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Breaking point

‘The aim was to get inside, to occupy the building. It’ll make next time easier’

1. The fallout

By James Cusick


Drum beats and dancing broke out in the midst of the chaos. Cannabis was being smoked only yards from the faces of police in riot helmets.

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There was evidence that little of what was on show was spontaneous: hand-held blowtorches were being pulled out to help ignite bonfires of placards; an oil cannister had its contents poured on to rags tied to a wooden pole. Text messages were being sent to those inside buildings warning of the arrival of police reinforcements.

“Anger at what they’re doing to education is what’s driving all of this,’’ said a third-year student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. ‘‘If this was just about a handful of anarchists in black, the police would have been in control hours ago. It’s more than that, much more.”

When 56,000 students marched in London in protest at the Coalition Government’s plans for tuition fees last Wednesday the police were anything but in control ... and the blame game is still gaining momentum.

Police intelligence sources are briefing that it was a mistake to hold discussions with the National Union of Students in advance of the march in London, and to subsequently base policing requirements on what the NUS told them. As a consequence, in the run-in to the next mass protests planned for November 24, they say the NUS’s guarantees are now regarded as virtually worthless.

The NUS told the Metroplitan Police that 15,000 students were expected to gather in and around Whitehall. But 50,000 turned up. The “gold” commander for the event, Superintendent Roger Gomm, deployed just 225 officers. The presence of the Met’s public order unit, CO11, was thought to be unnecessary.

When 2000 student protesters peeled away from the march and targeted Millbank, Gomm was caught short, with a thin blue line of officers left almost helpless as protesters smashed their way into Tory HQ, occupied some of the offices and reached the roof.

Millbank was not an official NUS target: but it was on the radar of other student and activist groups such as Revolution, the Education Activist Network (EAN), the Radical Workers’ and Students’ Bloc (RWSB), the Anarchist Federation and a spectrum of Facebook groups with anarchist leanings.

Revolution and the EAN are said to have begun planning the assault on Millbank around two weeks ago. Direct action against the Tory HQ, and other Government buildings in Whitehall, was described as “legitimate” by the EAN.

During the assault on Millbank, with protesters already inside the building spraying the walls of the entrance area with slogans such as “Rise Up” and “Fu** the Tories”, a small group of protesters dressed in black, scarves covering their faces, were sitting quietly away from the front-line trouble, looking at maps of Whitehall with key Government buildings marked in red. Maps were later thrown on to one of many fires lit in the forecourt at Millbank.

Outside the BBC’s Millbank studios, only a few hundred yards from Tory HQ at Millbank Tower, a number of march organisers from the NUS and official stewards wearing yellow NUS T-shirts were openly blaming the trouble on “Trots that aren’t students. They hijacked our peaceful protest. They aren’t real students”.

But as the crowd of 2000 outside Millbank grew and the violence threatened to get far worse, it was clear that many of the crowd, new to any form of demonstration, were being treated to what one drama student from Goldsmiths College in London called a “tutorial in how to do it”.

One student was on her mobile to someone inside the Millbank building who she could just see over the helmets of the police and through the smashed glass. As fireworks were being set off from inside the swelling crowd, she said some had come to Millbank earlier in the week to “have a look”, adding: “The aim was to get inside, to occupy the building. But we never expected this. It’ll make next time easier.”

And it is the ‘‘next time’’ which is now the focus of police attention. NUS leader Aaron Porter has stated that the “next stage” of the protest will be “non-violent political lobbying”. However, the Met’s internal analysis of the confrontation and violence at Millbank, described to the Sunday Herald by a senior Met source, states that Porter is in no position to control what happens next. Scotland Yard also admits that it was caught off-guard, that its intelligence operation was poor, and that it underestimated the challenge the 56,000-strong demonstration represented.

The internal policing review that has been taking place over the last few days has promised the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, that such mistakes will “not be made again”.

And central to keeping that promise will be a show of police strength on the streets at any future mass protest, along with the promise of better cooperation between police and the intelligence services.

Although Porter distanced himself and his organisation from those at Millbank who captured almost all the media attention by laying siege to the building, smashing windows, lighting fires and forcing the Met to call in riot reinforcements, others in the NUS and among the array of student groups which took part in last Wednesday’s protests think “direct action” and further demonstrations targeting Government buildings will follow.

Mark Bergfeld, a member of the NUS national executive council, believes the next phase of protests against the cuts and the tripling of tuition fees should take the example offered by another capital city -- Paris.

“What happens in France and their style of resistance is well known -- there is no reason why that can’t happen here,” he said.

The Paris student riots in 1968 almost brought down the De Gaulle regime, with millions of workers joining students in waves of national strikes. Similar riots happened again in 2006 and earlier this year.

Bergfeld and others on the NUS NEC are said to be in direct conflict with those such as Porter who advocate that future protests must be non-violent. At a recent NUS management meeting, the merits of occupation, civil unrest and direct action were discussed, with the poll tax riots in London in 1990 offered as an example of where Government policy was changed.

Those riots were a crucial factor that brought about the abolition of the unpopular tax.

But the authorities’ immediate concern is that last Wednesday saw only the first battle line drawn, with both police and student activists expecting much worse next time.

  Most students aren’t wreckers. They’re angry ... and they’re right

  2. On the march


By Iain Macwhirter


I deplore last week’s violence but I have nothing but praise for the majority of the students who took to the streets in defence of their principles. Forget the tabloid talk of anarchist thugs out for a punch up. I was with them, in my capacity as rector of Edinburgh University, and what most impressed me was their good humour, responsibility, intelligence and commitment.

They are not mindless wreckers. Neither are they being led by pied pipers of the ultra-Left -- most students regard the anarchists with derision.

But make no mistake: students are extremely angry. They are angry in the way only young adults can be at what they regard as a morally unjustifiable and economically irrational assault on the public realm. This goes beyond the fees issue -- though clearly the prospect of leaving university with £50,000 in debts has been the catalyst for this uprising. They are not prepared to see everything that they regard as socially worthwhile being sacrificed on the altar of fiscal orthodoxy. If the government can manage to assemble a £1 trillion rescue of the banking system, why can it not rescue higher education, or homeless people, or workless people?

Students see bankers, who caused this recession, being rewarded with extravagant bonuses paid for using public money. How about workfare for them? They see irresponsible incompetents such as Sir Fred Goodwin of RBS leaving the scene of the crime with a pension pot worth millions, while hundreds of thousands have their pensions stolen from them. They see the City of London returning to its speculative scams while the real economy is starved of credit. They see their universities being effectively privatised. But unlike the rest of us, students aren’t content just to moan into their beer mugs, sign internet campaigns or jeer at Nick Clegg whenever he’s on TV. They are determined to get off their butts and do something about it. Last week they did precisely that.

That no-one in authority expected the scale of the demonstration shows just how much we have all underestimated them. Students are often portrayed as educated benefit scroungers who spend their time sleeping late, eating Pot Noodles and drinking beer. This image has never been justified, and certainly not in recent years, when students have had to work incredibly hard to get good degrees, often taking jobs in their spare time to meet living costs. Most students already leave university with debts of over £15,000. Their work ethic puts my generation to shame.

Last week’s demonstration wasn’t an easy ride for me. I was repeatedly challenged to explain why people of my generation, who benefited from higher education, feel it right to dump our debts on the next. I just don’t have an answer to that. Students face a future without final salary pensions; where most will not be able to afford a house until they are in middle age; where job security has been destroyed in the name of economic efficiency. This is not a future they are prepared to accept.

Call them middle-class militants, but unlike many trades unionists they’re not just in it for themselves. The 50,000-odd students who demonstrated outside parliament will never be called upon to pay the £9000 tuition fees because they have already begun their courses and are exempt. They have been roused to action by what they regard as a betrayal of the next generation. The government assumed that, because today’s students would not be out of pocket, they would offer only token resistance to the dismantling of higher education. They were wrong.

Students have rediscovered what their parents’ generation learned 30 years ago -- that history sometimes calls on the young to provide leadership to the old. Students are in the vanguard, not just of the fight against privatisation of higher education, but against a Government that seems determined to destroy public services in order to shore up a financial system that has collapsed under the weight of its own greed and stupidity. What most upset the Coalition was not the broken windows at Tory HQ, but the discovery that there is now a focus of resistance in the land. And this was only the beginning.


  Police backlash as Ireland’s Celtic Tiger cubs start to squeal

  3. Irish anger


By Rob Brown in Dublin


In stark contrast to the Met, the Garda wasn’t caught off guard by Ireland’s student protestors. When more than 20,000 converged on Dublin for a national demonstration on November 3, there was anything but a thin blue line. A small bunch of militants, who attempted to occupy the Department of Finance, was swiftly and robustly beaten back by what have been branded the republic’s Robocops.

Bearing a striking resemblance to the super-human cyborg depicted in the Hollywood film, the Public Order Unit -- or riot squad -- tore into the agitating undergrads with truncheons, knocking one female demonstrator unconscious and leaving several others with blood streaming down their faces.

Lorcan Gray, an activist in the Socialist Workers Student Society, was among around 30 demonstrators who staged a sit-in at the main entrance lobby of the ministry. Studying history and classics at University College Dublin, he says he was shocked by the police response to their peaceful action. “We expected to be physically dragged out, but we didn’t think we’d get the shit beaten out of us,” the 19-year-old told the Sunday Herald. “The police action was obviously premeditated.”

An Garda Siochana did step up its preparations for social unrest of all sorts this summer, undergoing secret specialist training at a derelict college in Dublin in everything from baton charging to firing tear gas and live rounds in response to petrol bombs.

The Irish Government knew it was playing with fire a few weeks back when it announced plans to double student registration fees from €1500 to €3000 per annum. You didn’t need to be studying political science to spot a stealthy first move towards full-blown tuition fees in some form or other.

Yet, even many of those moved to take part in the march seem resigned to that outcome. “No doubt the deal is done and dusted behind closed doors,” said Ruth O’Reilly, who has just begun a BA in political science and geography at Trinity College Dublin. “But we can’t just lie back and let it happen.”

As her choice of subjects indicates, Ruth, 19, is more politically minded than most of her peers, but many of Ireland’s so-called Celtic Tiger cubs are starting to squeal -- and stir from their previous apathy. Brought up to believe that the world was their oyster, they are getting a crash course in the economic anxieties endured by their ancestors.

Heartened by the huge turnout at the Dublin demo -- the organisers estimated numbers at 40,000 -- Lorcan Gray and his comrades in the SWP are determined to step up their campaign for direct action and civil disobedience on the nation’s campuses.

Like his counterpart at the NUS in London, the president of the USI (Union of Students in Ireland) Gary Redmond swiftly denounced “the destructive behaviour of a minority of people at the Department of Finance”.

‘Education Not Emigration’ was the slogan on the bright yellow T-shirts sported by many students on the march. But Ireland’s traditional safety valve for social unrest is once again being activated, with around 500 of the country’s best and brightest estimated to be exiting the country each week.

Ruth O’Reilly is already thinking of moving to Australia or Canada when she graduates from TCD in three years. Summing up the new sense of fatalism among her peers, she said: “This country will go down the drain even more rapidly when the government starts to destroy our education system.”

  ‘People don’t realise how strongly we feel ... we are livid about this’

  4. The Scottish view


By Graeme Murray


Around 2000 Scottish students travelled to London to take part in last week’s demonstration. Government plans to triple fees for students in England and Wales are expected to have an impact on Scottish university students who fear cuts or fees will inevitably follow Finance Secretary John Swinney’s budget this week.

At Glasgow University, students were frank about the feeling on Scottish campuses. “I think we’ve reached fever pitch among students and even the general public are looking at the way things are going and have finally had enough,’’ said Kirsteen Fraser, a 22-year-old law student.

“Education will be skewed in favour of a very rich few and I think people are livid about it. People are sick of a small minority reaping the fruits of their labours.

“I don’t think people realise how strong the emotion is about this.”

Callum Lawson, an 18-year-old studying English literature, was among those who attended the protest march in London and says the majority of Scots students are against cuts and fears the Scottish budget on Wednesday could spark fresh protests.

He said: “The occupation of the Conservative headquarters was an inevitable backlash to the cuts.

“The idea that it was a group of militant activists and anarchists that were behind the protest is nonsense; it was a broad spectrum of students who were involved from all walks of life.’’

That wasn’t a view shared by one 19-year-old chemistry student. He said: “Some people involved in the protest were just looking for an excuse to stick it to the Government because they are furious about the budget cuts and felt betrayed by the LibDems, who promised to freeze tuition fees.”

And a 23-year-old history student from the West End of Glasgow added: “I’m not even certain if the people involved in the violence were students or just hangers-on.

“They did attack Conservative Party headquarters and in my view they went too far and the protest got out of hand.

“But students are meant to have fire in their bellies and they’re entitled to be angry about the cuts. Too many people are willing to roll over and accept things.”

Scottish students may not be directly affected by the Westminster plans but they sympathise with their counterparts in England and Wales. Calum Russell, a fourth-year geography student from Edinburgh, said: “It’s a slightly different perspective for Scottish students, but I’m fully supportive of students in England.

“I don’t think there’s any way I could afford £9000 tuition fees a year. Students are worried about the future and are now looking at what sort of courses they want to do, and even changing their courses so they can help pay back fees more quickly.”

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