On Wednesday the 4th of November I got up before 7 on my day off to travel down to London with about 30 others from the University of Bristol to protest the scrapping of maintenance grants, the continued cuts to educations, and demand the abolition of tuition fees.
We got to the beginning rally point just after 12, and mingled with our comrades from across the country and tried to listen to some speeches till the march set off just after half past 1. Despite occasional outbursts of rain, the protest was good spirited and vibrant. There were towards 10,000 students and their supporters joining the protest, and although angry over the way this government attacks students and young people in general, over 99% were completely peaceful.
The march was accompanied by a tiny group of about 30 or so ‘Black Bloc’ anarchists. Periodically throughout the march they let off flares, as is their custom (or so it would seem from the demos I go to). These weren’t much of a nuisance other than to the marchers behind them who had to breath through the smoke.
The march stopped briefly outside the Home Office to chant ‘Say it loud and say it clear, Refugees are welcome here!’ in opposition to the government’s disgraceful treatment of refugees and migrants. At this point the aforementioned Black Bloc let off some more flares, and threw some paint at the building (and the vast police presence deployed outside to guard it). After a few minutes the march continued without much incident.
When we got to the department of Business, Innovation, and Skills, the Black Bloc again decided to attack the government building and the police in front of it (after we had stopped for more inaudible speeches further up the road). This prompted the police to indiscriminately ‘kettle’ everyone still on the march. As the line of them ran forward to try and get in front of us and block us in (and not just the marchers but also members of the public, including a nurse I talked to who was trying to get to work), everyone ran to try and get past (no one wants to be stuck in a kettle for hours on end). Unfortunately I wasn’t quite quick enough (despite my name) and got trapped just after the last person made it out in-front of me. After half an hour of being stuck like this, people were getting noticeably frustrated (and I was kicking myself for leaving my book on the bus). All of a sudden some of the hundreds trapped by the police charged their thin line, and broke through at the middle.
Of course everyone who was trapped by the police, surged forward to escape (again, no one wants to get stuck in a police kettle). Like a torrent of water sweeping through a broken dam we surged forward with no other aim then to escape the police containment. At this point, no one really knew what was going on, most people around me seemed to think there was meant to be a rally happening at the end of the march (we hadn’t heard or even been aware of the rally further up the road) and once past the police were trying to get to there. The police gave chase, and the remnants of the march split up as we tried to avoid them, find the rumoured end rally, or just get back to where our coaches were collecting us.
Predictably the coverage in the press has almost exclusively focused on the frantic scenes outside BIS, and the actions of less than 0.3% of the demonstration. Almost all of the pictures shown of the demo are of the tiny unrepresentative group of Black Bloc anarchists, their scuffle with the police and the ensuring kerfuffle as the police reacted with disproportionate force (captioned illustratively in the Daily Mail article as ‘Anger’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Out of Hand’ just encase their readers weren’t getting their message).
Or as the Daily Mail reported it ‘Students clash with police as tuition fee protest turns violent after rabble-rousing speech by Labour firebrand John McDonnell’ or even more alarmist in the express ‘London under siege’ (‘Rampaging rioters have taken over the city streets’). This attempt to link John McDonnell’s speech (present in many of the tabloid press’ reports, most explicitly in the Mail) – which called for a peaceful demonstration and for marchers to ‘remain safe’ – with the violence of the Black Bloc is the most galling part of their manipulation. The main reason being I was only about 50 or so meters away from John McDonnell and couldn’t hear his small megaphone over the crowd. The anarchists I saw were further behind (no doubt they don’t have much respect for McDonnell or the Labour party so didn’t want to listen), so had no chance of hearing, and came predetermined to have their ‘fight’ with the police – as they do every year – no matter what anyone said.
I’ve been going to these student protests since 2010 when we were first betrayed by Clegg and his broken promises (as I attempted to immortalise in the picture above), and I know the Daily Mail and the right wing press will report on these demonstrations negatively, no matter what. They want to discredit any and all protests and movements for change as they know the power they have to transform society and threaten their entrenched power and privilege and that of those they represent. But what a gift to the right wing press these Black Bloc members must be. All the better that McDonnell had been there at the beginning to give a speech urging peace that almost no one could hear, so they can not only discredit protesters and the student movement, but also the Left of the Labour party that they so fear and despise.
Had this protest been several times bigger the actions of the tiny Black Bloc would have been far harder to paint as representative of the whole protest. I respect everyone’s right to join our protests, and I understand the frustrations and feelings that give rise to the actions of the Black Bloc, but by these same actions they’re practically doing the work of the right wing propagandists over at the Mail and other hate filled rags for them. At the same time they’re helping our enemies to alienate large swathes of the public from the student movement.
A handful of people clad in black pointlessly throwing things at government buildings isn’t really radical, it achieves nothing. What would be radical is if we had hundreds of thousands of people protesting and blockading the roads outside those government buildings, or even occupying them. That would get us results. But the ‘tactics’ of the Black Bloc is actually acting as an obstacle to that happening, and holding our movement back. Hopefully an obstacle we can overcome.