The Free Education Demonstration, which took place in London last Wednesday, attracted a large turnout of student protesters – around 10,000, including many Sussex students – all there for different reasons: but the unity of spirit and the common desire for an attainable goal, the abolition of tuition fees, was evident to all in attendance.
Members of the public cheered from their windows, children chanted along with us from the steps of a library as we passed: the feeling at the demonstration was of hope and progress.
Reading about it a day later, you could be forgiven for taking a completely different view. Focusing on the few arrests made, phrases like ‘violence erupts’ and ‘protest turned violent’ can be seen in the majority of mainstream articles about the demonstration, and the Daily Mail’s headline refers to the ‘rabble rousing’ speech by John McDonnell – conveniently ignoring the fact that his speech included the line ‘this will be a peaceful protest’.
As an attendee of the demonstration, and having been unlawfully kettled for more than an hour, I have to say that the violence of the protest did not come from the demonstrators themselves. The instigators in all cases I saw were the police, and the media has mostly taken only their statements into account.
We were detained for more than an hour, threatened with arrest, and told our ‘university careers would be as good as over’ if we tried to leave, and all for standing on the pavement and being young; the officers had no evidence that we were even part of the demonstration.
The question that needs to be asked then is why students, and student protests, are automatically assumed by police, media and the public to be violent and unreasonable.
The Free Education demonstration was an organised event, with a route that was given to the police ahead of time, event coordinators leading the march, and enough backing and organisation to get members of the shadow cabinet marching alongside us. Despite this, the march was disrupted halfway through – not with violent outbursts from members of the procession, but with a police blockade which separated the protesters into two groups and made it impossible to stick to the scheduled route, as all the coordinators who knew it were busy trying to ensure the event even continued.
When police began to run in front of us in an effort to block us off again after the “black block” of anarchists broke through their line, we were forced to run to keep ahead of them, losing the organisers of the event in the confusion and being driven off the route by the police.
The fact that police then used the confusion that they created to justify kettling members of the protest who were on the wrong roads shows, to me, that it was a strategic move used to disrupt and victimise a protest that they felt shouldn’t be occurring – and the only reason I think they would take these actions is because it was a student demonstration.
It may sound like conspiracy theory, but what other reason could there be? The fact that the police themselves disrupted an organised event that had every legal right to take place – and were able to get away with this in every sense despite acting in ways the law does not permit – while the media still sided against students is testament to the deep distrust and antagonistic attitude Britain currently holds against students trying to make their voices heard.
I have no doubt that the police presence, with one police officer to every 5 protesters, was only so huge because the demonstration was primarily students. I also cannot think of a single reason why they would have two helicopters flying above us, almost throughout the entire demonstration, when they cost £75,000 an hour, other than because they expected – or would make sure – it would turn violent.
It seems like the odds in this country are hugely stacked against student protest, and without it, students are made voiceless, which is perhaps exactly the intention.
Image: Summer Dean