Along with the many in Britain who disagree with the cuts to education funding and increase in tuition-fees that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is forcing through, I decided to join the thousands of students who marched through London on 9 December 2010. Instead of shouting at the radio when a government minister patronises the intelligence of the citizenry by suggesting if only we read the small print would we understand why such measures are needed, I wanted to put my body alongside others to demonstrate my disapproval.
I arrive at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), from where one of the marches was starting. Since the first of the student demonstrations on 10 November, there has been an “occupation” at the institution - one of many at campuses across the country, including St Andrews, Goldsmiths (London) and Cambridge. An undergrad participant at the SOAS occupation informs my friends and me that the demo has already left for Parliament Square.
We follow a trail of strewn placards and posters through the streets. One reads “Save Our EMA” - a reference to the educational maintenance allowance which provides modest but vital support to thousands of students from working-class families, and is among the targets of the cuts. I pick one up that says “Against Arts Cuts”. Some drivers hoot in support as we chase the back of the demo, though a cyclist shouts mockingly “You’re going the wrong way mate!”
At Trafalgar Square, the scene is akin to a post-apocalyptic Hollywood fantasy. People in brightly dressed winter-woolies milling around in a daze; heavy lines of helmeted and shielded expressionless-beings clad in black and navy blue; in the distance, smoke from fires obscuring the view of the House of Commons. Adding to the sense of strangeness, tourists attempt to take pictures of the twinkling Christmas tree in the middle of the square without getting our placards in the way.
“Where is the march?”, we ask people who look as confused as us. We have become that dreaded thing: protesters without a protest. A police block means we are unable to get to Parliament Square. An older man waving a large red Communist Party flag tells us that he and his son were at an anti-cuts demo the week before and had been truncheoned by the men in uniform - reminding him of the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa and the brutality of the South African police.
We eventually decide to go up Pall Mall where we encounter other lost and perplexed people. A 17-year girl tells us that the police had attempted to impose a “kettle” on protesters (that is, confine within a secured perimeter, often for several hours) - provoking the latter to run away, thus breaking up the demo. She and her friends are now too scared to go back into Parliament Square in case they are hemmed in by the police and unable to get out.
This is a key part of the police’s aim: to frighten people from demonstrating against the government. This confrontational technique, tested in controlling demos against globalisation or the Afghan and Iraq war, is now part of the police’s regular armoury.
We do make it into Parliament Square, where a banner appropriately welcomes us with “This is the Big Society” - an ironic take on prime minister David Cameron’s futile attempts at building that very thing. The post-apocalyptic scene continues. A banner covers the head of Abraham Lincoln. There are sporadic fires: no surprise after people have been penned in for hours. Teenagers inside the “kettle” mock the Liberal Democrat leader with chants of “Nick Clegg - dickhead” and the government with “Tory, Tory, Tory - scum, scum, scum” to the backing of rap music played from their iPhones.
This is not the generation of apathetic teenagers that exists in the public imaginary. Many of them are British black and Asian kids. Many of the girls wear hijabs. It is precisely this demography - working-class, black and Asian, as well as white - that the cuts to public funding (and the EMA) will hit most brutally. These teenagers are out in the cold several times over: deterred from or having to reconsider plans to go to university (the only route of social mobility left in Britain), their life-chances newly damaged by the government’s cuts, those of their parents who work in the public sector vulnerable to forthcoming redundancies.
There is also a larger frustration radiating from these young protesters which should not be ignored, which recalls the protests against the discredited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of today’s protesters are too young to have taken part in the anti-war demos, though among them will be some who at that time walked out of their classrooms in defiance. It is not too much of a stretch of imagination to link the two waves of protest, especially given the corporate interests that underlie state policy then and now.
Suddenly, protesters begin running as riot police on horseback charge. In a corner of the square, some pick up fencing as protection against the police’s truncheon-assault. When the state apparatus acts in such violent and aggressive ways against its own citizens who have legitimate grievances - whether in the past, around the world, or in London today - one is left thinking that something grave is taking place. This government is not up for negotiation.
The police are preventing anyone from entering or leaving Parliament Square. A well-spoken Cambridge University professor persuades a riot policeman to let some of us out. We walk towards Waterloo bridge into the most surreal sight of the evening: members of parliament who had just voted on the tuition-fees proposal standing on an open-top bus, making political speeches as if to thousands - but in fact to a handful of people.
“Why aren’t they all in Parliament Square talking to the police, preventing them from behaving aggressively towards protesters?”, a friend asks. The Labour MP David Lammy takes his turn and says that the cuts will prevent poor black students from going to university. It all gets a little too much. Wasn’t it his party that introduced top-up fees in the first place? Didn’t he vote for the war on Iraq? Maybe a history lesson will help him, and all of us.