Arguments are still raging over what happened as students’ seething rage at Tory plans to treble university fees and slash education budgets burst onto the streets of London last week.
Last Wednesday saw more than 50,000 students and workers from universities and colleges across Britain marching in the biggest and angriest protest yet against the Tories.
The demonstration was young, confident and furious. Activists blocked roads, hurled eggs at the Treasury and held an angry protest outside the business department.
Then thousands laid siege to Millbank Tower, which houses the Tory headquarters. Some occupied the building and around 50 got onto the roof—to deafening cheers from the protesters below.
The day sent a clear and defiant message to the government—we won’t stand for your attacks and we will fight.
The Tories and the right wing media—and disgracefully some Labour MPs—denounced students for breaking a few windows at Millbank.
The president of the students’ own NUS, Aaron Porter, rushed onto the news to “absolutely condemn” the “violence”. And UCU lecturers’ union general secretary Sally Hunt said it was “the actions of a mindless and totally unrepresentative minority”.
But as one student rightly put it, “I’m not really bothered about a few broken windows. I’m more concerned about the broken lives that will result if the Tories increase tuition fees.”
Socialist Worker thinks Millbank was fantastic. Far from involving just a handful of left wingers, it attracted thousands of university, college and school students who were determined to give the Tories hell.
Organised socialists played a key role. First through the doors of Millbank Tower were members of the Socialist Workers Party and students from the London School of Economics.
Hundreds went with them while thousands more banged on the windows and doors outside, trying to join them. Students successfully fought police to let a second surge through the doors.
“I’m not one of those black-mask anarchists,” said Tom, one of those protesting at Millbank. “I just think this is right. We voted for people who promised to change things for the better, and they broke all their promises.
“We needed to make ourselves heard.”
The police were overwhelmed. Groups of riot police tried to get through the crowd to join the handful of police at the doors of Millbank—only to be forced back by students.
“This protest is great,” added Catia, a college student. “A load of police just came in and then ran off!
“I’m here because I have to pay £22 a week to travel to college and I get Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). If they scrap EMA I won’t be able to go any more.”
Duygu, a student at Westmister Kingsway College, pointed to parliament and said, “Those people in there haven’t got a clue what it’s like for us. Have they ever spoken to someone who’s on EMA? I doubt it.”
The first group left the Millbank foyer to re-join the mass protest outside and more students occupied it later. But for most of the time, most protesters remained outside, filling the courtyard and spilling out onto the street.
Students marching past joined them and the crowd swelled. There was a carnival mood as students lit bonfires, burnt placards, sang, chanted and let off flares.
The media could make no sense of the militancy of the action. They are used to telling us that students are apathetic.
They are wrong.
The police remained restrained for much of the day—possibly because they were so outnumbered—but at times they charged the crowd with batons.
One officer repeatedly hit a woman protester on the arm with his shield—causing a furious surge forward. There was a great sense of unity and fearlessness. People chanted, “No justice, no peace—fuck the police,” and jeered the cops with, “This is what democracy looks like.”
For all the politicians’ and media attacks on students, many ordinary people applauded them. Even on the right wing Daily Mail’s online opinion poll, more than 40 percent backed the protests.
Everyone facing Tory cuts will have seen the protest and cheered—because finally they saw people fighting back.
A millionaire government is driving through the biggest assault on the working class since the 1930s.
But just six months in, fires have burned outside the Tory HQ and it has been filled with smashed glass and rubble.
Anyone who says ordinary people in Britain are different to those in Greece, France or anywhere else has been proved wrong.
Anyone who says we have to wait months before we can pull off a decent protest, because the anger isn’t there, is also wrong.
“Everyone has to do this—not just students,” said Richard, a student from Greenwich. “The cuts affect everyone.”
One student outside Millbank held up a placard reading, “We are your future.” Let’s hope that’s right.