Shortly after lunch yesterday, outside the University of London Union, sunlight was beaming through the trees. The heavy fog that had shrouded the early hours of the day had long since lifted, and the mood was positive with a low buzz creeping through a small crowd of people.
There may only have been around 70 students and supporters from across the country, gathering in response to recent police presence at student demonstrations - but placards stacked against the walls bearing slogans such as "defend the right to protest" foreshadowed a much bigger turnout.
20 minutes later, anticipation was tangible as members of the expanding crowd donned balaclavas, waved flags and handed out advice cards in case of arrest. Everybody knew why they were there, but seemed to be waiting for something.
And then the mood ignited: it was the unmistakable sound of the SOAS samba band, armed with drums, whistles and bells. As they marched into view at the end of Malet Street, hundreds more supporters could be seen in tow - the promised attendees had arrived. Cheers and ululations rose to the sky, people began to dance, and chants filled the air: "one solution - revolution!", "Show me what a democracy looks like!" and "whose university? Our university."
The demonstration began and continued in a largely peaceful manner. More than 1,000 people – as many as 2,000 by some estimates – followed a route around Senate House, which had once again barred its gates to protesters.
Nobody entered the building, but the gates were smashed through at one point, with someone setting fire to the contents of a bin.
Suspiciously, no police presence was evident, although rumours circulated of riot vans waiting expectantly - and were not unfounded.
The group ultimately settled outside SOAS, with some protesters climbing nearby trees to hang banners or sitting down to eat lunch.
The latter half of the day saw the group split in two, some heading to Parliament Square while the majority spilled out onto Kingsway where they caused a severe road blockage. But the atmosphere remained vibrant, numbers seemed to be increasing, and many passers-by cheered on in support.
With rush hour imminent, the protesters made it all the way to the Royal Courts of Justice before police decided to intervene. They moved stragglers on firmly but calmly and the crowd continued to wind along Strand past King's College London, along to Trafalgar Square and finally to Downing Street, Westminster and Hyde Park, where it was closely followed by large numbers of police but dissipated peacefully in the early evening.
All in all,
the so-called "cops off campus" demonstration proved successful in
its aim: visible policing was kept to a minimum and campus, not to mention the
busy streets of the capital, were reclaimed at least temporarily.
Where the campaign will go from here is unclear. For while the peaceful mood was welcome, it belies a very deliberate act of restraint from the police - who tactically avoided walking into a trap. By keeping a low profile and refusing to give credence to students' recent accusations of violence, the police were a silent presence yesterday. Their reputation among students has taken significant blows lately, which could well lead to further action in the future. Perhaps this is a waiting game; but it could be a while before violence flares up again.
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