Death by a thousand rallies

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I don’t know how many student rallies I’ve been to over the last 12 months, but it feels like an awful lot. After a while, they’ve all merged together in my mind into one overall student rally blur. I guess it’s not hard for this to happen. With minor variations, it’s the same thing every time: same march route, same chants, same placards, same speeches. The same number of about 300 marchers turns out every time and, increasingly, these 300-odd marchers seem to be exactly the same people every time, too.

To me, it seems like there is something incredibly wrong with this picture. Tertiary students are facing some of the most serious attacks upon higher education in Australian history. Caps on the amount of HECS fees universities can charge are likely to be lifted, HECS itself is to be converted into a fully-fledged commercial loan, $2.8 billion in funding is about to be cut, and university administrations across the country are already embarking upon a full-scale rampage of staff and course cuts. The effects of these attacks, and their unpopularity, will be enormous. And yet the student movement, at least in Sydney where I’m most familiar with it, is stagnant. Although by no means dead, it is simply not growing, not innovating, not attracting new participants and not even close to turning into the kind of mass movement that can stand the remotest chance of defeating the government.

In a large part, the problem comes down to this: the student movement is obsessed with calling rallies. The same rallies. Down the same route. With the same speeches. Over and over and over again. Every time a problem comes up, every attack, every issue – it doesn’t matter, the answer is always the same: call a rally. But rallies, it’s pretty obvious, aren’t working at the moment. They never get any bigger. No-one new seems to come. The demands are dull. The rhetoric is uninspiring. They never appear to have any effect. And worst of all, no-one seems able to decide whether we actually want to have another rally or not. The word just seems to descend from on high that there’ll be another National Day of Action and rally in late March/mid-May/mid-late-August and then that’s just that. It’s decided. And everyone prepares to go through the motions yet again.

If the student movement is to stand any chance, however, I think a radical, drastic rethink of tactics and organisational forms is necessary. There’s nothing inherently wrong with calling rallies, but right now, without new and innovative forms of grassroots, bottom-up organising that draw large numbers of new participants into democratic struggle against the government’s attacks, we’re just going to have more dull, small, ineffective rallies where no-one feels any ownership over the action or stake in the demands.

Instead of just calling another rally, some attempts at innovation and experimentation could prove interesting. A short, and by no means exhaustive, list of different methods of organising could include:

– Calling mass student meetings. Maybe it seems obvious, but the most essential ingredient of a powerful student movement will be the involvement of hundreds, and eventually thousands, of previously non-activist students as active participants shaping and directing campaigns. At the moment, though, this isn’t happening, and the existing forms of student activism – rallies and small collective meetings mainly preoccupied with organising logistics for upcoming actions – don’t provide a space in which it’s possible for it to happen.

Regular mass student meetings, however, which allow for hundreds of students to come together to decide on the broad direction campaigns should be moving in, whilst smaller groups split off afterwards to take responsibility for implementing specific decisions, can provide the opportunity for this. By actively being a part of broad, general decision-making, far greater numbers of students will be able to feel a stake in and ownership over campaigns, without necessarily having to get involved in working out the nitty gritty logistical details of actions in the way that participation in an education collective would require. There are encouraging precedents for this. At Monash University, for instance, a one-off student general meeting called at the start of 2013 drew between 2-300 participants, and there isn’t any reason why energies channelled towards getting hundreds of people to a rally couldn’t equally well be directed towards getting hundreds of people to a mass meeting. The first few meetings could be made attractive and more accessible by being forums about the imminent attacks upon higher education, which most students aren’t aware of, and with hard work and organising, these mass assemblies could be turned into regular occurrences, immensely enhancing the democratic legitimacy of students’ campaigns. The most powerful and vibrant student movements of the last decade – the campaign against the French CPE employment laws in 2006, the UK student movement of 2010, and the Quebec student strike of 2012 – have all been based around mass student assemblies, and there’s no reason why the same tactics can’t be experimented with here.

– Organising with staff. Again, it seems obvious, yet students have made few attempts to organise with staff at a grassroots level on a long-term, consistent basis. Staff, though, have just as much stake as students in teaching and working conditions in higher education and, as recent strikes have shown, hold enormous power to completely disrupt and shut down the normal functioning of universities. Students have the advantage of often having good relationships with many of their tutors and lecturers, and a simple way to build upon this could be to organise small meetings between students and supportive staff to strengthen those relationships, discuss shared problems and, potentially, collective action. This is already happening at Sydney University on a very small scale with the ‘Worker-Student Assembly’ and has proven very successful; it could easily be imitated elsewhere.

– Organising locally. Whilst cuts to higher education often come down from federal budgets or legislation and ideally can be defeated at this level, it is most often at the grassroots, at the level of campus departments and faculties, that these cuts are implemented and are most directly and concretely felt by students, in the form of larger class sizes, fewer contact hours, course closures and inadequate textbooks or resources. Organising at the level of your faculty, department, or even classroom, has many advantages – it combats the often abstract quality of campaigns against ‘cuts’ because the issue is obvious and is experienced directly, students already have existing relationships with each other and their staff and, even if cuts can’t be defeated at the level of federal government policy, their implementation in departments and faculties often can. In March 2000 at UTS, for instance, students in one subject were told they would not be provided with a free book of course readings, as would usually be the case; the next week, half of the class of 150 students marched out of the lecture theatre and briefly occupied the administration block, leading to the readers being rapidly produced and distributed within days.

– Being creative, imaginative, and militant. When rallies are called, much more can be done to make them interesting and fun, rather than dull, scripted A to B marches dominated by self-appointed ‘leaders’ with megaphones and boring chants. Musical instruments, especially groups of people with high quality drums and whistles, can make rallies immensely more carnivalesque and festive, as can sounds systems, colourful props, flags and costumes. Although it will obviously require much larger rallies in order to stretch the police out, much more of a willingness could be shown to break with prescribed march routes too; many of the best demonstrations in the UK in 2010 saw thousands of students take to the streets with no set march route whatsoever, and roam around in vast numbers completely unrestricted and uncontrolled, continually outwitting police attempts to block their route (for some idea of this, YouTube the excellent video “Police fail to kettle student protest 30/11/10”). And, although they will also require a much larger, broader student movement to be fully effective, disruptive tactics should be utilised to the fullest extent possible – medium- and long-term occupations of university facilities, early morning blockades of bank head offices and shopping malls to heavily disrupt or prevent their opening, peak hour blockades of busy roads (both UTS and Sydney Uni sit on major arterial routes), the list goes on…

*****

Students in higher education look set to come under almost unprecedented attack in 2014. But, speaking to anyone at all about what’s coming – the cuts, the privatisations, the huge HECS increases – what’s even more obvious is the total, almost unanimous anger and opposition that these attacks will generate. Student struggles are often remarked upon for their seeming spontaneity, the way they appear to burst out of nowhere and suddenly take on spectacular, explosive dynamics, and in this instance the potential for mass mobilisation is immense.

The example of Sydney University in 2012 is obvious. Within a few weeks of semester beginning, 800 students were rallying on the lawns in response to largescale staff cuts. A few weeks later, and that number had doubled. Occupations and blockades quickly followed. In the same year at the university where I was studying, where no overt, obvious struggles existed at all, a Facebook page called ‘Demand a Better University’, which railed against the poor standards of everything from class sizes to the library, appeared out of nowhere and rapidly gained thousands of likes. With a bit of flexibility, originality and tactical experimentation, there is no reason why the immense anger and frustration that clearly exists on many campuses cannot be channelled into a movement that not only has the potential to challenge the government, but touch off, inspire and give heart to others struggling right across the country.

** This article was originally written for the NSW Education Action Network zine in the interests of contributing to current debates about tactics **

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