Hundreds of Oxford students were among the thousands who took to the streets of London on Wednesday to protest against government plans to triple tuition fees and slash public spending on higher education.
Over 50,000 protesters marched from Trafalgar Square towards the Houses of Parliament. The NUS organised event was the biggest student demonstration in a decade, since the introduction of tuition fees in 1998. It was also the biggest national demonstration so far against the coalition government’s programme of spending cuts.
Though the march itself was peaceful, violence erupted when students stormed the Conservative headquarters.
Ralph Turner, a second year Somerville undergraduate said, “The violence was certainly not predictable. Although a sense of anger was easily detectable, the general mood of the crowd was light-hearted, with the vast majority wanting to make their point in a peaceful way.”
During the course of the afternoon, students smashed windows and broke into the Tory offices in the Millbank Tower. Once inside the lobby, the protesters slashed furniture and spray painted “Tory pigs” on the walls, before running upstairs and occupying the roof. Throngs of protesters below cheered and applauded as a red flag was flown by the students on the roof.
One of the students who occupied the roof told Cherwell, “There was lots of energy in the crowd, and we managed to fight our way into the building. We ran upstairs onto the roof; it felt really empowering, just showing how angry we were. Later, we ran down the fire escape and escaped through a back door, before disappearing back into the crowd.”
Onlookers told how the positive atmosphere soon dissipated as a fire extinguisher was thrown from the roof, aimed at the line of police in the courtyard. At this point, the crowd started chanting at them to “stop throwing shit”.
A first year engineering student at Oxford said, “Suddenly everyone in the court yard turned against the students on the roof and told them to stop.”
One of the protesters on the roof defended their actions, saying, “Entering and occupying the building is justifiable. We need to do more than just marching if we want to make an impact. Smashing windows to get access to building is also justifiable, although I would never condone physical violence against anyone, including a police officer.”
OUSU President, David Barclay, commented, “OUSU supports the right of students to protest nonviolently. It is hugely unfortunate that some people yesterday were injured and that arrests were made.”
Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students, was also quick to condemn the violence. In a statement he said, “This action was by others who have come out and used this opportunity to hijack a peaceful protest.”
However, not everyone agreed with Porter’s line on the events at the Millbank Tower. Michael Walker, a second year PPE student at Oxford said, “There was a palpable feeling it was not enough to simply tell the government we opposed their plans. We needed to demonstrate not only our anger but our capability to channel that anger into a force which could genuinely challenge the government’s ability to implement its cuts agenda.”
Walker disputed the claim that the actions of students at the Millbank Tower were violent. “It is a falsity to construe the actions against Conservative HQ as violent. Protesters were not attacking people. Protesters were attacking a building. Spraying walls within which the destruction of their own communities were being planned.”
A few hours before the storming of the Conservative headquarters, there was another largely unreported disturbance at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Courtney Yousef, a first year History student at Catz, explained what happened. “Led on by a sound system blasting out old-school Garage anthems, a few hundred students broke away from the main march to roam the streets of Westminster.
“We ran past Downing Street and danced past Horse Guards, then the sound system led the crowd to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.”
Here, students jumped over the wall and stormed the courtyard, as the police formed a barrier to stop prevent anyone from entering the main building.
Yousef said, “A few were using the crowd to attempt a pre-planned siege of the building, the majority of the people were simply dancing to the music and having a great time.
“That is what the media has failed to convey in its portrayal of the protest. Dancing in the street, united by a cause, irrespective of your background and circumstances, that’s what Wednesday was really about.”
A spokesperson from the Metropolitan police confirmed to Cherwell that 50 people had been arrested who were linked to the demonstration. Cherwell understands that at least one Oxford student was among those who were arrested at the protests.
The Met Police spokesperson said, “Everyone who was arrested has been released on bail until February, pending further investigation. We are looking to establish who was involved; it is too early to comment on identities.
“There is going to be an internal review of what happened on Wednesday to ensure that any lessons that need to be learned can be incorporated into the planning of future events.”
A spokesperson from the University Press Office said, “We are committed to free speech and supports people’s right to protest. The majority of Oxford students will have acted peacefully. We do not condone any sort of violence or illegal activity.”