Voices of the Millbank riot: Two years on
It was the protest which brought the student movement’s fight against tuition fee increases to the public’s attention.
It may have been for the worst reasons but the disorder which erupted as protesters smashed up Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank would be the first battle in a war which would bring the government to within a whisker of a Commons defeat.
Some of the people on that march brought destruction and havoc to the office building after leaving the march route; one was even jailed for two years and eight months after throwing a fire extinguisher from its roof.
But the fight they began two years ago this weekend would rumble on for a month as protesters marched repeatedly through most of the country’s major cities and set up occupations in universities. It tore asunder a coalition government in its infancy and put unprecedented pressure on its junior partner Nick Clegg, who was accused of breaking his promises and betraying voters.
London, Cardiff and Cambridge were among the cities which would see students march through their streets. Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Belfast, Edinburgh, Sheffield and York – and yet more – can be added to that list.
In the end, it went right to the wire with the government winning in the Commons by only 21 votes. As the anniversary passes, The Independent has tracked down and spoken to some of the people involved on that day.
Chris Rawlinson, 25, from Southampton, organised the transport for 50 of his classmates to go to London and was there when Millbank was attacked. His school friend Edward Woollard would later be jailed after throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of Millbank.
He said: “We followed an effigy of Nick Clegg off the planned route of the march and into Millbank, they burned that then people pushed their way through the front doors of the building. People started smashing windows.
“The atmosphere on the march in general was great. I had been on demonstrations before but this was not the same, people thought they would really be able to make a difference and win MPs round, “There were trade unions, alongside pensioners and students. It was also quite and angry atmosphere, which I have not seen since. We felt people were on our side.
“That changed because the media narrative was that a small minority tried to smash the windows, which was pushed by the National Union of Students. That later changed to our being unruly and thugs.
“We have had demonstrations since which have had good turnouts but the sense of urgency doesn’t seem to be there any longer. The last demonstration I went on was a year ago, they are much more dull affairs now, I am not sure if people just think we are not achieving anything. Now, we are hearing people talking about only having marches in the run-up to elections.
“After the march, I took a year out then went to Oxford University to study History and Politics. I also worked at the Olympics but I got sacked for heckling David Cameron. He attended a staff event and said the Olympic Games were a metaphor for his Big Society, so I heckled him.
“There are still groups of students who are politically active and who want to organise actions but you come up against students who are more apathetic now and careerist now, especially in high positions in the NUS. They are not interested in the cause we are campaigning for but in finding the middle ground and not endangering their own careers.
“I am still involved with the Education Activist Network myself, which was instrumental in organising some of the protests. I will carry on with very visible demonstrations, I don’t agree that they are pointless and it is a shame that a lot of people do.”
Samuel Duckett, was part of the protest at Millbank. After a period of unemployment, he has since gone into a steady job as a web developer.
He said: “There were lots and lots of people and I was with all my friends, who had not been on demonstrations before. It was noisy and chaotic but it was jubilant. When I saw what happened with the fire extinguisher, that was a low point but the rest was brilliant.
“The rest of the day was pretty boring but people started to fight back. It changed lots for me and for my friends. It triggered unrest for months afterwards, marches and occupations started springing up. Now, the energy has disappeared. Apart from the TUC demonstration on 26 March 2011, we have not done the same sort of thing since. If it sparked up again, I would be involved, though.
“Now, I am in quite an involved job, which I have had since February. I was unemployed for nine months beforehand, so it has been up and down for me since the protest.”
Mark Clinton, 33, from Glasgow, protested against the tuition fee rises in 2010. He said that, while some people have become disheartened since then, he is determined to continue and is now carrying out a hunger strike against Atos.
He said: “What became apparent on that march was that it was a very friendly atmosphere, barring a few isolated incidents, no-one was breaking windows or anything like that. But then, it became obvious that the police were not there in numbers, especially around Millbank. It almost got to the point where there were five or six police officers and thousands of protesters.
“I sprayed ‘Tory Scum’ on the building, I borrowed a can of spray paint from someone to do it. I don’t really believe in that but it seemed right because it was ridiculous what was going on then. I voted Lib Dem on what Nick Clegg put across and it turned out to be all lies. Then he joined a right-wing party in coalition.
“I have grown up since then, although I plan to spray paint banks in Glasgow in protest, I will not do that in anger; only to raise awareness. I regret what I did two years ago but the government was doing much worse than I was.”
Ben Beach, 22, from London, left the planned route of the march with many others as Whitehall was blocked by a sit-down protest. He headed for Millbank with the crowds and soon found himself near the head of the violence.
He said: “There was not that much excitement in the activist community when we heard about an NUS march. But, when we saw how many people were there, we changed our minds. I was aware beforehand that there was talk of people going to Millbank.
“The police were there but they had neither the inclination nor the manpower to stop us. Everyone surged towards the building, there were around 140 people inside in the lobby. Some tried to get out, while others were trying to get in and the police were pushing people: it was an interesting dynamic. Neither side was particularly violent, just using their body weight.
“I remember turning to my friend and saying ‘the students have their anger back’. There was a lot of anger among the crowd and we knew it was the start of something greater than what was happening that day. I don’t regret my involvement oin actions I personally undertook which I thought were legitimate, although I do regret things like the fire extinguisher incident: that was stupid.
“I am now studying Architecture at University College London and am still heavily involved in political activism. I am in my final year and will have to get a job soon, but I don’t envisage much change once I start working, I will just have to take part in actions at different times of the day.”
Ibrahim Choudhury was outside when people started trying to break into Millbank. He said he did not go in because he did not realise the building’s significance. He has since been taken on to an apprenticeship.
He said: “I knew I was witnessing a crime, one that felt right and justified but one that I knew was morally wrong. I chose not to go in although my heart was telling me to conform to the situation. When I look back now, I'm not sure whether I regret the chance of breaking into the infamous building.
“We protested because we were being wronged. We were openly lied to by Nick Clegg. Many students felt that was only in power because he promised he wouldn't increase tuition fees.
“I was in my first year at university and it was my first time living by myself in the capital. I started the day experience the atmosphere and I ended the day with a revolutionary fighting spirit that has not left me to this day.
“I am now a child development apprentice. I help the children that society has given up, who have been expelled from numerous schools are now partly my responsibility. It is a rewarding role for which I am paid peanuts. However, the experience is invaluable.
“I have moved on because the fees fight is a lost cause. However, I still hope and I always will hope something can be done about it.”
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