They screamed their rage at Big Ben, but Big Ben didn't wanna listen.
Yesterday, in scenes not seen since approximately this time last year, the streets of London were flooded with students protesting against the rising costs of university and further education. VICE news editor Henry Langston and I decided to check out this year's NUS-organised protest, which was made up of students fully aware that this was merely the opening skirmish in an ongoing war. A war where an average of one battle is fought a year and nothing much ever comes of it.
The main march formed up at Embankment. Meanwhile, at UCL, a radical feeder march gathered, comprising of people who obviously thought the official NUS slogan for the march, “Educate, Employ, Empower”, sounded too much like an advertising campaign for a private sixth form college. I suppose it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue or make you seem like a regime-toppling seditionary in the same way that “One solution: revolution” does.
From what I could tell, the crowd seemed to be mainly made up of fresh recruits keen to get their slice of the protest action they missed out on back when revolution was in the air and the King Blues were still making music. I guess 2010’s student revolutionaries have moved on to graduate schemes in KPMG, showing people how to use the self-checkout machines that will eventually take their jobs at Tesco or, more likely, spending the day sobbing uncontrollably in the direction of their overdrawn bank accounts.
Two sixth formers I spoke to said that they were hoping for another Millbank, but admitted that most of their classmates hadn’t showed up, either out of apathy, because of poor publicity, or both.
Even though it seemed like most people present hadn’t been there at the time, grudges borne from the NUS calling its own students’ ransacking of the Tory HQ at Millbank “despicable” obviously hadn’t been forgotten.
The atmosphere was a nice, complex blend of lively and angry; some of the students even formed a “book bloc”. The idea here is to make shields out of hard foam and plastic, but with the covers of intellectual tomes drawn on the front, simultaneously creating a defence against the police while also placating the professor who’s going to try to get you deported because you skived off lectures to go to a protest.
Unfortunately these particular barriers were made out of cardboard, which could barely withstand the drizzle, let alone the angry shoving of police all riled up by the small amount of jostling opposing them.
The route of the march – ending up in an obscure park in South London, miles from any symbols of power – had been a source of consternation from the moment it was made public, with the left-wingers complaining that the NUS had bottled it again. A few attempts were made to break away, but every one was quickly fenced off by a wall of luminous jackets.
As the demonstration neared Parliament, some people tried to storm Parliament Square. This is what the police looked like when that happened.
Minor scuffles broke out, but the protesters were Palestine (whose flags they were flying in solidarity, conveniently) to the police's Israel, totally outgunned and encased in a ring of steel, preventing anyone from getting anywhere near Parliament. Which, of course, elicited the usual chants of “Fuck the police" and lots of angry flag waving and fist pumping.
Protesters always say all cops are bastards, but hey, at least these counter-revolutionary stooges were doing Movember, which means they must at least be on the same side as everyone else when it comes to cancer. Which is kind of nice, I guess, until you realise that if anyone else was rocking a moustache like this at any other time of year, they'd probably be hauled before the Savile Police.
Even as the black bloc closed in, this giant man was very happy to pose for the cameras, indulging us like we were amateur photographers at a university evening class. Except we'll never be that, gentle giant, because we don't have the presumably inordinate amount of money it's going to cost to learn about the rule of thirds for five one-hour-long lessons.
Immobilised by the cops, the students were left to shout their rage at Big Ben.
Their point about the need to hold a rally somewhere other than a park miles from anywhere important proved a valid one. Someone in the halls of power heard the call of the plebs’ army and looked out at her subjects. If it was a Lib Dem, she probably cried a single guilt-tear, before taking a couple of valium and trying to keep her head up while the popular Tories ignored her in the Parliament canteen.
After a while standing around, the march reluctantly moved off towards its rally point. It was good to see the students keeping some perspective with their massive Free Gaza banner, because as much as student debt sucks, I’d take it any day over becoming collateral damage in an Israeli air strike.
By the time we got to the park, the weather had taken a turn for the completely fucking horrible and everyone was cold and miserable. Even the once-in-a-lifetime prospect of watching Josie Long introduce speeches from some NUS leaders couldn’t convince a lot of the protesters not to go to the pub. Of those who did stay, a large minority were in no mood to hear speeches from the very people whose organisational skills had landed them in this muddy field.
The speakers were heckled with chants of “NUS, shame on you, where the fuck have you brought us to?” Then NUS president Liam Burns tried to calm everyone down, but that did little other than further anger the crowd, eventually ending in them pelting eggs at him while he ducked behind the microphone stand – the most ineffective form of cover known to man.
Eventually the stage was stormed by the “fuck-the NUS” faction. The reaction from the crowd was mixed – to some they were heroes, to others, total dickheads. It was as if a suburban house party playlist-hog had just interrupted “Mr Brightside” with Crass, right in the middle of the chorus.
The stage-stormers’ next words were poorly chosen. “To Parliament!” they cried, to which everyone – even those wearing the latest in this season's black bloc apparel – seemed to react along the lines of: “Screw that, I don’t want to catch pneumonia marching on somewhere we’ve already failed to storm today." No doubt the NUS leadership will question what the coup achieved. They may have a point, but then you could also question what's to be gained from capitulation, spineless toadying and jockeying for a career in a Labour Party-affiliated think-tank.
Yesterday proved once again that extreme drizzle and fear of catching the sniffles are far more efficient at killing the riot-vibe than any police barrier. Oh, but unfortunately those are pretty fucking effective, too.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonchilds13