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London Students Ran Wild in the Streets to Demand a Free Education

They stormed Parliament Square and paint bombed a government ministry.
November 20, 2014, 3:25pm

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

Yesterday afternoon, thousands of students poured onto the streets of central London demanding an end to tuition fees, student debt and government cuts to education funding.

Rocking up to Malet Street, outside what used to be the University of London Union, there was a palpable buzz in the air. A samba band stood on the steps of SOAS, socialist newspaper sellers tried to sell me their shitty newspapers, and thousands of students were preparing placards.

Photos by ​Adam Barnett

There were more people there than I expected, especially given that the National Union of Students (NUS) had pulled out of supporting the march due to the "unacceptable level of risk" that it posed to the protesters themselves. As you can see from the above picture, it was terrifying.

Despite that, Gordon Maloney, President of NUS Scotland, was there, busy pointing out that the Scottish NUS is autonomous: "We don't have tuition fees in Scotland, but we know we've got a long way to keep fighting until we have an equitable education system," he told me. Maloney's presence was appreciated but it also seemed a little backwards. The leader of an organisation representing students who don't pay any fees had turned up, while those who represent the £9k generation south of the border decided they had better, less risky things to do.

Unsurprisingly, then, the NUS offices were the scene of a protest early yesterday morning. Demonstrators paint-bombed the building and graffitied "scabb"—a play on "sabb" (Sabbatical Officer)—scrawled everywhere. A press release from "Ghost Commando Aaron Porter" was emailed out to media, taking responsibility for the damage. Aaron Porter is an ex-NUS president, current private consultant and the guy who told Newsnight in 2010 that the students at Millbank were "despicable" and "unjustified." Everyone on the student left hates him for this, so it's a safe bet that the email was a satirical in-joke, not an unprovoked admission of guilt from the newly ultra-left Aaron Porter.

T he marchers started gathering at noon, with a flare-wielding black bloc taking the lead, followed by sixth form students chanting, "You're a fucking dick, Nick"—Clegg still being heckled four years after breaking his promise over a rise in tuition fees.

Before long, the march was underway. We got down to Parliament Square, where police lines and fencing cordoned off the grass. In recent weeks, the return of Occupy had been kicked off the square, before Anonymous tried—to no avail—to reclaim it. The students, however, weren't going to be denied their moment on the muddy patch of grass.

The crowds slowed down as the black bloc up front tested the water with the Met, chucking some placards and pot plants in their direction while shaking the fencing.

 Before the police had time to respond, one guy was charging into the square. Hundreds followed suit, and after a short scuffle with the police the students had established their base.

Some students hung about there, forming drum circles or gathering in huddles and plotting what to do next. Others chugged on to the rally point, where speeches were being made. Green Party politicians Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas had come along to tell people that they're definitely not the Lib Dems. Labour MP Dianne Abbot was there too, and told me she voted against tuition fees when Labour introduced them in the first place. Good job, Dianne.

I asked those around us for their thoughts on Miliband's "30 percent off" deal, which would lower fees to £6,000. Nobody was that impressed.

Meanwhile, one splinter group of a couple of hundred students had been doing laps of the Supreme Court. I caught up to them and suddenly we were running down Victoria Street, ending up at the department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

There was a stand off and some scuffling. Someone got nicked. Smoke and flares erupted. Plastic barriers appeared. "Tory scum, here we come!" echoed out as paint bombs flew over our heads. A team of riot cops appeared, but not before the assembled mass had made their way from the entrance and down to a branch of Starbucks. The customers inside were subjected to an impromptu lock in, and everyone shouted at the baristas about their bosses not paying taxes. This was a little unfair, I thought, as those bosses work 5,000 miles away from London, and the baristas being shouted at presumably don't have a lot of say when it comes to the coffee corporation's accounting decisions.

Across the street, people were having a horrible time. One guy was bleeding heavily and the colour was draining out of his face. A girl next to me asked a police officer if they were going to do anything about the injuries. He replied: "What do you think?" I don't know what we were supposed to think, given the fact that cops all around us were pushing people into hard surfaces as hard as they could.

I suggested they let the guy at least sit down, but apparently I needed to "FUCKING GET BACK."

The crowds continued to run around for the next hour or so, the cops on their tail. Some headed back to Parliament, others to Buckingham Palace. Some got kettled outside the headquarters of John Lewis.

I went back over to Parliament Square, where the crowds were now thinning. Students were catching up, having a smoke and working out their plans for the rest of the evening. There was talk of regrouping, but with the realisation that 11 of their mates had been nicked, people decided to head over to the station in Belgravia to wait for their release.

The 10,000 or so who took to the streets yesterday were the £9,000 generation, most of whom were still in their early teens when the whole student fees fiasco kicked off in 2010. I asked Beth Redmond, one of the main organisers of the demo and part of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, for her views on the NUS opting out of the demo. "I would stick my middle finger up at them [if they showed up]. They've undermined us and tried to stop us organising this, and look how many people just don't care about them. It's a big 'fuck you'."

I then asked a second year called Joe if he knew much about the NUS situation, and he didn't have a clue. It dawned on me that, for the thousands assembled yesterday, the existence of the NUS—for the ones who didn't actively hate it, at least—was peripheral. It didn't matter that they weren't represented at the march, because the majority of the people there weren't relying on external forces to fight their battles for them; they were prepared to go out and do it themselves.

The ​Students Against Boredom and Banality, a political group that exists mostly as a communiqué on a tumblr site, have accused the NUS of "marching into irrelevance." With Joe Vinson, NUS Vice President for Further Education, saying last night that he'll pass on all he can about the defacing of his office to the Met (rather than having a go at them for spending yesterday beating the shit out of the students he claims to represent), I can't help feeling that they're right.

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