Students take to streets to oppose higher education reforms

10 November 2011

Excessive and intimidating policing marred a mostly peaceful student protest yesterday.

4,000 police officers were out in force at the national demonstration against cuts to education and public services, organised by the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts. The Cambridge Student accompanied the 140 students from the University of Cambridge who took part in the demonstration.

The increased police presence compared to last year’s National Demo was clear. Metropolitan Police have estimated the number of protesters totalled 2,000, meaning they deployed two police officers for every protester.

At least three helicopters were seen hovering above the demonstration.

Intimidation by police began early. On Monday, Scotland Yard Commander Simon Pountain announced that police would be authorised to fire plastic bullets on protesters at the demo “in extreme circumstances” should there be any outbreaks of serious violence.

A statement from Scotland Yard said: “Officers are deployed to facilitate peaceful protests and that is the aim. There are a range of tactics available if there is criminality and violence associated with the event. One of these is the authority to deploy baton rounds in extreme circumstances.”

In advance of the demonstration, the Metropolitan Police sent a letter to individuals who had been arrested at previous demonstrations.

The letter read: “It is in the public and your own interest that you do not involve yourself in any type of criminal or antisocial behaviour. We have a responsibility to deliver a safe protest which protects residents, tourists, commuters, protesters and the wider community. Should you do so we will at the earliest opportunity arrest and place you before the court.”

Officials initially assured that only those convicted of offences related to demonstrations would receive the letter, but a spokesperson later retracted this claim, confirming that it was in fact sent to any individual who had been arrested in the past year, including those whose charges were later dropped.

It was sufficiently threatening to prompt one third year PPS student, who preferred not to be named, to withdraw from the demonstration. The student revealed: “I am really quite nervous of attending and am afraid I will pull out.

“I know I shouldn’t have a defeatist attitude but I am concerned for my own safety – I’m only 5ft tall and would be the first one to be trampled if we got kettled.”

Turnout was significantly lower than was expected. Organisers had hoped to attract a crowd of 15,000 protesters. There has been some speculation that many individuals who had planned to attend the demonstration felt too intimidated to do so.

On the journey to the demonstration, a police car stopped one of CUSU’s coaches, as well as other coaches in front it, for ten minutes, asking to speak to the driver, and to search the trunk of the vehicle. Students on the coach were handed out an advisory booklet compiled by the Metropolitan Police, which was also distributed by officers during the protest.

The booklet offered a stern warning towards anyone found committing a criminal offence. It warned that: “A criminal record could seriously affect your future employment or educational opportunities”, further cautioning that many employers require staff who show “good character” and “may reject applicants convicted of certain crimes.

A criminal conviction or even a discharge where are you are found guilty of an offence but not convicted could also severely restrict your ability to travel abroad and in some cases you could be refused entry to another country.”

Some information included in the booklet might be considered misleading. Under the heading “What will the officers be wearing?” it states that: “In the main you can expect to see officers in yellow jackets and traditional police hats”, but that “officers may change their headwear to a helmet or visor” should any violence or disorder take place. There were, however, numerous instances, some corroborated by video evidence, of plainclothes police officers in operation.

The protest itself began relatively calmly, and protesters were initially able to move to and from the specified route. Around 200 protesters were able to push through the police line and staged an occupation at Trafalgar Square, facing the National Gallery, where 26 tents were pitched up. A ‘General Assembly’ was called, to which everyone was declared welcome, and a proposal was made that ‘Occupy Trafalgar Square’ should be a mobilisation point for the November 30th mass walkout.

The organisers of the occupation, who made efforts to hide their identities, were reticent about talking to the media. One organiser, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, told The Cambridge Student: “minds came together today. That’s basically all I can say.”

The police presence appeared to be substantially greater towards the end of its route, as the march reached the end of Fleet Street, and particularly as it came close to St Paul’s Cathedral, where the Occupy St Paul’s movement is currently underway.

Roads surrounding the route of the march were blocked off and protesters were prohibited from leaving the protest via them. At several instances the demonstration was stopped by police officers.

At Moorgate, the final destination of the demonstration, protesters were kettled; however Police at the scene evaded the controversial term. One protester, Charlie Wheton, tweeted that he was informed by a police officer that: “This is not a kettle, you’re just not allowed to leave anytime in the next hour.”

At around 4pm, four to five plainclothes police officers were seen lifting a man from the barrier, pushing him to the ground, and taking him into custody, provoking a furious reaction from onlooking protesters, who surged towards the barrier, and began throwing objects towards the police officers behind the barrier. One angered protester shouted at a police officer: “I’d rather be on the fucking dole queue than have your job.”

Video footage has also surfaced of a policeman mistaking passers-by for protesters and told them that if they did not follow the prescribed route, they would be committing offences.

Protesters expressed their antipathy to the police with repeated chants of: “You can shove your rubber bullets up your arse.” Later chants were somewhat lighter in tone, with the crowd exclaiming: “You’re sexy, you’re cute. Take off your riot suit.”

Scotland Yard disclosed that 24 arrests were made yesterday. One arrest for was for the possession of an offensive weapon, three for public order offences, , three for going equipped and 12 arrests were for breaches of the peace.

GBC, a legal advice service for Protesters, has claimed over Twitter that a student was arrested for possession of a felt tip pen. It is as yet unknown whether this was the offensive weapon in question.

Going by official police figures, the arrest rate of the protest stands as 1.25%. Whereas at the march on Trafalgar Square in December 2010, the 153 arrests from what the police initially claimed were 25,000 protesters had a noticeably lower arrest rate of 0.6%.

Judith Welikala – News Editor

Photo: Devon Buchanan