Political Protest Calls For More Than Just Silence

“While UCL embodied the spirit of the ’00s, Cambridge was – and apparently still is – stuck in the ’60s.” OSCAR WILLIAMS-GRUT on why we should start tweeting our protests into the 21st century.

academics Cambridge Coalition Government education cuts protests UCL

You’d be forgiven for not having heard about Cambridge academics’ silent protest. They were responding to the Government’s higher education policies. The demonstration is just the latest indication that the Cambridge protest movement has failed to capitalise on the potential it initially showed.

Academics, students and supporters congregated outside Great St Mary’s Church at 12 noon on Monday before falling silent for three minutes. The press release issued by Cambridge Defend Education described the silence as a ‘symbolic act’ that will ‘resonate with all’. Are they being deliberately ironic when they say that a silent protest will ‘resonate’? It’s doubtful. The protestors are only fooling themselves if they think an abysmally short 3 minutes of silence will ‘resonate’ with anyone. Most will be too busy getting their lunch to bother asking what the fuss is about. And if they do, they won’t get a reply.

What is sad about this is the wasted potential. The occupation of Senate House at the end of last term produced hope amongst students and academics, myself included. Their commitment to peaceful activism gave them the moral high ground. Their chosen method of protest meant that unlike these latest ones, the University had no choice but to take notice.

Actions: louder than words?

But as the occupation wore on, it became increasingly clear that it had no clear strategy. They had tried a classic non-violent protest technique and been lucky. Once there, they didn’t know what to do. Their biggest idea, a General Assembly, consisted of protestors professing their objections to the cuts – little else. The occupation eventually petered out.

But the fizzling out of the occupation, and the silent protest’s inevitable lack of impact, is down to the method of protest. Both academics and students need to realise that the political landscape is radically different from previous generations. As much as some may wish it, we  no longer live in an ideologically driven society. The drift of the major parties to the centre – and the rise of the spin-doctor – has created a generation of political pragmatists, not idealists. Nick Clegg is a poster boy for this.

A new political arena calls for a new approach. Whilst covering last term’s occupation of the Senate House for The Tab, I was lucky enough to sit in on a talk given by Michael Sayeu, an English lecturer at UCL. Sayeu talked about the influence of social media on the protest movements. Websites such as Facebook allowed movements to collaborate and broke down barriers of communication. Facebook and Twitter have changed the way people organise their lives, and have unsurprisingly changed the nature of political protest.

Sayeu told the crowd that upon reluctantly visiting the UCL occupation, one of his colleagues was struck by the fact that our generation had no John Lennon. Instead, students were busy huddled around computers, writing an essay or planning out the occupation’s next move. The occupiers even had a dedicated media team, that analysed the Government and University’s statements and prepared their own ones. Words were carefully chosen for maximum effect and minimum backlash. The protestors were taking the politicians on at their own game.

As the crowd in Senate House listened to this, it was clear that there were major disparities between Sayeu’s depiction of UCL and the Cambridge occupation. Senate House was sound tracked by protest music and the atmosphere was more commune than office. The decision to adopt total democracy on even the simplest issues was hampering action and generating pointless bureaucracy. The Cambridge occupiers only got around to forming a press team in the final few days, when it was all but unnecessary. It’s fair to say that while UCL embodied the spirit of the ’00s, Cambridge was – and apparently still is – stuck in the ’60s.

It’s not yet clear exactly how social media and networking will influence politics and protesting. But what does seem apparent is that politics and social media are becoming increasingly, perhaps inexorably linked. Until the Cambridge protest movement realises this, their efforts will continue to be hampered by their methods. And as for the academics; if they want to be heard, they need to stop shutting up.