The first major challenge for London's new police chief passed mostly peacefully yesterday as thousands of officers lined the streets in a show of strength to prevent a repeat of last year's violence at a students' march against tuition fees.
Twenty-four people were arrested after strict conditions were imposed on marchers protesting against the privatisation of universities and the rise in fees to £9,000 next year.
The march was tightly marshalled by 4,000 officers and attempts to establish a protest camp in Trafalgar Square were swiftly broken up. Police walked in front of the crowds and regularly slowed down or even stopped to keep the demonstration in check.
The response contrasted with a similar protest held on 10 November last year, when the force admitted it was "embarrassed" after protesters stormed the headquarters of the Conservative Party when officers failed to anticipate such a level of violence.
The response this time also followed friction between the Government and senior officers after the Home Secretary, Theresa May, criticised the initial response to this summer's riots as being too weak.
Some protesters yesterday complained that police, under the stewardship of the new Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, had adopted "antagonistic" tactics after announcing that baton rounds were being held in reserve for the protest. The rounds have never before been used in mainland public-order policing. Police also handed out leaflets and warned demonstrators that they risked arrest if they did not stay on the agreed route.
Marchers said the turnout – estimated by police at 4,000 and by organisers at 10,000 – had been affected by concerns about the police response.
There were also concerns that anarchists who had joined the match would become violent – a number of protesters were wearing masks. Police arrested some people for alleged breach of the peace, one for possession of an offensive weapon and one for failing to remove a mask.
"It is obvious that the police presence has made everyone more agitated. Stopping us doesn't help," said Tom Philips, 21, a graphic design student from Falmouth.
Two other protests, by electricians and cab drivers, were also held in London. Police briefly used the controversial tactic of "kettling" demonstrators on a march by electricians over pay and conditions in the construction industry after there were scuffles.
Police wearing riot gear formed lines on Fleet Street to prevent student demonstrators from making their way to St Paul's Cathedral, where the Occupy London Stock Exchange group set up camp three weeks ago. A small group of about 40 people deviated from the route of the main march and pitched their tents in Trafalgar Square, but the new camp was broken up within an hour.
Digital ticker screens told people that they were breaking the law and officers with megaphones told them to move on. The few people who refused were arrested by police, who outnumbered the protesters in the square by three to one, and their tents were cleared away.
A spokesperson for the Occupy camp at St Paul's said the protest had happened "fairly spontaneously" and that only a small number within the camp knew of the plans in detail.