Mass action as spending cuts fuel flames of discontent

November 26, 2010

LONDON: It was just after 1pm that police van 313C, parked on Parliament Street in central London, became the sudden, angry focus of opposition to government plans to charge students much more for their education.

The vehicle, unoccupied and stranded amid a sea of mainly teenage protesters, was set upon. Within minutes the windows were smashed as protesters danced on the roof.

The protests on Wednesday were among the latest in a wave of demonstrations against austerity measures in western Europe, where debt-saddled governments are rolling back social services and subsidies. Greece and France have experienced months of strikes. Portugal was also hit by protests on Wednesday when the largest general strike in a decade shut down trains and buses and reduced service at airports.

While images of the vandalised van – captured by TV crews and photographers – are likely to become a symbol of the mass student unrest, the violence was not supported by many of the estimated 4000 protesters contained by a police cordon in Whitehall.

“All these kids just hate the police and they see it as an excuse for violence,” said Zoe Williams, an art student who, at 19, was one of the older protesters in the crowd. She was also among those who tried in vain to hold back activists, many of them masked, intent on turning an unruly but largely peaceful demonstration violent.

Later police began to let protesters through cordons. Police on horses charged at several students as they emerged, causing panic, with reports of one teenager being trampled. It was not known what prompted the charge.

“We are angry because the Prime Minister, [David] Cameron ain’t listening to us but now he will have to,” said Darius Clarke, 17, an A-level student from Camden, north London, who was watching from the crowd.

As the protest wound down, Scotland Yard said it had arrested 32 people for alleged offences including violent disorder and criminal damage. Two officers were injured, one suffering a broken arm and the other being knocked unconscious. Ambulance crews said they treated 15 people, with 11 sent to hospital.

Separately, other activists took over university buildings around the capital. Student leaders said at least six universities had been occupied.

Soon after converging under Nelson’s Column about midday, the crowd headed along Whitehall, towards Parliament. They were met by riot police.

Police blocked exits and seemed determined to contain the crowd, mindful of scenes a fortnight ago when activists stormed the Conservative headquarters at Millbank, resulting in 60 arrests. About 800 officers were deployed.

By evening it appeared the violence had been considerably less.

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