Midday, Thursday 9th December. Crowds of students, teenagers and lecturers, bussed in from all over the country, gather on Malet Street, at the University of London Union.
They are here because today is the day that MPs will vote on the most talked-about policy in recent months: the changes to university tuition fees. They are here because today is an historic day that will determine the course of countless futures. They are here because they believe that education is a right, not a privilege, and that it should not be turned into a commodity, available only to those undeterred by the prospect of leaving university in tens of thousands of pounds of debt.
I am a finalist; the friend I am with is a recent graduate. The cuts to education are unlikely to affect us directly, but solidarity is the word of the day. I am fairly pessimistic about the effect today’s protests will have on the government, but I couldn’t not come. We might not hold out much hope of changing anything, but we will not take this lying down.
Before we are allowed to march, there are the speeches. There are speakers from everywhere – from schools, colleges and universities, and from the unions. Some of them are minors. There is even a Booker prize-winner, Ben Okri, who reads us a poem written especially for the occasion.
‘This country has turned a corner in spirit,’ he says. ‘You are the turning of that corner.’
From Malet Street, we march the agreed route: through Russell Square, down Southampton Row and Kingsway, along Strand, through Trafalgar Square and past St James’ Park, before eventually arriving in Westminster. On the way, the atmosphere is lively, but peaceful – we walk briskly, enjoying the winter sun, waving our placards as we chant. No ifs, no buts, no education cuts! is by far the favourite. On the sidelines, people watch us go by, some of them with cameras; above us, they peer out of windows and lean over balconies, pointing and waving. We pass a man in a suit giving out ‘sweets for the protesters’.
When we arrive, things are busy and cheerful. If there is violence, we see none of it. On the northern side of Parliament Square, people are milling about, talking in groups, sitting on the ground, waiting for something to happen. There is an Italian sandwich shop open on Parliament Street with a long queue outside; on a traffic island just off the square, people are giving impromptu speeches into a megaphone. A group of percussionists with the widest grins I have seen all day forms a circle and plays samba. The closest anyone gets to doing anything illegal is shinning up a lamppost or climbing the wrought iron sign above the entrance to Westminster tube station.
The atmosphere starts to turn sour as the afternoon wears on. My friend and I wander around Parliament Square at about three: barriers have been broken down and trampled on. Walls and statues are covered in graffiti, and in the centre of the square, someone has set fire to a pair of wooden benches. At one point, there is a sudden wave of panic and people start running in all directions. I find out later that there have been clashes with police officers on horseback.
As darkness falls, we decide to go home. We came here to march, not to fight. The violence will only get worse, especially when the government announces its inevitable victory, and we want to leave while we still can.
But we can’t leave. We can’t get out. Every entrance to Parliament Square is blocked by a line of riot police, reinforced by vans and further rows of shielded officers. We approach the barricades cautiously. When will we be allowed out? we ask.
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,’ says a policeman.
Eventually they tell us that the exit is at Whitehall. There they are letting people out, one by one. One by one! There are hundreds of people – thousands – in Parliament Square. But to Whitehall we go. In the smallest, tightest corner, in between a large stone wall and the iron railings of the underground entrance, people are waiting to be allowed out. The wait looks to be a long one, but we join the queue nonetheless.
We are crammed into a space that is barely more than three metres wide. People start chanting: let us out. As frustration levels mount, the possibility of getting crushed against that wall or those railings starts to seem scarily immediate. It would only take one person with a brick, or a snooker ball, or a firecracker (and there are plenty of them about) to cause someone some serious damage. A couple of metres away, on the other side of the entrance to the underground, is the empty security box that will later be engulfed in flames. I would rather be out in the open, away from this space in which we are cornered and helpless. But if we leave, it could be hours before we get out. It might be hours anyway.
But after a tense twenty minutes, they let us through. There is another line of police to get past, and then we are free.
We discover later that we got out just in time. Shortly after we leave, the police close the barricades completely, trapping the protesters, peaceful and violent alike. A little later, when I am safely at home, I receive a text message: ‘Thousands and thousands of young people, workers and lecturers have been kettled for 6 hours and up, in parliament square and now on westminster bridge for more than an hour. No access to toilets, water, food. V. cold. Please spread.’
The police, refusing to discriminate between the peaceful, law-abiding protesters and the perpetrators of the violence, punished them all, despite the fact that the vast majority no longer wished to be on the increasingly apocalyptic front line, and wanted little more than to go somewhere warm, to eat something, to go to the toilet. They were not there to cause trouble, or to hurt anyone, or to damage anything – they were there because they wanted to make their voices heard, or because they wanted to be a part of the story, or because their consciences simply wouldn’t let them stay away. By the time they were allowed to leave, shortly before midnight – twelve hours after the start of the protest – they had been denied their basic human rights for hours on end.
We must not forget this, even if fires and chaos make better television. Just as much as the surging crowds, the running policemen and that picture of Charles and Camilla, it needs to be remembered.