actions
to come.


a participant


Display the following 5 comments

  1. Oxbridge Style Roadblock — Rebel W
  2. song — me again
  3. Good analysis — P
  4. Make a difference... — Caz
  5. well — me again