Report and photos from ‘The Battle of Millbank’
By James O’Leary.
Yesterday Comrades from Communist Students marched in the NUS organised demonstration in London in protest against the governments proposed reforms to higher education. These reforms are likely to marketise the higher education system, turning it into something more similar to the system in America, allowing different universities to charge differing fees of between £6000-£9000. The reforms are in part to compensate for the government cutting 40%, £4.2billion to higher education funding as it argues that the state simply cannot afford to fund the educating of its population any longer, which by the capitalist logic of profit is quite true. The most worrying aspect of them is they are likely to put many working class aspiring students off choosing to go to university due to the immense debt it will entail at the end of it, with estimations of £45,000, and those that take the gamble likely to have to choose their courses based on what they can afford rather than the quality of teaching offered on those courses. They form a vital a part of the ruling classes wider assault on all public services and benefits which will only further the inequalities in our society and have devastating effects on working class people who rely on them.
The march began at 12.45 and set off on the route down through Whitehall, passed the houses of parliament and onwards down to Millbank. It was initially intended that comrades would convene before the demonstration to march together in the free education block. Owing however to a mixture of road closures, London traffic and general lack of organization on the part of the NUS underestimating the number of students and lecturers who would turn out, which was around 50,000, some comrades arrived late and the free education block was divided throughout the march. This was unfortunate as speaking to comrades carrying red revolution flags the sentiment was that had we been united an occupation of some government building might have been able to be attempted led by the block. The Communist Students who had arrived on time were however able to distribute a pamphlet entitled, “Demolish Capitalism”, to others on the protest.
The atmosphere during the march was of the carnival variety with students from all over the country carrying colorful placards including, “cuts can lick my nuts”, “education is a right not a privilege”, and my personal favourite of the day, “Think of the Children”. The route was peppered by vibrant characters including a sting quartet, a brass band, a paper mache ostrich and a group of drama students who had managed to bring a full scale replica cannon on the march which I’m sure may have been of some symbolic use had it been in the vicinity during what was already happening further down the road at Tory Party Headquarters at Millbank.
A vanguard group of protestors had decided not to heed the NUS’s call to end the march at the designated finish and wonder quietly off to the after party at London School of Economics. It appears the assault on higher education had rightly angered some students far too much too simply leave the fight back against the cuts to the ineffective Union of Students and decided it was high time that some people stood up for themselves and took a stand against the ruining of the life prospects of future generations. When this group arrived at Millbank they found the place strangely devoid of Police considering the size of the protest and the Police’s record of heavily policing any demonstration in London. The group including both students and academic staff found it easy to gain access to the building and proceeded to occupy it with some heading to the roof via an emergency stairwell. It was not until well over an hour after this had began that I finally reached the site of what some in the press have dubbed, “the Battle of Millbank”. I arrived with some from the group revolution and a comrade from CS and found to my amazement thousands of students assembled in and around Millbank. I’m not sure what some journalists consider a minority but by my estimates the throng of people that stretched from the entrance right back to the bank of the Thames would not be classed as a minority. I made my way through the crowd to try to get as close to the front as possible to the tunes of, “What solution? Revolution”, and the ever popular, “Tory Scum”, being roared by the mass. Looking up something visceral burned inside me as I saw an anti cuts banner being hung and a red and black flag being waved on the roof of the bastion of Conservatism and it gave me hope that these cuts can be defeated and I reckon I was not alone in that feeling.
Riot police were now in attendance on the scene shield to shield and batons at the ready. The long arm of the law was once again not shy in its wielding of force and I witnessed a young woman being beaten back and was myself thrown around for being in the way of police reinforcements. These shows of state force were greeted by reciprocal force from the crowd. Placard sticks, eggs and a couple of bottles were launched in the direction of the police all doing rather little damage owing to the police being decked out in their modern suits of armour. Despite the at times aggressive atmosphere all around students were in full song raging against the cuts and despite the reports of the scene being a, “riot”, I felt it was never such a thing. The fire the students started was in fact a bonfire that found itself for a long time the centre of dancing to both the drum and bass blaring sound system and the samba band which both seemed to appear from nowhere. Above the students occupying the building rained down on to the crowd newspapers, toilet roll (unused) and fire extinguisher foam and continued to be greeted with cheers by the crowd below for their conquest.
As the day wore on the crowd fizzled out as snatch squads arrested the protestors inside the building and many students outside had to leave to catch their coaches home, myself being one of them. But around 5 O’Clock from across the Thames I could still see sirens and the flickering of the bonfires dying flames and thought that what happened that day needed to be done. Despite most of the press trying to alienate the students as hooligans and thugs I imagine many of those who witnessed those scenes, be it in person, on the telly or in the papers, would have been inspired. Inspired that they do not have to take the attack on the public sector lying down and that they too can fight back. That they can organise , agitate and occupy whether in their workplace, on their campuses or on the streets. The message of the day was clear, “This is Just the Beginning”.
CS member David Isaacson snapped these photos at Millbank tower, where the Conservative Party office is located and which was occupied by thousands of students at yesterday’s massive demonstration against education cuts. Feel free to use these photos around the web, but please credit the photographer.