The Millbank Riot: A view from within

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On Wednesday the 10th of November at the NUS Demo, a riot broke outside Tory HQ at Millbank Tower. Chris Shimwell, a Politics student from Southampton University was there, and gave this account of amongst the melee:

It’s dark. It’s cold. I’m stuck. As I stand outside the Millbank Tower in London, light from inside the building reflects off of the broken glass on the floor. Burly policemen, mostly holding riot shields, stand shoulder to shoulder in a semi-circle around us.

Rewind an hour and it’s hard to imagine a more different scene: about twenty of us were sat in a hired out room of a pub in Westminster, having successfully carried out 180 face to face interviews with demonstrators, and handed out 1,000 surveys for a research project conducted by the University of Southampton Politics department. As we wound down, we watched images on the TV of Millbank Tower, just five minutes away from where we now sat: the smashing of windows, a policeman with blood on his nose, students on the roof, a couch in the street. It was hardly the violence of the Poll Tax Riots, but it still had the look of an era defining moment.

Of the many protests we’d surveyed, none so far had descended into such levels of anarchy. In no way did we want to partake, but just to be there and have a look held a strange attraction, so a small number of us headed off towards Millbank Tower. As we approached the building, we saw groups of police standing around talking. Meanwhile to my right, students were sitting on the floor in silent protest, and quite a few people were still milling around.

Wandering up to one of the groups of chatting policeman, I asked if they had anticipated this level of activism. “Always expect the unexpected” one replied philosophically. People seemed calm, with only a couple of sporadic chants echoing around the oddly enclosed space at the base of the tower. A couple of people laughed and joked and I even saw a policeman with riot shield and helmet chatting to a young protestor after discovering that they supported the same football team.

Unfortunately, at that moment, something happened. To my left a scuffle broke out and immediately police were moving forward and a young man was grabbed from the crowd. Suddenly policemen were everywhere and I was shoved sideways as people were pushed forcefully to one side. Standing up on an overturned flowerpot to get a better view, I was almost knocked off as a second skirmish began and police attempted to push everyone back.

As further police arrived shouting “Back! Back! Back!” at the remaining protestors, we moved away from the small crowd and walked away. Passing out from under the overhang of the Millbank Tower, I got a further ominous feeling upon seeing the number of policemen arranged in a semi-circle around us. Walking towards them, we were told that we couldn’t pass.

They wanted everyone contained to attempt to isolate people who had specifically been causing trouble and place them under arrest. For now, gone were the cheery smiles and the understanding looks. Cameras flashed around us and behind me someone was recording a news report. Approximately 200 of us stood uncomfortably in the open, waiting to be allowed to leave. It’s dark, it’s cold and there’s no-where to go.

Although the police were by no means threatening, it was still fairly intimidating; especially when one officer shouts “Four paces forward” and the semi–circle tightens ever so slightly. A couple of meters away from me a girl, who looked about twenty, stood with tears flowing down her face.

Nevertheless most officers after the initial forming of the barrier were still amiable and happy to talk. I discussed the fortunes of Aston Villa with one, while another told me that he would be in trouble when he got home as he’d told his wife that he’d be home by now. Only one officer eyed me suspiciously, perhaps misconstruing the survey placards I was carrying as banners for some radical, anarchist group.

After what seemed a substantial amount of time, word filtered through that we would be allowed to leave one by one if we gave our details.  Immediately a certain number refused, but the majority looked relieved. Presumably someone somewhere had scrutinised CCTV footage and had identified people they wanted to speak to. After a short pause we were allowed to leave, one at a time. As soon as one of us left the semi-circle, we were then immediately required to give name, address, phone number, submit to a total bag and body search and finally to have a police cameraman take front and back photos.

And then suddenly that was it. I was free. Standing beyond the ring of policemen, we looked back at all the people still inside. Somewhere in there were people who had turned a well meaning and valid protest into nothing more than a cheap headline grabbing story, which almost certainly wouldn’t endure the test of time. Headlines would talk of student anarchism and destruction. However it hadn’t just been students, I thought as I remembered the older people outside Millbank Tower earlier in the day, stopping students and saying things like: “This is the Tory Party Headquarters. Don’t just walk by. Do something”

Later on the way home, I contemplated what had gone wrong with the protest. “Student Siege” proclaimed the front page headline of the London Evening Standard discarded on the tube seat opposite me. Everywhere, I felt that the stereotype of students was only being aggravated. What good had the demonstration really done?

For all of Aaron Porter’s posturing on Newsnight later on, his argument with one of his own officers who had stormed Millbank and then described it as: “Just a few broken windows”,  simply cast the NUS as being factional, inept and slightly embarrassing. How could students protest and have their voices heard when the leadership was in disagreement with itself?

Despite all of this, we should not forget, nor fail to applaud, the efforts of the overwhelming majority of students, lecturers, and other who felt passionately about the issues at stake here. They turned up in tens of thousands to make their views on increases in tuition fees known. In an age where many protests fail to attract a lot of people, even when many people would broadly sympathise with the viewpoints, it was refreshing to see so many people turn out to utilise one of the key aspects of a liberal democracy: the right of each and every citizen to express their opinion. The question is: how could the overwhelming majority of well-meaning protesters be better heard? And not just heard, but actually listened to.

For a brief period on the Fund Our Future Demonstration, people sat down on the floor outside Downing Street, again outside Westminster, and one more time at Millbank Tower. Cameras flashed in the twilight, yet they didn’t move. They sat there without talking, without smiling, laughing, crying or shouting. The issues here were important to them. They wanted to show it without falling into old stereotypes: smashing glass, stealing couches, posturing for cameras and generally behaving like sulky teenagers. They were here to make a serious point, and had understood that to make a serious point; you need to do it in a serious manner. Let’s see anarchists and troublemakers attempt to corrupt that.

If you care enough about an issue, you should seek to have the courage to do something different, something that flies in the face of convention and stereotype. It should cause people to stop and think. It should certainly be more thought provoking than going on the 10 o’clock news with the word “F*ck” written on your face. Like it or not, the Fund Our Future Demonstration will be remembered for the scenes of wreckage at Millbank, and not why people were there in the first place.

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Discussion4 Comments

  1. avatar

    I think you over-egg the role of ‘anarchists’ here – most of the people in the crowd at Millbank were just ordinary pissed-off students, along with some anarchist students – blaming the property destruction entirely on non-student radicals is inaccurate (see http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=31261145&o=all&op=1&view=all&subj=128397300550227&id=1059750674 for a nice illustration…). I’d also point out that there are many anarchists who didn’t riot (many if not a majority of anarchists advocate non-violence), and that simply attempting to stereotype an entire political philosophy and blame just them doesn’t represent what really happened.

  2. avatar

    I don’t accept your assertion that it was the people sitting stoically on the ground, doing absolutely nothing, who were displaying admirable courage and fervour. What exactly is the “serious point” they were making? Noone even knew they were there. This sort of “protest” may be well-meaning, but it’s also worthless. Doing nothing is the easiest option, and if the hackneyed saying if anything to go by, will facilitate the triumph of evil.

    I don’t condone violent protesting, but I certainly wouldn’t condemn the people behind the break-in for having the courage and conviction to make a stand for what they believed in. I admire their passion, although it was misguided.

    Ultimately, neither sort of protest will have any influence on Cameron. It is obvious that students are going to be against tuition fee rises; he is just making the changes he deems necessary in the situation. So, if smashing some windows brings a sense of justice to those taking the hit, who are we to take that away from them?

  3. avatar

    Good report, Chris!

    Unfortunately, such demonstrations do often attract certain anti-social elements who make a habit of hijacking the event and causing violence.

    Something which would disturb me a lot more than you apparently is the way the police treated you – body search, name and address, photos, etc. You were there to make a legitimate protest in a peaceful manner and end up being treated like a criminal. I have no time for the “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” attitude of some people – I’m sure that the vicinity of the Tory party headquarters is bristling with CCTV cameras, so there should be no problem in identifying the troublemakers. I am pretty sure the actions of the police were mainly intended to intimidate you, however friendly certain individual police officers may appear to have been. And keeping everyone penned in until they identify themselves reminds me of unpopular teachers at school who would keep the whole class back because of one troublemaker.

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