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[personal profile] devi
I wasn't really planning to go to a protest on Wednesday. I knew there was something happening at Goldsmiths but I didn't have the details; I thought they might be occupying the library or something. If I'd known what was going to happen I'd have brought food and water and a flask of tea and worn more jumpers. All the jumpers. But whatever was happening, I wanted to be there for it. I've spent all this time thinking and planning and getting up the nerve to try and get back into academia, then being almost unbearably excited that I was going to Goldsmiths, and now it seems they're having all their funding cut. My plans for the next bit of my life are going up in smoke - but whatever, I don't want to make it about me. Every time I see anything about education on the news I get a sick falling sensation in my stomach. In any case, I got there at 11 to find people gathering in front of the main doors. Only a few hundred to start with. I had stuff to be getting on with, but when they set off for New Cross station I couldn't not join them.


On the train people were handing out 'bust cards' with solicitors' numbers and legal advice on them. It was all friendly and well-behaved, with a sort of fizzing enthusiasm bubbling underneath. We poured out of Charing Cross station and merged with the crowd already growing in Trafalgar Square. Thousands of people, lots of them schoolkids, cheering every time a new contingent arrived, climbing up on the steps and the bronze lions, chanting and shouting. It didn't feel at all destructive; it felt like a party, angry but smiling and exhilarated, like they were excited to be standing up and saying something. I thought, is that it? I admire them, but we'll just demonstrate and go home and nothing will really change.

Then the crowd started flowing down Whitehall, past the traffic. I lost the Goldsmiths people, then found them again thanks to their huge banner. By the Cabinet War Rooms people milled around; some sat down; there was more chanting. The police were already blocking the end of the street, with barriers, but I think most people hadn't realised they were shut in yet. "Where do we go next?" "I heard Lib Dem HQ." "Right, let's go... oh, we can't." "What's going on?" I was in the middle of the crowd; I had to climb up on a balustrade to confirm that a kettle had formed. A photographer gave me a hand up. But my impression was that no one broke or graffitied on anything until after we were shut in. At the start, before that, before all the stuff with the police van, people were chanting "Stop throwing shit" whenever anyone threw a can or the stick from a placard.

They were mostly very, very young. School uniforms and all that. Other protests I've been on have been vulnerable to the (trite, lazy) criticism that a lot of people there were just the usual suspects, protesting because it was their hobby, their way of life. You could say stereotypical things about dreads and poi and costumes and torn army-surplus clothes. But these people were just normal-looking. Normal-looking students and lecturers and tiny children who had probably never been on a demo before.

So I realised we were shut in, and then they started shoving and spraypainting and climbing up on the famous police van. I'm sure that was the order it happened in. Uh-oh, I thought. Some people were cheering, others telling them to stop. I was surprised that the police didn't make a move to stop it, just put their visors down and stood there. Later, though, they did charge into the crowd and I saw them try to catch a young guy who wriggled away, but by then the van had been under attack for a good ten minutes. I chatted with the photographer, who gave me a flyer for the National Climate March in a couple of weeks' time. "Maybe I'll see you there," I said.

Slowly I started to realise we were going to be here for a long time. I wished I had some water. Or had had more than a bowl of cereal for breakfast.

In the end I was in there for nearly eight hours, till well into the dark and cold. I'd got chatting with some of the Goldsmiths people, but basically I was there on my own. I had the odd conversation, I overheard lots of kids and students having political conversations as if it was the first time they'd ever engaged with these ideas, which was kind of amazing, but mostly I just drifted from group to group, an observer. There were some people with a soundsystem who threw an impromptu rave in a bus shelter, maybe a hundred kids dancing to dubstep with their hands and placards waving aloft every time the beat kicked in. On top of the bus shelter, here behind the barricades, they were waving a big red flag with a smiley face on it; it was like a dance remix of Les Misérables. For about half an hour I joined a quite orderly queue for tea outside the only café in the kettle. I'd weighed things up and decided that on balance a cup of tea would be worth the inevitable need to pee. This was the way it seemed to be for a lot of people: trading off all the different kinds of discomfort against each other, cold, hunger, thirst, need for a toilet. Then they closed the shop just as I got to the door.

People started burning placards to keep warm. When those were gone, they went into their bags to see what paper they had. Blank pages were ripped out of refill pads and crumpled up. One guy went to throw a whole, half-full notebook on the fire and another boy next to him said "Don't do it, man! That's your uni notebook! You'll fail your degree and then you'll have to pay nine grand to do it again." "Fair point," the first guy said. It kept getting darker and colder. Around another bonfire there were people with guitars, singing "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life". The little warm puddle of dubstep kept going on, a guy with baggy trousers was standing on a wall rapping ("Look what the cat dragged in" - everyone nearby seemed to know the words), but I felt too old and self-conscious to dance.

Maybe four hours in, the police brought in a couple of portaloos and started handing out the occasional bottle of water. That was when I realised there'd be a long wait ahead and I wasn't going to get to the music quiz I was supposed to be at with [livejournal.com profile] dr_f_dellamorte and co later. A warm pub with beer and food and friends seemed like an impossible dream. My phone was running low, but I couldn't not lend it to a miserable-looking boy in a thin hoodie who'd left his at home and needed to phone his mum. He was tearful on the phone to her. Nearby, also on the phone, a tiny uniformed girl's dad told her he was proud of her; she relayed this to her friends.

People got more and more dejected and angry. Someone set the bus shelter on fire in earnest. The air was full of clouds of smoke and the smell of burning plastic. I felt like I'd be smelling it forever, even when (it seemed like an if, with my thoughts cold and slow and stupid) we did eventually get out. People stood round the burning bus shelter to get warm. Someone else - maybe the same someone - started hitting a nearby window with a hammer of some sort. "What's that supposed to achieve?" a student union official shouted through a megaphone. "Is that going to bring down the government? That's bomb-proof glass. Wanker."

It was the helplessness and uncertainty that was the worst, worse than the hunger and cold. The police at each corner seemed to be sending people on to the next corner round, saying they were letting people out there, but nobody was. It's easier to endure things when you know when they're going to end. Rumours went round that they might keep us there till midnight. Every police officer you asked gave a different time and a different reason. My phone was about to die. Shivering, I went to find the music. I didn't really feel like dancing but it was a pragmatic decision: it would distract me and keep me warm. Maybe get my body burning fat reserves so I could dance through the hunger. They played Madness and The Specials (it really was the 80s again) and most people seemed to be dancing the same way I was, doggedly rather than for fun. Then something else happened. Power chords rang out and people cheered as they recognised it: Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine. Suddenly there was a proper moshpit going on, more and more people joining in, a forest of arms - fists - in the air, shouting along with all the words. I felt like I was a student of 18 on the Fibbers dancefloor again. It was kind of beautiful. The song built and built until everyone was hurling the words at the police line nearby, warm again, angry rather than miserable, letting out the built-up rage at being detained like this: fuck you, I won't do what you tell me.

Then the song ended, and silence fell, and then they let us out. At least those of us in that corner. It still took another half-hour, shuffling along in a tightly packed queue through a gauntlet of vans and dogs. I was squashed in next to a girl who was doing Afghan Studies at SOAS, whose friends were occupying the library there. She was freezing - she'd only got a thin hoodie on - and wanted to go home for a bath, but she was going back to SOAS to check on her friends first. Meanwhile the sound system blasted out Anarchy in the UK and I Fought The Law. Finally I passed through the last line, trying to look at the police's faces, to remember that they were individuals, not The Man I'd been yelling Rage lyrics at a little while earlier. Then striding up Whitehall, revelling in taking big steps and being on my way to somewhere and being able to go where I chose, go into a restaurant and eat food and not be a prisoner, not be assumed to be some sort of public enemy. There was another kettle by Trafalgar Square; earlier on a friend of mine had said she'd been charged by the police near it while waiting at a bus stop. But for me, food. Home. Toilets. Hot bath. Yes.


For a while, in late '08-early '09, I was actually quite enthused about politics. Sometimes, though I was wary of the feeling, I had a sense of being part of a great wave; of the system itself changing. Then, of course, the long slow fall of disillusionment. I got enthusiastic again for the election here. I took it all terribly seriously, and it all went horribly wrong. My faith in doing things through the proper channels is dwindling by the minute. But whatever was left shrank still more on Wednesday evening, as I walked back and forth like a bear in the zoo, looking at hordes of teenagers imprisoned for eight hours outside in November for having walked down a street. Seriously, in what universe is that fair?

EDIT: Photos on Flickr here.
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