by Sadie Robinson
Metropolitan police commissioner Paul Stephenson says that “any right-minded individual” will condemn yesterday’s student protests in central London.
He’s very wrong. Any right-minded individual will be furious at the government’s cuts, at the violent response of police towards protesters—and will be cheering anyone fighting back.
Students took over large parts of central London as police lost control for the third time in weeks. Police may have kettled people—but in reality they couldn’t control the students.
Thousands of protesters occupied Parliament Square. They weren’t meant to be there. Police wanted to keep them away from parliament and used horses and batons to push people back.
But they were powerless as thousands of young students charged through police horses and took the square. Police on horses swayed unsteadily as the surging crowd pushed them back. Demonstrators easily broke down the fences that surrounded the grass and occupied the area.
Students were determined to get as close to parliament as possible to make their furious opposition to the government heard—and they were successful.
Initially the crowd was determined and angry but also celebratory. It felt like a street party. Students chanted, “That’s not what democracy looks like—this is what democracy looks like” at parliament and “We’re young, we’re poor—we won’t pay any more!”
The smell of smoke filled the air as protesters let off flares. Music blared out and people lit fires to keep warm. Every few minutes came the sound of fireworks.
Students made heroic efforts to protect tents in the square as police with riot shields and batons forced them back. They were constantly checking on each other to make sure they were ok—apologising for standing on feet etc as police crushed people.
Then mounted police charged several yards into the crowd—and the mood changed dramatically.
Jessica from Strode’s College near Windsor was two rows back from the front when police charged. She told Socialist Worker, “The police were vicious. People were crying because they couldn’t breathe. There were people knocked to the floor—yet the police were still pushing forward.”
Another woman from Cambridge described how her friend, a student from Manchester University, had been taken to hospital with a broken collar bone following the police charge.
Her bag was splattered with blood—from the head wounds of other students.
Students fought back heroically. Despite the mindless brutality of the police, many protesters seemed fearless. The crowd passed metal fences over heads to the front, so that students could use them as barricades against the cops.
Some ripped up concrete, and used breeze blocks and placard sticks to defend themselves against police.
Police told students that they were free to leave whenever they liked—but they were lying. They told people to head to Whitehall where they would be allowed to leave the kettle. Students arrived only to be confronted with riot police and horses.
Some were scared as police rode into them on horses, but not scared enough to retreat for long. They persisted in challenging the police line, playing “Dancing in the Moonlight” on a sound system as fighting continued.
Students stayed in Parliament Square and in Whitehall as it got dark. Despite being surrounded by police, it felt like they were in control of the space. As one protester put it, “It feels like part of London belongs to us.”
Protesters clambered onto London Underground signs, climbed up traffic lights for better views of the police lines, and sat on the windowsills of the Treasury.
Students with a radio held a megaphone to it so protesters could hear the speaker of the house announce the disgraceful fees vote. Boos spread around the square. MPs voted to allow universities to raise fees to up to £9,000 a year but the vote was close—323 to 302.
A government majority of 80 fell to just 21—and although students were furious, they didn’t feel defeated. They know they have the coalition on the run.
“We tried peaceful protest and it hasn’t worked,” said one student. “Now we can do whatever we like.”
Students smashed windows of the Treasury building. A group of riot police moved in—only to find themselves surrounded by delighted students chanting, “Who’s kettling who?”
Police lashed out. They charged students with batons and shields. One student lay motionless on the floor as others gathered around, calling for a medic and putting him in the recovery position.
Police chose this moment to charge again—pushing students onto the injured protester and unleashing a furious response that forced them to retreat. They forced a woman protester to the ground and batoned her. It wasn’t the first time that someone said, “Someone’s going to be killed”.
Despite their fear, people still fought back.
Students used a piece of metal to batter through the doors of the Treasury and streamed in—to roars of support from the crowd. Others forced open windows from the outside and threw in fireworks.
They taunted police from the outside. When one cop launched a baton out of a Treasury window to hit a student, the student grabbed it and held it aloft, to huge cheers.
Later students targeted the Supreme Court. And yet more protesters outside Westminster smashed windows at Topshop on Oxford Street and surrounded a car containing prince Charles and Camilla.
A protester told Socialist Worker, “Half-way up Regent Street, the royal car came towards us with its outriders at the front. Hundreds of us stopped the car. Camilla put on a big smile for us to try and calm things down, but people just shouted “Off with their heads!” and started kicking the car and throwing paint.
“The car then drove through us and everyone charged up the road after them.
“Despite the press coverage of the incident, I haven’t met one person who has said it was a bad thing to do.”
Police, politicians and the right-wing media say these protests were “mindless”. But they were the opposite. Students targeted symbols of power and wealth because they are sick of living in a world where the rich get richer while everyone else suffers.
There was real class anger on the protests. As a group of students interviewed on BBC news said, “We’re from the slums of London. How can we afford £9,000 to go to university?”
And the students have won wider support. Their march to parliament had at least 17 trade union banners on it—including from the RMT, PCS, CWU, NUT, Unison, Unite and UCU unions—along with GMB and TSSA flags.
Many workers watching the march pass supported the students. “It’s their right to protest,” said Yilmaz, a street sweeper. “If I was a father, I’d be marching for my children.”
The fantastic student movement has shown the scale of anger at the government’s cuts assault. It has also exposed the vulnerability of the government.
The trade union movement now needs to throw its weight behind the student. It must defend students against police and media attacks, send support and solidarity to students fighting back—and take the spirit of resistance into workplaces up and down the country.