I turned up on the NUS / UCL organised DEMOLITION protest against higher student fees thinking this was just going to be another trudge from point A to point B with the usual boring speeches. Yet within minutes of turning up, I could sense a buzz among many of the students there that told me this one could turn out to be a bit different – the last time I sensed that was way back when on the now infamous Poll Tax riot in 1990 that saw Trafalgar Square turned into a battle ground.
Despite the buzz, the march started off like any other protest although it was clear from the start that the numbers were much greater that the 20-25,000 who were expected – estimates of the turnout are in the 50,000 range. I was on the Radical Students & Workers Bloc which seemed lively enough but at the same time, there was a sense of restraint in preparation for something happening later. In fact, apart from a token smoke bomb and the briefest of sit down protests, going past the Houses of Parliament, it did seem strangely subdued…
However, when we approached the Tory HQ at Millbank, the radical members of the bloc had positioned themselves at the side of the road ready for a swift breakaway. This duly happened – okay they initially went into the wrong part of the building but on realising their mistake, swiftly exited and moved towards the right target… Lesson to be learnt – be a bit more thorough on the research next time!
It has to be pointed out that at this stage, the rozzers were completely absent from the scene. This allowed for a fair few thousand to spontaneously leave the march to start to lay siege to the Tory HQ. Despite all the media hype about alleged anarchist infiltrators and the like, this action worked because of the spontaneous actions of thousands of protesters who were willing to join in and be a part of the fun.
As the numbers inside the courtyard grew, people became more confident and bolder in their actions, things started to happen. Firstly the lobby was occupied, then the building. The windows in the lobby were eventually smashed with the few rozzers who had managed to turn up looking utterly helpless against the mass that was facing them. When the protesters reached the roof of the building, they were greeted by a massive cheer from the crowd below. Then it was party time with the sound system turning up, bonfires being made out of piles of placards and the occasional smoke bomb and flare being set off.
At this point, I decided to have a scout around to see if the rozzers were bringing in reinforcements to try and clear the building and the courtyard. Sure enough, round the corner they were forming up but not with anything like the numbers to achieve anything. On the occasions the rozzers did get to the entrance to the building in an attempt to prevent any further incursions, they looked totally lost. Quite possibly because most of the ground floor plate glass windows had been put in by that stage and people could walk in and out at will! The rozzers were getting plenty of verbal abuse and a constant barrage of missiles aimed at them. Not from the so called usual suspects but from a lot of angry young people who had most likely never been on a protest before. Even when a small detachment of rozzers kitted up in riot gear went in, they couldn’t hold the line and were forced to beat a hasty retreat getting plenty of grief as they did so.
Late in the afternoon, an attempt was made to blockade the Lib Dem HQ just around the corner but the numbers weren’t sufficient and despite running down the road at speed, the rozzers complete with riot gear had got there before us and had formed a line across a very narrow entrance. It ended up as a brief token stand off before returning to the main scene of action.
As the afternoon turned into early evening, inevitably the crowd outside started to thin out as people had to return to their coaches to get home. The concern was at this point, the police would seize the opportunity to wade in and start making arrests. That is the problem with spontaneous actions – co-ordinating a planned withdrawal so no-one gets arrested or beaten up by the rozzers.
Given that this could well be the first of many actions, there are lessons to be learnt from this. The first is that from now on, we can expect the police tactics to be a lot more in your face. They were well and truly shown up and judging from the initial reaction from the establishment, heads will roll and tactics will definitely become tougher.
The second is the need for people new to protest to be aware of the proliferation of CCTV and numerous photographers on protests. While it’s easy to pick out the Met Police photographer, there are quite possibly a number of photo-journalists that cannot be trusted to not hand over images to the rozzers in the aftermath of an action. People need to be aware of the need to mask their identities when taking part in protests and actions. What the movement now has to do is to offer practical solidarity to all of those who were arrested on the day and those who could well face arrest over the next few days or weeks as their identities are uncovered.
Is this action the start of something new? Well for the first time in ages, I left a protest with a spring in my step and a renewed sense of optimism. Sure there’s a lot of hard work to be done but the bar has been raised and if we can keep the momentum going, who knows what could happen… There are lessons to be learnt but all in all, it was a great day and one that’s up there with the 1990 Poll Tax riot!
SOLIDARITY WITH ALL THOSE ARRESTED AT MILLBANK, MAKE SURE YOU SIGN THE PETITION AND SHOW YOUR SUPPORT: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2010/11/467763.html