Fifty-thousand students descended on London today in the biggest student action in a generation. The march culminated in the occupation of an office block which houses the Conservative Party headquarters. A large group of students entered the building, and fires were lit outside, where a stand off with police ended late this evening.
The day began peacefully, with an estimated 275 students from Southampton attending the demonstration, and making a noisy, visible presence in a large block of orange t-shirts. The march progressed past the Houses of Parliament with a great deal of chanting, but no incident.
At around two o’clock however, windows in the 30 Millbank building were broken with metal poles and protestors entered and occupied the lobby. Staff were evacuated, as a bonfire of placards was built outside, where a stuffed effigy of David Cameron was also burnt. Police appeared completely unprepared for the incident, having offered 30 Millbank no special protection. A huge crowd of demonstrators filled the forecourt and the road opposite, as the occupiers made it all the way to the roof.
Police responded to the occupation by attacking some demonstrators with batons, leading to some injuries. A reported 10 people have been treated in hospital, although their injuries are described as minor. A Wessex Scene reporter saw a girl stumbling away from the crowd with a bleeding head, although the cause of her injuries is unknown. The crowd vastly outnumbered police until nightfall when many left to return to their coaches. Just after five o’clock dozens of riot police surrounded the crowd outside the building, where a stand-off is understood to be underway.
Reactions to the occupation of the building were mixed. While some students applauded the action, others distanced themselves from what they percieved to be disorderly violence. VP Academic Affairs Rob Stanning commented that it was a shame that a small minority of students had spoiled what was otherwise a peaceful and successful demonstration.
A three hour sit-down protest also occured outside the Houses of Parliament as central London was brought to a standstill by the enormous crowd. The protest is currently top news on a number of world news websites, and the impressive attendance must be considered a victory for a generation of students who are constantly branded as apathetic. The rally is one of the largest student protests ever in this country, and has sent a clear message to MPs ahead of the vote on increasing fees.
Students were demonstrating against the 80% cuts to higher education teaching budgets, and the proposed increase in the cap on fees to £9000 per year. Alan Whitaker, University and College’s Union President, said these measures would culminate in the UK “having the most expensive public Universities in the world’ forget America, the Harvard’s, Brown’s and Yale’s are all privately owned – what the UK Government is proposing is wrong”.
The most popular chant of the day was “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts”, and students carried a range of imaginative banners. Many attacked Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s broken promise to oppose a rise in tuition fees. The Lib Dems seem to have become the biggest target of the demonstrators, with the NUS calling for MPs to be unseated if they vote for a rise in fees.
The Wessex Scene spoke to a student from Birmingham who stated that, “We are angry, and we all want to do something. You’ve got to hope that this will make a difference, but its important this isn’t the end of the story. We need to make sure we use this momentum and push the campaign on.”