London Calling: Students Flood the Streets to Protest Tuition Hikes

Thousands of students flooded London's streets on November 9 to protest rising education fees.

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Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

On Wednesday, thousands of students and supporters marched in protest of education cuts and tuition hikes for England’s universities. Supported by the Occupy London movement, it was originally thought that 10,000 people would turn up to protest. (Estimates suggest that around half that number turned up.) Around midday the students gathered in central London, near the University of London and began marching through the city’s streets with placards and megaphones.

Rachel Turner, a 19-year-old protester who is currently on a gap year but plans on attending university next year, said she was marching because, like most of the protesters there, she thought “tuition fees being raised to 9,000 pounds is ridiculous.” The chants of the crowd agreed with her. Others could be heard shouting “You say cut back, we say fight back” and “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts” throughout the day.

(PHOTOS: Student Protests in London)

As the march carried on, it was accompanied by nearly 4,000 police officers who maintained that they were there to ensure the protest went smoothly. Last year, when students first began protesting these hikes, demonstrations spiraled out of control as a fraction of the tens of thousands protesting became destructive. Back then, police arrested 153 people for invading a Conservative party building and launching items at police.

Clearly, police wanted to avoid a repeat and came fully prepared. In the days leading up to the demonstration, the Met sent out hundreds of letters to those who’d been involved in the previous protest, warning them they could be arrested for attending Wednesday’s event. The police force also made it clear that officers would be armed with rubber bullets in case things got out of control – a controversial move that drew a lot of criticism and intensified the debate.

Yet, either the measures were effective or extraneous, as Wednesday’s march kicked off peacefully. Early on in the day a police officer told TIME in passing that the force’s main concern was to keep the protest peaceful and “keep them away from Trafalgar and Parliament Square.” As the march,  organized by National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, had previously mapped out a route, the thousands of officers were there to ensure that the march stayed on track. With a row of horse-mounted police leading the way, and hundreds of officers flanking the students, the protest wound its way through the streets.

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Though there was a boisterous mood in the air for the most part, there were some who expressed anger towards the police and the day wasn’t incident free. Around 24 people were arrested, according to police, for minor scraps and wearing face coverings, something the Met had specifically warned people against doing. When the march neared Trafalgar Square, about two hours into the protest, a fraction of the group broke off and began to pitch tents in the area, mirroring the Occupy movement that’s been taking place around the world. However, police were quick to clear the square as the march continued on.

While many protesters complained that the police had come out in unnecessary numbers and were intimidating with their barricades and riot gear, most of the officers seemed to be in a good mood. Many could be seen joking with protesters and prior to the demonstration, several officers were handing out maps to those wanting to join. Harriet Wood, an 18-year-old student at the University of Sussex said of the police, “they’re really nice. They’re just doing their job really, they have to be here.”

By 5 p.m., the protesters had reached their destination at London Wall, where the atmosphere was festive. Music blared from speakers on wheels, and students milled about, the chanting giving way to chatting. The police warned the crowds that they couldn’t hang around the area for too long, and by 6 p.m. the protesters had dispersed. Several were heading to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Occupy London continues to camp out, as the anti-greed protest had organized a show.

Altogether, the day was peaceful and the mood was pleasant. Early on in the day, taking note of the sunny skies and temperature nearing 60 degrees, a curly-haired protester who looked about 17 said to his fellow marchers, “it’s a lovely day for a protest.” And it was.

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