On Saturday 4 August, riots erupted in Tottenham, North London. It started after a peaceful protest against the killing of Mark Duggan, a local young black man, by the police. The rioting then spread, not only across London, but across England.
Tragically, many people have lost their homes and livelihoods in the riots. Just because we realise there are socio-economic and political causes to these riots, doesn’t mean we cannot recognise the pain and suffering of those who have been directly affected and express our solidarity with them. The riots are desperately sad because of the suffering they’ve caused and because they have exposed deep underlying problems in our society. We need to think about why this happened and how to stop it from happening again.
Many explanations have been cited for the rioting – poverty, inequality, hopelessness, public service cuts, social networking. But as student activists, there are two causes that we must highlight and actively campaign to change.
The first is education. The education system has failed a generation of young people. Not because teachers are doing a bad job and not because parents are failing to instill discipline at home. The education system is failing young people because there is minimal funding for schools that aren’t in “good areas”. Because schooling in 21st century Britain, may as well be called “examining”. School students are only taught to learn something because it will help them pass an exam and get them a job, not because learning is valuable in its own right. All of the fun, joy, creativity, imagination and passion has been stripped out. No wonder poor kids are under-performing; school’s shit.
All the while, of course, the rich kids down the road in the neighbouring borough attend school for £30,000 per year, with sparkling new facilities, PhD educated teachers and training in how to get into Oxbridge. They are prepped to be the lawyers, doctors, politicians and Prime Ministers of the future. The unfairness is painful, it’s outrageous, it’s vile.
And now, students from working class backgrounds have little hope of going to university. The opportunity they thought they might have, to pull themselves out of poverty, to achieve some elusive social mobility, has been cruelly ripped from beneath them. No matter what Nick Clegg says (that it is now easier to go to university because you don’t pay any money back until you earn £21,000), everyone else knows that if you’re poor and facing £27,000 grand of debt for a degree, you’re not going to do it. Why would you? There are no jobs for graduates anyway!
As university students we are in a privileged position. We are the last generation to benefit from a (reasonably) affordable university education. It is up to us to continue to assert the value of learning, not because it will get us jobs, but because we love it. Because we know an education shouldn’t be a “privilege”. Because we believe that education should be accessible to all people in a society, not just those who can afford it. Because we understand that educating citizens is the responsibility of the government, not bailing out banks that gambled with and lost our money. Because we know giving all children opportunities and a future is the only way to create a peaceful, caring society.
We have to continue our fight, for university education for all, for EMA, for equal opportunities, for a future.
The second cause of the riots that we are collectively familiar with, is police brutality. Many students experienced heavy-handed policing for the first time this year. The student protestors were charged with horses, kettled for hours on end, beaten with batons and arrested arbitrarily. Police brutality is something poor communities, particularly young black men, have been familiar with for decades.
The police murdered Mark Duggan. 333 people have died in police custody since 1998. And yet, the general public is calling for more police powers, for more robust and tougher policing.
We have to stand up and recount our experiences of police brutality: to remind people that the police, given half the chance, will attack all sectors of society. We must stand in solidarity with those facing absurdly disproportionate prison sentences, like the student imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water. We have to show our solidarity with the young men who are stopped-and-searched everyday just because of their age and the colour of their skin.
There is a protest in London tomorrow to ‘Give our Kids a Future’. If you’re in London, please attend. If you live in other parts of the UK, organize similar demos in your area.
When the next academic year starts, we need to re-energize, re-mobilize and keep education on the agenda.