Many people reading the news coverage of the TUC, UCU and NUS-organised demonstration in Manchester on 29 January must have felt disgusted with the student movement in this country. First students desecrated the Cenotaph in London last December (sic), and now they have apparently shouted vile racist abuse at NUS president Aaron Porter. The ‘story’ seems to have begun with an article on Daily Mail online, which refers briefly to a photographer, who apparently overheard a chant of ‘Tory Jew’ directed at the student leader. From that they constructed a headline reading ‘student leader faces barrage of anti-Jewish abuse at rally’. Then a story on the Telegraph website mentions unnamed ‘witnesses’ who heard the same ‘anti-Semitic insults’, and they add that other protesters responded with ‘no to racism, no to racism’. From there it goes viral with several online media outlets ‘reporting’ chants of ‘Tory Jew scum’ and ‘vile racist abuse’.
We were close to Porter at all times during the incident. It started off with just a handful of students asking him about his lack of support for their actions, and then when he started walking off, a large group (probably around a third of those assembled at the time) followed him all the way to Manchester Metropolitan University where he took refuge behind police lines. There were chants of scum, ‘Tory too’, Porter out etc. but we heard no anti-Semitic abuse, and no chants of ‘no to racism’, either.
Could this all be a fabrication based on that one photographer’s mishearing of ‘too’ for ‘Jew’, in the chant ‘Aaron Porter, we know you – you’re a fucking Tory too’? It seems likely.
Apart from the unnamed photographer cited by the Daily Mail, and the unnamed witnesses mentioned by the Telegraph (could that just be the same photographer?), we have only found one reference to anti-Semitic abuse by an eye-witness. On the blog ‘Harry’s Place’, a commenter writes:
‘I was at this protest today and I heard 2, yes, two people chanting this. And, guess what, the two men chanting this were of Asian descent, they were not white. Also what the article fails to mention is that about 20 or so people started chanting “no, no, no to racists” at these men.’
It is of course possible that a couple of chants of ‘Tory Jew’ were made in the noisy crowd that we did not hear (nor did any of our 20-30 friends in the group hear anything like this). But we do think it almost entirely impossible that none of us, or anybody else we know, would have missed chants of ‘no to racists’ by a group of 20 people. (None of the youtube clips we looked at made us think differently either, but if evidence did emerge of anti-Semitism we’d be the first to condemn this, though we would not see this as anything else but an isolated detail).
We certainly don’t think that anti-Semitic sentiments are impossible in the student movement. There were more than enough incidents, chants and political expressions during the university occupations in solidarity with Gaza during the first months of 2009, and in condemnation of Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ that we were deeply unhappy with. And of course we are reminded of ULU president Clare Solomon’s remarks last year that were highlighted by activists from the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty, and that seemed to belittle the historical persecution of Jews (though she subsequently retracted her statements and we don’t really want to comment on what might just be some point-scoring exercise between the AWL and Solomon’s organisation Counterfire).
Yet, the frustrating thing about the news coverage of the Aaron Porter incident is not the cheap (and often hypocritical) attempt at branding a group of several hundred left-wing and anarchist students ‘racists’. The real frustration arises out of the real story this coverage has stifled: the fact that Porter’s inability of partaking in the Manchester demonstration is actually symbolic of a significant escalation of the gulf between the NUS leadership and a majority of those students who have been attending the demonstrations in November and December last year, and this latest one in January.
Grassroots students accuse Porter of branding the attempted mass occupation of the Tory HQ in Millbank Tower ‘absolutely despicable’ and calling the students present an ‘utter disgrace’ in the national press after the 10/11/10 ‘Demolition’ protest. They are offended by the NUS’s cautiousness when it came to organising more demonstrations, the lack of support for those who engaged in low-scale confrontation with the police in Parliament Square, and suspect a careerist motivation behind Porter’s condemnation of student militancy. 8 student unions across the country are not affiliated to the NUS, motions of no confidence in Porter have been passed by three student unions (including Birbeck College and SOAS), and Bristol University union are due to decide on a no confidence motion at their AGM on 10 February. On top of that, an elected officer of Manchester Metropolitan University union complained after the Manchester demonstration of a NUS’s ‘lack of engagement’ with local activists who were not invited to speak at the Platt Fields rally yesterday. Quoted in the local newspaper Manchester Mule, he stated that ‘our students’ union should not be used as a headquarters for the NUS’, and that ‘there was no engagement with Man Met Union at all, and no opportunity for student reps from Manchester to talk.’
An unbridgeable gap?
The successful exclusion of Aaron Porter from his ‘own’ demonstration was actually a mixture of careful strategising amongst Manchester students and spontaneous crowd reaction. It would have been all too easy for a small group of student anarchists in black hoodies and facemasks to throw a couple of eggs during Porter’s speech, had it taken place. Similarly, the small gaggle of the seemingly-resurrected Clown Army could have focused its antics on the NUS president. But after Porter had written in the Guardian, just a day before the demonstration, that the NUS has been ‘leading the movement’ and that its left-wing critics ‘represent few people other than themselves’, such vanguardist actions would have only played into his hands. Instead, a seemingly less militant, but certainly more effective, course of action was to heckle Porter during his speech at Platt Fields Park.
It never came to that of course. Hundreds of flyers were handed out to students at the assembly point of the demonstration, inciting them to ‘Heckle the President’. The overwhelmingly positive responsive to the flyers quickly changed the pre-march atmosphere. Porter was spotted nearby, with only a couple of stewards (a handful of them were from a private security firm working for MMU union, as the TUC had apparently not found enough volunteers) there to protect him. More and more students started to move towards him, and finally a few attempted to engage him in a discussion. But Porter wasn’t in the mood for talking and instead was escorted away by the stewards, with a crowd of now some 300 people (our figure compares to 150 cited in mainstream media reports, and 500 in the AWL write-up) following him, heckling him, all the way to his chosen refuge in Manchester Metropolitan University, some 500 metres up the road. It was an overwhelming sign of ‘no confidence’, if not by the mass of the student body, then certainly by those students that had come to attend the demonstration.
The anti-NUS sentiments were also voiced on the rather uneventful march down Oxford Road to Platt Fields Park, with a number of banners and placards declaring ‘Aaron Porter does not represent me’. And it became more obvious during the TUC-organised rally.
The political gap between the speakers from various trade union bodies and campaigns, and probably about half of the 2-3,000 strong crowd was remarkable. There was occasional heckling of the speakers all the way through, and during one speech, a group of protesters even turned on their biketrailer-mounted soundsystem and started dancing. All talks were repetitive, social-democratic, and attempting to gain support for a neo-Keynesian model of welfare state and full employment. They were answered with occasional shouts of ‘we know’ and ‘you’re all saying the same’. The only noticeable resonance with the majority of the listeners came when a speaker was announced to have taken part in the Edinburgh University occupation.
And it seemed like a large section of the crowed only endured the speeches in order to get the chance to heckle Aaron Porter again. ‘Porter, Porter – show your face’, they chanted. Somebody handed out eggs and rotten tomatoes, and it must have been several dozen people, mainly students and ex-students, who were eager to take them. Had Porter appeared on stage, he would have been absolutely pelted! (what a difference this made to the situation at London’s Embankment on the day of the tuition fees vote, where Porter’s speech at his glowstick vigil was interrupted only by a few, but loud, shouts of ‘traitor, traitor’) Instead it was NUS vice president for further education Shane Chowen (while trying to defend the NUS position) and Manchester Central MP Tony Lloyd (‘he’s Labour and voted for the war – let’s get him’) who had to cut their speeches short after eggs were thrown in their direction. And when it become clear that Porter would no longer make an appearance, a few activists behind a reinforced banner (‘you have the scissors, we have the rocks’) led a mass exodus of some 1,000 people (almost half the crowd on the field) back onto the streets of Manchester, halfway through a trade union rep’s speech.
While the union reps in Platt Field’s Park were given a tough time, our engagement within union structures should not be underestimated. We were glad that the crowd stayed with the rally as long as it did, and shouted back at the speakers. We wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few of them rethinking their relationship with the rank-and-file and grassroots activists. When one group of protesters began chants of ‘Strike, Strike, Strike!’ during the speech of what might have been the GMB or NUT representative (sorry, we didn’t pay too much attention at that point), she answered back, slightly embarrassed, with ‘yes, we will discuss this, we are with you’. For Aaron Porter to regain the trust of the student demonstrations, however, the time has passed.