‘Does my society look big in this?’

On Thursday, I experienced my first ever protest.

On Thursday, I experienced my first ever protest. Although I’ve felt strongly about the issues all along, I was unable to attend the first two protests because I had too much work to do (perhaps dispelling the myth that students get an easy ride?).

What first struck me upon my arrival into London was the overwhelming police presence. Walking along Whitehall to catch up with the march in Trafalgar Square, I realised that I was yet to see another student protestor and yet all around there were hundreds of police officers waiting anxiously. Although they wore normal police caps, their riot helmets were already hanging from their belts – the first suggestion that they expected the day’s events to turn nasty.

Scores of Police waiting for a fight

When I reached Trafalgar Square, there was a line of police on horseback blocking the protesters from marching down Whitehall towards parliament square. This surprised me as I knew this was intended to be the planned route. In response to this obstruction, the crowd moved quickly through St James’ Park down Horse Guards Road to the Northwest entrance to Parliament Square where they met a line of already geared up riot police.

Police on horseback in Trafalgar Square

As more protesters arrived behind, people were pushed forwards and became increasingly frustrated that they were apparently being refused entrance to Parliament Square. Chants of ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ began and some marchers started throwing their signs at the police blocking the way.

Suddenly, the crowd surged forward with a feral roar and the small line of police turned on their heel and rushed backwards to move out of the way as hundreds of students poured into Parliament Square. What followed was 15 minutes of complete chaos. Coming from the side, the students had taken the police a little by surprise but fences and countless rows of police in front of the entrance to parliament ensured that the protesters would get no closer that day.

As the first group tried to force its way through the barriers, officers on horseback charged the crowd in an attempt to disperse them. Someone threw a traffic cone which hit the rear of one of the police horses and the surrounding crowd groaned with disappointment. This was not the way the majority wanted the day to pan out.

Running from the horses, I jumped the fence into St Margaret’s Church and made my way down to the front. From here, I had a perfect view of the clashes with police that were so well documented in the media. This was where all of the violence I witnessed in the day took place and it all happened within the space of about 45 minutes, not for the entire day as much of the media coverage suggests. As the crowd repeatedly pushed forward into the barriers, the police hit back with batons, seemingly unaware that many of the protesters at the front were being forced forward from behind and were not actually pushing themselves.

The mood in my position just off to the right however, was very different. In a rather poetic moment, as fences were crowd-surfed at the police to our left, a large group began to sing ‘Silent Night’ and carrots were handed out to throw for the police horses. As groups of riot police ran towards the fray in support, students hummed the tune of ‘The Imperial March’, the song used in Star Wars as a theme tune for the Empire.

One student asked an officer how he planned to afford to send his children to university, to which the reply came that he would be surprised if he still had a job by then. Another asked if we would swap sides of the fences in a few months if police were protesting about cuts to their own sector and an officer joked that we would be welcome to borrow his helmet.

Word then quickly got around that police were refusing to let people leave and we realised we were being kettled in Parliament Square. The crowd settled down and most protesters moved to the grass in the middle to set up camp for the day. In the following few hours, the atmosphere was not one of violence and anger as the media has suggested, but one of an appreciation of the scale what we were all now a part of. For the first time in many years, the previously apathetic student body has taken a real interest in the future of our country and students from all walks of life and all parts of the UK have joined together in standing up for the principles they believe in and are trying to make their voices heard.

In the ensuing calm, music blared from the many speakers people had brought along and the kettled students danced, sang and chanted around their fires lit to keep them warm. Lecturers climbed onto statues and gave speeches on education, culture and economics to an attentive crowd.

I walked around appreciating the mixture of impressively witty student signs (‘Does my society look big in this?’) and the equally amusing but less thoughtful signs (‘This would never happen at Hogwarts’). A police officer even gave me a pack of Haribo Starmix as I sat by a cardboard coffin labelled ‘R.I.P Education 09/12/10’.

You can't say protesters aren't committed.

At around 4pm, cold, tired and hungry, I began to search for an exit from the kettle so that I could go to the rally on the embankment where there were speeches being made by Liberal MPs who intended to vote against the fee rise, and members of the NUS including Aaron Porter.

I quickly realised that there was no exit, police on each side of the kettle telling me to try the other side, admitting that they didn’t know where we could get out because all the different groups of police were on different radio signals. After searching for around an hour, I was finally able to queue to leave as the police began to release people one by one from the Northern exit towards Trafalgar Square.

I made my way round to the embankment as darkness descended on London to join the rally where many were waiting patiently for the result of the vote. Glowsticks were handed out as Aaron Porter spoke passionately about the importance of solidarity, his speech met with a mixture of cheering, applause and chants of ‘Where were you?’. In the final few minutes before the announcement of the vote, large speakers played the song ‘Liar Liar’ by Captain Ska as the crowd waved their glowsticks in support. At 5:45, it was announced that the vote had sided with the coalition and the crowd groaned in dismay.

The Final Rally

Disappointed but not surprised, I began the walk to the bus back to Southampton, aware that all around me, tensions were rising as the general mood quickly moved from one of despondency to one of anger.

The evening’s violence post-result, although I cannot condone it, was arguably understandable; its what happens when you push a group of people to the desperate point of having nothing else to lose. As for the attack on the royal car, I feel the most shocking point is that Charles and Camilla appeared so blissfully ignorant of the entire situation; Charles’ decision to initially wave and smile at the protesters highlights this. I can’t help but be reminded of the famous story of French Queen Marie Antoinette who when told during the famine that the peasants had no bread to eat simply replied, ‘then let them eat cake’.

I didn’t attend the protest purely because of the rise in tuition fees. I attended out of principle. I attended because I believe democracy depends on politicians whose word we can trust. I feel betrayed by a political party who got my vote on the basis of promises which it appears they never really intended to keep.

Before the last general election, I had no interest in politics whatsoever but I did my research, watched all of the televised debates, and voted for the party which offered a manifesto that promised positive change. I voted for the party leader that appeared remarkably principled and honest for a politician. I, like many others, feel that I have been lied to and this is detrimental to both the Lib Dems and public opinion of politicians in general.

Before the election, I had very little time for politicians, and now, I have even less. The banners are correct; we haven’t got a Clegg to stand on and it worries me that a possible outcome of this is that students will now resume their previous lack of interest in politics. However, as I left London on Thursday, there was a real feeling that is was not the end, but rather the beginning of something much bigger.

In the words of the late Welsh academic and novelist Raymond Williams, ‘If people cannot have official democracy, they shall have it unofficially’.