Protest is not the preserve of the young.

by Victoria Williams

We all know what a protester looks like. They are long-haired, middle class, vegan, university students who wear woolly jumpers and read the Guardian. Look at the comments on the Mail Online and you’ll discover that they are also “lentil munching yoghurt knitters”. And so they may be. And so what?

The stereotype has been around for decades, and, though irritating to serious political activists, it has generally been harmless enough. Until now. Now protest matters again, and so does our perception of those who participate in it. The problem with our commonly held view of activists is that, as with so many stereotypes, it is simply not correct. The faces we’ve seen at demonstrations in London and throughout the UK in the last few months have come from all backgrounds (and have sported a variety of fetching hair styles and fashionable alternatives to the knitted jumper). And while we can laugh off silly assertions about hair and fashion sense, the enduring belief that those engaging in political protest are all very young is more pernicious.

Take the student protests. Let’s start with the fact that we all call them the student protests. You don’t have to still be in full time education to oppose fees of 9K a year. Innumerable first hand reports tell of people of all ages and all walks of life getting involved in the demonstrations and marches. Yet to read the papers you’d think participation was strictly limited to those under 21. UK Uncut, similarly, is a successful grass roots activism group, with members of all ages from all over the country. In an action in Lewes, at a Boots store, four UK Uncut members aged 60, 70, 43 and 47 were arrested and taken into custody. Yet they are still reported as a youth movement, and pictures taken at UK Uncut actions are regularly captioned “students protesting”.

It’s easy to see why right wingers and their cronies in the tabloid press would want to paint the recent civil unrest as the work of a mob of unruly teenagers. It’s easy to dismiss someone’s opinion if you believe them to be an immature student with no experience of the real world, who will change their mind when they grow up a bit. The many middle-aged teachers who also took part in the fees protests aren’t quite so easy to write off, so instead they are left out of the reports. These tactics, beloved of the Mail, the Express and their ilk are laughably transparent, and, as such, less of a threat to the movement.

It becomes a bigger problem when the left starts doing it too. Liberals, from newspaper journalists to bloggers and activists themselves have all claimed recent unrest all over the world as a youth revolution. The Guardian, for example, far from being the only newspaper guilty of assuming all fees protesters were current students, took the idea a step further when it ran an editorial describing the occupation of Tahir Square and subsequent resignation of Hosni Mubarak as a victory for the “young people of Egypt”.

In truth, what has been inspirational about the protests in Egypt is how the whole country seemed to be unified in its aim to oust the corrupt leader. Photographs appeared daily in the press of the old standing to shoulder to shoulder with the young, Christians forming a protective ring around Muslims to shield them from stones thrown during their daily prayers. Unity is what it’s all about, and unity is what the left, as activists, as a force for change, is missing.

While liberals being at each others throats is hardly new, its current scale is remarkable. Laurie Penny, the activist and blogger, wrote a much-discussed article for Comment is Free, in which she dismissed offers from union leaders to co-ordinate actions with fees protesters to form a bigger protest against cuts, stating that change in Britain can only and will only be achieved by action from “young people”. This is muddled thinking. While the student movement, at the middle of which she has placed herself, has been successful in garnering column inches, it is naive to think that any number of university sit-ins could hope to be as effective as a wave of strikes. People will happily shout “solidarity!” when passing occupied campuses, then forget all about it and get on with their day. Suspend their rubbish collections, though, and they’ll be mobilised and taking to the streets faster than you can say “my old man’s a dustman”.

Penny also provoked a storm of protest on Twitter when, in response to questioning from a follower on her youth-only activism policy, she gave 30 as the upper age limit for participating in demonstrations (the resulting stream of comments from 29-year-old activists anxious about being able to see the promised revolution through to the end soon prompted her to back-peddle, saying age was merely “a state of mind”).  Our comparatively young cabinet of 50-somethings must be wondering what the point of it all is.

There are so many more people affected by the Tory-Lib Dem cuts whose voices have yet to be heard. Women of all ages have been hardest hit by both the cuts and the drop in employment rates.  While there has been a relatively high profile internet campaign from disabled groups about the cuts to disability living allowance, no one is out on the streets, protesting in their name.

Change hinges on more than just one small group of people, of one age range or one occupation.  The first battle has already been lost, the bill that could potentially triple tuition fees having been passed. To win the war, the anti-cuts movement needs to be a lot more inclusive and start accepting help wherever it can get it. The TUC-led “march for the alternative” planned for next month represents a good start, as does the equitability of UK Uncut‘s leaderless, anyone-can-start-an-action philosophy. Add to this some accurate reporting in the media and we might pull this off yet.

Victoria Williams is a freelance journalist.

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