Anger on the streets of London

Al Jazeera finds student protesters divided over the violent actions of some of those demonstrating against rising fees.

student protests london
London’s Metropolitan police maintained a visible presence throughout the day [Jacqueline Head]

For the second time in two weeks, students and teachers have taken to the streets in Britain to protest government measures that will see university fees rise dramatically.

In London, the capital, a bitterly cold but bright day saw thousands of people march down some of the city’s most famous streets to vent their anger at a measure included in the coalition government’s austerity plans, that would see some university fees nearly treble.

Starting at the University of London Union on Wednesday morning, students, academics and other supporters began the day with an almost carnival-like spirit, involving drumming bands and musicians. 

Wednesday’s march had intended to target the Liberal Democrats, the minority partners in the government, who had previously pledged to vote against rising tuition fees.

Heated atmosphere

James Barnet, a 15-year-old high school student, told  Al Jazeera said he and his school friends were angry at Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader.

“I don’t think this will be the last protest, I  think people will keep putting pressure on the government,” he said.

But following the first demonstration earlier this month, when a handful of violent activists smashed the party headquarters of the Conservatives, the majority coalition partners, there were signs from early on in the day that police would not let things get out of control again.

Protesters at the start of the march voiced concern about the number of police out in force.

Police surrounded the Houses of Parliament as protesters gathered [Jacqueline Head]

“I think now there’s a consensus between the government and the police to nip this in the bud,” Billy McKean, a 25-year-old activist told Al Jazeera.

“But I am concerned about the police presence because they can be extremely heavy-handed.

“I’m very worried that the police are going to kick off and that they’re going to take what happened two weeks ago personally. I’m very worried that something silly could lead to a big onslaught by the police.”

While events did not build up to the dramatic crescendo of two weeks ago, the protest did march become considerably heated as throngs of people descended on Trafalgar Square and towards the Houses of Parliament.

The protests, led by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, had been intended to centre on the Liberal Democrat headquarters, but it was clear police had no intention of letting people through.

At the bottom of Whitehall, near the prime minister’s residence, police built up a barricade of vans, officers and horses, containing thousands of people just metres from the Houses of Parliament.

Dozens of bewildered tourists looked on as the crowd chanted loudly, waved placards against the cuts and blew whistles. But after an hour of being “kettled”, a containment tactic that has drawn criticism in the past, anger broke out within the crowd.

A police van was smashed, vandalised and broken into as the crowd attempted to surge beyond the police borders. Some protesters set their placards alight, sending a plume of thick black smoke into the cold blue sky, while witnesses reported that smoke bombs had been set off.

Riot police and officers on horseback responded, pushing the demonstrators back and surrounding the group, arresting those said to be causing damage.

In a statement police said the containment “continues to prevent further criminal damage. We will provide water and toilets for those in the containment area.”

There was a mixed response to the action, some activists agreeing that the only way to gain proper publicity about their cause was through violence.

‘Too aggressive’

But others said they had come to protest peacefully, and were frustrated by a few troublemakers taking the spotlight off the issue.

“I’m all for peaceful protests, but when it gets out of hand – like they’ve started throwing smoke bombs- I don’t agree with. It’s bad when it gets aggressive,” Tom, a 16-year-old high school student who had marched down Whitehall, said.

“There were people on top of the vans smashing stuff. They were wearing hoodies, smashing the vans, there was a police van that’s completely ruined. They kicked the windscreen in.”

But they had criticism for the police too.

“I got lied to by the police up there by Downing St. They said I couldn’t get out, but then we walked up and there was a filter allowing people out,” he said.

“To be honest I think people are a bit confused, they’re struggling with the numbers but it’s quite hard to contain what’s going on,” his classmate Vince said.

But while anger at the government’s spending cuts continues, scenes like this are expected to be seen again. 

Source: Al Jazeera

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