Students have always been a troublesome, pesky lot. Not just in the sense that many of us seem to drink as much booze as the average Red Army veteran, or that we regularly threaten to send the country into a spiralling economic and agricultural crisis due to the sheer level of our hot-chicken roll consumption, but because third level students have been one of the most persistent and active questioners of the political status quo in the world.
Since third level education stopped being simply the preserve of the very wealthy and attendance in colleges was normalised for middle and working class people across the Western world and beyond, student activism has been a hotbed of important, progressive and forward thinking political movements. From the protests of May 1968 in France to the anti-war movement in the US to the Tianamen Square protests in China, students have been at the forefront of some the most radical, dynamic and influential political movements in recent history.
Unfortunately, as the Tianamen protests should make obvious, the penalty for radical political action is not always a slap on the wrist, nor even as lenient as getting some handcuffs slapped on those wrists.
So we come to Mexico.
As I write this the mayor of the city of Iguala in Mexico is being pursued in connection with the disappearance of 43 student teachers in late September. The students were political radicals and had been staging critiques of the government corruption that mars so much of Mexico’s political activity. It is now suspected that local police conspired to hand these pesky young punks over to a vicious drug cartel that, it is assumed, killed the students.
The history of student protests is unfortunately the history of violence and injustice perpetrated against those students who reject “politics as usual”. Lest you think this kind of violence is solely the reserve of corrupt and authoritarian regimes, one only has to point to the likes of the United States’ Kent State shootings, where members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded and paralysed more in response to student protests against the carpet bombing of Cambodia.
Thankfully most western Governments now realise that pumping dissidents full of bullets isn’t the best way to quell descent. The modern way of keeping students out of politics is much more subtle. They make us feel powerless in the face of systemic corruption and injustice. They sustain themselves on our apathy and on our hopelessness; they shove us into unpaid internships and make us fight for every scrap from their table, undercutting both our time to protest and our natural sense of solidarity.
Solidarity, that’s it, that’s the key. The only way we young people can truly sympathise with Mexican or Chinese student activists is by achieving an awareness of ourselves as a distinct political class that politicians should fear. In the same way that “the Grey vote” often protects pensioners from the harshest effects of an economic downturn we must create a formidable “student vote”, an organised and conscious political force to defend our interests in a political arena.
What a disgrace it would be to shame those students standing up for their rights and beliefs across the world, facing down bullets with their bravery and soldiers with their solidarity, for us to simply give up. For us to forsake and devalue the rights that they fight tooth and nail for, by allowing ourselves to be overcome by apathy would be disrespectful to their memories.
So when you think of the piles of bodies and bones hidden deep within the hills of Iguala, mobile phones loaded under the sand and packed full of thoughts of freedom and hope and justice, think for a moment what we all might do to ensure the memories of those innocent, passionate students burns on and roots out our own injustice and corruption in their name.
In the boxing bout between ordinary people and the corrupt political elite, the student vote can either be a limp wrist or a killer right hook. The choice is ours.