#nov9 – my protest diary

I write this without any particular political affiliation, but solely as a student who believes that education should be free. This is intended as an account of the mundanities of the day, and as a way for anyone who wasn’t there (but is interested) to put a face to the phenomenon and a personal spin on a story involving thousands.

The demonstration today was organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, and was attended by a huge number of students (I’ve heard estimates of up to 10,000). It focused on the recent rise in tuition fees, as well as the scrapping of the EMA, and the various other cuts to education and public services.

Our coach left Bristol at 7.30 in the morning, with around twenty UWE students on board. We arrived in London shortly after 11.00, and were dropped off outside the Tate Britain. After a brief discussion about where the central meeting point was and how we should get there, we began moving. We had only been walking for about fifteen minutes when we reached what appeared to be a police checkpoint (here). We were separated and questioned individually, before being told that we were going to be searched. Fortunately I didn’t have anything of note in my bag (although I did have a lighter, safety pins, and a screwdriver…) and so I was released fairly quickly. I discovered, though, that another member of our group was having less luck. They were, in the end, arrested for possession of an article deemed somehow inappropriate – a pen. Unfortunately, not a joke. Here‘s a pic I took 🙂

Spirits somewhat dampened, we continued towards the meeting point. Since we were running late I contacted the NUS LGBT representative who had given their details in a prior facebook message, and asked whether the demonstration had begun yet. I received a rapid and very helpful response, for which I’m grateful, and within minutes we had reached the head of the march. As it began, we attached ourselves to its front.

Progress was slow. The police line at the front of the march set the pace, and we continued in this fashion for a little while. As we passed Trafalgar Square, people began deviating from the proposed route and entering the square itself. We followed, and by the time we reached the base of Nelson’s Column tents had already been set up and protesters surrounded the area. Shortly after this, though, the main body of the march had been redirected away from the square. We waited in the area for half an hour or so, until the march had completely passed by. Nothing else seemed to be happening in the Trafalgar Square area, so we decided to move on. Before we headed after the rest of the demonstration, though, we had a look round. The police had blocked all rounds into and out of the Southern half of the square; using officers, horses, and vans. Having satisfied our curiosity, we continued after the rest of the march.

It didn’t take us long to catch up, but when we did we found that the dynamic had shifted considerably. The police had broken the demonstration up into smaller groups, each with mounted police at the front and riot police at the back. We spent a significant portion of time travelling in this manner. There were lines of police blocking every side road, standing behind railings and riot shields. The police wore helmets and balaclavas, which was honestly just a bit rude considering that they’d told us repeatedly that they’d be making full use of Section 60 to remove any masks and facial coverings worn by protesters.

Kettles began forming, but fortunately we were slightly ahead of our group and weren’t caught inside. Further waiting ensued, whilst we tried to discern if the group was being allowed to move. After a while we tried to move round to another side of the kettle, but the police lines there were just as strong. Instead, we decided to try and rejoin the main bulk of the protest.

When we rediscovered the main group, around Moorgate, I was unsurprised to find that they had been completely kettled. We spoke to some other stragglers outside the kettle and discovered that the march had been prevented from passing St. Pauls, despite the fact that it was clearly part of the agreed route. Unwilling to simply wait at the back, outside the kettle, we decided to head round to see if we could find the front of the demonstration again. We did, but it seemed that the crowd’s energy was pretty low.

It was getting late, so we began to head back to the coach. On the way, we stopped at St. Pauls to see the occupation. It was smaller than I’d imagined, but the crowd there was lively and interesting. We headed to Trafalgar Square before the coach as well, and saw the taxi drivers. They had also planned an action for today, and were blocking all of the roads towards the square. This action was unrelated to the students protests, and was in fact to do with a problem they had been having involving the council’s refusal to deal a legal dispute of their own. This was also the first time I’d ever seen a police lorry. I didn’t even know they existed.

We got back to the coach just in time, and managed a safe and speedy journey back to Bristol. All in all, I’d have to say that I’m glad I was there. The tone of the protest was very different to that of the protests I’d attended last year, most likely due to the sheer number of police. The entire route had been lined with police officers, often standing behind barricades. In many ways it wasn’t a march at all, but more of a moving kettle. The mounted police officers were nothing new, but the dog unit (pics here and here) was a bit of a shock, as was the checkpoint we encountered at the beginning of our day.

As is becoming common practice, we were treated rudely and roughly (and for what, daring to exercise our freedom?). The entire atmosphere generated by the police before and during the demonstration was one of intimidation, from the threats we received about the authorisation of the use of rubber bullets, and the letters sent to the people’s homes warning them away from the protest and threatening them with arrest if they were caught attending, to the indiscriminate arrests and disproportionate police presence. A legitimate protest became an exercise in crowd control.

It is during times like these, however, that the preservation of the right to protest seems to become the most important. Bring on November 30th!

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    • Mary
    • November 10th, 2011

    Brilliant – very focussed writing for the first 90% then you totally like got home and stuff… This is a really interesting account of the day. Thanks

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