Two minutes before the hour, and only a handful of friends had turned up. The student organisers looked at each other in dismay. Would their protest, pulled together in secrecy and haste, prove a flop? Then came a loud babble from inside the college. Boys and girls were flooding down the stairs towards the entrance. Many were jumping the turnstile. As they ran outside, teenage excitement – among the purest there is – filled the late-autumn sky. On an otherwise quiet Friday hundreds of students had defied their principal, charged out of lessons and massed outside their own college to make a little local history.
What brought so many out that morning on 17 November at Luton Sixth Form College, in Bedfordshire, was a jpeg passed from phone to phone. “School strike for Palestine” was the title, and it ended: “Over 10,000 Palestinians have been brutally massacred. It is time we stand on the right side of history and fight like hell for those who are still alive.” The entire rally ran off one low-res image, that simple sentiment and a borrowed mic, which didn’t always work. In the three weeks since that walkout, the student revolt has grown in size and scope so that it is now one of the most interesting and telling stories about how a war 2,500 miles away is reshaping politics and society here.
I have been following this particular story for weeks, and in all that time it has not been reported in any other big newspaper. Indeed, one of the most striking things about this season of demos is how incurious the press and politicians are about the crowds outside their windows. Why investigate, when you can pass judgment from a beautifully soundproofed podcast studio? So we hear that the hundreds of thousands protesting against an epic bloodbath are “hate marchers” or that, however peaceful, they chant the wrong phrases and shout rude things at Labour MPs. And if those epithets don’t work, there’s the lines about how these protesters are extremist dinosaurs: behold the greying Trotosaurus and the bearded Mullahraptor!
Well, sometimes the biggest favour a journalist can do their readers is to step outside, hold up a palm and report back that, yes, it really is raining. So in that spirit let me make two rare but simple observations. The first is that for many people under 25 – whether brown or black or white – the daily pulverisation of Gaza is the totemic international issue of their time, just as the Iraq war was 20 years ago or apartheid in South Africa was for me as a kid.
As an extensive study this week from pollsters More In Common puts it, more than any other demographic, “young people feel forced to pick a side”. Just as I didn’t really understand sanctions but would never touch Cape granny smiths, so young people overwhelmingly support Palestine. For the leaders and commentators of tomorrow, the past two months since the horrors of 7 October have been formative.
Yet because the political and media establishment in Britain and across much of the west (but nowhere else) supports one side in what is already the most one-sided conflict of modern times, dissenters have been treated as monsters – guilty of sympathising with Hamas until proven innocent. Now, do the political arithmetic by adding up those two elements, and what is the result? That the UK’s young people are learning that the system is stacked against them.
Which takes us back to Luton. In an open letter, college managers claimed the walkout was “part of a national campaign” corralled by Stop the War (can you hear the roar of the Trotosaur?). When I asked for evidence of Stop the War’s involvement, the principal, Altaf Hussain, admitted he had none.
Days after the walkout, college managers dissolved the student council, and its members found they could no longer access their emails. Then an organisation called Shout Out UK tweeted that it was going “to run a series of lessons on media literacy @LutonSixthForm with the aim to prevent radicalisation and extremism”. On its website, Shout Out UK boasts about its links with the Home Office’s Prevent programme, which is aimed mainly at tackling Islamic radicalisation. I should say that I watched most of the speeches filmed on phones and saw no hate speech.
A week or so before all this, these same students had sat through a presentation on British values. The key thing they’d learned was how much this country prizes free speech. The principal tweets a lot about how he wants the next prime minister to come from his college. I have no doubt that if these kids went on strike over climate change, he would applaud them to high heaven and they would get on the teatime news. But heaven forbid that they should choose their own causes and their own slogans.
To me, the college claimed Shout Out UK would focus on how students can “stay safe online”, but after I submitted my questions to college managers they decided the organisation should not deliver them after all. Meanwhile, the students have, in an open letter and elsewhere, demanded lessons to help them learn the context of the current horror in Gaza (imagine that, teenagers demanding extra lessons) and a fundraiser for aid for Palestinians. The one notable success they’ve had is in forcing the college to suspend its links with the local branch of a giant arms manufacturer, Leonardo.
As for the town in which this is playing out, a recent Oftsed report on the college sums it up: “Luton has areas that are among the UK’s most deprived, with high levels of unemployment significantly above the national rate … Most students are from minority ethnic groups and reside in the most deprived areas of Luton.” One organiser, 16-year-old Aisha Naushahi Hasan, told me about the damp and mould in her family’s rented house and how it aggravates her younger sister’s asthma.
Not far from her home, we walked through a suburb called Bury Park, with its rows of small, dilapidated workers’ terraces in a town where the big employers left long ago. Newspapers call Luton a “crap town” and sneer about its sons Tommy Robinson and Andrew Tate. To my eyes, it had a lot more life than the airless streets of gentrified London. We talked about the poems she writes and how she wants to study at Oxford, and I wondered where she gets the space to do her homework and the room to grow her ambitions.
However ardently Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer support Israel, Bury Park disagrees. All around us were Palestinian flags, in the burger and souvlaki shops and in the retailers of jewellery and bridal wear. And in the window of one furniture store I saw a foretaste of what happens when representative politics doesn’t bother to represent the public. It was a leaflet call on “the professional armies of the Muslim countries” to intervene, and it had been published by Hizb ut-Tahrir. Leave a vacuum and something nasty will fill it.
Against that, you have the teens of Luton Sixth Form College. They’ve seen the hypocrisy of schools that give them updates from Ukraine and say nothing about Gaza. They’ve gone through the gamut of worries about their families and their references. And they’ve made a stand. Their parents would have been far too worried about Prevent turning up at their door; their grandparents would have been fearful of the National Front. But this lot, they’re braver and more cogent than many in the generations above. Now all they need to do is get a working mic.
• This article was amended on 8 December 2023. An earlier version had misdescribed the wording of the leaflet published by Hizb ut-Tahrir that had been seen in the window of a Bury Park furniture store.
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist