Student Protest in London, 2010

Anthony stepped back and as he did so the weight of a protestor fell into him. He looked around and saw that a police officer was running towards him. He panicked and stood rooted to the spot, not only because space was becoming premium at this time of the protest but also the sight of this charging officer, baton raised, helmet covering the entire face and the coarse material of the outfit impressed upon him the need to crawl up into a ball and wait for it to pass. The police officer, for reasons unknown, changed their course and pursued other protesters. Anthony looked around for his friend and waved at him. He waved back as they tried to form again with the tail end of the first line. After the initial police intervention, who were still pissed off from the embarrassments of the week before, they eased up and let the march carry on its planned route. 

‘Have you been in many protests before?’ Anthony asked Adam.

‘A few, but not many. But what’s going on here is crazy. You can feel it in the air can’t you?’

At this moment, a few protestors had broken away from the crowd and started towards a bank, bringing out hammers carefully concealed in their jackets. They started smashing the ATMs and then set to work on the windows. It wasn’t long before a handful of police officers showed up, tackled them to the ground, put them in handcuffs and dragged them into in the back of a police van. 

Anthony walked past graffiti and even saw it on the police cars. It was mainly anti-Conservative rhetoric that he had never seen before. In Oxford, the Conservatives reigned supreme and there were hardly ever any jokes or nasty comments said about them. But here in this crowd, Anthony felt an aggression towards the people who were running the country and he had not felt this way before. It reminded him in that moment of the first time that he heard people criticising the way that the Oxford lessons were run and how it made him think for the first time that actually you are allowed to say bad things about things that you don’t like and that the world won’t end. You can insist on the correcting wrongs and rewriting rules that have been unfairly and unjustly written for years, decades, centuries, millenia. In this precise moment, Anthony was following a crowd, an angry mass of people who had seen their bank accounts empty for too long and who were hungry, both physically and spiritually. He was following these people but he wasn’t one of them. He didn’t understand the notion of emptiness. He was brought up, yes in a working class environment, but it was one that didn’t understand precarity and didn’t care to look up the word in the dictionary. But he was beginning to understand what it meant to march in solidarity with the others and to watch as the police stormed their flanks and made occasional arrests. He understood at that moment that it’s only by sticking together that you can achieve something, even if that something is just a fleeting moment of togetherness. 

They were headed towards a bridge at this point that was supposed to lead them back to Parliament Square. This is where Anthony first saw the kettle in action. The procession came to an abrupt halt and then the officers charged again, cutting the head from the rest of the body. Anthony found himself in the body of the beast, while Adam was at the head. Swiftly, another kettle, a giant metal wall attached to police vans, drove up to the bridge and stopped, trapping the group of protesters on the bridge. There were shouts from all over, a frenzied drive to try and get to them on the bridge, but the police at this point were able to overpower the protesters who got too close. Anthony had no choice but to follow the other side of the procession to where it was leading. He didn’t want to leave because he wanted to see Robin again and he wasn’t just going to wait for the rest of the day at the bus stop until he showed up. So he wandered through the protest, getting wafts of teargas and running away from charging cops. The people he saw there were not people he’d seen at Oxford. They were a hardier, but more desperate bunch of individuals who seemed to depend on the very success of this protest. But there were those, all dressed in black, who seemed to be relishing in the chaos and the violence all around them. They overturned bins, smashed phone box windows and when the police chased them they ran, but not for fear of being hit, but because they knew that they would be arrested and then their fun would be over. Yes, Anthony witnessed, there are some who take pleasure in damage, there are others who seek change through violence and yet others who enjoy putting out fires. Coming from a Northern home that respected the police and institutions, the experience of being in such a crowd shocked him positively; he heard the shouts and cries from people all around him, like one giant feast where the guests are invited to offload their feelings in shouts of joy, pain, madness or sadness, depending on the way they appreciate the food, or express all the emotions all at the same time. Yes, there was running on the streets, but there was not yet blood. The police were harsh, but they would get harsher. The battle would be over that day but the war was just beginning. 

Anthony tried to talk to people in the protest, but they either didn’t have the time due to stampeding or the only thing that they could say was their extreme dislike of the police. It was shocking to Anthony to see that these people felt so strongly about that thin blue line. And although he found their anger justified, he couldn’t follow the repeatedly angry rhetoric they were trying to impress on him. The police, the government, bankers, large corporations, lawyers and anyone who propped up a rotting, corrupt system were all the object of the scorn of the protesters. These are the ones they truly hated and the tuition fee increase was mere pretext; the real damage was being done by those in power, those very people who were growing ever more distant from the people they were supposed to represent. 

Another charge from the police cut the conversation. It’s not that they don’t see a purpose in electing politicians, but it didn’t seem that it hadn’t gotten them anywhere. Plus, have you ever tried living purely on benefits and minimum wage? It’s very difficult to keep yourself fit, active and mentally sane when you’re in that position. And this government wants to inflict everybody, students and workers included, with the same plague. Anthony walked along the road and could still see the students who were kettled in the bridge. Two hours easily must have passed since the police had charged them into that position. What was going on, thought Anthony? It was beginning to get dark now and the crowd was starting to thin, but only just. 

He met some people he recognised from Robin’s group. He asked them if they had any news from Adam. No, not a bit, they replied, saying that it was a disciplinary measure that the police were trying out on the bridge and part retaliation for last week. That’s the lesson, Anthony, don’t piss off a cop; they’ll come back at you and teach you the lesson, over and over again, until you’ve bloody well understood it. 

When Anthony met Adam at the bus station at the end of day, he’d been on the bridge for six hours. Standing with everybody else, not able to leave the kettle. They were only letting a handful of people out every hour or so, and Adam wasn’t the sort of guy to voluntarily leave a precarious situation. He was also shivering, looked pale and was in dire need of something warm. 

‘I’m not sure how some of those people saw it through. There was one guy who had to shoot up his emergency insulin because those cops weren’t letting him out.’

‘That sounds pretty bad.’

‘Yeah. The funny thing was that people were literally pissing off the bridge into the Thames. And then there were some who just went right their in the street in front of the police. It was like that Femen protest all over again.’

‘I’m relieved to see that you’ve managed to keep your spirits high all this time, Adam.’

‘When you’re fighting for a good cause, the soul can float lightly on, while the body becomes dirty with the mud of reality. Don’t quote me on that.’

‘Sure.’ Anthony said offering him a cup of tea he’d just bought from a nearby bakery. 

‘Let’s get the hell out of here, shall we.’

Just as they were about to leave, someone shouted after them. It was one of Adam’s friends and behind him a group of three or four people, whom Anthony had not seen before, were carrying someone. Anthony looked closer and saw that the face had a bloody nose. More than that – it looked like it had been beaten to a pulp, the jaw set to one side and the nose of the bridge raised. The right arm dangled loosely to the ground and there were scuffs all over the protester’s clothes. Blood was dripping all over a pair of white trousers, but there was no noise coming from the faint frame.

‘Jesus Fucking Christ, they got Phillipa. Two cops went at her like a greyhound. We tried to stop them. Fucking hell, we need to get her to a hospital.’

They phoned the emergency services. No answer. They tried again and eventually got through, as the group stood around, as if guarding the semi-conscious body of a student activist. The person on the phone didn’t seem too impressed with the story, but sent an ambulance over. It arrived 20 minutes later, while Phillipa shivered in the late November air and the coagulated blood had matted her hair. Anthony was in shock. Robin kept on cursing. And the others stood round, talked with the first responders and filled out police reports that would never see the light of day.

Adam, Anthony and a few others headed to the bus station. The bus was warm and the seats comfortable and they could rest their tired limbs. Anthony kept on thinking of the battered face he saw before, but was still too shunned to cry. He was replaying the events of the day in his head, not remembering that the newspaper would be covering it in tomorrow’s papers and that social media networks would be in flames over the police brutality that took place. The others on the bus were silent now, some taking out bits of chocolate they’d packed earlier and passing them around. There were onlookers too who hadn’t been at the protest and they just saw a group of young students, dishevelled by this point, who were trying to forget the violence that they had seen earlier the day. Anthony made eye contact with one man in a suit, who quickly turned away from his gaze. The bus deposited them on the High Street in Oxford and they made it back to their rooms and slept and dreamt of charging bulls and the jaws of a lion. 

A few weeks later, Mohamed Bouazizi would set himself on fire in Tunisia to protest heavy-handed humiliation by government officials. Nine years later, the man who sanctioned police brutality in the UK’s capital to control the protest became leader of his country after a dirty coup. Tuition fees are still the most expensive they have ever been.

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