Wednesday 27th May was the State Opening of Parliament, and people, angry at the prospect of more cuts, austerity and student debt, from a Government given total control with fewer than a quarter of the population’s vote, organised a 5pm protest via the Facebook page of National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.
More than 7,000 indicated they would come, but on the night there were only a few hundred at the start of the evening, though many others came and went during the course of the next few hours, so the organisers’ claims of several thousand were probably realistic overall.
They certainly attracted many more protesters than the People’s Assembly, who despite their massive fund-raising mailing list, only mustered a few dozen people listening to lonely speakers opposite Downing Street at their 5.30 start time.
As the Trafalgar Square crowd set off down Whitehall, police tried to disrupt the People’s Assembly protest by blockading the students to force them to march through the Assembly’s static protest.
Despite huge numbers of police blocking the way, the students were not about to be forced to join a protest they hadn’t called. Even by Metropolitan Police standards the tactic of forcing one protest to join another seemed bizarre, and not designed to facilitate either demonstration as is their duty. So with some minor scuffles, students broke the police lines and followed their original intention marching past Downing Street towards Parliament Square.
At the bottom of Whitehall, progress was again impeded by police vans parked across the road, and in ensuing arguments, a couple of arrests were made, but again, the police interference appeared ill-conceived and counter-productive, just building up tensions, as the marchers pushed forward into Parliament Square and on up Victoria Street.
The authorities were expecting the procession to head towards Buckingham Palace, and several vans full of riot police waited there. However, three cheerful girls with placards were the only threat to the Queen as the rest of the students had doubled back up Whitehall towards their start point in Trafalgar Square, where they held up traffic with a sit-down protest for a while before taking to the steps and listening to a few speakers on an open microphone.
After a sort stay there, one group of a couple of hundred set off up Charing Cross Road, while others remained in the Square. The mobile crowd picked up pace, and in doing so, lost more and more stragglers along the way, as they headed west along Oxford Street, down Regent Street, and off into Mayfair.
By the time they arrived in Maddox Street, there were fewer than a hundred. Their destination was apparently a freshly evicted squat, guarded by bailiffs, TSG police, and two dog handlers with fiercely barking Alsatians.
It wasn’t clear whether the dog handlers were real police or private security. They certainly appeared to be impersonating police but were not displaying lapel badges. Questioned by legal observers they argued about displaying ID, but were eventually persuaded to give up their information, before entering the building.
A small crowd tried to follow them in and scuffles broke out, during which one TSG officer completely lost control and had to be forcibly restrained by several of his colleagues in scenes more reminiscent of hooliganism than professional policing.
With access to the building clearly impossible, the small group headed off again up to Oxford Street and then down Park Lane, possibly to join the several hundred people we’d heard were now outside Downing Street with a sound system. I left them there.