POLITICAL SITUATIONS: AFTER RODNEY :- THE POLITICS OF STUDENT PROTEST IN JAMAICA

The publication and widespread distribution of the unofficial “Soope” and the student assemblies constituted in effect, counter-offensives against the Government’s own counter-offensive of the previous day. What the authorities had evidently not reckoned with was the resurgence of student morale and their ability to get printed matter into the hand of the public. It was not surprising therefore, that this would produce a new reaction from the Government. This became clear on Friday night when suddenly the police arid military sealed off five of the six entrances to the University, preventing all persons from entering or leaving on pain of gunfire. It is a reasonable speculation that the sudden tightening of the armed grip, considered by a number of professional opinions to be illegal, was designed not only to intimidate the University but also to stem the physical flow of published material from the campus. In any case, by Saturday the military pressure, had reached the point where, the Vice-Chancellor, who had not been seen during the whole affair, was subjected to the doubtless traumatic indignity of being prevented from leaving his own campus. The resulting tension gave rise to speculation that the Government was aiming at nothing less than physical occupation of the campus and a take-over of the University.

The military pressure gave to students, because they are physically resident on campus unlike the staff, a feeling of beleaguerment and an expectation of imminent physical intervention in the form of raids, if not outright occupation.

Whatever the design, the effect was to heighten the feeling of student solidarity and to give all students direct political education into the use of armed force to intimidate dissent which is not subversive.

To solidarity was added a feeling of self-righteousness when the Extra Mural Tutor in Law addressed the student assembly on Saturday afternoon on the legality of the actions of the students and the Government. The students had, up to this time, not questioned that their own march on Wednesday had been illegal and that the Government had acted within its authority. The address on Saturday turned the tables completely: that the march was illegal could be the subject of legal argument; and what seemed in any case clear was that the actions of the police in teargassing and batoning students, and that of the police and military in sealing off the campus, were both illegal and unconstitutional. Th effect on the students was electric, to the feeling that they had been slandered and physically intimidated was added the powerful conviction that the Government itself was acting in breach of the Law and the constitution. In many ways, this marked a turning point in student consciousness. At the same time, reports began to come back to the campus about the favourable reception to the unofficial “Scope” from various parts of the country.

The very success, of these new forms of student mobilisation set up the forces of reaction. And what was significant about the reaction which came on Sunday was that it came from within the University itself. The Minister of Home Affairs had banned all public meetings in the Corporate Area for a month. On Sunday morning another student assembly was planned. The Pro-Vice Chancellor raised the question of whether the student assemblies in Seacole were not illegal. The University’s official lawyers suggested that the meetings in Seacole could he constructed as public meetings, particularly if they wore addressed by non-University persons. The Extra Mural Tutor in Law had a different legal interpretation. The senior University officials preferred to accept the narrower interpretation, doubtless in the fear that the Government might seize on the meetings as an excuse to send in the armed forces.

The meeting proceeded in the afternoon as an official meeting of the Guild of Undergraduates and first heard an account from a member of the staff, on the recent student movement in Mexico. Most interesting for the students, to judge from their response, was the report on how the Mexican students had chosen to meet the physical repression of the Government by the moral struggle of informing workers and peasants of the social implications of their demonstrations.

Had the student leadership been sensitive to the mood of the rank and file, it would have recognised that the time was ripe to mobilise the students to form some real and direct links between the student body and the rest of the population.

Once again, however, the enthusiasm of the students, which had now reached fever pitch, was not constructively channelled, and the meeting degenerated into an acrimonious attempt to make one student retract his accusation that the Guild Council had voted for “social revolution” in Jamaica. A new unofficial student leadership began to emerge, the students began to point to the moral bankruptcy of the University Administration. Nonetheless they failed to transform their potential weight in decision-making into actual influence by institutionalising the student assembly and setting up machinery to carry out tasks which flowed from the consensus reached.