The bonding of the angry

St Andrews students greet Gordon Brown with 'righteous loudness'

Rent is a thorny issue at St Andrews - we have some of the very highest student accommodation prices in the country. Several years ago the University introduced year-on-year increases which have crippled many student budgets, with demand for even the cheapest accommodation skyrocketing and the most expensive accommodation — an 'eco-hotel' on the outskirts of town — left half-empty.

My hall last year was towards the lower-middle end of the price-range, despite being a beautiful Victorian building, once a hotel. My year was the last year of its life as a student residence — it was sold for a fortune in a high profile transaction to a developer who is busy converting it into luxury timeshare apartments for golfing visitors.

Meanwhile, much of that money has gone towards funding the building of an extension to those top-of-the-range student flats (they become a hotel over the summer). Economically very sound for the University, and perhaps, yes, a little ecologically sound as well—the apartments have won a Green Tourism Award — but certainly not the best deal for students.

I mention all this because a few days ago those new flats were officially opened by Gordon Brown, fulfilling a long-standing promise. We politically-interested students discovered the news only a week before — I saw it in the student newspaper that Sunday. I think my reaction was the reaction of many: What an opportunity!

At the beginning of this academic year Tony Blair visited St Andrews to host talks on the progress of peace in Northern Ireland then, as with the Brown visit, there was no doubt that we had to demonstrate about something. When so much of your life is spent expressing anger at government policy and bottling up a fury against the administration, the opportunity to let it all go in a public display of feeling is very much relished.

The decision this time was to use the visit as an opportunity to tackle the rents issue, both locally and nationally—protesting our own student accommodation prices and also a government housing policy causing a great deal of suffering for many. It was going to be a motley protest, though, with individuals wanting to seize the chance to express anger over militaristic foreign policy, Trident renewal, and, in my own case, greenwashing — the University's and the government's. I resented my University using its “eco-flats” to build up an image of sustainability when I know it falls far short of many people's expectations, and I resented Brown making the visit a trifling contribution to his own pale green branding.

Pulling a protest together in a week is no mean feat, and the group of students who organised it did an amazing job. They had to make banners and placards, organise a protesting space with the University and the police, and advertise the demonstration—that before any of the extra organising, such as alerting the media, could be done. In the end, a couple of dozen students showed up, which by St Andrews standards was a great success.

“Bombs fall! Rents rise! You've got to prioritise!” was our official chant, and that was what greeted a smiling Gordon as he stepped out from his (presumably hybrid) monster of a vehicle. He dashed into the reception of the flats before we could get a good yell in, though, and so we had to wait a full hour before getting another pop at him. Someone brought a Clarsach out to play peace music. Inside, some enterprising resident of the flats set off the reception's fire alarm, disrupting the proceeds and causing much hilarity among the protesters. By the time Gordon darted back to his car, we'd come up with a new chant: “Who bought all the nukes?” to the tune of a popular football anthem . . .

The event was a great first move for the newly-formed Lower Rents Now! Coalition, but for me it was also something more than that: it was an expression of frustration and a bonding together of the angry. It is always a wonderful thing to get together with like-minded angry people just to shout. Demonstration's not just a way of effecting change — it's also a show of solidarity and opportunity to get righteously loud in public.

It's a little bit risky and frowned-upon to admit that, I think. There's often a feeling amongst activists that we've always got to be working at our hardest for change, and that the image of demonstrators as a bunch of self-gratifying hippies has got to be avoided at all costs. There is a truth in that, but there's also a danger in being self-righteous — not least that the demands we place on ourselves lead to what's known as “activist burn-out” — the frighteningly high turnover rates in activist groups due to exhaustion and frustration.

I've been thinking a great deal about these issues recently, and the 'Brown-washing' demo had me thinking about it some more. Our elected student representative for accommodation issues, who is also a good friend of mine, made a speech to our rally—from the other side of the fence. He did commend our efforts, but to me it also sounded a little like he was claiming his own efforts — engaging with the University in productive conversation, rather than just shouting — were far more fruitful. And there's a truth in that, too, and I had to think about it. At first I just got angry with him — though he's a friend, we're very divided ideologically — but I've had time to settle and think about it some more.

There's a tendency amongst campaigners of both stripes to divide along exactly those lines—those who engage ('reformists', to put it crudely) versus those who demonstrate and use direct action ('revolutionaries'). But I'm seriously worried about dividing ourselves up so. It seems to me that I'm perfectly capable of having a productive conversation with those I'm in opposition to, as well as chanting footballing anthems as they escape. I don't have to be a different person in order to do that — in fact, if I had my way I'd wear the very same clothes. The tactics aren't in opposition, or even just complementary: they can all be part of the same battle-plan, fought by the same people. Dividing ourselves down the middle does our cause no great service.

To that end, what I'd like to have done would have been to have had a chat with Mr Brown — not as a student representative, and certainly not wearing a suit, but as an activist and demonstrator, explaining exactly why I'm in opposition, and why I'm so angry. I wonder if he understands why we were shouting.

I didn't get that chance. I did go into the reception area after he'd left to have a scout around, and made a move towards talking to some of the suits—all the usual University officials were there, as well as Sir Menzies Campbell, who happens to be our Chancellor. But the aghast looks with which my big black coat and silly hat were greeted as I entered intimidated me so much that I barely made an attempt. In fact, the only people with whom I could have a laugh with and a chat were the police who had previously been forcing our protest group to tow the line — they were queuing up to get perks in the form of the nibbles from the buffet. Just my side wanting a conversation clearly isn't enough.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear