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Who's afraid of the dark?

On a cold and gloomy winter night in Canterbury, a group of 50 students from Christchurch College and the University of Kent marched for their right to 'reclaim the night'. The cause? To raise awareness about local safety issues and to campaign for better street lighting. The purpose of the lighting? To expose all the dark areas where the potential muggers and rapists like to hang out, and to allow us to reclaim 'our right to walk free from fear'.

Marching down the well-lit footpath of Eliot College, through Canterbury city centre and finishing at Christchurch College, the group carried candles and banners demanding 'our right to the night' and stating that without better lighting we are all at risk from attack.

As the group gathered, leaflets were handed to each participant. These included safety warnings: 'Please walk no more than three abreast', 'Remain on the pavement', and 'Caution!! Candles can be hot. Anyone carrying a candle does so at their own risk'. Stewards watched with despair as greedy, careless students took banners and candles. 'No!' they chastised. 'Can't you see how dangerous it is to carry the two things at once?'

Bearing in mind that the participants were all over the age of 18 and supposedly intelligent enough to be at university, you would think our treatment as four-year olds would rankle, but no. Now it seems that some students appreciate this kind of guidance; it stops us from having to think for ourselves, after all. And it's true that candles can be hot.

With police escort, stewards and those students who could nervously clutching their mobile phones, we left the university. Every few minutes the procession was stopped in order to allow the police to direct us across the road: even on a housing estate where the only thing moving was a startled cat.

Eventually the procession reached its destination: the further education college, Christchurch. Eddie from Christchurch Union welcomed us all and told us why reclaiming the night was so important. One third of the population of Canterbury consists of students; old people and young children make up another third. The march had been in aid of protecting the old, the very young and students from the dark.

To suggest that somehow students aged around 20 should be equated with children the age of four is disturbing enough. To say that they should also be identified with those aged around 70 portrays a picture of students as simultaneously too immature to handle their own affairs, and too frail to do so on their own.

Yet the students are doing little to dispel this image. The only campaigns that seem to exist on campus are negative ones for more safety and fewer freedoms, seeking to regulate personal behaviour from drinking and dancing to sex and smoking, demanding to be protected from the big scary real world outside. As one first year man said to me, 'The problem is students. There has to be some sort of open consensus that they will be more responsible and think more for their fellow students, that they will drink less and look after each other'.

Foolishly, it seems, I trust my fellow students and I don't consider them to be a problem. I have more of a problem with the presentation of students as weak and babyish, in need of protection from childhood fears.

If today's young adults are supposedly afraid of the dark, what does the future hold? Will we all be issued with night lights (no open flames of course) and babysitters, and made to stay in after dark, drinking cocoa and playing Scrabble? Roll on the real world, for this one scares me, and no, I don't want you to walk me home.

Ellen Raphael is a student at the University of Kent

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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