When we left Liverpool at half five yesterday morning, there was a palpable excitement amongst us. Perhaps a student protest labelled 'Demolition', routed past Tory HQ was doomed from the beginning, but we were passionate about our cause and prepared for peaceful protest. After jumping off the coach (in the middle of a road in packed central London), we took up our placards and joined the throng. It was exactly how I'd imagined it to be - a vast gathering of young and old, united in protest about keeping education available to all. The placards ranged from the somewhat pointless and petty "Nick Clegg has a small penis" to the rather witty "How will I be able to afford to go to Hogwarts now?!".
We were marching against the proposed cuts to education funds, which would lead to University tuition fees being raised to £9000 a year. Obviously, this would mean many people were unable to go on to Higher Education - and I believe that education is a right, not a financial privilege or commodity. Admission should be based upon ability and potential, not how rich a family you come from. In his election campaign, Nick Clegg promised to fight against this saying "Tuition fees are wrong" - it doesn't get much clearer than that!
Obviously there was some reasonable frustration when he went back on his promises - many students voted Lib Dem purely on the strength of this promise.
Overall, my experience of the protest was a hugely positive one. There was a real sense of camaraderie (not to mention all the socialists), it was a lovely sunny day and we all felt strong and passionate about why we were there. Throughout however, there was a real anti-Tory undercurrent, which was tangible from the start, but not really a problem. Obviously, the alliances of the crowd were heavily biased, but this was not an anti Tory march any more than it was an anti Lib Dem or even Labour march - and to be fair, Clegg did take most of the bashing chant and placard wise.
As we came to the end of the march (unfortunately having missed the NUS president's speech), the march was dissipating and we were a little unsure where to go. Seeing a crowd around Millbank, Tory HQ, we began to head down there to see what was going on. Thank god, an NUS delegate stopped us and warned us that things were kicking off a little, and that we were better to keep out of it! I had heard someone shouting before that Millbank had been set on fire, and frankly, hadn't believed them, thought they were just trying to rile up the crowd. Its scary how easily people can get sucked into the mob mentality in that kind of situation. As we crossed the Thames, we were at the head of a crowd of people, still chanting and brandishing their placards peacefully, when we suddenly had to dive out of the way of Police riot vans, which were certainly not going to wait for us to dawdle out of the way!
Finding ourselves in a nice little pub, we watched events unfold on Sky News. People had broken into Millbank, initially just to shout and voice their opinions. This had quickly gotten violent, with people throwing bricks, smashing glass and setting fire to the building. Some were on the roof, throwing fire extinguishers down into the crowd (of their own protesters!!). THIS IS SHAMEFUL AND RIDICULOUS! It makes me so angry that people were choosing to be violent and vandalistic, that was not why we were there. Unfortunately, the Met had kept the riot police stationed outside Lib Dem headquarters, assuming (fairly), that this would be the target for any wayward action! The people who were involved in the Millbank riots were, in my opinion, looking for a chance to behave worse than animals, they had had their faces covered all day (and certainly when they later appeared on the news) - and that to me says that they knww they were in the wrong, and were intending to cause trouble. If they were genuinely fighting for their cause, they would be proud to take any punishment that resulted from their actions.
As we walked back along the Thames to our coach, we were met with a variety of responses. Many Londoners congratulated us on our peaceful actions, saying they believed in our cause. We were stopped and interviewed by the Washington Post. Particularly touching to me was the Lib Dem MP who stopped us in the street, shook our hands and apologised for her party going back on its promise. This meant so much, for her to say she supported us, I wish I knew who she was! It just goes to show that you cannot lump all MP's together, on any matter.
Sadly, those were not the only comments we received. Even as we were walking back at six o'clock, students were heading toward Millbank to join the mob - one guy even began to hurl abuse at us in the street for not doing so. He said we were betraying the cause, that we needed to fight together to gain back every inch we could. Well... excuse me? Its not exactly civil war. And what exactly were they hoping to achieve? Where do they think the money to clean up after them is going to come from? It'll be straight out of taxpayers money, not reeally helping to close the deficit eh? To be honest, it terrifies me how mindlessly violent human beings can be toward one another - and I think the Police handled the situation brilliantly. They get a lot of bashing for how they behave in riots, but speaking from what I saw yesterday, they did a brilliant job of staying calm, ignoring taunts and keeping people safe.
I only hope that the few hundred who behaved so shamefully don't detract from the message of the 51 and a half thousand peaceful protesters. I hope their mums saw them on the news, and that they get into a lot of trouble quite frankly.
I even made a montage.