Student protest sparks Tory HQ evacuation
Wednesday 10 November 2010
A huge demonstration against tuition fees by tens of thousands of students and lecturers descended into violence today when a group of protesters smashed their way into the headquarters of the Conservative party.
A number of police officers were injured after they came under attack from youths, some wearing scarves to hide their faces, amid scenes of chaos. Eight people were taken to hospital with injuries after the violence flared at Millbank Tower, next to the River Thames in central London.
The demonstration, organised by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, started peacefully, with up to 50,000 students, lecturers and supporters, marching from Whitehall past Downing Street and Parliament.
But around an hour after the protest started, violence flared at Millbank Tower, close to the Tate Britain art gallery where the march was due to end with a rally. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from the building, which also houses other organisations including Government agencies, as windows were smashed and a fire was lit.
About 50 protesters got on to the roof, dropping a large metal fire extinguisher on to riot police. Water fire extinguishers were also let off from the roof and eggs were thrown. On the ground, sticks and other missiles were thrown at police from a crowd of at least 1,000.
Placards and banners were being burnt, to cheers from the crowd, while protesters inside the building used chairs as they smashed and kicked their way through more of the glass frontage, effectively opening up the whole atrium to the crowd. One policewoman with a bloody wound to her head was led away from the side of the building by two colleagues. A stick was thrown at her as she went.
A confetti of torn newspaper rained down on the hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Millbank atrium after students gained access to the upper floors of the building. Water also poured down on them, seemingly from a broken sprinkler system above.
A red flare was let off as the atmosphere within the crowd became increasingly volatile. The crowd responded to the heavy police presence with loud booing, screaming and chanting. Students who had got inside the building's atrium tried to pull down the few remaining huge sheets of glass. Others hurled stuffed pillows while the chants of "Tory scum" increased in volume. A Conservative Party spokesman said that all its staff were "safe" but could not confirm whether or not they had been evacuated from the building.
NUS president Aaron Porter said a small minority of protesters had "hijacked" the march, describing the violence as "despicable". He said the violence was not part of the organisers' plans, blaming the trouble on a "small minority" he believed had arranged it beforehand. "We talked about the need to prevent anything like this and how important it was to act in a responsible way. Unfortunately a minority have undermined us." An NUS spokesman said: "The trouble makers have let down students."
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "The actions of a minority should not distract from today's message. The overwhelming majority of staff and students on the march came here to to send a clear and peaceful message to the politicians. The actions of a minority, out of 50,000 people, is regrettable."
The protesters in the Tory HQ building and on the roof released a statement which said: "We oppose all cuts and we stand in solidarity with public sector workers, and all poor, disabled, elderly and working people.
"We are occupying the roof in opposition to the marketisation of education pushed through by the coalition government, and the system they are pushing through of helping the rich and attacking the poor.
"We call for direct action to oppose these cuts. This is only the beginning of the resistance to the destruction of our education system and public services."
About 50 police in riot gear tried to drive the crowd back away from the building at around 16.25.
They succeeded in clearing half the courtyard area before the protesters refused to move further.
There were scuffles at the front of the crowd, with protesters throwing missiles and hitting officers with sticks.
About 50 riot police moved in just after 5pm as the majority of the protesters began to leave the scene.
One student barring the way of the helmeted officers was hit in the face with a police shield.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson said: "I am appalled that a small minority have today shamefully abused their right to protest.
"This is intolerable and all those involved will be pursued and they will face the full force of the law.
"The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has assured me that there will be a vigorous post incident investigation. He will also be reviewing police planning and response."
A protester was pulled from the crowd and pinned down by four officers in riot gear in front of Millbank Tower. He was handcuffed and hauled through the shattered entrance of the lobby into the building.
About 25 students remained detained inside a police cordon inside the heavily graffitied entrance.
Conservative Party staff remained in their offices throughout the violent protests - with chairman Baroness Warsi believed to be among those inside.
"There was no need to evacuate," a party spokesman said.
"Everyone has the right to protest but they also have a responsibility to do so in the appropriate way," he went on.
"We thoroughly condemn the use of violence."
The police slowly forced the remaining protesters out of the courtyard of Millbank Tower.
Students shouted: "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts" as the line of riot police pushed them backwards into the street.
Police officers formed a line across Millbank after clearing the forecourt area of the tower, which was left strewn with debris and ash.
More than 200 officers remained at the scene in full riot gear, holding back a small group of noisy protesters.
Inside the severely damaged lobby of Millbank Tower, a group of around 25 protesters could be seen surrounded by police in fluorescent jackets.
Officers led them down from various floors of the the seven-storey building where they were found after running inside at the peak of the riot.
Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said the force should have anticipated the level of violence "better", adding: "It's not acceptable.
"It's an embarrassment for London and for us."
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