Police accused of brutality by student leader

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The Independent Online

A student leader today accused police of brutality at last night's violent anti-fees protests as he insisted the ugly clashes were simply a result of protesters' anger.

Mark Bergfeld, of the Education Activist Network, claimed demonstrators had suffered "horrendous" conditions, as they were "kettled" for up to 10 hours.

And he insisted that the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were just in "the wrong place at the wrong time".

"There was police brutality," he said.

"I saw 14-year-olds carry out their friends with cracked heads and things like that.

"I saw that people were being kettled until 1am on Westminster Bridge. They were held there without toilet facilities, without water or food for 10 hours.

"We don't live in that kind of regime."

Mr Bergfeld claimed that many "kettled" students were moved around from one holding area to another for hours.

"What we experienced is horrendous for a democratic regime," he said.

Mr Bergfeld insisted it was not right to simply blame students for the violence, saying: "We need to blame the Tories and the Lib Dems for doing this."

He suggested that the Metropolitan Police were gearing up for violence by warning days in advance that the planned demonstration could be hijacked by troublemakers.

"Very early on the police announced, days and days in advance, that the protests would be hijacked.

"They made it very clear they were going to safeguard every corner of every road with riot vans. This is unacceptable.

"We had negotiated the route and the police started to take away our democratic right to protest in Parliament Square.

He said he did not believe yesterday's violence would prevent funding cuts or higher fees.

But he added: "I believe that these were signs of anger, signs of disillusionment at democracy."

Of the attack on Charles and Camilla's car, Mr Bergfeld said: "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I did not call for this action.

"They need to understand how 16 and 15-year-olds' families rely on the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which is being stopped."

"They have no sense of what it is like to live, as it has been called, in the "London slums."

The EMA is funding handed to poor teenagers to help them stay in education.

Mr Bergfeld added: "It was the biggest protest to date. It was a massive show of power on behalf of students and education workers, lecturers and staff.

"We have been denied our democratic right to protest yesterday in Parliament Square at the time the vote was taking place.

"We do not recognise the vote that took place in Parliament."

But unions such as the University and College Union (UCU) distanced themselves from the violence and raised concerns that the ugly scenes had detracted from the peaceful protesters' message about tripling tuition fees and funding cuts.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "We organised peaceful protests yesterday to send a clear message to the Government.

"It was therefore incredibly disappointing that the message got lost in the news coverage of clashes between protesters and police.

"The sustained opposition to the Government's plans are the result of damaging cuts that the public did not vote for and the duplicitous actions of the Liberal Democrats. We now need to focus on the impact the cuts will have and the damage they will do."

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said yesterday's vote was "incredibly disappointing", adding that MPs who broke their fees pledge "should be ashamed of themselves and expect to be punished by voters at the next election".

He said the NUS campaign against funding cuts to further and higher education will continue.

Mr Porter added: "As part of those campaigns, students may feel they want to protest and march and their right to do so should be protected, but I would remind them that violent protest is not only morally wrong but counter-productive.

"The past few months have engaged many more people of all ages in education campaigns. We have the public on our side, but every scene of violence erodes that vital support.

"We will continue to work with the police to ensure that the rights of citizens to protest are protected and to find the best ways to ensure the safety of protesters and the public."

Peter Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said: "Quite clearly there were some people there yesterday more interested in violence and disorder than peaceful protest.

"We accept many people were there for a peaceful protest."

Mr Smyth said that once violence starts, people who remain as bystanders watching as a containment begins "are going to get stuck."

"It sounds a bit brutal, but that's the truth," he said.

"Those people in the front, hurling missiles, trying to hit police, again, you can't expect to do that and not get hit.

"It's self defence, it's legal."

He said the police wanted the protest to remain peaceful.