10/11: What Really Happened

I was there. The journalists were there too, but they were looking for a story. They had to go to the place where the glass was being broken, the placards burned, the fire extinguisher recklessly slung. If they had walked with the other students and finished off in a giant, good-tempered, weary scrum at the other end of Millbank cheering speeches they couldn't hear by student leaders, the journalists would have been thrown out by their editor the next time they showed up at the office.

The journalists didn't really know the students either. They could put a microphone in someone's way and snatch the odd soundbite about Nick Clegg or tuition fees or lies and hypocrisy, but they couldn't know the students; their world is simply too far removed. I knew the students, though. I knew the people I had come up from Northampton on a coach with, and I got to know the people who were marching all around me in that unbelievably long, loud, and, yes, happy train of  humanity going past the Houses of Parliament.

And they were happy, make no mistake. It was exhilarating to be out there on that bright day in the middle of London doing something important, for once, with your friends; chanting rude songs (and rude is all they were, despite the prudish disapproval of the newspapers: have they never been to a football match?); hoping, perhaps absurdly, to get on television. Several of us even called family and friends to tell them where we were; and when the helicopter buzzed us, as it did several times during the march, we only cheered and waved ironically. We all object strenuously to the Coalition's plans for higher education and we were there to tell Nick Clegg that as he stood at the Dispatch Box inside the Commons deputising for his new best friend David Cameron at PMQs. But nobody - nobody - from the student contingent had come up for a riot.

There were others there, people from the Socialist Worker Party, Anarchists, Anti-War Protesters, many shouting fervidly into megaphones about the evils of the Coalition and the necessity of smashing the state. There were men and women with the lower half of their face covered by bandannas. There were drunks pushing past you temporarily spoiling the carnival atmosphere with their bad manners. But I don't want to blame them for what happened at Millbank. Some of those groups have a legitimate belief that it's their duty to oppose an illegitimate and out of control Government; and in that respect I personally agree with them, though I don't always agree with their methods. I don't know what happened at Millbank anyway, any more than anybody else does except the people who were caught up in it. And I suspect that's how it was for most.

An innocent sit-down protest outside the Conservative Party offices probably seemed like a good idea to students and others who had spent the whole day thinking about the Coalition's vandalism of higher education. Many there probably hadn't been to enough protests to know that the cops wouldn't like it; maybe some were too exhilarated by the belief in the possibilities of democracy that the march represented to care very much about being arrested. Things could change and they would make them change. And then it got out of hand. Half the people in the crowd who appeared to be pushing to break the police line and get into the Tory offices probably couldn't have left if they'd tried with a great swell of other people pushing at their back.

I saw it start. I saw the police going in. Then I got away quickly and went to listen to the speeches. It wasn't until I made it - just - to the coach taking us back to Northampton that I heard what had developed once I'd scuttled off to safety. Students on the coach were reading an account in the Evening Standard. A small number - I think it was three - of our people had been detained by the Police and the frazzled, hard-working men and women from the Student Union were busy trying to get them out before the coach left. Everybody agreed that the trashing of the Tory building was wrong; that it had set back the cause of opposition to the Coalition programme, and would probably make the Lib Dem MPs we needed on our side feel more inclined to vote with Clegg and Cameron.

Tomorrow, I had a feeling, the lies and misrepresentations about what had happened at the Demo would begin in earnest. When I turned the tv on first thing in the morning I knew that I'd guessed right.

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