Broken Promises, Broken Buildings

A peaceful protest turns violent as protesters storm Conservative Party HQ, smashing windows and lighting fires

[This is a video montage that I created using footage of the student protest in London, November 10th. It includes video clips from several sources, and I have included footage of Nick Clegg filmed prior to the General Election. I in no way advocate the violence or the damage to property that occurred during the demonstration, however the aim of this video is to convey the emotions and feelings of the activists engaged in the protest in contrast to the promises made by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg prior to the election. This video is not-for-profit and I do not own the rights to the footage used. I will be happy to remove any or all footage if asked to by the owners.]

Over 50,00 students turned up in London on Wednesday to protest the government’s proposal to raise University tuition fees by more than 200%, which could leave many students paying back the debt for the rest of their working lives.

The student protest began peacefully despite the unanticipated scale of the demonstration and the underwhelming police presence. The demonstration marched from Horse Guards Parade, central London, and past Westminster, however when the march reached the rally point at Millbank, the protest took a turn for the worse.

At around 1.37pm it is reported that over a hundred protestors broke off from the crowd and stormed Millbank Tower, the Conservative party’s headquarters, occupying the lobbies and waving flags from the rooftops, shouting “Tory Scum!” and “Nick Clegg, we know you, you’re a fucking Tory too”, according to the Guardian’s Matther Taylor, who was present.

Workers were evactuated from the building shortly after as the protestors smashed windows, threw missiles, lit emergency flares, spray-painted anarchist logos and anti-Tory messages on the walls, ripped down ceiling panels and lit fires outside the building using placards and banners. Most of the damage was done to the Millbank building, with skirmishes between the police and the protestors leading to a few casualties with no major injuries reported. However, at one point a heavy fire extinguisher was hurled from the roof of the building, narrowly missing a police officer by mere inches. A 23-year-old man from Reading has been arrested and released on bail in connection with the “violent disorder”. There are some calling for the protestor responsible to be charged for attempted murder. After the fire extinguisher was thrown to the ground the crowd gathered outside the tower turned on the protestors on the rooftops, shouting: “Stop throwing shit!”

Many of the activists involved were wearing scarves over their faces or had their hoods pulled over their heads as they wrecked havoc on the Tory HQ in central London. Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met police commissioner, branded the violence as “Thuggish and disgraceful”.

The number of police present at the protest was minimal in comparison to the estimated 50,000 that turned out to demonstrate. At one point, it was reported that there were only about 20 police officers attempting to hold back the thousands that made up the surging crowd. The mass of people collectively realised that if they pushed this weak line-of-defence then they could break through the officers and storm the building, which is what led to the ensuing chaos. Once the outside glass windows were smashed, the atrium was opened up to the crowd and the officers were powerless to stop the dozens who over-ran the building.

Police in riot gear eventually showed up to the scene in an effort to control the “chaos”, whilst also attempting to boost the numbers of police as Scotland Yard initially drafted only 225 officers despite the publicity surrounding the student protest. A number of injuries resulted from the “riot”, with casualties taken on both “sides” – police and protestors. Sir Paul Stephenson described the lack of foresight as “an embarrasment for London and for us”, while Major of London Boris Johnson stated that there will be a “vigorous post incident investigation” with a review of police planning and response”.

Despite the damage caused to the Millbank Tower and the casualties that ensued, the vast majority of the demonstrators remained peaceful. The protest was organised by the NUS and the lecturer’s union, the UCU. The NUS president, Aaron Porter, condemned the actions of the minority who were there “to cause trouble”. Distancing himself from the unprecedented attack on the Conservative party HQ, he tweeted “Disgusted that the actions of a minority of idiots are trying to undermine the 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest”.

Porter believed that the trouble was caused by a small minority who planned the violence beforehand. Some of the media coverage of the Millbank Tower take-over has described the minority of violent activists as “anarchists” or “trouble-makers” who were simply out to cause damage and chaos. The Daily Mail described how “anarchists hijacked the event”, leading to some of “the most violence scenes of student unrest seen in Britain for decades”. The paper even goes as far as to state that “militants from far-left groups whipped up a mix of middle-class students and younger college and school pupils into a frenzy”. This is clearly sensationalism as the 50,000+ students at the demonstration were from all backgrounds and social classes, and although anarchist symbols were spray-painted on the walls of the Millbank building there is no real evidence to suggest that far-left “militant” groups were present. It has been reported that Cambridge undergraduates were present on the rooftops of Millbank Tower, clearly a far cry from left-wing militant groups.

Olivia Wedderbum, 18, from east London, explained how she was in the courtyard of the Millbank when people were smashing the windows to get inside. “There were only about 20 or 30 people going up the stairs, but on the way up the whole staircase was flooded – they had pulled down a fire hose and flooded all the floors. All the windows were getting smashed, everything was getting smashed up all around”, though she added: “They were mainly young students, [with] just a couple of older guys who looked like old-school anarchists.”

Many students present condemned the violence, believing it to undermine the cause of the demonstration. As expected, most of the media coverage has been on the events at 30 Millbank Tower rather than on the peaceful procession of 50,000 students, lecturers and graduates who joined together for a common purpose. Not all of the students present resented the violence, however, with some viewing the attacks as an inevitable backlash against a party that promised “an end to broken promises”, whilst also promising to end tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats were specifically targeting students and first-time voters prior to the General Election in a bid to win support, signing a pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees. Students who voted in favour of Nick Clegg now feel betrayed, particularly as the party leader was remarking about how politics should be “fairer” and there should be no more “broken promises”. Perhaps the violence witnessed on wednesday was the result of a disillusioned electorate who have lost faith in politics, rather than the result of militant left-wing groups as some have stated.

There have been “call to arms” in essence as Facebook groups and blogs have been springing up to defend the storming of Millbank Tower, calling for unity and denouncing the “victimisation” of the protestors, whilst labelling the “real criminals” as those that are “waging a war on [the] education system”. Petitions have also been created in an attempt to build up support for those that have been arrested.

At present it has been reported that there has been 56 protestors arrested, with around 14 people reported as injured – a mixture of police officers as well as student protestors. The Met has revealed that 10 out of the 56 arrested were under 18, while the majority were students aged between 18 and 26. There is also a “witch-hunt” on at the moment for several of the protestors, with newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph posting photographs of some of the activists involved in the Millbank Tower take-over and calling for their identities and further information to be submitted via email. A number of websites and facebook pages have expressed outrage at this, explaining how newspapers should not be an extension of the government or the police force and should not be involved in tracking down these individuals. As a result, there have been calls for the public to send “spam” emails with fake information to the newspapers, in an effort to “clog up” their inboxes or to ruin the newspapers’ investigations.

Students and ministers alike have acknowledged that the protests are far from over, and that the events of Millbank Tower may be “just the beginning” of the public backlash against the cuts that many feel are far from being “fair”. There are plans for another protest on 24th November, this time a national “day of action”. Michael Chessum, the co-founder of the National Campaign Against the Cuts, predicts that there will be widespread disruption as students stage sit-ins and occupations.


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