Photos by Jake Lewis, viideo by John Lubbock
Yesterday was May Day, and some London students had planned to celebrate by holding a march on their campus for tons of people whose lives are miserable thanks to the government. It was advertised as "a carnival for everyone: the precarious, the low-paid, the zero-houred, the part-time, the temporary, the interned, the unemployed, the workfared, the sacked, the redundant, the indebted."
One person who wasn't welcome, however, was David Willetts, the universities minister. (Don't these students understand what "everyone" means? Education standards are slipping.) In what must surely go down as an act of sabotage by his secretary, Willets, who raised tuition fees to £9,000 ($13,500), had been booked to give a speech at the university during a massive left-wing march.
That said, being made to feel unwelcome has become something of an occupational hazard for Willetts, who seems to spend his days touring the country giving talks to people who hate him, like a sad, hairless Jesus.
Sure enough, some students had turned up before the main march to picket Willetts's speech. I guess you could argue that it’s not very scholarly to try to disrupt a lecture. But then the talk was titled, “New Opportunities for Science Capital,” which sounds both amazingly sinister and unbearably boring.
When they got bored of singing nasty songs, some students decided they'd try to force their way into the building. Which resulted in the situation you can see above.
One of the security guards, in between all the shoving, grimacing, and pleading with people to "just chill," tried to level with the protesters, saying, “I’m going to be a student in September. You’re definitely right in what you’re doing. But I need to stand here because that’s my job.”
After a while, the security guards pushed everybody out. We later heard that some police showed up with some Tasers, but by that point we'd already reached the main march, where this samba band was laying down some pretty riotous beats.
Not all that many people were showing up, perhaps because rain and samba is a shitty combination. But I did see David Graeber, the anthropologist, anarchist, author, and activist. I asked him about the carnival's stated aim of building links between students and more traditionally working-class people who'd also been buggered by austerity.
"There seems to be a major change in class alliances," he said. "Partly because both the working poor and students are being caught in debt. Also, the line between workers and students is getting thinner and thinner, because students work. People get caught in a sort of trap where they’re part-time workers and part-time students for a very long time."
As if to prove his point, the next guy I talked to was a part-time philosophy student named Joe, who "never really leaves work" because, when he's not working on his dissertation, he's working his part-time job. "In these low-paid jobs you’re not just expected to turn up; you’re expected to enjoy it and to care thoroughly about the customer experience, the philosophy of the business. It’s not just a job; your job is your life," he told me.
"In many ways, I don’t have any prospects," he said, staring balefully into the rain. It was pretty miserable, and I could see his point, though I did wonder if coffee shops should employ philosophy students if they're going to analyze the meaning of saying "please" and "thank you" to customers quite so much.
Just when I thought the wet day was getting kind of dry, someone came running around the corner, screaming, "Willetts's car! They've got Willetts's car!"
I followed as he ran off again and sure enough, a group of students had positioned themselves in front of the universities minister's Jaguar, refusing to let it budge without running them over. Willetts had presumably thought that his annoying day of getting heckled by students was over, but the worst was yet to come.
Students blocked the car, singing, “Fuck off, Willetts! Fuck off, Willetts!” even though fucking off was precisely what he was trying to do, and exactly what the students were preventing him from doing.
Willetts sat tight, pretending to read some documents, as if you can genuinely concentrate on documents when dozens of people are surrounding your car, shouting at you that you're a dick.
I tried to grab Willetts for an interview, to ask him how it felt to be surrounded by people who hate him, or maybe shoot the shit about new opportunities for science capital, but for some reason he didn't fancy a chat. I whipped out my press card like I was in the FBI, but the security guards were having none of it.
More breathless students ran around the corner to join in with the car-kettling, but just after they did, this happened:
And then everything got very chaotic.
Tons of riot vans showed up, spilling cops into the street. As you'd expect, they weren't too happy about the situation and attempted to clear the road.
Each time the police tried to push the students back, they'd simply retreat for a while before rejoining the mass. The police were basically herding cats, and the fact that many of these cats were anarchists probably didn't make their jobs any easier.
Meanwhile, the samba band was still there, providing a disorientating soundtrack to the shoving match.
The heavens opened. By now, the police were managing to clear enough room for Willetts to momentarily make headway, but at no point were they able to clear the road ahead for long enough that he could speed off home for several bottles of wine, some dinner, and a couple of sleeping pills.
What resulted was a bizarre, slow-moving convoy of riot vans, samba drummers, and people violently shoving one another over in the road. The protesters had got the carnival they wanted, but with the added bonus that David Willetts's car was the centrepiece of it: a despised float at the heart of the Mardi Gras.
Eventually, though, the police cleared enough room for Willetts to escape.
It wasn't quite the May Day riot party I'd hoped for, probably because the weather was crappy and it's exam season.
Still, I definitely had more fun than David Willetts.