The art of (peaceful) protest: Why some have to and others just don’t

By Sam Tomlin

Anti-forced-Academy march on Saturday 28th Jan in Haringey

Protest (in its many forms) has a very long history. Being a theologian, the oldest example I am aware of is when the people of Israel came to Samuel  and demanded a king because all the other nations had one and they did not (1 Sam. 8). I’m sure there are older examples than this, but throughout human history, people have chosen to take to the streets, to the places of power to get their point heard. The right of peaceful protest is one of the most important aspects of any society, but I’ve often thought it interesting that the demographic of those protesting is quite a telling reality in and of itself, a thought I will return to later.

On Saturday, I joined with over 500 other community activists, parents, children, union representatives and the staple socialist workers (who seem to have a sixth sense as to when and where a protest march is going on in the country – apparently they even used to boycott church peace marches in Haringey) to make our voices heard around the issue of forced academies in our borough.

Two primary schools, Downhills and Noel Park were given no option but to become Academies by the Secretary of State as explained by Dave Cohen in his recent blog. The reasons we marched are clear, I believe, for anyone to see: schools in Haringey receive on average £1,500 less per pupil than in neighbouring boroughs like Hackney. For these schools, that is the equivalent of £500,000 more for a year or an extra teacher in every classroom. Coupled with the fact that Ofsted frameworks have just changed, making it even more difficult for schools to pass, it is little wonder we, the local people, are angry that schools which were given good ratings in the previous years were suddenly failed and told they had no choice but to become Academies. On top of this the Academy chain which was originally chosen (by Mr Gove), the Kemnal Trust, has only run four primary Academies for one year, none of which are in diverse communities; they have no experience of running schools which are in Ofsted categories of ‘notice to improve’ or ‘special measures’, and are such a new provider that none of their schools have been subject to an Ofsted inspection while they have been in charge. Recently, the Kemnal Trust actually pulled out of becoming the sponsor either because they realised they did not have the experience to do this or because of the strength of feeling against. There is still confusion as to which Academy sponsor will be chosen.

But I think perhaps the greatest reason why people like myself (not even a parent at one of the schools) took to the street is that we are angry that for different reasons our voices are not being and will not be heard, and this, as I shall argue is fundamental to the point of protest. Firstly, Michael Gove is simply not listening to people’s opinions, ironic for a member of the party which is supposedly ‘for’ communities. Secondly, apart from the decision process, the move to Academy status means a move away from control by locally elected council members whom, we as local people, feel we can hold accountable, to a centrally run Academy chain perhaps based hundreds of miles away. It must be noted I am not entirely against the idea of Academies per se; I am critical, however, of the blanket application of an agenda to make all schools academies, especially where local people want to at least be involved in the decision making process.

As I looked around me on Saturday, I saw people who were not simply out to ‘bash’ the government, but people who really cared about their local community and wanted to have a stake in it, which they felt was being taken away from them and given to ‘big business’ or to more business-like ways of doing things. Why is it, then, that we never see people on the streets from the banks or the insurance companies or generally ‘big business’? It’s well documented that generally they support policies of de-regulation, lower taxes etc.  Is it perhaps because those policies have lobbying groups to do their ‘protesting’ for them? In America, for example, the Financial Services Roundtable lobbies anyone and everyone ‘important’ for the top 100 banks, credit card, insurance and financial service companies, and was generally accepted to be partly responsible for many of the banks and investment firms having credit ratings of AA or AAA just days before they needed to be bailed out by the tax payers. I will certainly accept that this isn’t an issue of Left v Right ideologies – the Tea Party movement in America underlines this (although I can’t think of many more examples of centre-right groups taking to the streets). It is an issue of the radical nature of a message and also the fact that one’s or a group’s voice is simply not being heard.

Long may peaceful protests continue, at least as long as the voice of those who can already help themselves is continually attached to the megaphones they buy.

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