After the Demolition

Demolition 2010I am writing this a few hours after arriving home from the Demolition 2010 demonstration in London, which was organised to protest the tripling of student fees. So far as I can tell, the narrative about the event has been decidedly negative: pictures of students attacking the headquarters of the Conservative Party at Millbank Tower are likely winging their way around the world by now. Channel 4 News led with these violent images. It would seem that the London police, the demonstration organisers, the National Union of Students and my union have not emerged from today covered in glory. The attempts by people of goodwill to distinguish the peaceful majority from the riotous minority are worthy, however, the goal of sending a coherent, powerful and unambigious message to the politicians has not been achieved.

As part of my union duties, I joined the demonstration, though I never made it as far as Millbank Tower. I arrived relatively late, though before the march’s official start, thanks to train delays. In vain, I looked around for people I recognised. I was so desperate to march with someone I knew that I had an overoptimistic moment, saying hi to someone who looked vaguely like an acquaintance of mine. I hastily apologised.

Eventually I found students from my university; while I knew none of them, at least I had the slight reassurance that one might have at a family reunion filled with cousins thrice removed but just met. It was quickly apparent that I was stuck with them: shortly I was surrounded on all sides by protestors. Most were cheerful. Some blew whistles. Chants rose: “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!” and “9K? No way!” Some clever signs were in evidence, such as “I am the Ghost of Nick Clegg’s Integrity” and one featuring a picture of David Cameron with the legend, “Some of my best friends are poor!”

We moved forward slowly. The crowd was addressed by two speakers who I could not see from my position: the first speaker was quite impassioned, but needed to invest in a better class of amplifier. Much of what he said was muffled. The next speaker was just as vehement and just as obscure. In any event, the noon hour struck and we shuffled forward onto Whitehall.

I felt a bit odd as an older person amidst all these young people: I seemed impossibly ancient. Keen to do something, I sent pictures to Twitter via my mobile and reported on what I was seeing. More signs passed me, “Nick Clegg’s lies make Education cry” and “Fee-Bull”. It was obvious early on that the Liberal Democrats were targets of particular ire: education cuts and additional fees were expected from the Conservatives, however the Liberal Democrats had promised to abolish fees altogether, which had apparently attracted a great many votes from the assembled crowd. The anger was made more visible by a sign which read “Clegg Utters No Truths”: the acronym tells the tale. Others chanted, “Nick Clegg, shame on you, you’re a f***ing Tory too!”: the moral of the story for all politicians may be that sometimes a promise is a promise. In contrast, there were a few “Vote Labour” signs, however, given that Labour introduced student fees in the first place, their presence was rightfully subdued.

The almost festive, if somewhat febrile atmosphere was enhanced by the sounds of drumming. We proceeded down Whitehall, again slowly, raising a cheer once we went past the gates to 10 Downing Street. I saw a sign which apologised for its lack of quality, however that was due to cuts in arts funding. The demonstration came to a halt in front of Parliament Square. A young lady in a flourescent vest and hard hat climbed above the crowd in the middle of a pedestrian crossing and encouraged us to sing the following song:

“If you hate the Coalition, clap your hands
“If you hate the Coalition, clap your hands
“If you hate the Coalition, then join the Demolition
“If you hate the Coalition, clap your hands.

“If you think that Clegg’s a wanker, clap your hands
“If you think that Clegg’s a wanker, clap your hands
“If you think that Clegg’s a wanker, and should have been a banker
“If you think that Clegg’s a wanker, clap your hands.”

The young lady then informed us that the BBC had said that there were 52,000 people present. Overhead, helicopters hovered: the crowd raised a cry to them. Coincidentally, I think, my mobile’s access to the internet then died. The march then proceeded past the Palace of Westminster. It was liberating to be able to walk down the middle of the street in front of Parliament; the drumming got louder. Some students staged a sit-in. I continued onward. However, the march began to lose its solidity beyond the grounds of Parliament. I saw a group run down a side-street. I followed briefly to take a look, saw nothing, walked back to the embankment. I then made it as far as Horseferry Road, where there is a roundabout. A number of students were there, still chanting, holding signs, generally being peaceful. I thought the protest was over. So it was a surprise when I got the following text from a friend of mine:

“…burning placards and smashed windows at Tory HQ, apparently, that had better not be you!”

I looked around at the students and protestors. There had been a strong presence of a variety of Socialist Worker and far-left groups: because of how rapidly they divide and proliferate into smaller units, I have thought of them as akin to the Judean People’s Front from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”. Their acolytes had been working the crowds, though with limited success so far as I could tell. At one point I’d been caught up behind a batch of Socialist Students, which was a more substantial bunch. However, the remnants traling behind seemed relatively subdued. I positioned myself in the middle of a pedestrian crossing, waiting for anyone I recognised, so I could ask what was going on. Meanwhile, a large group of police officers marched up Millbank heading towards Millbank Tower. This was followed by three large police vans also headed in that direction.

I decided to go the opposite way, partially because it seemed the body of the crowd was still in front of Parliament. On my way back, I saw students being interviewed by television reporters. The protest in front of Parliament hadn’t changed much since I had proceeded onwards: there was still the rhythmic drumming and chanting. Enough of the internet came back to my mobile for me to take another picture and to decry any violence. By this point the demonstration had lost most of its coherence: the point had been made. I followed a stream of students out past Westminster Abbey and walked towards Victoria Station.

I arrived at Victoria and picked up an Evening Standard as quickly as I could, to see how the demonstration was being received. Initial headlines were positive: the picture was of smiling students decrying the cuts. I got on a train and got out of London quickly: as my internet access improved, it rapidly became clear that the violence at Millbank Tower was going to be the major part of the story. I also read that some demonstrators had decided to lash out at Liberal Democrat Headquarters, though how far that got was difficult to discern. Stuck on a crowded commuter train, it was difficult not to let out a dissatisfied groan. Arriving home has not helped matters: I switched on the news, and the footage was of the violence that I simply did not see while I was there. Gone were the smiling students, their clever banners, their sincere concerns. Washed away was their very real dissatisfaction with the contrast between Liberal Democrat promises and the grim reality. At this point, it looks like a narrative of spoiled, disaffected students who vandalise property may be the one that is emerging, and it could very well be used to ram home the changes that so upset students, lecturers and university staff alike. Hopefully this is not what remains after the Demolition; it was so much more and deserves to be remembered as such.

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