Monday 29 November was a turning point for the anti-cuts movement on two counts: Firstly, local students – who have recently been an inspiration to us all fighting the cuts – joined a local anti-cuts demo which was not about tuition fees, EMA or education cuts.
Secondly, the militant nature of the demo meant that it was the first time the riot police were called to defend a town hall meeting that was about to vote to implement Tory cuts. It was our own Millbank Tower moment, and it almost worked.
The student feeder march from Goldsmith’s quickly swelled to around 200 and by the time we got to Lewisham Town Hall, there were another 200 gathered from the community and local trade unionists.
Speakers at the rally included activists from NUT, UNISON, students and users of the community services that the Labour Council intended to cut (to the tune of £60million). Cuts already announced include five libraries, a children’s centre, the ‘Opening Doors’ employment centres whilst at the same time making 466 staff redundant.
Once it became clear to the crowd the council were refusing to let us into the public gallery – which they’re legally obliged to do – chants of ‘let us in’ soon drowned out the speeches, and a group rushed through doors and past security.
It almost became a local Millbank Tower moment, but the crowd didn’t quite have the momentum to all get in without a tussle. The police reaction then grew completely out of proportion. Riot police, some on horse back others with dogs, arrived on scene with shields and batons drawn. The cops were aggressive and violent – and several arrests were made.
Lewisham Town Hall sits on a main junction in Catford, and the entire block was closed off for a couple of hours whilst the police took control and appeared to prepare for a ‘kettle’ before the crowd quickly dispersed.
A few flares went off, a window got broken, and whilst the meeting was disrupted, and temporarily adjourned, it was almost but not quite ‘mission accomplished’. The vote on the cuts went ahead behind closed doors.
The town hall meeting behind closed doors meant that we had to force our way into the meeting: the response to the security refusing us entrance was magnificent. And with the large group of students who came down and swelled our numbers, we almost had the confidence to get in as a group.
The violent overreaction from the riot police meant that news (it was covered by BBC1) soon circulated: Labour controlled Lewisham Council tried to vote through a Tory cuts budget and they had to do so behind closed doors and with riot police protecting them… Every anti-cuts alliance in the country (and every Councillor) should take note!
For more info, and to get involved in Lewisham Anti-Cuts alliance, go to: lewishamanticutsalliance.wordpress.com
Max Watson is branch chair of London Metropolitan University UNISON (writing here in a personal capacity)