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Impact on the NUS Demo 2010 and the Siege at Millbank Tower

Impact sent a team of reporters and photographers down to Demolition 2010 on the 10th November.  This is what they saw and what they thought of the events that took place.

Ben James Writes…

Helicopters circled the scene at Demolition this Wednesday, as the work of some 40-50,000 demonstrators was undone at Millbank Tower by 500 violent protesters, who took it upon themselves to turn the poignant march about the unnecessary nature in the rise of tuition fees and university cuts into one of frustration, alienation and repulsion.

NUS president Aaron Porter set the goals of Demolition animatedly, indignantly and clearly at a press conference on Wednesday morning, “We are here to contest the unnecessary speed and depth of the university cuts and the political, not economic, reasons for these cuts and to encourage stimulation not a decrease in the economy”. On the streets, numerous placards demonstrated the direct yet light-hearted approach of the demonstrators; “Education for the masses, not the Ruling Classes”, “I wanted a future but all I got was this stupid sign” and “Fuck this, I’m moving to Scotland”. Although the atmosphere was serious and with purpose, there was still a sense of solidarity and of excitement – people of numerous ages and backgrounds put aside their differences to unite for a common goal. This crowd was neither threatening nor destructive, and above all, encouraged an expression of the student opinion to those who otherwise would not listen.

However, the building momentum of this rally turned, in one small section of protestors, to violence – but why? In my opinion it was the misdoings of the rally leaders and police. Following the promising demonstration of students’ opinions across the afternoon, the finale of Demolition was a series of videos and a number of speeches by officials many students wouldn’t have recognised. These speeches, although rousing, were ultimately anticlimactic and imbued a sense of enthusiasm to the ever bloodthirsty demonstrators that potentially pushed them to a violent alternative. On the other hand, had this enthusiasm been halted by the police at that time, Millbank would not have been so easily ransacked. Admittedly, the police only anticipated the participation of roughly 15,000, and as nearly three times as many turned up, they were understandably unprepared. But given that they had the majority of policemen idly stood outside Westminster, having protestors rioting only yards down the street seemed ridiculous. The police could and should have applied a more assertive force in order to quell the ever-growing hostility.

Unfortunately, and stressed at length by the media, some excited, opinionated and/or drunk protestors turned their sights upon the Conservative HQ of Millbank Tower and Millbank 30. Protestors began by starting bonfires in the square of Millbank Tower, before then shredding entire panes of glass in their bid to enter Millbank 30. Some 40-50 protesters took to the roof, waving banners and throwing objects down to the on looking crowd. Amid all this action 3 policemen and 7 protesters were hospitalised with minor injuries. Riot police defended the base of Millbank 30, as chants of “When I say “Cameron” you say “Wanker!” When I say “Clegg” you say “Liar”” rang out across the mob. However, few of the actual protesters were in fact students – on average they were either 15-17 or late-twenties to early-forties. Very few seemed to be students who are presently at university. This begs the question – was this violent protest the doing of students, or anarchists? And what are the consequences for students nationwide?

The worst part of all this is the waste; the waste in time, energy and organisation and the damage it will do to the NUS, the UCU and the peaceful demonstrators who will now be demonised in the eyes of the public and the government. It seems likely that those in power will be less inclined to sympathise with the cause of Demolition, and only strengthen their resolve for university cuts and tuition fee rises.

Mea Goodall writes…

The 50,000 defenders of higher education who enthusiastically descended on London yesterday from Exeter to Inverness, and not forgetting Nottingham of course, exemplified the energy and passion that people from all social and economic backgrounds feel about their education. Marching along chanting lines like ‘Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue’, although quite amusing, cemented the sense of unity and solidarity that goes with any mass demonstration.

The march itself was really exciting; being in the capital, defying the government, diverting traffic and generally making a lot of noise. However, when we reached Millbank Tower, also known as Tory HQ, there were uncomfortable scenes of rowdy protesters kicking at glass panels and fatuously shouting things like ‘Tory scum’ and ‘Nick is a c**t’. A little while later, as we were nearing the end of Tory Towers, we came across smashed glass and police officers. Most of the peaceful protesters looked on with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. Isn’t a 50 000 turn out enough to show how furious students are? Little did they know that this was just the beginning of the violence.

The majority of the demonstration was inspiring, and the speeches by NUS President Aaron Porter and the UCU general secretary Sally Hunt were uplifting and provocative. A will to fight these cuts and to continue to vigorously oppose £9,000-a-year tuition fees seemed to be the general feeling amongst the protestors. The whole event, unfortunately, was overshadowed by a minority who believe that violence, chaos and destruction is the way forward. Never mind the inspirational images of mass demonstration, it will sadly be the disgraceful, animal-like behaviour displayed by a very small minority, unrelated to the NUS, that receives the most attention from the press.

These people, reportedly not students, do not represent us. Our work against these cuts has been made even harder, because now we have to prove to the general population that we are not violent anarchists out to destroy the government. We should applaud Aaron Porter’s quick condemnation of the violence as “despicable”, but this is the sort of thing that the 24 hour news coverage loves to sensationalise. Headlines to the effect of ‘students turn violent’ are completely misleading.

Daniel Fine Writes…

Yesterday over 52,000 students took to the streets in what was the largest student protest in over a decade, against the cuts to higher education and the rise in tuition fees.  It was billed by NUS president Aaron Porter as the beginning of a nationwide campaign to oppose these measures, in which he promised to attempt recall elections in Liberal Democrat constituencies, but violent protestors at Millbank tower may have already given the protest its death knell.

The day started off well with over the three times the predicted number of students gathering on the streets of London with the air of a festival as we marched through Westminster to the Tate museum, where speeches from Mr Porter and UCU general secretary Sally Hunt were heard among others, but amid this jovial atmosphere there was always a very palpable feeling of anger within the crowd, directed especially towards the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg, who have backed away from their election pledge to vote against any proposed rise in tuition fees, or as protesters’ signs so elegantly put it “Nick Clegg your mum bends over as well as you do” and “Clegg’s a traitor now we hate ya”.

The great patriotism towards the Labour party shown throughout the march seemed to overlook the fact that the Browne review, which has proposed the rise in tuition fees to £9,000, was commissioned by Lord Mandelson and the Labour government and that the previous administration, if re-elected, probably would have pursued similar policies, although doubtful to the same extent as the suggested 80% cut in higher education funding.

There was little hope among the protesters that the rally would have any impact whatsoever, on the decisions of the coalition government but the march was designed to display our opposition and as one organizer said to show that this policy wasn’t implemented unopposed. Well that has certainly been achieved.

Then came the violence at 30 Millbank that overshadowed the day, where an effigy of Nick Clegg was burnt before around 200 demonstrators, including some schoolchildren protesting the cuts to EMA, breaking into the foyer of 30 Millbank and ‘occupying’ the building breaking windows and throwing missiles, including a fire extinguisher down from the roof. These included many anarchist rioters who were just out for some violence. That said, to say they were the only violent demonstrators would be a gross misinterpretation of the situation. Many students were hanging anti-cuts banners off the roof, and thousands of students cheered them on in the courtyard outside of Millbank.  The police’s reaction was woeful; far too few officers were stationed around the building which allowed the violence to continue for hours in which protestors broke windows from inside the building, although one police officer, who remains anonymous, remarked when asked if more riot police where coming “Yeh, but they’re cutting the police budget too so we’re in no hurry”.  Putting aside this, hopefully, joking comment the police were too few and were unprepared.  Sir Paul Stephenson, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police admitted “It’s an embarrassment for London and for us”.

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21 Comments on this post.
  • Graham Martni
    11 November 2010 at 16:13
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    “Isn’t a 50 000 turn out enough to show how furious students are?” – Well, 2 million isn’t enough to stop a war, so I don’t see how you can think this a sensible question?

    This crowd was very largely made of students, probably 2000 strong and not the 500 you state, and they were very much choosing to act in this way. That the NUS no longer wishes to act as leader, but rather police officer, over the student movement is lamentable. Aaron Porter told a student conference on Saturday that he would back direct action to prevent cuts in education, and then he sold them out to ensure his future career.
    And for many waiting for coaches home on Albert Embankment, the sight of hundreds of students silhouetted on the roof of Millbank was an inspiration – you should be letting people make up their own minds.

    • Ben James
      11 November 2010 at 17:02
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      Well Graham, actually being there amid the crowd I saw that 500 people (check the figures if you like) were ransacking Millband and that such a dispicable presentation of rage and mindless rebellion will only inspire people to disown the movement and make a mockery of the entire event. I didn’t find their reckless actions to be an inspiration, quite the contrary, it was all that can go wrong with political protest. It leaves those that need to be convinced of the cause of Demoliton to be alienated. So the very counter-productive element of the violence has reversed whatever gains the peaceful demonstartion may have made. So I hope you enjoy paying through the nose for tuition fees at the expense of seeing the silhouetted mob destroy not only Millband, but the future of fair and affordable university education.

  • michael morrison
    11 November 2010 at 17:53
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    Do you really think a group of protesters walking idly through the streets of london chanting light heartedly would have grabbed any media attention? we may have seen a minute slot at the end of thee ten o’clock news. As graham said, 2 million walking through to the streets of London wasn’t enough, do you really think politicians will listen to a group of students? we are already seen as apathetic an idle by older generations – a peaceful march would have most likely been interpreted as an excuse for students to cop out for a day. You may argue that non-violent means are the way forward, and idealisticly that would be true. However, if the threat of a back bench rebellion and a party turning its back on you isn’t enough to stop the planned raise in tutition fees then I doubt a student protest would be.
    As for ben james’ comment arguing for the need for increased violence, I would first like to ask whether you believe in the need for increased policing, a more violent and assertive police and increased rights for police officers? If the answer is yes then I now ask you to turn your attention to evidence of where there has been an high level of policing. Perhaps the g20 summit? remeber the video of a policeman using assertive force on an innocent newspaper vendor? Increasing police power is never an answer – do you really trust them to act appropriately?
    this sounds more reminiscent over an undemocratic state – can you imagine one where a minority shares power? where this minority party was elected on a manifesto and promises which when taking power sold itself out on? can you imagine a leader of a party who when elected tunred his back on a majority of his key support base? Its no wonder a few people are pissed off!

    • Ben James
      12 November 2010 at 02:47
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      I don’t want to begin an argument on Impact’s website, but I feel I must correct Michael’s opinions of my opinions. Firstly, I want to make it clear, I have not and never will encourage violence, and when I said that police action should have been more assertive I meant that they should have restored order to the mob without resorting to needless violence. Admittedly it’s a fine line between what is necessary and unneccessary when it comes to violence and police response, but after all this is the role of the police and they need to fulfill it in times of violence. Even the police acknowledged that they didn’t act accordingly;

      Another thing I feel I need to address to Michael is that perhaps the violence did add a certain weight to the demonstartions. However, as swiftly as that weight was added just as quickly the sense of morality was lost. The goverment aren’t going to respond positively towards a riot at their own HQ. What reasonable goverment would yield under violent pressure only 6 months into the term of office? As attention grabbing as the riot was, it was equally damaging and will not make a shred of difference to the current state of university cuts and tuition fee rises.

      • Dylan Jorsh
        12 November 2010 at 10:07
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        I don’t see what’s wrong with starting an argument on Impact’s website.

        I’d like to bring you back to the point that there’s been a protest against tuition fees every year since they were brought in. This was the largest but not by much.

        If non-violent protests make such a difference, why are we still being screwed by government?

  • Dylan Jorsh
    11 November 2010 at 18:26
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    I have to say, I have mixed feelings about the whole business. Obviously as a photographer I was terribly excited but I don’t feel like I can condone the violence against the police which took place, they were doing a great job keeping us safe and this time they managed not to seriously injure anyone.
    The damage to property was a different issue though. There has been a student protest against tuition fees every year since they were brought in but this is the first to make a serious impact on national and international news. No-one can doubt that we are serious now.
    I would guess that there were 500-1000 people there but most were observers not actually involved and there were certainly only 50ish on the roof, that’s the figure the police give and there are a lot of CCTV cameras around there.
    I don’t see how this small riot was counterproductive but I also don’t think that they should be the sole focus of the media coverage, as they appear to be in all the nationals.

    One interesting thing is the number of people who weren’t students. I met one man who had just lit a fire which I was photographing; “Work of art that is” he said, I agreed “I’m not a student though, I just like riots, and I don’t like the conservatives.” I thanked him for his support and hurried away.

  • chenice nice
    11 November 2010 at 22:03
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    Shame on the national exec for condemning the students
    if you were elected to represent the students then do so
    -if your views differ from the majority of students then step down.

  • Rob
    11 November 2010 at 23:27
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    I dont see how it was a minority at Millbank. There was 5000 people there, either getting stuck in with the building and/or police or at least showing support for the occupation and themselves occupying the space outside and denying the police a chance to re-enforce. You could see that it wasn’t just a selection of hardcore activists, formerly non-militant students got involved and everyone there was in full support of the action.

  • Mea Goodall
    12 November 2010 at 00:30
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    I don’t understand why people who condone the violence say that it highlights our cause and at least gives us attention. That, however, is an entirely spurious point; what makes anyone think that criminal activity will change the Coalition’s mind? Completely senseless!

  • Mea Goodall
    12 November 2010 at 00:31
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    I anything it will just make the public more unsympathetic, if they weren’t already that is.

  • Phil
    12 November 2010 at 00:37
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    Most of the students at Millbank were spectators, not involved directly in the criminal damage. Having said that, I was on the demonstration and felt very uneasy about some of the more violent anti-Conservative rhetoric and chanting.

    I am a Conservative party member and a student who opposes the Browne Review’s recommendations and want the Coalition to reconsider. There’s such a thing as a Conservative argument against the commercialisation of Higher Education and for continued public investment in universities and colleges, and I have written today to my Conservative MP, whom I helped get elected, expressing this.

    On the demonstration, the violence against Conservative HQ and some of the slogans chanted left me questioning how far I can be involved in the NUS’ campaign. I’d really like to be, because I think the current proposals will ruin UK higher education forever, but when people (including the Gen Sec) are yelling “Tory scum” I feel excluded. Please, can everybody remember some basic human civility and that not all Conservatives (or Lib Dems!) want these cuts to happen.

    • Dylan Jorsh
      12 November 2010 at 00:56
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      Interesting you should say that Phil. I was at the press conference before the march and one of the reporters asked Aaron Porter how he would address students like you who supported the tory party but were against the cuts to education. Aaron said that this was not a party-political issue and no-one should feel excluded etc…

      Anyway, that was all nonsense obviously, as you heard. Interesting that most of the heads of the NUS have gone on to work for Labour.

      It seems like most of the students there were betrayed Lib Dem voters (like myself) but not all of them. It’s hard to represent the plethora of political views in a crowd through chants though.

  • Rob
    12 November 2010 at 17:13
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    @Mea Goodall

    “I don’t understand why people who condone the violence say that it highlights our cause and at least gives us attention. That, however, is an entirely spurious point; what makes anyone think that criminal activity will change the Coalition’s mind? Completely senseless!”

    The coalition can politiely ignore 50,000 people marching through the streets, demonstrations have no impact on political elites. At the very best it provides an event on which to disseminate ideas about politics and tactics to fight the cuts and gives confidence to people opposing cuts. What actually stops the government and wins rights is direct action. The state of our country today, the welfare state, rights and some opportunities werent gained by polite lobbying or peacefull demonstrations, they were gained by people breaking the law, striking and occupying places. Millbank showed was fantastic power ordinary people have, and it could develop into a serious challenge to the state and the status quo. So in actual fact, the demo was largely useless and the siege was the one thing that makes the political elites fear people. If we are going to stop the cuts we have to occupy and at the very least support those who wish to smash stuff up, because aaron porter and alot of the NUS jokers will do fuck all for students.

  • roflcopter
    12 November 2010 at 19:40
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    @Mea – I agree, afterall, just look at the poll tax riots, they did absolutely nothing for the cause.

  • David Raynor
    12 November 2010 at 21:26
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    The students are the losers here not the government.
    They hopefully will have their grants stopped al those concerned.
    Its amazing what a few right wing labour muslims can achieve.
    Bloody fools.

  • M@
    14 November 2010 at 18:37
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    This article is a load of rubbish. You say that the actions at Millbank detracted from the ‘work’ of the 45000 other demonstrators – WHAT work does it detract from? Are you saying it detracts from a pointless A to B march? Yet another pointless demonstration like the 2003 anti war protests (with 2 million people!)? DIRECT ACTION! was good enough for suffragettes, gandhi, martin luther kings, mandela – why is it not good enough for the NUS? This magazine is WAY off the mark and out of touch.

    • Ben James
      16 November 2010 at 21:53
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      m@ (learn to spell your own name) the leaders you use as examples of “DIRECT ACTION!” (why all in caps?) never ransacked buildings they host peaceful protests without ever using violence because how can you rival ignorance and oppression through mindless violence?

      • Rob
        17 November 2010 at 00:49
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        Hmm, I think you’ll find the suffragettes and Mandela did adovcate and carry out violence.

  • G@
    15 November 2010 at 00:04
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    Yeah Gandhi was all about smashing shit up. Cheeky fire extinguisher off a roof – his speciality.

  • Ben McCabe
    15 November 2010 at 01:00
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    M@, if you read the article again you would see that the views expressed are the writers’ own opinions, not necessarily an unbiased account of how the events unfolded. Different people are going to view the march and the riots in different ways – hence the decision to provide three differing viewpoints.
    They, as writers, are entitled to their views, as are you. Deciding arbitrarily that their opinions are ‘rubbish’ because they happen not to agree with your seems, quite frankly, a little naive.

  • Daniel Fine
    15 November 2010 at 22:02
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    M@, I stated in my article that the march was supposed to be the beginning of the campaign and that the march wasn’t designed to change the minds of the government. In truth the speeches were of the rabble-rousing yet low on substance kind that politicians are often criticised for.

    Yet the idea that some rowdy idiots trashing some windows is going to help anything is completly absurd, it is not good enough for NUS because it was violence for violences sake rather than legitimate political protest and maybe some students sit there going “good on them” but the rest of the country sees as the headline of the times put it “Thuggish and disgraceful” behaviour so it acheives nothing except giving a high repair bill to Millbanks, which by the way, is a shared building of which only one floor is Tory HQ so most of the property vandalised… wasn’t even Tory property.

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