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As Wednesday afternoon wore on the protest in London wound up a gear, resulting in vandalism and violence some feel was necessary to make a point.
The remnants of the NUS organised anti-fees march wound its way past Parliament and along the Thames towards Millbank Tower, the building which houses offices belonging to the Conservative Party. Several Lancaster students, including representatives of Lancaster’s student media, followed the procession of students towards the building.
“When they say it was a minority, it wasn’t, it looked like everybody was going in there”, said one student who was among the first group to get to Millbank. He holds that it was a natural extension of the march, both in mood and in numbers. “We danced around the fires a bit. There were four police. We got to the front of the building and I was asking people what the building was, because I didn’t know.”
The fact that it was not a minority was backed up by another student, who said “there were as many people in that courtyard as there could have been in that courtyard, there could not have been more people, it was jam-packed.”
Throughout the course of the afternoon the under-defended building had several windows smashed clean away. Students occupied the roof, waving banners, while a few threw newspapers and sprayed fire extinguishers from the building. At one point an empty extinguisher was thrown from the roof of the building, the crowd immediately responding with chants of “stop throwing shit, stop throwing shit”.
While the rest of the day’s demonstration was labelled as peaceful by the national media in comparison to the events at Millbank, it does seem that even that began as a peaceful style of protest. The courtyard, while noisy and crammed, appeared no more so than the hemmed in march that had taken place over the previous few hours.
Several students take issue with the labelling of the protest as a riot, with one reasoning that “members of the public weren’t attacked, cars weren’t set on fire, there wasn’t widespread looting.”
The violence and vandalism came from a militant few, believes one student. “These lads came with some sort of metal frame, metal ladder, I don’t know what it was, and they ran at the glass doors.” He described the minority of vandals, saying: “All the people kicking windows were wearing balaclavas [over their faces].”
At this point violence was averted, he believes, as the very few police officers present, “with thousands of people there, just walked off – and to be fair they were actually helping people over the broken glass.”
The crowd then surged towards and into the building. “When they found the stairs people just ran at them – I didn’t particularly want to go into the building, I was happy in the lobby”, said one student. However, as the group ascended the stairs, it became clear to him that it wasn’t just benevolent, if angered, students present. “There were two guys on the door [to the roof] who wore balaclavas, they were helping people up the stairs and they were really organising people.”
According to the student who had made his way to the roof, the organised balaclava wearing few were with the person responsible for throwing the fire extinguisher from the roof. He was hesitant in describing them; “They were… you could tell they were a bit mental.”
The small crowd on the roof were, according to the student, still in the high spirits seen in the actual march. He described his actions as typical of those on the roof’- “I leant over the roof and gave a wave”.
“The riot police arrived, jogging through the crowd below- that was when 30-40 people on the roof were like ‘we’ve got to go’.”
A student who had been on the roof and had headed back to the courtyard when the riot police arrived described the moment that the masses of peaceful demonstrators turned on the police. He believes it was the police response that turned the crowd against them.
“Eventually the police forced everyone out of the lobby, using… using brutality, if I’m honest.” He said that the police struck several times with batons and shields at the jovial crowd. “I got blood on my hoodie, from two girls who had to be carried out, and that was when the crowd got very, very angry and that was when the missiles came flying in.”
The crowd, having become physically forceful, began to amplify the casualties. “People started pushing – everyone at the front was shouting ‘don’t push’, people at the back were shouting ‘push’, and we ended up on the receiving end.”
There was a general mood among students that direct action like occupying the building or staging a sit in was the only effective method of protest. While the violence and the use of a fire extinguisher as a missile was deemed unnecessary and out of hand by most, many believe an uneventful march from one destination to another just wouldn’t have been noticed.
The student who had gotten onto the roof said that if it had been just a peaceful march “I don’t think it would have been as effective, it wouldn’t be in the news today, people in China wouldn’t be asking David Cameron about it.” He did, however, say that it didn’t have to be violent- “even if we’d just gone into the courtyard and set some fires up, that might have been enough. Something needed to be done.”