When Britain’s new wave of student protest began with a massive demonstration in London three weeks ago, the president of the country’s National Union of Students should have been flying high. The NUS had called the November 10 march, whose participation wildly exceeded their expectations.
But when a large group of students broke off from the main march route to storm the national headquarters of Britain’s governing Conservative Party, NUS president Aaron Porter was caught flat-footed. As protesters smashed windows and clashed with police, Porter scrambled to distance himself from their actions. Even as live television cameras showed thousands of students on the scene at the party HQ, Porter took to the television to describe them as an insignificant and counter-productive splinter group. On Twitter he referred to the group as “a minority of idiots.”
In The Guardian the next day, Porter went further, claiming that those who had stormed the Conservative Party building were most likely “not even students,” and that their “indefensible” and “mindless” actions had the goal of “undermining” the larger protest.
In reality, though a few acts of violence against persons had been committed at the party HQ, the group of activists who were present there was a large and diverse one. The vast majority of them did not intend or cause any harm to other individuals, and indeed the group on more than one occasion acted collectively to restrain or shame those who did — chanting “stop throwing shit,” for instance, when a handful of protesters on the roof began lobbing things at the police below.
Porter’s comments were widely criticized by student activists, putting him in an awkward relationship to the growing movement. When students marched again throughout Britain last Wednesday, Porter neither participated nor endorsed the action.
Over the weekend, as occupations at British universities grew, Porter found himself a target of the protesters himself, as they called on him to support the new wave of action or step down.
And in a Sunday appearance at a student occupation at University College London, he took the former course, declaring himself in solidarity with the protests — while apologizing for his, and his organization’s, past inaction:
For too long NUS has perhaps been too cautious and spineless about being committed to supporting this kind of student activism … I’ve spent too long over the last few days doing the same. Wherever there is non-violent student supported action, NUS should and NUS will absolutely support that, because what we are facing is utterly disgraceful and I am not going to allow an internal civil war between students as that is what our opponents would want.
There is another national day of student action planned for tomorrow, and in a blog post this morning, Porter encouraged the broadest possible participation in those protests.