Student protest ‘hijacked’ by violence
Hundreds of Warwick students joined as many as 50,000 others from around the country last Wednesday to protest in London against education cuts and fee rises. Warwick Students’ Union took around 350 students to the demonstration, and it is believed dozens more made their own way there.
The protest turned violent when a group separated from the main protest and targeted the Conservative Party Headquarters at 30 Millbank. Violence escalated throughout the afternoon as students burnt signs and banners, smashed through windows and police officers were pelted with food and sticks.
Some protesters eventually managed to force their way through the police barrier into the building, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. They stormed past police, climbed up to the roof and threw objects including a fire extinguisher into the crowd below. Students sported flaming signs and flares in their anger, and furniture and plants were ripped from the foyer.
It is believed most of the damage was perpetrated by a small number of people, possibly as low as 200, though between 2,000 and 3,000 were present in the forecourt at Millbank for much of the day. Violent confrontations were mostly contained to the front doors of Millbank, where riot police attempted to prevent entry into the office building.
One student, who was at the doors of Millbank, said: “It wasn’t a riot. It was like a tide of surges, they would go forward then float back. There was some guy with a megaphone, saying everyone charge on three; he got to one and nobody moved.
“One of the students asked a police officer why he was standing in the way of their protest against fees. The guy said, ‘I have to do this job to pay my daughter’s tuition fees.’ The student was just silent.”
He said the police were aware of their inability to prevent the damage, and said the officers were “really peaceful”, until Territorial Support Group officers arrived, at which point “the mood changed, because that was the point when they just formed lines and tried pushing the crowd back”.
Police arrested over 50 people for criminal damage and trespass. At least 40 people, including police officers, were injured in the violence, 14 of whom had to be taken to hospital.
Student leaders were quick to denounce the actions of the students at Millbank.
“Warwick SU condemns the violent actions of this handful of rogue protestors and hopes that this minority does not serve to tarnish our message,” the SU said in a statement.
The President of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, said he was “deeply disappointed at the actions of a small minority of those 50,000 people who attended. … Their actions were shameful, dangerous and counterproductive.”
The Metropolitan Police were told to expect around 15,000 protesters, and only stationed 225 officers for the Whitehall area. This left them significantly understaffed when thousands crowded the courtyard outside Millbank, with only 30 officers attempting to hold the entrance to the headquarters until back up arrived mid-afternoon.
Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said that the force did not expect such a high level of violence.
“It’s not acceptable. It’s an embarrassment for London and for us, and we have to do something about that.”
Students are divided on the issue of the violence at the protest.
One recent graduate, Chris Browne, said: “Some people will argue that … the destruction of private property constitutes ‘violence’. The smashed windows, the used up fire extinguishers, the small bonfires in the courtyard – I have no compunctions about such action.”
“The violence in this situation to some extent was justified. It’s the only thing the government will listen to,” said Matthew McNeany.
Others, however, were less sympathetic.
“I’m really pissed off that people [engaged in] any kind of violence. It undermined the point of the protest, diluted the poignancy of it,” said Jonathan Higgs.
“It was only a few people who got out of control, the vast majority of people were those who wanted to calmly protest and be peaceful. It was those few who let it down for the rest of us,” said Kathyrn Angloss, a first-year Sociology student.
Despite the violence, the vast majority of students attending kept away from Millbank and the occupation of Tory headquarters. The protest started at 11am on Horses Guard Avenue, then wound through Whitehall, past Parliament, concluding with speeches by Sally Hunt, the head of the University and College Union, and Aaron Porter.
Away from Millbank after the speeches, the atmosphere was more exuberant than angry. At Parliament Square, a drum group was drawing a crowd, eventually sneaking under the fencing blocking off the square while a man reassured the hesitant by shouting: “This isn’t China – it won’t be Tianenmen Square!”
Despite the high turnout at the demonstration, most students who spoke to the Boar were pessimistic about its potential for changing the Government’s plans.
“I don’t think they’ll say ‘okay, we’ll forget the whole thing’. I’m hoping that they’ll take [the protest] into consideration,” said Olivia Forbes.
“There weren’t enough people – 50,000 isn’t enough,” said Will Woodruff.
_The_ Boar’s _photos of the protest can be found at [our Flickr page](http://www.flickr.com/photos/boarnews)_