As I grow older my birthday becomes a little more mundane and I have to admit the excitement is lost compared to when I was under 20. So deciding to cover the national student protest for the day seemed like an exciting way to spend the day which I would probably otherwise only have been doing some sort of essay or coursework.
So zoom and camera in hand, Lucy and I headed to the UCU for the student media press conference with the NUS president and president of UCU, the institutions organising the demonstration.
Little did we expect the day to turn into such chaos let alone that we would unwittingly find ourselves at the very heart of all the action.
After the press conference where Aaron Porter, the NUS president, reassured us that the demonstration would be the beginning to a national fight against the university fee increase and that violence would not occur we headed to the congregation point at Horse Guard Avenue.
I have never been to anything like this before and so I certainly had no idea what to expect. As we joined the already mile long group of protesters as they marched down the Horse Guards Avenue towards Millbank and the Tate Gallery we conducted a few vox pops, recorded a few chants and took some pictures to capture the moment.
It started off quite exciting. The atmosphere created by the crowds fighting for something they all felt so passionate about was inspiring and it became difficult to remain professional and impartial as journalists. We often found ourselves tempted to join in their chanting and placard bearing.
I found myself even more inclined to join in when one MP completely ignored me when we tried to interview him. It’s not exactly the best impression to make for an MP to run away from a student journalist when the very thing people are fighting for is the rights of students. The least he could have done would have been to defend the government’s decision or let us know that he was on our side.
We soon realised that not much was happening so we made our way to the front of the demonstration next to the Houses of Parliament.
Heading to the front we had a fantastic view of the sheer extent of the amount of people involved. The queue was never ending as we looked down on thousands of placards and banners.
We walked further down towards the end of Milbank. It was lunch time and it was clear nothing much was changing. It was the same old people chanting and walking, while stewards stopped and started them in order to control the rabble of people.
So, given it was my birthday we went into a nearby Pizza Express, thinking that we had enough time before the protesters would reach their final destination, probably about half a mile ahead.
What happened next was a complete surprise.
As we sat at the window seat, which we had requested in order to see the march as it passed, we opened a bottle of wine and began to make our order.
Within about 15 minutes a group of boys ran past the restaurant in the adjoining courtyard. We Were intrigued to find out what was going on as more and more people congregated in the space.
Students turn on Tories
Being a keen journo, I went onto Twitter to see if anything had been reported. To my delight (to hear about something “kicking off”) a reported had tweeted that “100 students had broken into Tory’s HQ and they are burning placards.”
It became clear from that, that the orange smoke we had seen above the heads of the crowds outside the window were from the placard burning. Keen to go to the heart of the reported riots we asked our waitress where the HQ was.
To our delight she gestured next door. That was it. We were right next to the riots. What were that chances that we just happened to have lunch right next to the Conservative Headquarters. We couldn’t believe our luck. We were considering heading on to the final meeting point at the Tate further down the road in which case we would have missed what was going on.
We hurriedly finished our meal, downed the wine (Lad!), paid and made a dash for it into the crowd outside.
I literally couldn’t believe it. The whole courtyard was rammed with protesters and people were shaking the glass entrance and throwing things at it so that it would smash.
All around us people were chanting, cheering and shouting. A fire started in the centre of the crowds. It got pretty big as people began throwing their placards on it.
We sat, pride of place, on the railings which separated the raised area surrounding the courtyard. We had an overview of everything that was happening. Although, to our dismay, the crowd of people in front of us were inhibiting our view of the entrance of the building but we could see enough to know what was happening.
In true journo style we brought out the zoom and asked a few people around us what was going on. We also we fairly proud of ourselves in creating a war type correspondent package at the scene.
Playing with fire
I’m not going to lie. Or act hard core. I feared for my life when a flare was lit next to us and the crowd pushed back into us. I was only sitting on a very small rail and could see, any second, someone would push slightly too hard and I would go falling, head first, onto the concrete below and probably, while there, get trampled on by the protesters.
The riot police stormed through the crowds as a group peered over the edge of the roof of the building down at the crowds below. The people who had got into the building had stripped the glass windows off the front of the building. The walls were covered in derogatory graffiti, displaying obscenities towards the Conservative party.
Plants from inside the building were thrown out of windows and passed through the crowds. Fire extinguishers made it feel almost magical as they were set off from above and the foam came falling through the sky like snow. Rolls of toilet paper and old newspapers and banana skins were also thrown out of the windows.
The police barricaded the entrance to stop more people getting into the building as the helicopters above surrounded.
Let me tell you one thing about mobs. They do not like the police. I was shocked at the way the crowds jeered at them and shouted abuse when all they were trying to do was control the situation which looked like it was going to escalate.
And then suddenly, after a few minutes of mulling it over, we decided to make our way to the front of the crowds to where the proper press were. Right opposite the police wall.
As we pushed our way to the front placards and bottles were thrown over our head. When we reached the front a bottle skimmed past Lucy’s eye, and another hit my back. As one girl shoved a policeman with a wooden stick she slid on the glass on the floor and before we knew it both the police and other protesters seemed to congregate around her and almost attack her. We got pushed around and slide on the glass.
That was when I knew we had to get out. It was just becoming too dangerous. As the afternoon progressed people were finding new things to through and there was glass everywhere.
We headed to that back but just couldn’t quite drag ourselves away. So we ventured up a stairwell at the back of the courtyard. It was a fantastic place to overlook the mob below.
Riot at Milbank
A boy walked past to show his friend why they couldn’t get in and I soon realised people were trying to get in the building at this entrance as well but the police were protecting the door from the inside and so no one was getting in.
By this time we were all mobbed out. The scene was absolute chaos. I had never experienced anything like it. All i could think was, “best birthday ever!”
It was like the day had been guided for us because as we went back to the station away from the riot we bumped into, no other than, the NUS president himself!
Lucy and I looked at each other. “Oh my god, massive exclusive!” this could be our chance to get a face to face interview with the very man who orchestrated the day and believed that it would not succumb to violence.
We went up and asked him a few questions. The man looked deflated. He was devastated that because a few people had taken the march out of hand, months of his work had been ruined. We overheard him say he was considering to resign from president.
Wow. Massive scoop! Lucy sneakily edged the zoom towards him as he revealed to his friends just how much the events had destroyed his reputation.
Unfortunately, technology failed us. None of our war correspondent style audio could be heard on the playback and to our dismay our scoop was completely inaudible.
We couldn’t help but feel a little cheated by technology. I mean what are the chances! All of the things we had gathered had gone.
But I can’t complain. It was an amazing experience. If not a little scary at times. It was a shame that some people, who were clearly not students, had taken the whole demonstration out of hand and potentially ruined the validity of the very cause so many people came out to fight for.
The government’s decision to increase fees is completely ridiculous. All it is going to do is deter those from less privileged backgrounds from going to university. And these young people are the future of our country. I can only but hope that the occurrences of the day have not completely destroyed the fight and that the government will reconsider their proposal.