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The battle of Trafalgar

Trafalgar Square was in chaos last night as protesters clashed with police following one of the biggest demonstrations in British political history.

As darkness fell, police kettled hundreds of demonstrators at the foot of Nelson’s Column.

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The tension came at the end of a day already marred by violence from a small minority of anarchists who attacked shops, smashed windows, tried to steal from ATM machines, lit fires in the street, and threw smoke and paint bombs at police.

The riot squad fought with activists in Trafalgar Square who threw bottles at police and lit fires in the street. A Metropolitan Police spokesman said between 200 and 300 people had gathered at the landmark location late in the evening: “A large number from the crowd are throwing missiles and have attempted to damage the Olympic clock ... Officers have come under sustained attack as they deal with the disorder and attempted criminal damage.”

The scenes were in stark contrast to the behaviour of not only the vast majority of protesters – who ranged in age from babies to pensioners – but also the majority of both students and anarchists who were demanding no more cuts to the public sector.

Yesterday’s demonstration will go down as one of the biggest political rallies in British history. It was the largest protest since the Iraq War in 2003. Around 400,000 people joined the TUC organised march. Before night fell and the area around Trafalgar Square turned ugly, the arrest and injury tally was “reasonable”: 202 arrests and 35 injured, including five police officers.

The protest organisers hailed the demonstration a “fantastic success”, despite the violence.

Violence first flared away from the main rally when a group of hundreds of activists, not connected with the TUC union protest, clashed with police, setting off fireworks and attacking shops in Oxford Street, Regent Street and Piccadilly.

The trouble unfolded as Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, addressed the crowds at the end of the rally in Hyde Park. “The Tories said I should not come and speak today,” he said. “But I am proud to stand with you. There is an alternative.”

Miliband last night condemned the violence that erupted away from the march, saying: “Hundreds of thousands of people peacefully protested today. They are the true voice of today’s march. I unequivocally condemn those who have committed acts of violence. There is no excuse for it. It is unlawful and wrong.”

As he spoke, Topshop and HSBC had their windows smashed, while paint and glass bottles were thrown at a Royal Bank of Scotland branch. Anarchists also attacked the Ritz hotel.

Covering their faces with scarves, anarchists fought with police and disrupted traffic, throwing lightbulbs filled with ammonia at officers and lighting fires.

UK Uncut, an anti-cuts direct action group, later occupied the Fortnum & Mason store in Piccadilly, claiming the firm had “dodged” paying taxes.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said he “bitterly regretted” the violence, adding that he hoped it would not detract from the massive anti-cuts protest in Hyde Park.

He said: “I don’t think the activities of a few hundred people should take the focus away from the hundreds of thousands of people who have sent a powerful message to the Government today. This has been Middle Britain speaking.”

Barber said unions would now step up pressure on the Government and launch a series of protests next week in defence of the NHS.”

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, attacked the Government’s “assault” on the NHS, warning ministers that privatising the health service would spark the same protests as those against the poll tax.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said the turnout showed the anger of ordinary working people at the Government’s cuts. “These are ordinary families and working people, many here with their children to send a strong message to David Cameron to halt the damaging cuts which are leading to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and the closure of services,” he said.

Demonstrators started arriving in London hours before the march was due to begin, turning the Embankment into a sea of colour with banners, balloons and entertainers filling the banks of the Thames.

Tens of thousands of people blew horns and whistles as they waited patiently to march through central London. In total, only a few hundred were intent on causing trouble.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls was heckled by some protesters when he turned up to speak to union leaders.

Education Secretary Michael Gove acknowledged the public concerns about the planned cuts but insisted that the Government would not be deflected from its strategy.

He said that there were “really big dangers” for Miliband in addressing the rally at the end of the march. “One is that people will say ‘You are calling for a plan B from the Government, you don’t even have a plan A’,” he said.

“More than that, you are associating yourself with a march which could, I’m afraid, move from being a family event into being something darker.”

Before the trouble flared at night, Scotland Yard Commander Bob Broadhurst said: “The main TUC march has been going well. We have had more than a quarter of a million people with hardly any problems.

“Unfortunately we have had a group of approximately 500 criminals committing some disorder.”

Policing minister Nick Herbert said the Government was “committed to supporting peaceful protest” and blamed the violence on “a small minority of individuals”.

Ironically, the police tactic of kettling – or coralling – protestors was adopted by the demonstrators. Come 4pm it looked like the biggest “kettle” of the day had been one forced by a crowd of protesters on a small band of riot police. Like most of the unruly events of the day, it seemed to come from nowhere. One minute, in the middle of the crossroads at Oxford Circus, there were rumours that police were about to start kettling the crowd; the next minute there was a rush of people and flags, clouds of blue smoke rose, stones flew, and a chant rose up. “Whose streets? Our streets.”

As ever when it came to violence and disorder, the protesters and police officers were almost outnumbered by reporters, camera crews and photographers.

One public sector worker in her forties said: “As usual all the headlines are going to be about this small minority of people.” She had been angry with one masked anarchist on the main march and berated him, saying, “Why do you have to do that? You give a bad name to all us people who are peacefully protesting what’s happening to our public sector?” He told her to “f** off” and walked away. Many of those involved in direct violence and vandalising seemed less political, and more like thrill-seeking day-trippers.

Most of the anarchists on the march behaved peacefully. Just as only a minority of the whole crowd were responsible for creating trouble, only a very small minority of the black and red crowd – the colours of the anarchy movement – actually get involved in the more violent protests.

On Friday night, when I joined one of five buses of students and union members coming from Edinburgh, I fell in with a small group of them. They arrived singing and playing bongo drums, bearing a plastic box of pie crusts for everyone to eat. Jamie McQuilkin, an environmental science student had brought his bagpipes. He was, he confessed relatively new to the “dirty world of radical politics”, having only really been awakened to it in the last year. A member of the student’s Anarchist’s Society, he has, he says, “zero faith in leaders and I think that’s something that’s shared by a lot of this generation”.

Indeed it was shared by almost every student I talked to, all of whom professed a lack of desire to go to the political rally that was to be the climax of the TUC march. “I’m not going to a rally with Ed Miliband speaking at it,” said one Edinburgh University student.

James Foley, of Glasgow University, said he thought that the TUC were “probably very scared of what might happen on the march”. As he sat drinking cans of Red Bull to fuel his energy for a day of megaphone incitement, he explained that “we never agree anything with the TUC. When it comes to demonstrations, it’s every group for itself.”

Sean Coile, a student at Strathclyde University, pointed out that the students do have some sense of ownership of the cause, “they feel that they were in the vanguard of all this .”

The main demonstration was a great carnival of people of all generations, whole families with children chanting, “No ifs, no buts, no Coalition cuts.” At the front of the student march, two old ladies with placards seemed to have got caught up in the flow. They turned out to be from Women Against Pit Closures. “You know,” says one, “this really reminds me of when, in the miner’s strike, we came to London and got arrested, and then came out and marched again the next day.”

During the day it seemed as though the police were doing as promised, and practising a fairly hands-off policy. But they were certainly there in big numbers – a huge bank of them, 80 or more, were lined up against the outside wall of Topshop on Oxford Street. Strangely enough, even as protesters were crawling all over the entrance to the tube station outside, playing drums and throwing paint bombs, shoppers were still coming and going through the doors.

Bill, an anarchist I had met the night before on the student bus coming down from Edinburgh, was sitting on a kerb near Oxford Circus after the police kettle. I wondered if he’d ended up among those pushing up against the police. He shook his head. “I don’t fancy throwing things at police when they haven’t done anything wrong.”

The protest itself is a strange, chaotic beast, most easily tracked and followed via Twitter rather than on foot, which is what many of the protesters use to keep in touch with what is going on – it shifts quickly, seemingly changing its plan from moment to moment. One Twitter feed even warns protesters when to expect a kettle.

Perhaps the new thing about this march wasn’t the students or the anarchists, but the thousands of middle-aged and older public sector workers and concerned members of the public who had never marched before.

As I left London, the streets were starting to darken, and tensions were rising – the celebratory feel of the day dying away, and anger taking over the night.

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