This last decade, United Kingdom universities have experienced severe neoliberal offensives. In 2010, the student movement had managed to gain momentum and occupy symbolic buildings or sites. This is the story of how student activists gloriously succeeded in taking over the Millbank building in London.
Millbank was where they lost control. The Coalition lost control of the political agenda; the National Union of Students lost control of the movement; the police lost control of the streets. — Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere (2012).
Britain’s 2010 student protest movement sent shockwaves through the United Kingdom political scene, the reverberations of which are still felt today. Taking place several months after the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government, it responded to their proposal to overhaul higher education funding in England by tripling the cost of home-students university fees as well as cancelling the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for 16-19 year olds from lower-income households. Following a mass protest on November 10, 2010 culminating in a storming of the Conservative Party headquarters, students occupied 27 university campuses and several colleges and state schools. Albeit momentary, the few months in which this student revolt lasted completely expanded the realm of political possibility.
Coming off the back of the “long nineties” — when culture was characterized by a wholesale rejection of seriousness — it was widely thought that the current generation of high school and university students were a post-ideological generation: apathetic, apolitical and mostly in education to get a “decent job.” What’s more, when it did happen, student protest was widely dismissed as completely detached from the concerns of the working population. In this clever construct, the radical student subject was cast as out-of-touch during one of the few moments when they had both the opportunity to explore different political ideas and the time and freedom to act on them. There was, therefore, enough prior evidence to expect no serious opposition to the government’s austerity measures. The fact that this was not the case is down to the surprise capture of physical spaces and the subsequent revival of possibilities that occurred when people found common cause in these spaces. All this started at Millbank.
There were a few groups planning different occupations that day, but these were located along the demo route, where there was already a strong police presence. In fact, police had already successfully repelled an attempt to occupy the Department for Business and Innovation (DBIS), due to being able to enter the building from another entrance and come out front from inside.
Millbank was planned, but unexpected. In London, at least, you can rarely expect a building to be so vulnerable. Property damage and occupations may be standard student practice in other places, but it wasn’t the norm in the U.K.. Then again, the building was designed in such a way that left it pretty exposed. Situated on the North bank of the Thames, on a main road leading from Parliament to West London, Millbank is a known address of “the establishment,” housing several media organisations and political parties, including the Conservative Party headquarters. It also lay just off the route of the November 10 demo, close enough to run to, far enough to drift over there without being noticed. Moreover, the building is actually composed of two corporate glazed curtain-wall towers, one 32-stories, the other 15, both sitting on pilotis. They are joined by a first-floor two-storey bridging volume, forming a low-hung entrance that opens to a forecourt in front of the lower tower.
It was my first protest. The lead-up involved my first meetings, learning the lingo and getting to grips with the idea of consensus. On the day, I’d marched, handed out leaflets, helped organise actions, and I was knocked unconscious by a police officer at the DBIS. It was the first time that I had directly experienced state violence. After it happened, I was dragged to the side and propped against a bench. I didn’t really know the person who dragged me to safety, in fact, she had felt quite cold to me before. It doesn’t seem like much, but she gave me my first experience of solidarity in a moment of bodily panic: rubbing my shoulders, looking me in the eye to make sure I could hold eye contact for a couple of seconds, before dissolving back into the crowd. I could only return because of that feeling that I would be given care when I needed it.
After the failure to occupy the DBIS, scattered messages came through on the burn phones (organizers get single-use sim cards and put them in cheap Nokias for passing messages to dispersed comrades) from somewhere on Millbank: hardly any police, a few protestors, the coast was clear. Those who had heard the whispers went first, to be followed by others as word spread further. Police noticed a retreat but were unsure of the protester’s movements. As was noted later by a number of newspapers, they were “caught in a game of cat and mouse” until everyone got to Millbank. The arrival of the music in the forecourt marked the place, amplified by the low entrance, before reaching up through the concave facade of the lower tower. The glazed foyer facade was still intact, but a crowd was gathering, people were entering the tower, and employees were escaping from the fire exit around the corner.
I began to enter with my Bric partner [a “bric” is a group of two people who pledge to stick together throughout a demo or action, to do nothing that the other wouldn’t, and to be responsible for the safety of the other, including any organisation or solidarity work in the event of an arrest], but we quickly decided to stay in the lobby to encourage others to cover up their faces. I was certainly not the only one experiencing my first protest and 2010 ended up being the first major example of CCTV being used to enable retrospective arrests post-demo.
Things were escalating, crowds were arriving, a window was smashed and people flooded the foyer. A TV was still playing, while another was brought out of the elevator and thrown through a window. People were cold, but they didn’t want to leave, so a bonfire of placards was lit in the forecourt. Many made their way through the building. Some even filmed music videos on the fourth floor while Conservative Party employees barricaded themselves in the third. Around 20 people made it to the roof, setting off flares which, when looking up through the three surrounding buildings, turned the sky red. Chants rose upwards to those on the roof, reverberating the facades, while the view below was a sea of black, red, a pocket of fire and a thin, surrounded strip of hi-vis yellow. This was also seen by the Police helicopter hovering above and the livestream footage was broadcast on national television.
Once backup arrived, the police were extremely violent. Fearing this, some broke windows to get back out of Millbank. Several protestors were injured and police made made 54 arrests on that day alone — as well as many more afterwards, through CCTV footage.
Accounts of the atmosphere in those hours range from joy to rage. But whichever way you look at it, the drama of Millbank moved the line on which students stood by normalizing occupation and other more disruptive actions. Writing a few days after Millbank, Mark Fisher likened the feeling to emerging from a bout of deep depression: “There’s the rush that you get simply from not being depressed any more — the occasional lurching anxieties, a sense of how precarious it all seems (don’t drag me back into nothing) — and yet not only is it maintaining itself, it’s proliferating, intensifying, feeding on itself — it’s impossible, but it’s happening — the reality programme
New possibilities emerged as soon as this new space had been created, perhaps the most significant being the convergence of predominantly middle class students and working class high school students. Indeed, an often forgotten aspect of the protests was the large presence of high school students, many of whom were about to be affected by the government’s decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a weekly grant of £30 a week intended to encourage students from low-income families to continue into further education. Whereas university students would be affected by neither the loss of EMA nor the rise in tuition fees, these younger students had a lot more skin in the game. Also unlike the university students, those affected by the cut to EMA were often from a more deprived socioeconomic background and were much less likely to have ever enjoyed the benefits of the previous decade of prosperity.
The protests momentarily created the space for these inner city youth and university students to share their experience. In this context, one of the most significant areas of cross-cultural translation came in the emergence, and consequential platforming, of Grime music as a soundtrack for the protest movement. British rapper Tempa T’s “Next Hype” an escalatory cheeky, aggy, surging anthem complete with a hook formed of the word “smash!” and a home-video of Temps wreaking havoc from an office environment through a teenage bedroom and onto streets of London, was just right on a number of levels. It thrust to center stage the sound of Black youth, many of whom relied on EMA to justify continuing school and who were therefore under greater threat from the proposed hike than the cliché of the entitled white middle-class student that the media had berated out of perceived legitimacy.
Among the first to identify the potential for the movement’s expansion beyond student politics were the Deterritorial Support Group (DSG), an anonymous collective formed in the early days of the movement out of a desire to discuss issues of class-struggle and a perceived need “to produce propaganda which travels with that struggle in a form more alive to our everyday realities”. Their moment of
realisation came when the veteran bicycle-powered protest soundsystem Pedals played “Next Hype.” Seeing the young crowd’s reaction to the song, a far cry from Pedals’ usual repertoire, DSG set to work designing and fly posting across London an image of Tempa T MCing live with “Tempz 4 NUS Prez”, (that is, Tempa T for National Union of Students President) emblazoned across the front I incidentally, Tempa T eventually went on to do a few political youtube videos, off the back of the tone that had been struck).
The genius of such moves was precisely that they darted across different spaces of protest, moving from student protest and beginning to give voice to the much more complex set of grievances felt by marginalized inner city youth. They did so by inscribing the otherwise momentary excitement of a “tune heard” on the walls of the city translating the touchstones of a marginalized youth into institutional threats and in doing so asserting control over enemy terrain. It was so impressive but also made total sense to draw immediately on these things.
Another area of convergence came during the occupations that followed Millbank. Indeed, while Millbank produced a new space of struggle through the destruction of establishment thresholds and the normalisation of more radical tactics, the 2010 movement was more than anything an exercise in the reproduction of space: of shelter, of organisation and planning and of new ways to think about collective living. A total of 27 universities went into occupation, ranging from a few hours to a few weeks and from spaces that were logistically important, as in the occupation of the chancellor’s offices at Manchester University, to those whose importance was more symbolic, as in the occupation of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.
For the occupation of the Bodleian Library, a march route was organized so that it passed the Radcliffe Camera, a postcard-perfect neoclassical rotunda isolated in a green and surrounded by a cobbled square. Students were positioned inside the Camera, ready to announce the occupation as the march passed and others ran inside, able to access the building from all angles and two entrances. The occupation lasted for two days.
The Bodleian was my first occupation. We slept between bookshelves and smuggled food through the 360-degree windows while security patrolled the perimeter were eclipsed by the building itself. We held meetings, scanned books for the Napster Moment, made viral solidarity videos with other occupations, and fought for our cause over the radio — I even got my rad neighbor to pretend to be my “supportive mum” to the BBC. We were convinced we wouldn’t be evicted violently for heritage reasons alone, but the police smashed down an 18th century door to get us out.
While the movement was galvanized by Millbank, it was determined by the occupations. These brief moments prefigured new, less-atomized, and more meaningful ways of being together. The new initiates breathed new life into old tactics, re-embodying them, so that they could lay claim to a rich history and in the process rearrange it. Unencumbered by the normal repertoire of protest practices they were capable of bringing new ideas and new techniques to the struggle.
The strength of such moments is in their ability to inscribe themselves upon the bodies of newcomers to the cause, so that they forever carry with them the memory of an alternative social reality. In her book Protesting Like a Girl (2000), Wendy Parkins suggests that the body “opens us up to the world” but also that it “places us”. At the same time, bodily experience is often described as “pre-conceptual”, “pre-subjective” and “pre-structural.”
It’s important to hold onto this. Especially when the abiding fact is that the movement fell apart almost as quickly as it emerged: after the official parliamentary vote on December 9, 2010, brought the government’s policy into law, the energy left the movement. After the fall, mainstream discourse moved quickly to ensure the public forgot Millbank and the subsequent occupations had ever happened, not least by largely failing to draw any parallels with the riots that occurred across Britain the following year.
It was painful to see energy disintegrate, along with a doubling-down of austerity measures and a weakened resistance from other social groups. But amongst those who were there, when the subject comes up, the feeling remains that it was an unforgettable rupture. The afternoon on November 10, in particular, became suspended in memory, as a glitch that couldn’t be forgotten. Although there were divisions over how to conceive of it, that day produced the “we” of the movement, with Student Revolt (2017) — the oral history of the entire movement — naming its contributors “the Millbank Generation.” For many of those who gave testimony to Student Revolt, returning to the instant felt somewhat therapeutic. “No matter how fetishistic, you have to give space to Millbank.” These rememberings don’t produce many words. But people tend to sit up, stare straight, blink a lot and speak cautiously.
The moment still holds such gravity because it represented a complete departure from the normal order of things, for so many people, many of whom were getting politically active for the first time. It brought them into the fray, gave them the space to understand and articulate a collective anguish and exposed the provisional nature of the austerity reality that was being fed to them. The student, after all, is in a particular moment of transition. Poised to enter the world of work, they are transitioning from a primarily consumptive to a productive relationship with society. In this situation, they are able to test out what it means to enter into the labor market and explore their own political subjectivity.
And yet, it was the movement’s inability to realize this potential and to take things far beyond the realm of student politics that ensured its rapid disintegration. This is something often remarked about student protests. After observing the 1968 university occupations in Rome, Pier Paolo Pasolini himself addressed this dilemma in his infamous poem “Il PCI giovani” (“The Italian Communist Party to the Youth”). Seeing that these children of the middle class will at best only spark a generational conflict and will always be treated with relative leniency by the powers that be, he tells the students that if they really want to change things, they must take their radicalism into the places which these powers truly depend on, the workplace and the broader political sphere. Towards the end of the poem, he offers a phrase that still rings true: “Masters are made by occupying factories,
not universities.” ■