The dawn had a particularly grey, cold feel this morning. Not surprising, really. Only yesterday Brittan clung to the last vestiges of a welfare state. This morning, this ConDemNation boasts the most expensive 3rd level education fees in the entire ‘western’ world. It is, after today, more expensive to send your child to university in England than it is in the United States. The United Kingdom is the only country in the ‘Western’ World to have a specific policy of abolishing all arts, humanities and Social Science education, and providing it with zero state support.
Last night, as the sun went down, that was not yet so. There was still a sliver of hope. There was still a trembling, fearful belief that perhaps, if enough voices were raised, someone might listen. And it was in that spirit that I tried to join the rally and candle-lit vigil on Victoria Embankment. It was not an easy journey, what with tubes not running and stations closed. You would almost suspect that the powers-that-be did not want us there. I should have been early, but the complicated rout and barricades made finding the rally difficult, and speeches had started by the time I arrived. The crowd seemed, if anything, disappointingly small, and one of the first announcements was that the organisers had been informed that many various parts of the protest were being kept separate, so we would not be joining/joined by any others, and apologies for the small numbers. Still, it did not take long for numbers to swell. And while I can only assume from looking at the people around me that they too were mostly lecturers, there was many other groups, Trade Unions and associations present and ready with their banners. I ended up, having straggled in by myself, standing right next to the ‘Pensioners Against Fees’ group. Four grey haired elderly gentlemen, not one could possibly be a day under 80, and still between them they carried not only a gigantic banner that has to have been 12 or 15 feet tall, but also personal placards speaking of the grandchildren they were thinking of that day.
That was my protest yesterday. A sedate little affair for the most part, and mainly in the company of some very elderly and truly gentle men. And yet, though we were kept strictly and forcibly away from parliament square where the students demonstrated, we saw scenes that would have brought a sense of shame on Stalinist Russia. We were ordered off the road with no acknowledgment that we were barricaded in on all sides and had nowhere to go but the river, so that many hundreds of heavily armed storm troopers could come running through in formation. And time and again we were interrupted by deeply anxious looking ambulances under police guard, going in either direction. To and from Parliament square.
5 O’Clock came, and as Big Ben, right above our heads, chimed the hour we held out candle-lit vigil – with glow sticks. Word had come down from the police that we were not allowed form as a crowd with real candles for a candle lit vigil. Apparently, they didn’t trust what we might do with the candles, and I’m making no suggestions here, though I have plenty of ideas, as to what that might be! We stood, sadly and sedately, waving our pathetic little glow sticks to music, until 5.30 when the vote was cast. First the news came though that 2 members of parliament had resigned rather than vote for the increase in university fees, and there was much cheering for we knew that at least we had now damaged and weakened this pernicious government. Later, we heard it was not enough. By very narrow majority, the vote was passed, and there was first a wave of petrified silence. The sound of sobbing shattered our shock and the collective roar of anger followed. At first each latched on their own word, if any at all, to place structure on their angry roar, but in time one vocalisation took over from the others.
‘Strike, strike, strike’
But those on the podium, safe on the top of the bus from which they addressed us rabble, merely shook their heads. No, they would not use their leadership to call a strike, though the crowd of thousands at their feet roared, cried, begged and pleaded for it with one voice. Strikes cannot be called without due procedure, and having, in the eyes of the organisers, now started to behave like petulant children we were then sent home. Our leaders became the mouth piece for the state that chose to strip of all that we do, all that we are. ONE road is being opened for us to exit from. We may go THAT way. All routes to Parliament square, and any other location where protesters are gathered are blocked, so please don’t try. Well, try we did, but sadly what we were told proved to be correct. It was possible to get from where we were to one very scary tube station, and nowhere else. Perhaps if I had kept walking, and walking, I could eventually have got beyond and around the police cordons, but at that stage my strength was truly gone. I was limping severely and could only stay standing with the support of the wall. My arthritic hips had had enough – 3 hours on my feet in the cold was more than they could tolerate. Seeing me limp produced a strange reaction from the teaming multitude of police. An immediate and clear assumption that I had been hurt while up to no good crossed their minds. While walking down a road deserted but for about 20 police, 2 chose to walk along side me, shoulder to shoulder, one left, one right, touching up against me – IN TOTAL AND ABSOLUTE SILENCE, without addressing me, just looking down upon me from their patriarchal height. Fuck it, I though, time to go home – and allowed myself to be herded into the terror of the underground. It was so crowded that it wasn’t possible to actually step off the escalator without falling on to the ground. Every single one of us fell, and we ended up in a twisted bundle of limbs belonging to about 20 people – finally disentangling ourselves we got to our feet only to see it happen again to those behind us.
Somewhat dazed and profoundly saddened I found myself at least on the central line at last, and in sight of a sensible journey home. But I chose not to go. For once I was home I could switch on the news, and the sickening truth of what those ambulances were all about could not be denied. I got off in Tottenham Court Road and headed to First Out, in the hope that some of the Thursday crowd were around. No one was – either that or I was in too much of a daze to recognise them – for many hours later checking Gingerbeer many said that they would be there. Either way, I sat for an hour, ate a dinner and waited until my legs worked again, before braving the rest of the journey home, on a now spookily deserted underground.
I still have not found the courage to check the news. I spent the day in the hospital not because of any crisis but for a scheduled appointment discussing impending hip surgery. Checking the news channels and newspapers I was not, for I had other things on my mind. So far, I have seen nothing but my face book feed, and that does not bode well, with reference after reference to students, violence and injury. Let me just finish so by saying this. I was there. I was prevented from joining the main group in parliament square, I was at the University College Unions vigil on Victoria Embankment. Like many other groups, we were kept separate and apart from each other.
I saw no violence. Except from the police.
I saw no intimidation. Except from the police.
I saw no cruelty. Except from the police.
I saw no brutality. Except from the police.
I saw perhaps 1,000 people gather on a street to practice their democratic rights and protest a wickedly evil bill no member of the electorate gave any mandate for.
Oh, and I will finish on this last note. I saw one member of the police force, by himslef, having removed his riot helmet so he could converse with the crowd, wish us luck and express a strong hope that we win and the bill is defeated. He seemed like a righteous dude if there ever was one. Perhaps one day we will meet again and I can buy him a drink.