Anatomy of a Demo – The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – 19 November 2014

It was getting dark. I was knackered. My back ached from jumping over barriers and chasing police officers. My feet ached from walking and running. My shoulder throbbed from being struck by the camera of  an overzealous TV cameraman. My laptop was refusing to connect to the nearest WiFi network. I took a selfie with my phone and grimaced at the bright orange paint in my hair and on my cheek. It was spattered over my jacket, shoes and borrowed camera. I had Parliament Square mud all over the knees of my jeans. I scrolled through the 619 images I had snapped during the day. Satisfied, I bit into my homemade chicken wrap, and absent mindedly began scraping at a globule of orange paint on my left shoe.

Nine hours earlier, at about 9am, I was firmly ensconced in Malet Street. I had my packed lunch and a borrowed camera. A hastily created ‘Press’ vest too. Just in case. This was my first demonstration as an observer/aspiring journo, and I couldn’t have picked one which is more emotive for students. In this age of austerity, students are suffering. Not just now, but in the future too, with most expected to be saddled with in excess of 40 grands worth of debt after graduating. Thus, The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – under the ‘student’ nomenclature – organised the demo for 19th November.

Malet Street at 10am was cold and forlorn. A few organisations had pitched stands, and placards (in their hundreds it seemed) were being prepared. As the minutes passed, crowds began to gather. I had initially thought there might be a poor turnout, perhaps influenced by the lack of NUS support. This was not to be, and, by departure time, the atmosphere was festive (not as in Christmas) and good natured chanting was accompanied by the ferocious waving of some humorous and creative placards and flags. Police presence was minimal to say the least.

I stationed myself at the front of the march. Keen for a ‘story’, I was conscious of a small group of masked youths, and surmised that they may behave in an interesting way. I latched myself to them for most of the march. It was impressive how well the march had been organised and marchers deployed with great efficiency. I thought it great that students had the opportunity to vent their anger, despair and annoyance at student debt and education fees.

As the march wended its way through Bloomsbury and down Holborn onto the Strand, the first small pockets of conflict occurred. It was at the front of the march and perpetrated by the masked-up wannabe anarchists, outside MacDonald’s and Top Shop — no surprises there. These pit-stops passed without major incident, and it was only when we arrived at Parliament Square the inevitable violence erupted. This, I thought, was a shame. We were only a few yards away from the rally point, where the intention was for speakers to address the assembled marchers. Surely one of the major, if not the most important, part of the demo?

Instead, our be-masked chums decided to clamber over the police barriers (fine, I thought), jump up and down shouting anti-capitalist slogans (no problem) and then proceeded to tear down the metal mesh fencing to get onto the grassed area of Parliament Square. Not only do I not have a problem with people demonstrating, I think it slightly abhorrent that demonstrations on Parliament Square are prohibited. So, whilst I perhaps understood the reasoning behind wanting to demonstrate on Parliament Square (although I’m not sure some of the demonstrators did) I didn’t really understand the violence which went with it, and the sad sight of a 60 year-old City of Westminster heritage warden cowering at the sight of dozens of black clad guys surrounding him to kick, push and smash their way on to the square.

I joined them on the Square, perversely proud as I was one of the first dozen journos who breached the lines. After declaring a victorious occupation, the smattering of demonstrators who joined the masked marauders evidently got bored quickly.

There was some flare-ignition, giving the Square an eerie war-zone atmosphere, exacerbated by some slightly unhinged individuals attempting to create a barricade — what they intended to barricade, I have no clue — on the square out of concrete blocks, fencing and railings.

They were, however, foiled by lack of interest. Soon most people began to drift over to the rallying point, to get involved and listen to the speakers. I actually ached to do this, but my desire for front-line journo action made me stick with the anarchist crew.

Disorganised and with very little apparent knowledge of the issues of the march, this small group led a larger group on a mini-tour of government and political bases. Oh, and a Starbucks!

At each point, damage and skirmishes with the police (no helmets, no shields, and not too many batons) ensued with vigour. Anti-cuts chants changed into anti-police chants. At Tory party HQ, I snapped away as several of the masked dudes planned to smash a wheelie bin into police lines. Which they did. Our next stop was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which was declared by one of the pseudo-anarchists to be the ‘Department for Education’. Despite the massive signage declaring otherwise, the massed crowd seemed to concur. Scuffles ensued, paint was thrown and placards chucked. Several tried to get into the building (and do what exactly?) whilst chanting ‘scum’ at the four security guards desperately trying to hold the doors shut. These are the ‘working men’ to whom these people were claiming allegiance earlier.

Again with a lack of direction and apparent boredom – helped by the arrival of riot cops I assume – the next stop was a small Starbucks. Yes, it’s incredible and unacceptable they’ve avoided their tax. Yes, it’s fairly annoying to see them on every street corner. But their tax affairs and ubiquity surely could not justify paint chucking, window smashing and throwing a Barclays bike through the doors?

All along Victoria Street, more scuffles followed, until eventually a sort of semi-kettle took place. The balaclava and mask wearing contingent legged it successfully, and after half an hour, most people drifted away.

I was personally enthused by the day – it’s exactly the sort of stuff I’d like to do. I think I need to learn how to write impartially to become a journalist, but I couldn’t understand a lot of the behaviour. Frightened Starbucks staff, the cleaners who have to tidy up afterwards, the street sweepers and the glaziers. They are the working class. They should be on our side. It’s easy to see why they perhaps are not – the media (myself included) will only ever go where there is something newsworthy, but when such excellently attended and organised student demos are used as an excuse for bizarre acts of violence which prove nothing, it is only ever these incidences which will get into the news.

As I scraped paint off my shoe, I felt somewhat deflated, although proud of my battle scars.  It had started as a great day. Full of fun, and friendliness. For most people, I’m sure it continued that way. I hope it did. It was just a huge shame that the issues of the day were, and will have been, ignored to some extent – students had a great opportunity to show some reserve and strength, and put forward their very cogent and necessary arguments. Unfortunately, to coin a Daily Mail-esque phrase, ‘a few idiots spoiled it for everyone else’.

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