December 15, 2010

Remember the Peterloo Massacre!

Dallas Darling writes at World News (click the title of this post for the original):
"Schools are an important indicator of the well-being of a democratic society. They remind us of the civic values that must be passed on to young people in order for them to think critically, to participate in power relations and policy decisions that affect their lives, and to transform the racial, social, and economic inequities that limit democratic social relations." —Henry A. Giroux
A glorious revolution is unfolding in Britain. It is a revolution that consists of students demonstrating against university tuition hikes, and it is a revolution that just clashed with a royal procession. While a convoy of limousines and security vans were driving Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla to an expensive and illustrious dinner theater production, several students attacked the Rolls-Royce carrying the two royal highnesses. It was an unscripted moment in Britain's imperial mythology, and it was reminiscent of the Peterloo Massacre.

The Peterloo Massacre is a popular name for a catastrophic human disaster symptomatic of the unrest and repression in Britain immediately after the Napoleonic Wars. It also occurred during the height of the Industrial Revolution. At a time of massive unemployment, unabated recession, and high food prices, a demonstration was held in Manchester on St. Peter's Fields (where the Free Trade Hall now stands). It was also one of the first protests against corporatization, which was actually initiated long before the age of Thatcherism and Reaganomics.

Crowds of workers, which at this time included women and children, had gathered to demand reform of the English Parliament. Not only had the government supported legislation in allowing large landowners to seize properties from small farmers, forcing them to become either landless or tenant farmers, but the English Parliament also favored the banking industries and wealthy owners who operated the Mills of Manchester and vice versa. Working together, their goal was more profits at the expense of the working poor.

Around the Mills of Manchester that were built on stolen property, steam engines filled the air with pollution from coal-burning factories. As precious water was diverted and food became scarce because it was exported, the working poor and oppressed found themselves thirsty, hungry, and living in squalid tenements. Neither were there sanitary or building codes. While unemployment increased, whole families crowded into dark, dirty shelters. Sickness and epidemics were common.

Working conditions were horrendous. Wealthy factory and large land owners and their bosses and security details treated workers just like their machines, to be cast away when worn out or broken. The average worker spent 14 to 16 hours a day at the job, 6 days a week. Factories were not well-lit and were unclean. Boiler explosions, machinery accidents, and other work-related injuries were frequent, costing laborers hands, legs, arms, eyes, and sometimes their lives.

The Mills of Manchester themselves, though, were treated much like Buckingham Palace — a bygone symbol of absolute power and riches. Factories were given enormous sums of money for research, innovation, sanitation, roads, transportation, and were built on the choicest lands. Not only were factories subsidized by the sweat and blood of the working-classes, but so too were the kings Summer and Winter palaces, along with their entourages. Vital resources were literally taken from the mouth of children workers to feed these ravenous beasts and to support their frivolous and uncaring lifestyles.

When magistrates observed 60-80,000 peaceful and unarmed citizens and workers amassing on St. Peter's Field next to the Manchester Mills, they became alarmed. While the Industrial Revolution was accepted and worshiped, Workers Revolutions were not. The authorities overacted and ordered armed troops and cavalry to clear St. Peter's Field. It is estimated that 11 unarmed people were killed and 500 more injured, including women and children. The name Peterloo was a parody taken from the recent carnage at Waterloo when the British routed Napoleon's forces.

Therefore — and regarding protesting and demonstrating university students who attacked a symbol of lavish wealth, a limousine, carrying the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall as they drove through London's busy West End and as they were heading to another subsidized event and photo-op — it was uplifting to witness a kind of a reverse Peterloo. It was actually empowering to observe royalty and their security detail under pressure and in chaos, for a change, instead of the working poor and oppressed youth.

It was also courageous of the students to show restraint, especially after experiencing years of dehumanization, economic existence, and perpetual military interventions that are causing an empire to collapse. The real "thugs" are the financial bankers, chief executive officers, and prime ministers who supported unjust wars that were subsidized by the poor. The real "thugs" are highnesses that stood aloof and remained silent in the midst of banking and corporate corruption and rising economic disparity. These are the individuals that need to be investigated.

Those who support the corporatization of colleges and favor tripling tuition fees, like Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative-led government, are the real criminals too. The lapse in security was not committed on Thursday at London's West End, but the thousands of unregulated events and crimes that preceded and then allowed corporate profits and educational injustices to take priority over student development and learning. When students cannot learn in the classroom, they will seek their education elsewhere, namely in the streets.

When Prime Minister Cameron stated that those involved should be "arrested and severely punished," it was eerily similar to the Six Acts which were immediately passed after the Peterloo Massacre. The Six Acts were parliamentary laws aimed against potentially worker-centered progress, betterment, and empowerment. They were designed to suppress the rights of assemble and the rights of freedom of speech and press. Since education is also a fundamental and God-given right, by tripling tuition rates, is Prime Minister Cameron enacting the Six Acts?

Even more sinister, by criminalizing such mass protests is Prime Minister Cameron doing the bidding of a corporate culture that no longer views public education in terms of its civic function; but rather a commercial venture in which the only form of citizenship available for young people is consumerism, and where the free exchange and flow of ideas becomes another product to be bought and sold to the highest bidder?

Thankfully, these civic-minded students are resisting the corporatization of public and university education. They understand that free and equal access to learning is for the public good and the betterment of an innovative society. They are rejecting the corporate market place of monopolized ideas that only train people for low-paying jobs. Challenging the encroachment of corporate and royal power is essential if democracy is to remain a defining principle of education and everyday life.