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Editorial: After Millbank

There have been strong reactions to the student protests at Millbank on 10 November (see p8). Overwhelmingly, mainstream figures have condemned the “despicable” behaviour of the protesters – the word used by Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students.

From the left, in contrast, came a statement signed by Hilary Wainwright, Billy Bragg, Naomi Klein and a number of student activists saying: “We reject any attempt to characterise the Millbank protest as small, “extremist” or unrepresentative of our movement.... Occupations are a long established tradition in the student movement that should be defended…. We stand with the protesters, and anyone who is victimised as a result of the protest.”

The two positions focus on different aspects of the Millbank protest. No doubt occupation is a legitimate and important method of protest, but there was within the occupation a violent aspect that was unrepresentative of the student movement and the wider anti-cuts movement, and which was damaging to those movements.

There were four types of disorder at Millbank. There was the occupation; there was property damage; there was minor verbal and physical confrontation with police; and, finally, there were stones and other objects thrown by protesters, including a fire extinguisher thrown from the roof which narrowly missed a police officer.

The final category of action, a small part of what happened at Millbank, was the only truly violent aspect of the protest.

For many people committed to radical nonviolence, as PN is, there is no objection in principle to occupying or carrying out property damage within buildings involved in unacceptable policies – the EDO Decommissioners have given us a shining example of the moral and legal correctness of some types of property damage.

The issue is the context for action, the kind of property damage that is done, and how it is done. The suffragettes broke windows, and were heartily condemned for it at the time, but we now look on this as justified desperation. In the case of Millbank, the crude names painted inside the building, and the macho way the windows were broken, wrongly, made them seem simple vandals.

Compared to the vandalism of the cuts programme, and the damage it will do to the fabric of society, to millions of lives, the students’ damage pale into insignificance. Even so, the damage gave a propaganda weapon to the authorities, it reduced support in the general population for the movement, and it undermined the unity of the movement. The way property damage was carried out, and the stone-throwing violence distracted attention from, and reduced the effectiveness of, the occupation itself, which was a bold success.

Realistically, there will be more Millbanks. Activists committed to nonviolence must be prepared to act constructively and militantly alongside others of different persuasions. The stakes are high, and as we keep being told, we’re all in this together.