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Hey guys, uh… what are we protesting about again?

#Demo2012 – the march that was supposed to define a new generation of student protests. Coming two years after the shockwaves of the violence that marred the anti-education cuts protest Demo-lition 2010, the protest movement seems to have expanded exponentially, to the extent that it is now a protest supposed to ‘Educate, employ, empower’.  

As a concept, it all seemed rather vague. So on 21st November, we sent Ebenezer Mack, resident Impact hack, down to London to find out what this whole thing was actually about…

6:45 – Rain greeted me as I made my way, yawning, onto campus. A suitably ambiguous description of ‘Portland’ had been given to us as a meeting point; luckily, between the Impact team we managed to negotiate check-in and were given our ‘very important’ information packs.

I spent some time looking at the pack, trying to work out why half of it was dedicated to what we should have brought with us (bit late if we hadn’t), as well as telling us to come to a banner-making session that had happened two days before.  If only we’d known. Luckily, there was a section on what to do in the case of arrest, which was useful.  I particularly liked the bit that read: “You don’t need to answer questions. You have the right not to speak. Give your full name and details”. Surely that would mean answering questions?

Just to be on the safe side, I decided that I would try not to get arrested.

7:21 – The bus finally set off. Our fellow protestors slumped in their seats, seemingly unwilling or unable to register much past their navals. It was a sorry state of affairs to witness. What were the NUS thinking, deciding to hold a rally so early in the day? Does it not know its demographic?

Captial FM, meanwhile, blared out loud and clear over the sound system. Maybe it was just me, but the last thing I wanted to hear so early in the morning was bland pop at full volume. They could have at least played some Gogol Bordello. Or even the Sex Pistols. Anything but Florence Welch.

7:58 –  The offensive cheerfulness of Capital FM continued to do its best to drown out our conversations with the most annoying adverts known to man. “Bugger trying to storm Millbank,” I found myself saying, suddenly vitriolic, “Let’s march on the Halifax HQ and burn that down instead”.

8:44 –  Meanwhile, Aunty SU called our erstwhile Editor-in-Chief on a private number. Why the secrecy? Was this all a plot to drive the University’s media groups and potential dissidents to an unknown location and disappear us, being revealed now to our leader by a cackling super-villan?  It was too early in the morning for conspiracy theories; I decided to sit back in my seat and see if my hunch was correct in good time.

9:10 – We pulled into a service station. Someone bought a Ginsters pasty, which quickly filled the bus with a smell roughly reminiscent of three day old Hallward armpit sweat. Flagging rapidly, I got over excited and decided that now would be a good time to buy my first ever energy drink. Half a litre of Rockstar – sugar content: 67.5g. Ignoring the warnings of the others, I embarked on a sugar feeding frenzy, like a crocodile chomping at a wounded gazelle.

9:38 – Feeling super alert.  May have accidentally eaten most of my chocolate buttons.

10:59 – We reached the outskirts of London. It was like Picasso’s Grey Period outside. Even the leaves on the trees seemed washed out and faded. We spent ten minutes at a standstill with these lovely Soviet-style tower blocks as a vista.

The buzz from the energy drink had faded by this point. I had peaked too early; I appeared to have blown my metaphorical load. I found myself yawning incessantly, the comedown from the sugar boost hitting me harder than expected.  Perhaps I should have bought two. Or at least a thermos of coffee.

By this point, we were supposed to be at the meeting point. We were gearing up to be late for the start at this rate.

11:30 – We crossed the Thames – the first clue that something was awry. Confused, we checked our route guides to make sure that the meeting point was actually on the nothern bank of the river. Perhaps they’d drawn the arrows the wrong way round?

We reached the Oval, barely 500 metres from the end point of the march, when a member of the SU came up to us, to tell us that the bus driver had gone the wrong way. Cue a long winded tour of London while the coach tried to find its way back through central London to the actual start point (you can read all about the Kennington debacle here).

12:53 – At least we got to see the sights.

Finally, we were told that we’d be getting off in five minutes time. People were getting antsy – the march was supposed to have set off at 11:45.  To say we were a bit late was like saying that Stalin sometimes went a bit OTT in trying to prevent dissidents in the USSR.

12:58 – Still on the bus. A discussion took place about whether it would be quicker to walk from here. General consensus seemed to be that the ayes had it.

13:07 – Finally, we arrived. The Great Shark Hunt for answers could begin.  We led the way, impatient to catch up with the main body of the protest, which had long since left the meeting point to head to Westminster Bridge.

As we crossed a busy junction, an angry girl from the SU shouted at us to stay with the group. We ignored her and powered on regardless. There was simply no time.  We needed truth and there was only one way to find it – getting to the protest before the damn thing finished. At the rate we were going we would miss all of the excitement.

13:10 – We reach the starting point of the march. Predicatably, there was no one to be seen. A helpful police officer told us that the end of the march had passed 45 minutes before. Two protesters had tagged along with us and, as we raced on towards the group assembled on the Bridge, I began to seek some answers:

Ben Harvey & Yannick Mitchell, University of Nottingham

So why are you here protesting?

BH: I’m not here for any particular cause. I’m just here to try and tell the Government that students are still politically active and we still have a political voice – we’re not going to sit back and let them make it harder for us to get our educational right.

YM: I’m protesting not just for students, I’m protesting about cuts to nurses, such as NHS staff, because we keep getting told that the Government will do this and that and then they do a U-turn on things like tuition fees. I think that education should be available to all, not just to those that can afford it.

Do you think this march can match the one in 2010?

BH: Well, it will be difficult to match the one in 2010 without a clear goal like we had then with tuition fees. But it will be more an opportunity for students to find out about the movement as a whole rather than just about tuition fees.

Do you think the government is going to take any notice of Demo 2012?

BH: Not really, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protest.

YM: I think they’ll have to.  They’re trying to hide the fact that 20% of under-25s are unemployed by just avoiding the topic completely and they can’t keep doing that.

 Whose head would you prefer to see on a pole outside of Parliament – Nick Clegg or David Cameron?

BH: That’s a tough one…  David Cameron.

YM: David Cameron, no question. No doubt at all.

13:26 – We finally caught up with the tail end of the protest, which had come to a resounding halt outside of Westminster. Despite the heavy police presence (it was the obvious point on the route for a flashpoint) it was easy enough to get through the police line and into the crowd.

Most of the people there were wandering around aimlessly. I heard my first chants of the day; sadly they were same, tired, rehashed ones of 2010. We were surrounded by a sea of placards but, apart from a man dressed as a gorilla stamping on a piece of paper, nothing much seemed to be going on.

We approached the barriers blocking off Parliament Square – the supposed epicentre of the protest. It was clear that the police had done their homework this time – there was no way that anything bar an armed invasion could have broken through the double cordon they’d set.

Luckily this girl (above) decided to play the Imperial March from Star Wars through her loudspeaker to cheer everyone up.

13:35 – You could hardly move for Palestine flags and ‘Free Gaza’ placards. At this point it was hard to tell whether this was a protest about education or an anti-Israel march combined with a Socialist Party recruitment campaign.

A new chant of “Revolution, revolution, REVOLUTION, REVOLUTION” rings out, echoed by a few hardline protesters.  It’s hardly inventive, though at least it was a clear message. Sort of.

Clearly, nothing much of consequence was going to happen here.  We decided to see where the rest of the march had gone.

I don’t think I had ever seen Westminster Bridge this quiet.  At least Sheffield had arrived on time and had their message sorted.  Even if I had no idea what ‘claim your education’ was supposed to mean. Our group, meanwhile, was probably still down by the river, making its way towards the sprawl of aimless angst waiting by the Houses of Parliament.

13:49 – As we headed into Lambeth you could see the extent of the wreckage left in the wake of the protest. Signs lay discarded, trampled and unwanted. You had to wonder who was going to come along and pick all of these up and dispose of them after we’d gone back home.

13:53 – The chanting took a turn for the surreal at this point. The majority of the people at this point of the march appeared to either be repeatedly chanting “One Dimension” or “One Direction”. I’m not quite sure which would be more logical.  Another chant was entirely incomprehensible, until I worked out that it must have been in Welsh.

At this point, a rubbish truck honked its horn at us on its way past, provoking the biggest cheer of the day so far.

13:55 – The rain began to fall much harder. Within minutes, it was a torrential downpour. Despite this, a policeman chivvied us to stay on the puddle-filled road and off the (much drier) pavement. “We’ve been up all night setting up a cordon” he told us.  The absolute lack of a cordon on this part of the route made me wonder how well they had done on this.

As we trudged through the pouring rain, I heard snatches of conversation:

“…This is just like being back in Liverpool, it’s brilliant…”

“…These protests are fucking rubbish.  They’re basically just run by the Government now…”

“…Where are we going?…”

“…we know 9/11 was an inside job…”

“…Are we near the front or the back of the march?…”

14:15 – A member of the Socialist Party came up with a bunch of soggy newspapers, trying to flog them all before the end of the march. “£2 for the Socialist, show your solidatiry… £1 for the Socialist newspaper, fight the cuts…”.  By the time he walked up to us: “Any spare change for the Socialist…?

14:25 – We reached Kennington Park.  The weather had turned on us again and the march now resembled less a flood of protest and more a sea of umbrellas. It seemed a very bad idea to be herding thousands of students and protesters into the mud pit that the park was fast becoming.

With some time to kill before the speeches, we decided to find out more about why some of the protesters had come along:

Tori, University of Sussex.

Why are you dressed as the TARDIS?

T: Because my pockets are not bigger on the inside.

How do you think today has gone so far?

T: Well, it’s wet and it’s pissing miserable but a surprising number of people have stayed on to the end in the circumstances – I think it’s been a bit of a winner apart from the little fracas in the middle. Hopefully the majority will realise that we’ve come here to say, come and talk to us, let’s find a solution. We’re sick of demonstrating in the freeezing cold and I’m sure they’re sick of us trying to smash their buildings.

 Whose head would you prefer to see on a pole outside of Parliament – Nick Clegg or David Cameron?

T: That is a really tricky one… actually, it’d be George Osborne’s.

Johnathon Waller, Lincoln University

So why are you here protesting?

JW: It’s mostly against the cuts in education and also the privatisation of education.

How many people have Lincoln University sent?

I think it’s around… over twenty.

 Whose head would you prefer to see on a pole outside of Parliament – Nick Clegg or David Cameron?

[No hesitation] Both.

Ben Perry, Portsmouth University

So what did you think about today?

The weather was disappointing but I think the message is clear and people and the Government should get the gist of it. I think that the media attention has been brilliant and hopefully the people of the country will understand our message.

What are you here to protest against specifically?

We’re against the cuts, the rise in tuition fees, especially that as a student.  We need to unite workers and students against the cuts – it’s affecting all of us and we have to make a difference.

What’s going on with the Anonymous mask?  Do you sympathise with the movement?
Well, basically I had it so I thought I’d wear it. I identify with the movement, partially,  but mainly it’s just because I have a cold face.

15:15 – The rain continues to pelt down. We went on the search for somewhere to shelter, but the bus in the playpark had lost its roof.  We headed back to the main body of the protest as commedienne Josie Long introduced the first couple of speakers to a mixed chorus of cheers and boos.

As the Socialist Party tried to storm the stage and try to egg the President of the NUS for not being as left-wing as them, we’d seen enough.  It was time to find some food, our bus and to head home.

We’d spent seven hours on the bus, marched for three hours through the rain and we were still quite confused as to what exactly the protest was supposed to be about. We’d not even stormed the Halifax tower. Now that would be something worth protesting about.

Words & Photos by Ebenezer Mack.
Additional reporting by O. George.

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One Comment
  • Jose
    22 November 2012 at 19:52
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    “You had to wonder who was going to come along and pick all of these up and dispose of them after we’d gone back home.” and BOOM – a job is created.

    Capitalism works!

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