On Wednesday, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts-organised student protest marched from the University of London campus in the centre of the city to Moorgate in the financial district. The past year's student protests have set the bar pretty high, and with November being the month of Guy Fawkes, fireworks and any number of historical revolutions, we eagerly bounded down to the West End in the mood for some good 'ol fashioned public disorder. Unfortunately, it seemed the police had had the same idea, and ended up outnumbering the protesters by roughly two to one. Not a great start, but we maintained our optimism.
By about noon, a load of people were milling around Malet Street handing out leaflets and selling Marxist literature, whistles and other protest paraphernalia. The mood seemed promising, and a gnome was compelled to dance an Irish jig. Everyone I spoke to seemed "Excited!", or "Looking forward to the day!", or to "really need the toilet". After a quick look around at the placards, we set off shuffling south, towards the bright lights of Theatreland!
In the lead-up to the march, the Met had issued statements about the rubber bullets and "extreme measures" they were prepared to use if things got out of hand. In lieu of the kicking they and most of the country got in the August riots, many media outlets seemed to have penned their headlines in advance – it was assumed that the police would use this protest to show the proles back in their job-free, debt-laden, future-less places. What we didn't anticipate – though we really should have – was that the most potent weapon in the police's armoury so far has been boredom. Anger-quelling, heart-slowing, near-psychedelic boredom. Wisely, the cops drew for their bum-out tactics, and, generally-speaking, the rest of the day played out like a well-supervised school trip.
Nothing happened for an hour. We edged along completely at the will and control of the overwhelming police presence. Several men played football and we saw Jody McIntyre. Students chanted, a pissed-up bloke with a poppy and a can of Stella was half-arrested and a police horse with bad guts poured its shit ceaselessly upon the pristine streets of Central London. That was about it.
By now you may be starting to understand how boring this was in comparison to last year's protests. We struggled to remain motivated as the crowd got more excited than was warranted by some local scaffolders shouting their support. Just as we were wondering if we should sack this off and go home to exorcise our anger on the new Call of Duty, there were young men in bandanas. The arrival of the bandanas visibly unsettled the police, who formed a cordon. Somewhere behind us a boom-box started playing dubstep. Things were starting to feel very revolutionary and exciting as some empty plastic bottles landed near a policeman.
Then for about five minutes it all opened up, as some anarchists broke through the police line and ran around shouting for a bit. Several coppers' hats fell off, making them look worried and vulnerable. A firework went off near a horse, spooking me and several other members of the press (but totally not the horse, which was too busy shitting) and we all felt like this "could be it' and "it was happening again"… for about a minute. The sheer numbers of police meant that this was simply not the time nor the place for social insurrection, and we were very quickly moving on again in an organised, and entirely contained, march. We stared at a line of law-imposing faces, wondering if this was our lives for the next few hours.
It was. At about 4PM we arrived at the designated rally point. The few black bloc guys who hadn't been arrested yet wandered around wondering where there mates were and looking resigned to the fact that the day had passed off peacefully. The crowd entertained itself by listening to drum and bass and outing undercover policeman.
How to out an undercover fuzz. Step 1. - Identify.
Step 2. - Shout and have a bit of a scuffle.
Step 3. - Shout more abuse and throw projectiles.
While all this was going on, we spoke to an anarchist, who filled us in on the tactics the police had used throughout the day. "They were picking us off at the back one at a time," he said. "We "de-arrested" some, but they got at least 60 of us. They took my mask off me as soon as I got here, but what are you gonna do? It's annoying, because there were a lot more of us."
The rest of the evening was a combination of thirst, needing the toilet and a diminishing group of kids dancing to 90s ragga, drum and bass and garage classics. Great tunes, maybe it should become a regular thing in the financial district, however it probably does little to stop the rise in tuition fees. Oh well. At 5.30PM everyone was told to leave, and d'you know what? They did, us included. We left feeling tired and forcibly civilised.
The police won this one. Not only did they stamp out any possibility of the youth burning London to the ground, but they also completely stifled the actual protest and march with their totalitarian efficiency. Oh, and Rage Against the Machine didn't show up, either. Good job, democracy.
WORDS: JOSHUA HADDOW
PHOTOS & VIDEO: HENRY LANGSTON