More than 10,000 students took to the streets in London on Wednesday 4th November to call for free education and protest against cuts to student grants under the slogan “grants, not debt”. The police clashed with protesters, resulting in a minimum of 12 arrests.
The police maintain that there was no kettling, but several Sussex students and the organisers, National Campaign for Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), disagree. NCAFC called the protest in response to government plans to abolish maintenance grants to the poorest students, increasing cuts and growing debt, and “discrimination against international students”. They are advocating for an “education system funded by progressive taxation and universal living grants, and will also highlight the scapegoating of migrants and the refugee crisis.”
The protest was backed by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Unite, the Union, and was attended by students from over forty campuses, including around 100 people from Sussex. The march went through central London, and was closely policed. The Guardian reported that “some activists [were] throwing smoke bombs and targeting government buildings”, and this journalist saw two smoke bombs go off. The Met police press office said that “a small group of protestors threw paint outside the Home Office and another group attempted to push their way into the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) building but were prevented by police. During this spell, a small number of smoke bombs and eggs were thrown at police outside BIS.”
Throughout the march a strong police presence was observed. The police responded to these protesters’ alleged actions: a “cordon was put in place across Victoria Street at the junction with Dacre Street, SW1 to prevent disorder.” One first year student, Chris, told The Badger: “the police formed a barricade to split the protest in half and began to tell people it was cancelled and they should go home; this was in order that they might kettle and arrest them more efficiently.” At the time, this journalist approached a policewoman, and was informed that the rally at the end of the demonstration had been suspended due to “trouble” from certain protesters and that “the area will now be contained.” The Met office’s press department has stated that this information was incorrect and “there was no containment in place”.
However, another Sussex student, Devin Seth Thomas, told The Badger that he had been kettled: “we were kettled later in the day; we later found out that the protest had officially ended, but we didn’t know this at the time because we couldn’t find any of the organisers because of the police blockade.” He explained: “We saw some people in a kettle and went over to the police as some people we knew were inside. While we were talking to them and filming, the police surrounded us as well, despite having no evidence we were even part of the protest, and said we were being detained for obstructing the streets. The legal observers present told us the kettle was unlawful, as the reason they were giving for our detainment doesn’t apply to peaceful and legal demonstrations.”
“The police were more aggressive than almost all of the protestors. One police liaisons officer told us if we tried to leave we would be arrested, and our university careers would be as good as over. Someone who was sat down and having a conversation with a few friends was pulled out of the kettle by more than one police officer and arrested. Officers later told us it was because of things he’d done earlier, but people who’d been with him all day said they didn’t think he’d done anything that would warrant it. It was scary, and made us paranoid any one of us could also be arrested next for no reason.”
The NCAFC support this, saying in their official statement released on the afternoon of the protest: “Towards the end of the demonstration, the march was met with some of the most heavy-handed policing we have seen in years. “Once protesters reached the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the office responsible for this latest round of attacks on education, riot police violently stormed the crowd. “The police forced a large section of the protest into a kettle, resulting in panic and confusion. At least 18 protesters were violently arrested. We condemn this unnecessary and aggressive response.”
The Metropolitan Police’s press department maintain that there was no kettling within the large group of protesters on Victoria Street, even though it had been observed by a number of Sussex students. Instead, they say: “after the march and rally had ended a group of around 50 protestors continued to make their way through central London, walking in and out of traffic, blocking the road and the pavement causing disruption to the local community. “At around 16:40hrs the group were stopped by police in Piccadilly and contained to prevent them causing further disruption and prevent further criminal activity. “Police implemented a dispersal order under Section 35 of the Antisocial, Crime and Policing Order Act 2014 to prevent further crime or alarm, harassment or distress and the group were escorted away from the area to Charing Cross railway station. They then dispersed and there were no arrests linked to this dispersal.”
First year Chris told us that he and a large group of others broke through a kettle in an attempt to continue the march: “However, the police were so inept at even the simple job of standing in a row that the barricade was broken fairly quickly.” This was on Victoria Street. Overall, Chris says he “feels it was mismanaged by the organisers as they complied with ridiculous police demands that turned the logical ending point of a peaceful protest into a free-for-all that endangered the safety of those the police wanted to bully.” Devin comments; “Despite how bad it went later in the day, I don’t regret attending the demonstration. There was an amazing atmosphere of hope for the undisrupted part of the march, and the public support we got was heartwarming and validating. I wish the response of the mainstream media was more in line with how it actually felt on the day, but I think it was a great event. It was very well run, and hopefully impactful as well.”
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn had personally endorsed the march and said in a stetement released by NCAFC “I opposed the imposition of fees, and each increase, and I opposed the removal of maintenance grants – as did many others – and now we have an opportunity to change course, and to change Labour into a force that represents students’ desire for free and accessible education. “We all benefit from education, collectively as a society, not just as individuals”.
Freya Marshall Payne