Students tuition fees protest: Victory or just violence?

30 days after the original, almost now iconic, student protest at Millbank Tory HQ, was the 4th protest which coincided with the day of the vote in the House of Commons. The lead up to this day has seen much disquiet in the ranks of the Lib Dem MP’s – how were they going to vote? Also there was talk of Tory rebels – there was a possibility, albeit unlikely that the vote could go against the Coalition.

The last 30 days has seen 4 demos in London and countless sit-ins, and other country-wide actions . The movement has gathered a significant momentum over the last month fuelled by the agile networking advantage of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as a myriad of low key sites and blogs. Internet intelligence is very much the watchword of political movements in 2010. This is no single movement headed up by one identifiable leader and no single point official liaison with the Police; this is now an organic collective, with viral, and emergent attributes ; a loose collective consciousness…gaining a more wider consciousness – a much wider political force.

Whether we agree with the tactics or not, and it is difficult not to accept that the tactics achieve the objective of publicity, the cause and the ire of the people have reached the headlines over the last few weeks. There is no question that the politicians have been rocked, there has been an unusual air of prevarication at such an early stage in this Parliament. Such conversations would never have taken place without the media attention on the events, and even more so the violence of the events. Whilst people will condemn the dropping of the fire extinguisher ( and I, with many of my colleagues were too near for comfort), the wrecking of the “fake” police van, the damage to government/private property, the attack on Prince Charles’ car, and widescale disruption throughout the  capital – when that initial disgust has passed, the doubt and concern over why it happened will remain lodged in their sub-consciousness, like a small intellectual splinter, causing an infection in their thoughts – eating away, creating anxiety and panic. Unfortunately for Nick Clegg, he is the primary victim, his demeanour  and actions show a man severely shaken by this whole affair; to know that there is such widespread disdain for his personal actions must be very damaging.

Last Thursday was entirely inevitable – that violence, and signficant disorder was going to happen was simply not in question – where and how was the issue. The Police’s attempts to manage the crowd were in vain, and potentially very naive. It was difficult to see how sending them down the Mall, Horse Guards Road, and Great George Street was going to work without the expectation that they would spill onto Parliament Square – the grassy area outside the Houses of Parliament that is surrounded by loose fencing, made upright by large concrete blocks. These were all ready-made projectiles there for the taking. Incredibly little comment has been made on this level of incompetence. Did they really think that 30,000+ protestors would stand quietly around the edge of Parliament Square squeezed in between those and the double-skinned, sandbagged barriers in front of the Houses – I doubt it!

The battle moved away towards Broad Sanctuary outside Westminster Abbey and some of the most violent activities took place with all kinds of things being thrown – the most visual being the glass baubles full of paint – splattering all of those in the vicinity with a variety of pleasant pastel shades.

There were a lot of injuries as the place became something of a battle field. People were dragged out of the crowd for their own safety, some, including Police officers were in a bad way. The heat of the moment meant that everyone was at risk either through intent or chance mishap. Much has been made of the Police dragging away Jody McIntyre the blogger, and activist, who was in his wheel-chair. I witnessed the event and was initially shocked, however having someone on the front-line of a very chaotic scene in a wheel-chair was clearly going to be a danger to himself and everyone else. Whilst he may not have wished to have been dragged off, this was the most sensible course of action for all involved.

I do find it slightly disingenuous of people who express surprise and shock that people get hurt and suffer some discomfort at these events – that is what is going to happen when large groups of people get together who are very likely to cause an undisclosed amount of disruption. It is easy for all of us to pick off incidences in hindsight and be critical of individual actions in high-temperature moments – whether that be protestors or Police.

Later on in a separate incident, there was a stand-off between the riot Police and agitators – these were not students ( most of the students were keeping a safe distance, or were queuing up to leave) – these were local youths absolutely hell-bent on causing violence and damage to property. Then, out of nowhere, the ubiquitous Ian Bone and Chris Knight appeared like pantomime villains at the front of the crowd shouting their anti-government, pro-anarchist rhetoric at the Police. They disappeared soon after – stage left. The riot police were not giving an inch and used all force possible to push the crowd back into Parliament Square. There were young girls caught up in this experience screaming and panicking, desperate to get air and space. This was simply not the place for the faint-hearted.

News of the vote permeated through the crowd as a thousand and one mobile devices twittered. The rest of the day deteriorated into more pointless and unprovoked attacks on the Treasury building – using the debris from the Parliament Square fencing. The containment of the crowd became more severe as they were encouraged to leave the area and disperse – hours later the area was freed up for evidence gathering and the full cleaning operation.

In retrospect, this will be seen as a turning point in the history of this Coalition Goverment and the style and methods by which demonstrators coalesce across the country to express their oppposition. For the foreseeable future, this will be the only meaningful opposition that the Government has – the Labour Party is impotent, has no positive leadership, and the people will exercise their democractic right of opposition through their own devices as the ultimate vote of no confidence in the current political state.

Any changes will be slow and hard-earned – but ultimately will be effective.

More photographs from the day HERE

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