How many police does it take to control a demo? Thousands and thousands and thousands, if today’s show of force at the student demonstrations against tuition fees is anything to go by. The Metropolitan Police said 4000 officers were there – but on the ground, it felt like every way you turned there was a burly chest, peaked cap and baton to contend with.
Around 2000 people joined the march that wound its way through the city from Bloomsbury to London Wall and it was small compared to the previous student marches earlier in the year. But you sensed the police were on their guard for even a tiny hint of trouble. Many of them mirrored the protestors and had covered their faces with black balaclavas: lining the road they felt an intimidating presence. Even more ominous was the threat of using rubber bullets that had been mooted prior to the march by the Met in the event of violence breaking out. That and the lines of officers on foot, horses, in vans and in the air (the noise of helicopters droned continously throughout the afternoon) suffused the march with an edgy nervousness.
As for the demonstrators, almost all I spoke to were articulate and knowledgeable about why they were there. ‘I couldn’t have gone on to study at my college without the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) grant that paid for my bus fare to get me to sixth form college,’ said Sean, a nineteen year old from Nottingham, who was protesting to the cut to that grant. Paveen, who was studying for her Masters at King’s College London said she wasn’t there for herself, but because ‘I want younger people to be given the chance to have an education that I have had.’
The sense of frustration about lack of educational opportunities, jobs – a future was palpable all around. I left the protest at London Wall, where police had effectively curtailed the march by preventing access to the roads leading to St Paul’s. As I walked away chants of ‘You can stick your rubber bullets up your arse,’ echoed around the City streets. So far, at least, that particular menace has failed to materialise. Rebecca Taylor