Student Activism on Campus

Student fees deserve our outrage, but the crimes of the British Government must not go unnoticed.

In February 1967, Noam Chomsky wrote one of the most important (and largely forgotten) essays of the twentieth century, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’. In it he posed a simple question: To what extent are the general population of the United States responsible for the suffering of the Vietnamese people? If they decided to ignore or acquiesce in the crimes of the world’s leading terrorist state, Chomsky argued, they therefore share a significant burden of guilt. Similar questions should remain in the back of our minds today, as relatively free and privileged students have more opportunities than most to undermine and dismantle illegitimate forms of authority. 

It’s important, first, to distinguish between two methods of activism: ‘feel good’ tactics and ‘do good’ tactics. Becoming a vegetarian, for instance, can make you feel good, but has virtually no effect on the abuses of animal rights around the world. Stopping that requires active opposition, not just non-participation. If someone’s against the illegal US-lead (and UK-backed) drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, it’s no good just not joining the army. These principles are simple and uncontroversial – so uncontroversial, in fact, that it really takes a good education to drive them out of people’s heads.

Hicham Yezza, ex-Nottingham academic and editor of Ceasefire Magazine, has pointed out that the growing emphasis on commodifying students for the labour market (glistening CVs in tow) has led many into political docility. The most effective way to counter this privatisation of education is through organisation and popular activism based on socialist and anarchist values of mutual aid and co-operation. These liberating actions can help us become aware of forms of illegitimate authority and find our true moral nature, often obscured by years of family prejudice, internalising of cultural norms, and obedience to doctrinal systems.

For reasons of space and personal experience I can only include a few examples of such efforts, which include “countless small actions of unknown people” around campus, to quote the late Howard Zinn.

On December 7th 2010, a memorial was set up by members of the Palestinian Society outside the Portland Building. It commemorated the lives of those taken by Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead from December 27th 2008 to January 18th 2009. 1,417 Gazans were killed (some of the students’ relatives were amongst the victims), including over 900 civilians, compared to 13 Israelis. The memorial was causing no harm or offence. These are facts which the university’s security found unimportant, even boring, kicking down the memorial with an almost Buddhist level of detachment (possibly having been encouraged by the recent dismantling of the occupation of the Great Hall, which was accused of obstructing education and violating health and safety regulations – both debunked).

A year earlier, a peaceful sit-in at the Law and Social Sciences building room B62 protesting against Cast Lead was greeted by a forceful eviction by ten security guards, dragging the occupants out into the snow and injuring some in the process.

On Wednesday 15th February 2012, the leading British arms company BAE-Systems held a stall outside the main entrance to the Coates Building in an attempt to recruit aspiring arms dealers and manufacturers. The Left Society held a protest outside the stall, attracting the attention of both students and faculty. With a Heckler & Koch factory only a few miles from campus, the University of Nottingham is a fine base of operations for an industry allegedly vital to ‘the health of the economy.’ Young engineers are confronted with great financial inducements to work for such companies.

The reason for the protest requires little explanation. To pick an example almost at random, the al-Yamamah deal to Saudi Arabia, headed by BAE and given the blessing of various administrations, took little heed of Britain’s export licensing rules, which state that the government “will not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression” (which they were, including during last year’s Arab Spring). The deal was condemned by Amnesty International as a sign of Britain’s endorsement of a country that displayed a “persistent pattern of gross human rights abuses.”

David Cameron decided to honour this tradition by being the first world leader to visit Egypt after the fall of Mubarak, bringing with him eight of Britain’s leading arms manufacturers, including the bosses of Rolls-Royce and BAE. Sensing injustice wherever he goes, Cameron recently gave a talk at Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus in April, which was met with a standing ovation from the carefully selected audience (no questions about tuition fees, please). High on his ‘Where I go, so democracy goes’ rhetoric, he said “I’m not saying that terrorism is linked exclusively to any one religion or ethnic group. It is not … There is a great global opportunity right now to demonstrate that democracy doesn’t endanger stability, moderation and prosperity”.

Not a day goes by that I don’t read Cameron’s speech, drawing from it a level of inspiration other statesmen can only dream of imparting. With regards to extremism, he recommends that we be “absolutely clear about the nature of the threat we face”. So let’s try that. Absolute clarity would suggest that the British government is currently one of the greatest threats to world peace, accounting for far more crimes than conventional religions like Christianity and Islam.

Along with the numerous, vibrant student movements of the late 1960s, the current actions of British students seem to prove correct the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s prediction in 1865 that a strong element of social revolution will be “that intelligent and truly noble part of the youth which, though belonging by birth to the privileged classes, in its generous convictions and ardent aspirations, adopts the cause of the people.”

The hopes and intuitions of the world’s youth have also remained similar throughout the centuries. In thirteenth-century Paris and fifteenth-century Oxford, students rose against Church interference, demanding expulsions and resignations. In the 1960s, they protested against military draft and Washington’s carpet bombing of Vietnam.

Today the major unifying issue is tuition fees, with many other causes lying just beneath the surface of attention. But until they find out differently, the general student population can also remain passive and subservient to power. It’s the responsibility, then, of any concerned and privileged person to make sure they find out differently.

Elliot Murphy

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