At first glance, you might mistake the packed streets for a Mardi Gras carnival. The young faces and large grins, combined with incessant whistle-blowing, trumpet blasting and drum beating, all mix together to form the din of student protest. The noise takes shape and all of a sudden it bursts from the centre of the crowd, picked up by everyone else, ‘No ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ – the main chants of the 50,000 students marching ever forward from Westminster.
There’s a fun-filled, party-like atmosphere as the surging mass moves past the Houses of Parliament. But under the jeers, laughs and wafting smell of marijuana, there is a serious message – and a deep river of emotion at having been betrayed. The flags and picket boards are either quirky messages fused with humour, outright attacks against the capitalist system, or just a good stab at Cameron and Clegg. Clowns joke with policemen and protesters dressed at Batman pose for photographers.
The crowd, now 50,000 strong, eventually reached its destination at St Atterbury Street, greeted by massive speakers blasting out 80s pop tunes. An open top double-decker bus worked as both platform and barricade. People hung from tress, bus stops and walls looming dangerously over the Thames. Up to this point, the anti-coalition rhetoric had been limited to a few small groups, but the UCU and NUC speakers stepped it up with passionate speeches. Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University College Union, kept the energy high until Francis O’Grady took the platform. O’Grady raised emotions by shouting at the crowd, ‘we’ve got a big fight on our hands’. She went on to attack the coalition message, stating, ‘Don’t tell us, don’t dare tell us, we’re all in this together’.
NUC president Aaron Porter donned his verbal boxing gloves and called on students to,‘ fight back’. He went on to promise that, ‘it is not us who will pay. We will make them pay’. These strong words and their emotional content were accompanied by the shouts, boos and screams of the protesters.
Some were so empowered by the union speakers, and so enraged with the situation, they took to Milbank. Gaining ground against riot police, they managed to occupy the roof of the Conservative party headquarters – waving anarchist flags proudly to the students below. Windows were smashed and the protesters lit bonfires, but there was a lack of hard police resistance. Instead of the usual baton-wielding crowd control, the Met seemed to be holding a relatively silent protest of their own.
Even with the unfolding of these events, the whole demonstration ended as quickly as it had gained momentum. But it is doubtful students will go home and forget what has happened to them. They understand what promises have been broken, they know who is responsible, and they will not be satisfied with half-truths and lies.