It is not every day you see British students trashing the Conservative Party headquarters in the heart of London. Watch the video on the Guardian website. Indeed, everyone (including the police) expected a happy-clappy march, where humans did the talking (chanting, shouting, singing), while the non-humans (placards, banners, flags) played a supporting role. While that was happening, this event merited about a 20 second coverage on the UK news channels, as news number 3 or so. However, as soon as the protest became more object-oriented, in this case human physical action (using the aforementioned placards, banners etc.) oriented towards 30 Millbank, the building housing Tory HQ, the news channels switched to broadcasting live for several hours, sending a number of reporters and camera crews as well as helicopters to the scene. There was literally no other news reported on BBC News 24 and Sky News for several hours, not even Prime Minister David Cameron’s trip to China.
It is clear even from the Guardian video that the trebling of the tuition fees was not the only issue that exercised the students. It seems that the budget cuts in general have also played some part, as well as the bank bailout, and even the Iraq war was mentioned. Another interesting point is that these protesting students actually won’t be themselves affected by the higher education cuts and tuition fee increases, as it will all kick in after they will have all graduated. So they are representing others, such as their younger siblings but also more generally the future generations. It seems the students have become the conduits for many other issues that have been pre-occupying the Great British public (namely their parents) but about which this public has so far remained surprisingly calm and quiet (compared to protests and strikes seen elsewhere in Europe in recent weeks and months). It has all changed now. Indeed, the students are already planning a second, much bigger, nationwide protest in two weeks’ time, on 24 November.
Coming back to the role of objects. The storming of 30 Millbank was evidently a very effective mode of communication on the part of the protesters, to make things public, judging from the response of the 24 hour news media, who were mesmerised by the spectacle. However, it was a pity that the protest at one point turned human-oriented, namely that missiles were hurled at police officers, injuring them, with one particular idiot throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of the building at the police. As it happens, the police are themselves facing cuts (budget cuts, although unfortunately a number of them also suffered cuts to their faces at this event) and redundancies. Probably many – if not most – of them are themselves coming from humble backgrounds, thus their children will similarly be affected by the higher education cuts and tuition increases. The object-oriented protest got the students the national attention they wanted and needed, however they probably lost some public sympathy when the protest turned human-oriented.