A local student studying in Preston gives his take on the student protests in London earlier this week.
While most students were protesting peacefully in Parliament Square, it was a different story at the other end of the parade at Millbank Tower.
As I walked down the parade towards the end of the protest, the cheering vanished, the atmosphere changed and things became genuinely scary.
A woman in a high visibility jacket was beckoning people over to Conservative party headquarters with a megaphone. As I looked over, a panicked steward struggled to hold people back as they rushed over. “Stay on the road! Stay away from the buildings,” she shouted. I slipped past her and the smell hit me immediately: burning.
There was no police presence, but there wasn’t a student presence either. During the march, students from the various universities had proudly showed their colours, with each university wearing t-shirts bearing slogans and banners demanding “no to cuts”.
This was a different crowd, consisting of youths wearing scarves over their faces, in dark clothing, and chanting not about change, but about their intention of violence. These weren’t cheers emanating from the crowd; these were war cries.
I pushed my way to the front of the bustling crowd. I knew there was a fire, but I didn’t expect to see a policewoman’s hat burning on it, but there it was, sat smouldering in the flames. Looking around, I felt like I was in a different universe. This wasn’t the same protest I’d been on just ten minutes earlier – this was anarchy. I took my photographs and I got out of there, just as noise erupted as a thug put his boot through a glass door.
As I made it back onto the relative safety of the street, I noticed three youths gleefully sitting on a sofa. A rather expensive-looking sofa, which they told me, was from inside the headquarters. They showed off their ‘trophy’ to a rather bemused and somewhat concerned audience.
The front of the headquarters was significantly damaged. Broken glass was scattered everywhere and it was clear it came from the front doors of the Tory building. Anti-Tory slogans had been daubed all over the wall, but scarily, also on the inside of the building. An ‘anarchy’ logo had been painted on a marble column, which despite the best attempts of a worker inside the building, couldn’t be hidden. Workers had secured the doors from the inside, using cable ties and wooden boarding in an effort to keep any more would-be intruders out. A young teenager was sat alongside suited men inside the building, watching helicopter footage of the situation developing right outside their building.
There was still no police, apart from one officer wandering around without a hat looking terrified. It seems as though they’d either assumed no one would know that Millbank Tower was Tory HQ or that they’d simply not had the manpower to cover the building. There was plenty of police along the route protecting the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall and Westminster Abbey, so it’s concerned they’d given no thought to protecting the building of the political party that the students were blaming for raising tuition fees.
Riot vans did finally arrive to huge jeers as an accelerant was thrown onto the make-shift bonfire, sending flames shooting 10 feet high. I’d seen enough, I wasn’t about to jeopardise my own safety as the riot-shields began taking fire from missiles.
As I made my way back to the coach to head back to Preston, rumours were flying: a group had also attacked the Lib Dem HQ and had attempted to gain entry to the M15 building across Westminster Bridge were just two examples. One thing was clear though, nobody believed it was the work of university students. People were embarrassed but also felt that ultimately, it’s the only way to get the Government to listen.