No ifs, no buts; no education cuts
It was meant to be a noisy, but good-natured student protest against raising tuition fees.
Many had spent weeks organising and rallying for the planned November 10th London march. Subsidised coaches were booked and filled with students from all over the country, banners and posters were created, chants were scripted and rehearsed, and costumes were carefully prepared and fitted. Everyone was campaigning together to make Parliament hear the united student message, no ifs, no buts, no education cuts.
But after the 20,000 expected to attend escalated to over 50,000, and a small minority decided to take things into their own hands, all previous hard work became over-shadowed by the violent rampages that filled both the streets and the headlines.
Millbank, the Tory HQ was the prime target, and had to be evacuated as the angry mob smashed their way into the building. They destroyed windows, stole souvenirs and bombarded the roof where many threw objects including a fire extinguisher which narrowly missed a policeman- into the chanting crowd below.
Fires fuelled by the placards were further lit outside, flares were let off and graffiti displaying ˜Tory Pigs was scrawled all over the Millbank walls.
With 50 people eventually arrested in connection to the violence, and police today saying that the protester who threw the extinguisher should face an attempted murder charge, it seems that the message from the original peaceful demonstration has been forgotten, and many will be left disappointed.
Aaron Porter, the president of the National Union of Students agreed that his cause had lost a lot of public sympathy because of the violence, and that those who had caused criminal damage had undermined their argument.
David Cameron, who is currently in Seoul attending the G20 summit, condemned those responsible for hostilities, and confirmed that the government wouldn’t go back on plans to raise tuition fees as a result of it: Look, even if we wanted to, we shouldn’t go back to the idea that university is free, he finished.
The intricate splendour of a Big Ben bathed in the soft golden light of the clear November evening greeted us as we left Westminster underground station, evoking a sense of beauty and calm that belied the chaos unfolding beneath.
Walking past one student lying prostrate in the middle of the road, clutching a placard lambasting the Lord Brownes higher education reforms, we joined the crowds and proceeded towards the ill fated Millbank Tower. The crowd around us began to grow in number as we approached the Tory HQ while a palpable energy coursed through the hoards. From above the roar of the gathering, a chant of No ifs, no buts; no education cuts! took shape.
Entering the complex, we found ourselves surrounded by students from across the nation armed with an impressive array of placards and banners; some bearing profoundly worded slogans including down with this sort of thing and ANGRY SIGN, as well as more serious statements of protest, and even some expertly photoshopped pornographic images depicting Cameron and Clegg performing acts better left to the imagination.
Picking our way past drummers beating the crowds into an almost tribalistic dance, we pressed on; deep into the pulsing mob to where the atmosphere darkened appreciably: the shouts became louder, and the chants more malicious. Smoke from the burning mounds of signs rose into the cool evening air, mixing with various other smokes rising from some of the students.
Vicky attempted an interview with one amiable student representative, but the thickness of his accent and the roar of the crowds soon persuaded us to abort our efforts.
Missiles launched by the reckless behind us curved their way in high arcing trajectories over our heads, smashing down on unsuspecting demonstrators at the front.
From by our side, a husky voiced woman began shouting abuse at the lines of heavily armoured Military Police who were beginning to assemble along the tower’s shattered facade, with the passion and vocabulary of a Millwall fan; as yet another burning plank of wood sailed past us towards the besieged building.
As the police presence intensified and the last of the sun’s golden rays faded into a deep blue dusk, we followed the lead of the increasing numbers of battle weary students vacating the area a set off for home.
Getting off the tube at Westminster, I was almost disappointed to find things looking reasonably calm. After seeing the chaos of the student riots that had been erupting across the media, we were expecting to be greeted with an overwhelming spectacle.
Yet, initially, it seemed business was as usual.
However, the placards, face paints and crude slogans soon started to appear as we climbed the underground escalators. When they say cut back we say fight back! shouted one of the signs, THIS IS NOT A DEMOCRACY! screamed another. Clearly, the people were angry. It is just absolutely f*cking ridiculous one guy told me. University will once again be for the rich, whilst the poor and unemployed can just clean the streets, what a joke.
I’m not doing it for me, said Zoe Cleverly, a Bristol University student who had come across for the day with a coach load of her Bristol peers. It’s for my sister and her friends and my cousins and all the other people who will be affected. University is already TOO expensive how can they possibly justify raising the fees higher?
As we walked towards the beaten Millbank building, different sing-song chants could be picked up in the gradually thickening crowds, and costumes changed from a line of face paint, to the truly eccentric. The streets became a mardi gras of bear and tiger ensembles, all in one body-suits, an outfit made of money, and a giant pair of cardboard scissors simulating the cuts as the students rallied together and fought for their cause.
Yet, upon approaching Millbank, the more good-humoured were quickly left behind and the jokey costumes rapidly changed to masks and balaclavas: attire, it was clear, that wasnâ€™t just being worn to keep out the cold.
In fact, the angry spectacle illuminated by fires and riot police surrounding the Millbank entrance was quite shocking – even despite our previous media warnings. Voices on megaphones coaxed the enraged demonstrators, protesters on the roof waved and teased the crowds below, and sticks, stones and any other throw-able objects filled the air as they were hurled towards the entrance and blockading police.
â€œIâ€™m just so disappointedâ€ despaired Col Leech of Bournemouth University from the outskirts of the commotion. â€œWe had everyone down today and it was really nice earlier on, it was quite cheerful, everyone was having a good time. And now, unfortunately, a few had to ruin it for everyone. Iâ€™m just so disgusted.â€
â€œItâ€™s just not fair,â€ continued Emma Tunston, also a Bournemouth university student. â€œEven if youâ€™re angry at politicians – which is fair enough, weâ€™re all angry – but to smash up something which is going to have to be cleared up by someone who is probably working a low paid job, just trying to make money for their family is not fair.
â€œAnd it subtracts from the rest of us who have come here to say that the fee increases and the cuts are wrong. Weâ€™ve all stood there and shouted; weâ€™re all angry. But still, to come here and smash up private property I think is even more wrong.â€
The opinions regarding the violent uprising seemed to range from absolute loathing of the few that had ruined â€œwhat was a really good dayâ€, to a shrug of, â€œwell as long as it gets the message across and no-one gets hurt â€“ who cares?â€ (Notably, the latter comment came from a smug hooded young man holding a plant which he proudly exclaimed heâ€™d â€œnicked from the Millbank entranceâ€).
Amazingly, the whole sorry affair became quite entrancing to outsiders like Max and I. Drums kept a regular chanting beat, â€˜boom boxesâ€™ provided a festival-like quality, and flare guns lit up the increasing darkness. After a few hours we were ready to leave, but the â€˜celebrationsâ€™ looked to continue long into the night.
All in all, it was quite an incredible display of what a combination of determined young minds and extensive social networking can achieve. On the downside, it was also a reminder that there are always idiots prepared to take things too far, forget the law, and disgrace what was otherwise a commendably successful protest.
Hopefully the guilty will be punished, lessons will be learnt, and the peaceful protesters acknowledged as separate entities to their aggressive counterparts.â€