Fears of trouble at the latest student fees march eased tonight after police swamped demonstrations to keep a lid on violence.
Protesters accused Scotland Yard of "ludicrous" tactics as officers appeared to outnumber them in central London.
But the strategy appeared to work, with only 24 arrests for minor incidents as numbers dwindled this evening.
Less than a third of the 10,000 expected demonstrators were estimated to have turned up after force chiefs announced 4,000 officers had been made available.
Skirmishes broke out as officers made several arrests moving a group who set up camps in Trafalgar Square by pitching pop-up tents.
There were also violent exchanges as anarchists threw items at police lines.
But many demonstrators were thought to have stayed away after chiefs warned that rubber bullets were available after major disturbances in November and December last year.
Demonstrator Beth Atkinson, 27, from London, said: "It is ludicrous. It is antagonistic, it is like they are egging on a fight, which is frankly embarrassing."
Oxford graduate Ariadne Mitchell-Kotsakis, 24, also hit out at the "overwhelming" police presence.
Ms Mitchell-Kotsakis, who said she decided to join the march in "solidarity" with students after her brother was jailed for violent disorder following the last feesprotest, added: "I think it's too much.
"I think the march is a lot smaller than they were expecting and having this number of officers is quite overwhelming.
"I'm here because my brother Zenon was sentenced to 15 months at Kingston Crown Court. I'm here for solidarity and to be part of it."
A-level pupil Luci Cunningham, 17, from Enfield, north London, added: "There were police at every corner - we're not animals. I think they went a bit over the top, to be honest."
Protesters led by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts carried placards reading "Scrap Tuition Fees" and "Free Education".
There were chants of "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts" and "David Cameron f*** off back to Eton" while demonstrators slowly made their way through the streets.
They also shouted: "You can shove your rubber bullets up your arse."
There were only small clashes along the route.
Police intervened after anti-capitalist "Occupy" activists put up 20 tents at the foot of Nelson's Column.
But the group said they were planning to stay for as "long as possible" and chanted "Whose square? Our square".
A minor scuffle also broke out as marchers walked slowly down Fetter Lane.
The beefed-up police presence came amid fears of a repeat of scenes last year when hundreds of arrests as trouble-makers hijacked peaceful scenes.
As part of their efforts to keep the peace, officers handed out leaflets and warned demonstrators they risked arrest if they did not stay on the agreed route.
Marchers were also only allowed to remain at the rally point at London Wall for two hours.
An officer walking alongside the march said it was estimated that there were around 2,500 protesters.
But John Roberts, a 25-year-old architect from London, said: "I have got friends who haven't come along because of the threat of rubber bullets."
Jenny Jones, a Green Party member at the London Assembly, also expressed fears that families had been scared off.
"Policing isn't an exact science and it is often impossible to assess what levels can be expected at a demonstration such as today's," she said.
"However, by issuing a statement that threatens the use of rubber bullets, the police have not only directly discouraged protesters from attending, but also potentially changed the nature of the event itself.
"Surely those committed to peaceful protest and those with children are most likely to be put off by this kind of warning?"
A Scotland Yard spokesman said three arrests were for public order offences, one was for possession of an offensive weapon, three were for going equipped and 12 breaches of the peace.
There was also one arrest relating to a suspect covering his face.
Click here to see the event as it unfolded.