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Student fees protests: who started the violence?

By Esther Addley

With the clean-up of broken glass, charred benches and abandoned placards from Parliament Square and Oxford Circus today (Friday) came the inevitable round of accusation and recrimination.

David Cameron, using uncharacteristically frank language, blamed a "mob" who had

behaved in an "absolutely feral way" for the sporadic bursts of violence at the anti-fees protest.

"I don't think we can go on saying a small minority were there,.

There were quite a lot of people who were hellbent on violence and destroying property."

Protesters and student groups, on the other hand, insisted the policing had been heavy-handed and disproportionate, arguing that the kettling for hours of thousands of people within a freezing Parliament Square was certain to cause frustration that would boil into anger.

After a day that saw the Heir to the Throne's motorcade attacked, the Treasury and Supreme Court damaged, and more than 50 injured, including a student with a severe brain injury and apoliceofficer with serious neck injuries and with more protests highly likely in the months to come the question of exactly what went wrong at yesterday's protest is a pressing one.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has announced an independent inquiry into the events which saw Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student from Middlesex University, undergo three hours of emergency surgery after he was beaten with a police baton and suffered bleeding on the brain,.

The Met said an internal review was ongoing into an operation that involved 2,800 individual officers and resulted in 33 arrests.

According to police, scuffles first broke out after the protest, which had been called by a loose coalition of student groups called the National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), deviated from the agreed route, which initially involved processing south down Horse Guards Road, crossing the north side of Parliament Square, and turning north into Whitehall, before finishing on Victoria embankment, by the Thames.

Many hundreds of police, dressed in fluorescent jackets and soft hats, but with riot helmets at their waists, were already standing shoulder to shoulder along the route, when the demonstration arrived in the square at around 1.30pm.

Within 15 minutes the police line was breached by protesters throwing smoke bombs and eggs, and the crowd spilled across to occupy the whole of Parliament Square, pulling down temporary fencing in order to enter the green.

Simon Hardy, an NCAFC co-organizer, said the line had been breached because "it was clear that a lot ofstudentswanted to protest in Parliament Square,.

They weren't satisfied to go to Victoria embankment",.

He acknowledged the group had not had agreement to protest there, but called the move "radical but good-natured".

It was a move for which the police were demonstrably unprepared,.

They would shortly change en masse into riot gear, removing their high-visibility jackets in favor of black armored vests and helmets, with many pulling balaclavas over their faces; the atmosphere, accordingly, became increasingly tense.

For much of the afternoon the mood of the demonstration, in particular at its center, was good-natured, with protesters dancing to portable sound systems, sitting in small groups playing cards and drinking from flasks, or huddled around small bonfires made from burning placards to ward off the perishing temperatures.

At the four exits to the square, however, sporadic bursts of trouble flared, at times sparked by provocative surges from some demonstrators, but elsewhere marked by no more than a press of bodies into the police lines which were met with baton strikes as officers pushed back.

In one of the most violent incidents, a group with a metal wedge-shaped battering ram charged the police line and broke through to the other side; police responded with a horseback charge in which a number of uninvolved protesters were injured.

Organizers said stewards were present, but they were not obvious and did not appear to have any mediating influence on either side.

One 21-year-old literature student, using the alias raindance77, told the Guardian: "I am a girl of five foot two, I was pushed several times in the face, dragged on the floor and laughed at by police when I told them I had asthma,.

I asked a policeman where I could go to the toilet; he pointed at the floor by his feet,.

Another shouted: 'Move, bitch, or I'll squash you with my horse'."

The first kettle the Met uses the term "containment" was imposed at 3.30pm, and though it was lifted occasionally to allow small groups to leave, as darkness fell many protesters spoke of moving from exit to exit before being turned back by officers,.

While many were attempting to use restraint, others surged forward striking out with batons at heads and knees in an attempt to force back the line.

Frustration grew into the evening, with protesters handing forward over the crowd sections of fencing, which some used to charge at the police lines; a small number smashed concrete blocks to break them into missiles, though many in the crowd were visibly appalled.

At one point a section of the crowd were kettled in Whitehall; later in the evening police moved the remaining protesters on to Westminster Bridge, where they were held, many complaining of crushed conditions, until 11.30pm.

Jenny Jones, the Green party member on the Metropolitan Police Authority who was on the march, said it was important to note that the force "can't win" in its approach to these demos,.

But the most significant issue, she argued, was a deep and growing lack of trust between the force and the student protesters, exacerbated by kettling on the 24 November protest.

"It is definitely not constructive for the police to stand in a large and intimidating line,.

It is a shame, because they have got better at this recently,.

I think the Millbank protest [in which windows were broken at Conservative HQ] was not actually policed too badly, in the sense that I would rather see a broken window in a building than a young person with brain injuries and a [badly injured] police officer."

But many of those who were present felt as frustrated with the troublemakers as they did with the politicians and the police,.

"It's all really horrible, really irresponsible,.

Those people are idiots," said Thomas Shepherd, a student from Liverpool Hope University,.

Had they succeeded in drowning out the message of the day? "Well it's hard to get our message through to them" gesturing at parliament "through huge banks of riot police."

The Guardia

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Dec 13, 2010
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