Equipped with youthful expectations and naïve optimism as they enter the real world, freshly printed diplomas and certificates still in hand, students today face the harsh reality of a society scrambling to fix its broken economy.
As the classroom door shuts behind them, bitter disillusionment is the first to greet them as they leave the safe confines of their schools and colleges. But how could these wide-eyed youths coordinate anything more than a block party? Student uprisings grow more common as the news of one appears to signal the outbreak of another, often thousands of miles away.
By Samantha Alzuria – What?! Online Contributer
Illustration – Caty M
Protests against unemployment, cuts, tuition fees and harsh reformative measures in the education system are becoming an increasingly familiar sight on our news stations and in our city streets. Just eight months ago, London played host to around 50,000 protesters as outrage over caps on tuition fees and limited grants for higher education boiled over. Jointly masterminded by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU), similar demonstrations also took place in other major UK cities.
In response to what was perceived as disruptive and confusing reform in universities across Europe under the proposed Bologna Process, students across the continent staged largely peaceful protests against the measures. The uproar, however, fell on deaf ears and students in cities like Barcelona and Madrid were met by heavy-handed local police.
History has proved that economic woes aren’t always the match that lights the fire. The first major student mobilisation in the last century took place in the United States, during the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Despite the outlawing of segregation in schools by the Supreme Court in the Brown v Board of Education case in 1954, intimidation and inequality remained as fervent as ever. Its failure to protect students and ensure the implementation of the new laws led to the formation of civil rights groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). Sit-ins and peaceful protests organised by the group and others were instrumental in achieving equality in schools across the USA.
American foreign policy in subsequent years provided students with another opportunity to prove their mettle. Mass opposition to the Vietnam War spread to college campuses, some of which led to violent clashes with police and the formation of groups like the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the Student Libertarian Movement and the Students for Democratic Society (SDS).
It has become apparent in recent months that the plague of social unrest isn’t limited to the East or the West and has spread indiscriminately across cultural divides and social classes. Today, violent demonstrations are taking place in major cities throughout Chile against right-wing education reforms, intensifying discontent towards President Sebastián Piñera and what has been described as “brutal repression” by riot police in response to the protests.
From sit-ins and surreal Chilean kiss-athons to riots and coups, students have adopted a variety of methods for voicing their disapproval – none more brutal and disturbing, however, than the act of self-immolation.
The practice itself dates back to ancient Indian traditions and can also be traced to remote 17th century Russian cults. Today, however, most of us associate the decision to set your own skin alight with one 26-year-old Tunisian street-vendor. Muhammad Bouazizi, was protesting the rising level of unemployment after suffering several run-ins with local police who confiscated the produce he sold to support his family. An estimated five thousand people attended his funeral and marched in solidarity with his plight while a 17-year-old student committed suicide in the same way in his principal’s office after being prohibited from attending the procession.
With aspirations of finishing high-school and attending university, Bouazizi’s story sparked a chain of events far greater than he himself could have imagined. His outcry became the catalyst for the wave of political unrest in Tunisia, which culminated in the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. This singular act set in motion what is now referred to as the Arab Spring: the series of pro-democratic uprisings in the Middle East that began in December 2010.
Copycat immolations have grown in sinister popularity in the region ever since. Immediately following Bouazizi’s protest, further cases were reported in Tunisia, Algeria and Saudi Arabia in January, and in Egypt the following month, instigating its own well-publicised revolution. The practice has since spread to Europe, with self-immolations reported in France and Italy.
The issue has generated concern over the lengths taken by young people in order to spark change. It has also led many to question the effectiveness of such extreme protests. Peaceful demonstrations may have worked fifty years ago in the fight against brutality on home soil and abroad, but its impact seems to have diminished today. The fact that an entire revolution can be traced to one man, on the other hand, suggests his tactics are indeed effective.