December 9th 2010 saw the UK parliament pass into legislation the right for universities to charge up to £9,000 per annum tuition fees for undergraduate courses. It also witnessed another day of student and staff protest in London and elsewhere, with an estimated 30,000 demonstrators. Again the vast majority of protest was entirely peaceful, intelligent, and inspiring. [Martin McQuillan, The English Intifada and the Humanities Last Stand]Members of the DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES Facebook group joined last Thursday's protest in London against the rise in tuition fees, stage one of the coalition government's move to 'fully marketise'/privatise the English higher education system.
Below is a moving account of the protest by one of our group's members. Further eloquent accounts can be found here at the letters' page of The Guardian. And you can also view philosopher Nina Power's photographs of last Thursday's protest here.
This entry is particularly dedicated to Alfie Meadows, a Philosophy student at Middlesex University, studying in a department that has already been condemned by cuts. The UK Police watchdog (Independent Police Complaints Commission) is currently investigating Thursday's events after 20-year-old Alfie was left with bleeding on the brain by a police truncheon. There's a video about what happened to him here.
Alfie, we salute you, and other protestors, for your courage in placing yourself on the frontline of the democratic, lawful defence, that day, against the attacks on our education system and rights. We wish you a speedy recovery. There will be a peaceful protest about what happened to Alfie in London tomorrow.
What Happened on Thursday
On Thursday I went to demonstrate against the proposed increase of tuition fees, the abolition of EMA [the Education Maintenance Allowance] and massive cuts to higher education. I ended up being held against my will, firstly in Parliament Square and then on Westminster Bridge. Other people had worse experiences than mine, I was not hit by the police or charged at by horses but I regard what happened to us as a form of police violence. What follows is my account of the day.
So where to start? I could start at ULU at 12 when we arrive at the demonstration. It’s noisy and big and heartening. My friend Hannah, who is not famed for punctuality, wants us to get there in time to hear Jarvis Cocker speak at the rally. I don’t know if he did or not, we could hear some voices in the distance that sounded amplified but it could’ve been anyone. Maybe I should start at Westminster, because that’s the bit you want to know about but the bit between ULU and Westminster is a happy, lovely protest and should be mentioned. The sun is shining and the people are in good voice. The SOAS salsa band provides a rhythm. We go past loads of riot police at Waterloo bridge, all wearing their cheery blue baseball caps, as if to say ‘yeah, we’re fun kind of guys…’, clad in exoskeleton, helmets in hand. We don’t go down Whitehall but round the back past St James Park. Then we’re there at Westminster. A crowd gather round the SOAS band and have a dance. I break off and go to a café on Whitehall to get a coffee and use the toilet. Not much to report.
I bump into my friends Andy and Sara. The mood is still good, a few daft young lads are walking about, posturing with their bits of balsa wood from the placards, but come on, balsa wood… Shortly after this, someone throws a burning bottle in the direction of the police. He is restrained by demonstrators. The police appear to be sealing off the exits and we start to think about leaving. This is the first part of how being kettled effects you, the thought of not being allowed to leave makes you want to leave. We edge over to the exit by the treasury. ‘Can we leave?’ I ask the female police officer in riot gear. ‘There is a full containment’. ‘Oh ok’. We’re stuck.
Time passes. A load of people with a sound system walk towards the treasury, it looks like it might kick off so we walk away. Two lads stripped to the waist get on people’s shoulders and… it’s a dance off. ‘I can’t believe we just ran away from a dance off’ says Sara. This goes on for a while. At this point it is like being trapped in a really shit festival. People are lighting fires to keep warm and you get that festival smell of burning plastic. My feet are cold. There’s a scuffle at the treasury, some of the dancers are climbing up the walls and we hear the sound of breaking glass. We find what seems like a safe place, a slightly raised island with a big tree on it and a statue. I figure we can’t get charged by horses on here so it seems like a good base. Also on our island are what look like Further Education students, they look freezing and are huddled round a quite pathetic little fire. I go and ask the police near us, who are guarding a street called ‘Little Sanctuary’ (oh the irony!), if we can leave. The police officer says ‘You have been free to leave all along. You can get out at Whitehall’. We do not trust this information but reckon it’s worth a try so we walk over in that direction. A very helpful man in a ‘domestic terrorist’ t-shirt tells us that they have closed Whitehall again. I don’t much fancy the look of what is going on up there, it looks crowded and potentially dangerous. My instinct is that we are better off on our island. Getting home is important, staying safe, more so. We retreat to our little hill. Maybe time for another biscuit.
Then we see the police charging on the crowd for the first time, coming from Whitehall. People are running and shouting and there is some kind of clash at the treasury. We watch from afar but things have changed now, no more shit festival. On parliament green we see a big fire, I don’t know what’s burning but it’s made of plastic. The smoke obscures the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben chimes. It’s all gone a bit heavy metal. More time passes, we eat some of Andy’s wine gum sours. In an outbreak of mass conformation to national stereotype a long orderly queue is forming up to one of the riot police lines. We can see from our vantage point that no one is getting out of there. And we decide that no way are we queuing. Eventually the queue dissolves.
Then people start to move from the treasury nearer to us. A few windows are being smashed in the building we are facing. Maybe it’s time to leave the island. We walk over to the green. Another group of people are huddled around a fire. A riot police officer is talking to them and then comes over to us, visor up ‘Do you want to go home ladies?’ (in a chirpy Yorkshire accent) ‘so do we, just move to that corner there and you can get out.’ Another part of the process, the proverbial ‘good cop’. We walk over to the corner. Again the animal instinct to keep to the high ground is kicking in and Hannah, Andy, Sara and I stay on the wall of the green. Our other pals get further through the crowd and that’s the last we see of them. People are squashing into this corner and no one is getting out. Then someone shouts ‘Is anyone under 16?’ Maybe they have decided that 5 1/2 hours is the appropriate time to keep children penned in, in the freezing cold? A few kids make it to the front and are pulled out. The rest of us wait. At this point there is no agitation, no violence, and no signs of any cameras. The press van has long left the square. The police are forming two lines on the road that goes from parliament to Westminster Bridge. Because we are up high, we keep feeding the information down to the other people. Andy reckons that the police will make us past their lines while they pull out people they think they recognise. It’s happened to him before. It looks like we are getting out.
The police draw back their line slightly and I step down off my wall. I’m a bit squashed, claustrophobic and frightened so I look up at the night sky. The people next to me are singing in Spanish. One girl is having a panic attack and everyone makes way so she can go back to the green. We chat to some of the young people around us. Two lads debate whether to go home before they go out ‘But I’m wearing a Nick Clegg, Dick Head t-shirt, mate. I can’t go out in this!’ You see, we still think we’re going home soon. One woman starts to shout ‘let us out’. ‘This is how it works’, says Andy, ‘now everyone is thinking ‘shut up, we want to go home’ you are, aren’t you? I am’. He is absolutely right, but that’s how it gets to you. Every now and again people shout ‘let us out, let us out’. I’m not sure how long we are held in this spot, time has gone weird. And then some real movement. We are indeed directed through the police lined street. I think we’re out and it’s like the demo has started again ‘No ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ and the chant ‘We’ll be back. We’ll be back’ loud and clear. What I am thinking in my head as I walk hand-in-hand with Hannah past the riot police is ‘shame, shame on you’. But I don’t shout because I’m cold and frightened. I try and look as many as I can in the eye. One guy with a megaphone (American accent) is saying to the police ‘Can I say, you all look FABULOUS, I just LOVE what you’re doing with those visors right now.’
It looks like they’re letting us go over Westminster Bridge. But then it stops. I talk to an ex-student of mine who has been pushed to the ground twice today in the police charges. There is a police line in front that isn’t moving. This is not good, I think. We are on a bridge over a massive river. Picture Westminster Bridge, if you know it, the barriers on the sides are fairly low. If it kicks off on here, I think, someone is going in the river. The police are also behind us. Keep in mind all these police are in full riot gear. Their faces are mostly covered. They are wearing helmets and they have big round plastic shields in front of them. But there is no conflict. The odd outburst of ‘let us out, let us out’. Some protesters start doing the hokey cokey to keep warm and then the Macarena. Then they go and do the dances for the police. There are now three lines of police backlit by the lights of their vans and the houses of parliament and a load of peaceful protestors some of whom are doing the hokey cokey. A bizarre scene.
I am worried about the vans. Maybe they will put us all in the vans. Surely that’s illegal? But surely this is illegal? The rules seem to have left the building. I see a friend who is working as a legal observer. She has seen a girl with a bald patch at the front of her head where the police have pulled her by the hair. She has also seen people getting beaten up at the treasury. She thinks we may be here for some time.
Two hours later, they start to let people off the bridge. They funnel us through another police line and we are let out one at a time. You have to walk in single file through a corridor of police in riot gear. One of them shines a bright light in my face and asks me to remove my hat. They are filming us. It is at this point that I get upset. I think to myself ‘do not show them any weakness’ but I have to admit, I am a bit teary. Me and Hannah walk past about 100 metres of solid riot police and then another 50m of normal police. We find Sara and Andy and cross the Hungerford Bridge, full of normal people, doing normal things unaware of what has just happened.
We were kettled for 8 hours. What will stay with me is the sight of those backlit police lines on the bridge and the sound of the song ‘if you think this is illegal, clap your hands’.