An eye witness report from 9th December student demonstration against the increase in fees, abolition of EMA etc, by one of the people on the streets.
The overall feeling of the yesterday was anger. On both sides there was a palpable sense of gloves coming off. The crowd crackled with it throughout the day, partly built up by the excesses of the police, but most of the anger was aimed at the continual, and clear, betrayal of young people by the political class in the UK. And the London Metropolitan police appear to have reverted back to type where they use overwhelming force to control groups of people. Almost every interaction I saw, or had, with the police was brutal from my friend being punched in the face when he was walking away from the demonstration to the kids I saw being batoned at the front of various pushes.
This is a brief eye-witness account from the day. There’s not much analysis, nor does it give a particularly full picture. If you’re interested in other reports you might wanna read Ian Bone’s blog, the Whitechapel Anarchist Group’s blog, the Guardian newspaper’s report of the day or ‘The dub-step rebellion‘ on the BBC. There’s also the ‘Keep up the fight‘ leaflet that The Commune created before the demo that’s worth reading.
The day started predictably enough; I arrived late at ULU, on Malet Street, just as the demo was due to move off. At the front was a loose line of cops with a small number of stewards behind. As soon as the demo started to move it splintered with several hundred people keeping themselves out of whatever kettle the police were trying to set for them. The police seemed happy enough to let this happen, their main concern seemed to be keeping the main bloc flowing towards Trafalgar Square. Beyond staying out of the kettle the splinter group didn’t seem to have any plans, and so followed the main group in parallel, flowing down from Covent Garden into the north-east side of Trafalgar Square.
Trafalgar Square quickly gave way to Horseguard’s Parade and then Birdcage walk, with any other route blocked off by various lines of police. Their plan clearly seemed to be to funnel the group onto the eastern edge of Parliament Square and leave us there for the afternoon. People on the march had a different idea. At around 2pm a huge cry went up as fireworks got set off and people started pushing the police back on the northern edge of the square; soon after those of us on the eastern side started ripping up the barriers that have closed off Parliament square for the past few months. The crowd surged across the square towards Westminster Abbey, trying to get to St Stephen’s entrance of parliament. The momentum moved the crowd into a pushing competition with the police, with the ripped up fences being used as shields to try and force through the police lines. Kids threw firecrackers, water, batons and anything else to hand, but the police held their line.
In the centre of the square fires started, dub-step was turned on, and groups of people started to have a party. The demonstration relaxed a little – deciding that getting to parliament was clearly impossible – and people chilled out in the centre of the square. Around this time – 3.30pm – the police started allowing people out of the square in ones and twos. A smart tactic in many ways, as it atomised the demonstration across the Whitehall areas – meaning it would be completely impossible for the group in Parliament square to get anywhere near parliament itself, but a fatal one in other ways as it was this atomisation that allowed people to try and burn down the christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, attack the treasury building and Prince Charles’ car later on in the day.
Regardless, being one of the dispersed people I didn’t see anything that was happening in the Square over the next few hours. Disparate groups of people made various attempts to get back in to Parliament square, first from the top of Whitehall, then on Birdcage walk, and finally outside the QE2 centre where the police had arrayed three lines of horses and two lines of TSG. It seemed that most people were clock watching, waiting for the vote. There was still some belief amongst people in the crowd that the vote might be lost by the Tories; but if won by them though people expected the agitation to start all over again.
And start it did. Half an hour after the coalition won the vote 500 people ran up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square. Following them it became obvious that some of them wanted to replicate Athens and burn down the Christmas tree. For some reason – either they didn’t see, or didn’t care at that point – the few police around remained several hundred metres away. Fairly ineffectual fires were started, but after ten minutes or so fire started to lick the trunk of the tree, and jump into the branches. The police finally becoming aware of what was going on charged into the square dispersing everyone around the tree. From further down Whitehall we heard the rumours of the Treasury being attacked.
As the crowd ran from the cops a small group of people started chanting ‘Leicester Square’, and moving the few hundred people left up Charing Cross road towards the square. The only police that seemed aware that this group had split off were two members of the FIT team who tried to jog after it. The group swarmed up Regents Street pulling bins, recycling, grit silos and traffic signage into the road, and then they saw Prince Charles’ car. Being too far back I couldn’t see clearly what happened, other than a car was getting a kicking, it was only later that we learnt who was in it, and only walking past the Variety show on Argyll Street half an hour later that I got to see the smashed window and paint smattered end.
Driving up Regents Street the police were being hindered by roadworks and the fact they didn’t expect this to happen. But by this time the bulk of people had made it to Topshop on Oxford Street and started trying to destroy the windows with chants of ‘Pay your taxes’. The police arrived too late, and the group melted into the night, with the cops unable to decide who was a shopper and who a protestor. It’s a fact that bears remembering; most people look like they’re part of the black bloc when it’s cold in December.
As the demonstrators melted away the small group I was with wandered back to Trafalgar Square where we arrived just in time to see another small group of perhaps 50 was giving some of the TSG a run-around, it seemed that the cat and mouse game would last for a couple more hours at least, but by this point – having been on the streets for eight hours – I decided to call it a night and head home.
The day proved again that the police are very good at containing a solid group of people, but very bad at containing small groups of people who break off, or refuse to be kettled. But for most of the day – until the evening, and the small excursion towards Oxford Street – the police weren’t made to pay for this mistake. Clearly the focus of the day yesterday was purely on the Houses of Parliament, but it will be worth considering in future demos how other aspects of the state, and the corporations who are supporting them, can be held to account.