Aaron Porter, the President of the National Union of Students (NUS), announced it as “the biggest student demonstration this century”. It is estimated that over 50,000 people attended, students and tutors among them. The event, labelled by the NUS as ‘Demolition’, ended with an impromptu demonstration of anger at the Conservative HQ, which allegedly caused £1 million worth of damage to the building, as well as 14 injuries and 50 arrests.
It is estimated that around 500 Sussex students took part in the march, under a banner that read ‘Sussex: Fighting for the Future of Education’. For the Sussex contingent the march began at the London School of Economics (LSE) and joined the majority of other protesters on The Strand.
Students came from all over the country, including a sizeable Scottish group and an estimated 2000 from Wales. There were even representatives from the Republic of Ireland, where a student led occupation of the ministry of Finance had taken place some days earlier. There was also variety of opinions, some students called for a freeze on fees, whilst others called for outright free education.
The march took protesters past Trafalgar square, Downing Street and Parliament, culminating in a rally on Millbank, outside the Tate Britain. Speakers included; Aaron Porter, and Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU). Porter stated that “we will not tolerate politicians’ broken promises”, echoing the NUS’s pledge to encourage students to force a by-election in any of the constituencies where an MP reneges on earlier promises to vote no to rises in tuition fees.
He said that “These short-sighted and self-defeating cuts to colleges and universities must be resisted, they will be resisted, and that resistance begins today”.
In Hunt’s address, she told protesters that, “Over the next four years while college grants are cut and tuition fees triple, big business will get £8bn in tax giveaways from the government” and argued that education should be “an investment in all our futures not a millstone around our necks”.
At about 3pm reports were coming in of an occupation taking place at 30 Millbank, the Conservative Party HQ and protesters outside the building had forced their way in. Around 200 students had entered the building, police attempted and failed to remove the occupiers and the building was then evacuated of all workers. As students were making their way to the rally on the planned route, thousands gathered outside 30 Millbank and inside the courtyard. Riot police blocked the broken entrance to the building.
On the ground, flairs and small fires were lit and music played loudly through speakers, some protesters sent missiles flying at the police, including placard sticks and bottles. At one point an observer wearing a suit on one of the roof terraces induced boos from the crowd, which swiftly turned to cheers after indicating himself as Labour by holding up his red tie.
The crowd cheered as the occupiers came on to the roof waving flags and encouraging the students below to join them as well as throwing paper and spraying the crowd with foam from fire extinguishers.
Inside the building, the lobby had been covered in graffiti, windows smashed and CCTV cameras ripped from walls. A number of windows half way up the building were also smashed. At one point an occupier dropped a fire extinguisher from the roof onto the line of police below.
By 5pm, the rally had ended and most students were making their way back to their respective parts of the country. Once the numbers of demonstrators had dwindled, the remaining protesters were ‘kettled’ and arrests were made.
London’s principal newspaper, The Evening Standard, reported the day after that Sussex associate tutor, Luke Cooper, was the ringleader behind the violence. Cooper, who is part of the International Relations department, is a member of left wing group Revolution.
He told the Evening Standard, A number of government buildings are in that part of London and all would have been legitimate targets for protest and occupation.” Cooper told the Badger, however, that he was not a ringleader and that whilst direct action had been organised to take place at the treasury, nothing had been planned in regards to Millbank. He also said that the Evening Standard had put words in his mouth, as well as blowing what he had said out of proportion. He went on to say that he was angry at the accusations that had been made against him.
The Response was immediate, most voices condemning the ‘violence’. Aaron Porter labelled it, “despicable” and expressed concerns that the students’ movement had “lost a lot of public sympathy”.
The Prime Minister, who was in China at a G20 summit, condemned the incident as “unacceptable”. He expressed his concerns over the underwhelming response from Scotland Yard. The head of the Met, Sir Paul Stephenson, admitted that the police were caught off guard with the “largely unexpected” events and has called for an inquiry into the matter.
Despite a largely negative response, some commentators have expressed different views.
The Students’ Union has said in a statement “The anger felt by students around the country was made clear yesterday. We strongly disagree with the polarising statements given by NUS President, Aaron Porter and UCU General Secretary, Sally Hunt. The damage to property that occurred is a drop in the ocean compared to the true violence and vandalism the coalition government has applied to the education system and other public services since their contentious election… the real vandals occupied the offices of 30 Millbank Tower long before the 10th November.”
The President of the University of London Student Union, Clare Solomon, said she no qualms with “direct actions or occupation” and the thousands of angry students outside 30 Millbank probably don’t either.
Academics from Goldsmiths University also sparked controversy by saying that they wanted to “congratulate staff and students on the magnificent anti-cuts demonstration”
Scotland Yard have launched an inquiry into the police operation.