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Bristol against austerity

Seven Bristol A-Level students called a demonstration against austerity that turned into one of the largest in the city’s history. Counterfire spoke to four of them about how and why they did it

Within days of the Conservatives’ scraping back into power, protests were taking place across the country. In Bristol, a group of seven A-Level students called a demonstration against austerity that, 72 hours later, turned into one of the largest in the city’s history. Over 4,000 people are estimated to have taken part.

Counterfire caught up with the organisers at the packed Bristol People’s Assembly meeting, where Megan Flaherty, Ellie Scull, Mollie Lewington and Rosie Simmons had been speaking to cheers from the 500-strong crowd.

Counterfire: How did you end up organising the demo?

Megan Flaherty: We were really angry and upset by the result. We were talking about it with friends. We were getting frustrated by the media blackout on the London protests. We were wondering what to do and thought, ‘why don’t we do our own?’ We had the idea simultaneously. Literally overnight a Facebook group was created. We met for the first time properly on the protest.

CF: Were you involved in politics beforehand?

Rosie Simmons: Not really. None of us had studied politics.

CF: Why were you so angry, then?

RS: It’s our future, isn’t it? Our future is getting ruined.

Mollie Lewington: I think I was most angry because of the effect on workingclass women. So things like £22bn out of £26bn of the Tories’ cuts came from women’s pockets. A lot of my politics is about women. I think they had to stop now or they would just decimate working-class women.

CF: Would that apply to the rest of you? Are you influenced by feminism, by the ideas of women’s liberation?

RS: Yes, definitely. We wanted to make this not just about that, but that’s an important part of it. Our involvement in politics previously has been through feminism.

CF: What have you been influenced by?

MF: I think it’s because austerity affects us so much, the more you read about it, the more you get dragged into it. I know I’m not going to be able to afford a house or a flat anywhere in the near future. That is distressing. Benefit cuts to my family are going to affect them hugely. My parents talk to me about it and I know how much they’re going to get affected by it. It’s everywhere, isn’t it? are key. Especially working with food banks. We’ve spoken about working with women’s shelters. But until then I think it’s exams.

Ellie Scull: I think a lot of my influence comes through the internet and social media. Online you’re surrounded by people who feel the same way as you. You follow people and you’re friends with people on Facebook, and you feel like you’re in a community that way.

ML: There’s a stigma around young people not following politics, but I think it’s the complete opposite. I think politics is everywhere. It’s all over Facebook, it’s all over Twitter, all the time.

CF: So you agreed online, and set up the Facebook group?

RS: We put up an event, invited all our friends, and then it spread all over Bristol. Where it shows you how many people have said they can come, it was ten or fifteen thousand.

MF: We just started by sharing it with our friends and our different circles.

RS: 72 hours isn’t a lot of time.

CF: And what are you planning next?

MF: Definitely the protests on 8 July. Those are key. Especially working with food banks. We’ve spoken about working with women’s shelters. But until then I think it’s exams.

RS: …and the protests on 20 June.

ML: We’re taking it step by step, we don’t know what’s going to arise or where this movement is going to go. We’ve only been a group for a week. It was meant to be a shell – we just set up the group so we didn’t have our identities online.

CF: But will it work?

RS: One of our main aims is to tackle the effects of austerity, anyone can do this – get involved with a foodbank, and be a really inclusive movement.

MF: You can shout about it as much as you like, but unless you actually help, nothing is going to be done.

CF: Isn’t that David Cameron and the Big Society?

MF: We’ve been asked this so many times!

RS: I don’t think David Cameron’s idea was to make people suffer a lot and then get other people to help them out. He hasn’t got that experience of what these people’s lives are actually like. His life experience is Eton and Oxford.

MF: Some people have claimed we have no life experience.

ES: “Silly little girls”. I had a woman say to me after I tweeted about the protest that I should get a job, all you students are going out playing whilst we pay our taxes, blah blah blah. But we’re studying for exams, so what do you expect us to do? This is our future.

CF: It’s similar with people saying they won the election, and saying you’re being undemocratic

MF: Yes, technically, they won the election. But they did not win by a real majority by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not what people want, it’s what a certain percentage of the population over the age of 18 want. Hannah, in our group, is 17 and she couldn’t even vote. It’s assumed that young people don’t understand politics and don’t want to get involved.

ML: It’s our democratic right to protest and to respond. I think a lot of the vote has been manipulated by the right-wing media. I think that’s undemocratic.

This article first appeared in Counterfire's new free paper. Contact us for copies to distribute in your area.

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