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21 January 2011

Kunzru’s complaints

Hari Kunzru finds alarming parallels between recent student protests in Britain and 1960s America.

By Lucian Robinson

In this week’s New Statesman the British novelist and critic Hari Kunzru has reviewed Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman by Cathy Wilkinson. The book is a highly personal account of the left wing Weatherman movement in America, as the author was heavily involved in it herself and it was in her father’s house in Manhattan that the now infamous town-house explosion occurred in 1970. Kunzru finds there are disturbing parallels between the febrile atmosphere of 1960s radical America and the student protests in present day Britain:

The present debate about kettling, the use of Forward Intelligence Teams, violent tactics and just plain thoughtless violence all had their equivalents in the militant scene of the 1960s. Contemporary organisers would do well to consult Wilkerson (and other veterans) if they wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Her account of the criminal COINTELPRO operations mounted against the American new left, which went as far as political assassination of Black Panthers and prison activists, should give pause to those who believe that the policing of protest (in contemporary America) is always scrupulously apolitical. The use of agents provocateurs and the provision of “bait” for angry crowds are not new.

Kunrzu was a vocal supporter of the December student protests against the rise in tuition fees in the UK. On the day of the parliamentary vote on the increase in university fees last month, the author of My Revolutions (a novel partially set in the highly factional, politically radical atmosphere of British universities in the 1960s) demonstrated his support for the protesters on twitter: “Sending solidarity to everyone charging around London trying to defend UK education.”

The novelist has also been campaigning against proposed cuts to library services across England. Kunzru commented on the proposed closure of libraries in a short, highly personal article: “I know that a public library is not the same as a book shop. It’s also not the same as the internet. The child choosing a book that, for a short time, will belong to him, is learning that knowledge is his, if he wants it. He’s learning that it’s a right. Libraries set people free. They’re not a luxury. They’re not a relic. We must fight to save them.”

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In November 2010 Kunzru caused controversy when giving the opening speech at the European Writers’ Parliament in Istanbul, by referring to Turkey’s highly questionable record on human rights and free speech.

Read Hari Kunzru’s full review in this week’s New Statesman.